What are the literary themes and symbols in Zora Neale Hurston's short story "Spunk"?

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cneukam1379 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This is also a story about justice, about moral rights and wrongs. The townspeople believe that Joe should fight Spunk because it would prove him to be a man—a man should never allow his wife to be taken by another man. The men claim that Joe would never have gone after Spunk if Elijah had not prodded him, but because of his prodding, he does go to fight for his wife.

When Joe does attempt to fight Spunk, he attacks from the back, a cowardly move, but one that is necessary for Joe because he is not a fighter like Spunk. Joe attempts to avenge his wife as best he knows how, but that incident causes Spunk to shoot him and kill him. However, because Joe is fighting for his wife and doing something completely out of character, Hurston seems to give credence to that action, and the men in the village laud Joe for it. Spunk is now seen as the coward, even though he claims self-defense for the action.

And in the end, Joe gets justice over Spunk—Spunk dies in a circular-saw accident where he claims Joe pushed him from behind. While one can talk about the supernatural aspects of the story (i.e. the black bobcat and the spirit that haunts Spunk), what the story boils down to is that justice is served to Spunk and, in a way, to Lena, too, because the "happy couple" did not get to stay together, and Lena could not just go back to Joe in the end.

litgeek2015 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

This story of Hurston's has a few central themes, some of which overlap: cowardice, marriage (with a focus on adultery), aggression, and even power. 

Cowardice is seen from the beginning when Joe, Lena's husband, is put in a position of being told about his wife's indiscretions. Joe is described as a weaker man than Lena's new lover, Spunk. Joe is also forced into acting, even though that is probably not in his nature.

Spunk actually symbolizes aggression, but the actions that take place as a result of his behavior also create aggression in others, like Joe, who gets into a fight with him and then dies over Lena.

Power in this story is constantly shifting. At first Spunk seems to hold all of the power, but after Joe's death, he and Lena are haunted by a large black cat, which the townspeople later believe pushes Spunk into the saw. This could be seen as Joe regaining power after death.