Critical Overview

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Last Updated on May 11, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 492

Much of Hurston’s writing is overshadowed by Their Eyes Were Watching God, especially her drama and short stories. As a result, there is little critical commentary specifically about ‘‘Conscience of the Court.’’ It was published in 1950 in the Saturday Evening Post but was not published in a collection...

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Much of Hurston’s writing is overshadowed by Their Eyes Were Watching God, especially her drama and short stories. As a result, there is little critical commentary specifically about ‘‘Conscience of the Court.’’ It was published in 1950 in the Saturday Evening Post but was not published in a collection during Hurston’s lifetime. In fact, it was the last work of fiction she had published, and it seems to bring to light the complex race issues she had witnessed in the 1940s.

In The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth- Century American Short Story, Blanche H. Gelfant and Lawrence Graver consider ‘‘Conscience of the Court’’ in the context of Hurston’s other fiction. They observe, ‘‘If outcomes are not necessarily happy, it is important in Hurston’s stories that innocence triumph over corruption,’’ explaining that Laura is the ‘‘beleaguered innocent’’ in the story, who is released by the court. Ultimately, however, they find the story confusing, noting that ‘‘the story draws on conventions that may make the reader queasy. Is Hurston assuring whites of black loyalty? Blacks of white protection?’’ In their ‘‘Introduction’’ to Zora Neale Hurston: The Complete Stories, Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sieglinde Lemke comment, ‘‘This story is about altruism. . . . It is also about an idea of justice and the fact that the court was on the side of a simple black woman.’’ As if considering the historical context of the story they add, ‘‘Good is being rewarded—even in black skin— and those who mean well will be rewarded in the end.’’

Gates and Lemke view ‘‘Conscience of the Court’’ as thematically representative of Hurston’s short fiction. They observe that ‘‘morality is the issue in most of her stories, which usually end happily for the disenfranchised and powerless. The moral values that Hurston cherishes are loyalty, justice, and love.’’ Commenting on her narrative style, they note that her pace is never rushed, instead allowing the reader to enjoy and absorb ‘‘the nuances of speech or the timbre of voice that give a storyteller her or his distinctiveness.’’ Speaking in general terms about Hurston’s short fiction and the place it deserves in American literature, Gelfant and Graver write:

Hurston’s stories are playful and provocative but somehow they never quite conform, never seem to play by any rules. Which is hardly to say that these stories are not valuable, both for students of Hurston and for students of the short story. . . . [T]he best of them can stand on their own alongside any of the short fiction of her contemporaries and should be included in anthologies of classic American short stories as fine examples of the genre. Zora Neale Hurston was deeply interested in the form of the short story, particularly its adaptability to oral traditions, folklore, and the vernacular, and she returned to it again and again throughout her life, experimenting with its possibilities and bringing to bear on it all of her varied and complex interests.

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