The Signifying Monkey Essay - Critical Essays

Henry Louis Gates Jr.


The main argument of this book is best summed up in several parts. First, there is a tradition built around Esu-Elegbara that characterizes him as the double-voiced god of indeterminate rhetorical meaning, a feature that renders him particularly attractive to the practices of postmodernist criticism. Second, although the connection cannot be proved, Esu-Elegbara reasonably can be seen as the inspiration for the Signifying Monkey, that imaginative imp, mimic, mischief-maker, and rhetorical genius of African American lore and legend. Third, the introduction into print by Gracilasso de la Vega of the trope of the Talking Book provided the authors of slave narratives with a figure that evokes movingly their hunger for “the Word,” and in their preoccupation with this word they create a tradition of African American narrative rich in Signifyin(g). Fourth, the three modern novels examined reveal a considerable network of influences, as twentieth century African American writers have gone about their creative business with their predecessors on their minds.

The main point of Gates’s analysis of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is to explain her resolution of the long debate over “how an authentic black voice should be represented in print.” Hurston’s answer was to employ neither the third-person omniscient point of view that Richard Wright later used in Native Son (1940) nor the first-person voice that Ralph...

(The entire section is 534 words.)