Mules and Men Questions and Answers
by Zora Neale Hurston

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What themes are in the story about the man's daughter writing a letter?

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One of the significant themes to emerge from the story about the daughter writing a letter from the father is the complexity of knowledge.  It is evident that the daughter possesses a formal understanding of knowledge. This "book knowledge" is reflected in how the father suggests that she has come from school and she knows how to write and read formally while he does not:  "The man sent his daughter off to school for seben years, den she come home all finished up.  So he said to her 'Daughter, git yo' things and write me a letter to my brother!' So she did." In the process of writing the letter, the father demonstrates a sense of real world and practical knowledge that the girl lacks.  She cannot spell the "clucking sound" that the father makes and wants included in the letter. Her lack of knowledge is something that the father comments upon, suggesting the complex nature of knowledge: "You mean to tell me you been off to school seben year an can't spell (clucking sound)?  Why Ah could spell dat myself and Ah ain't been to school a day in mah life.  Well jes' say (clucking sound) he'll know what yo mean and go on wid de letter."  In this exchange, the theme of knowledge is revealed.

Hurston believes knowledge is a complex element.  Certainly, there is a formal conception of knowledge that can be seen in the training that one receives in universities, colleges, and schooling. The daughter represents this experience.  The new generation has been able to experience this more than the previous generation, who lived under the reality that such an experience was denied outright or even against the law.  Yet, Hurston reflects that even though the previous generation might not have experienced formal schooling, they still possess knowledge.  The very same thematic element that motivates Hurston to return to Florida in collecting folk tales and narratives is evident in the short story.  The father is able to explain a practical form of knowledge that his formally trained daughter cannot fathom.  The theme of different, but equally valid forms of knowledge existing in the world is seen in this story.

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