Historical Context

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In October of 1929, the American financial markets collapsed. By Christmas of 1929, the Great Depression had begun, and by the time Mule Bone was written two years later, the United States was solidly in the grip of a huge financial depression that affected almost everyone. The years after World War I had been prosperous for citizens of the United States. Employment was up, and the need for newly developed products had created a successful economy. For the first time, credit became an accepted way to buy durable goods. When people lacked enough money to buy something, they borrowed against future earnings. Demand for goods increased; jobs increased, and unemployment was down. When the market collapsed, jobs were cut, and there was no way to meet the demands of creditors. In a short time, the United States’ economy collapsed. Banks closed and a lifetime of savings disappeared.

In the rural South, credit to buy automobiles or household goods never approached the levels it did in the larger cities to the North. Instead, credit was more often just as it appeared in Mule Bone; small country stores extended short lines of credit to steady customers. In a period when cash was often short, people’s existence might be determined by the line of credit at a town grocery. This avenue for food was not available in many other American locations. Hunger was a serious problem. Many people lacked even the minimal food required to maintain nutrition. The United States’ birthrate declined during the Depression because a lack of basic nourishment could not sustain life.

The hardships increased for blacks, many of whom had moved to northern cities from the rural South. Racism was never worse than it was during the Depression when jobs became scarce. Blacks were just more competition for already limited job opportunities. Blacks were not the only victims of discrimination in a shrinking job market, however. All racial minorities, such as Hispanics and Native Americans, found that jobs were reserved for white males. Even women, who had traditionally found work as domestics, discovered little opportunity for employment. To add to the already dismal picture, a severe drought in the southeastern United States created a dust bowl of once fertile farm land and added even more poverty and hunger to an already dismal picture.

Blacks had always been outsiders in the rural South, and little had really changed since the end of the Civil War. Although black men had joined the army and navy to fight overseas, they returned to the United States after World War I to find a life that was as segregated as it had been before the war. Blacks had been told that they were fighting for liberty and democracy, but they found little of either. Racist organizations like the Ku Klux Klan reached a level of new strength in the years after the war, and lynchings and violence against blacks increased.

How serious this racism was became evident in the Scottsboro case when nine black youths were convicted of raping two white women on a freight train in Alabama. In a case that involved questionable evidence, a lack of defense representation, jury problems, and which resulted in multiple trials and appeals, the defendants were finally all convicted and sent to jail, where they served a total of 130 years. Blacks not only had to combat the hunger and poverty of the Great Depression, they had to fight virulent racism just to survive.

Literary Style

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Audience Authors usually write with an audience in mind. Hughes and Hurston intended Mule Bone as a vehicle to bring southern black comedy to a...

(This entire section contains 543 words.)

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larger audience. The two authors saw it as a way to keep alive black vernacular English and the rural folktales of southern blacks.

Character The actions of each character are what constitute the story. Character can also include the idea of a particular individual’s morality. Characters can range from simple stereotypical figures to more complex multi-faceted ones. Characters may also be defined by personality traits, such as the rogue or the damsel in distress. Characterization is the process of creating a life-like person from an author’s imagination. To accomplish this the author provides the character with personality traits that help define who he will be and how he will behave in a given situation.

Drama A drama is often defined as any work designed to be presented on the stage. It consists of a story, of actors portraying characters, and of action. But historically, drama can also consist of tragedy, comedy, religious pageant, and spectacle. In modern usage, drama explores serious topics and themes but does not achieve the same level as tragedy.

Genre Genres are a way of categorizing literature. Genre is a French term that means ‘‘kind’’ or ‘‘type.’’ Genre can refer to both the category of literature such as tragedy, comedy, epic, poetry, or pastoral. It can also include modern forms of literature such as drama, novels, or short stories. This term can also refer to types of literature such as mystery, science fiction, comedy, or romance. Mule Bone has elements of drama but is primarily considered a comedy.

Plot This term refers to the pattern of events that take place in a play. Generally plots should have a beginning, a middle, and a conclusion, but they may also sometimes be a series of episodes that are thematically linked together—as in the epic plays of Bertolt Brecht (Mother Courage and Her Children). Basically, the plot provides the author with the means to explore primary themes. Students are often confused between the two terms; themes explore ideas, and plots simply relate what happens in a very obvious manner. Thus the plot of Mule Bone is the story of a fight and of the trial that ensues. But the themes are those of religious tolerance, friendship, and success.

Scene Scenes are subdivisions of an act. A scene may change when all of the main characters either enter or exit the stage. But a change of scene may also indicate a change of time. In Mule Bone, Act II has two scenes. The scenes indicate two separate locations, a street and the interior of the Baptist church.

Setting The time, place, and culture in which the action of the play takes place is called the setting. The elements of setting may include geographic location, physical or mental environments, prevailing cultural attitudes, or the historical time in which the action takes place. The locations for Mule Bone are all located in or near a small village. They include the front porch of Clarke’s store, a street, the Baptist church, and the railroad tracks just outside town. The action occurs over a period of twenty-four hours.

Compare and Contrast

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1931: U. S. unemployment tops 8 million.

Today: Unemployment is very low, but while many employers claim they cannot fill jobs, many of the positions are for low paying menial jobs. As in the past, many of these jobs are filled with immigrants and minorities.

1931: Detroit lays off another 100,000 workers, reducing employment at auto plants by 225,000 workers in two years.

Today: Employment in automotive manufacturing has undergone many changes in the past seventy years. Production lines have become more mechanized and there have been periodic layoffs due to fluctuating demand, but the American infatuation with the automobile has meant an increasing demand for cars and led to relatively steady jobs in the automotive sector.

1931: The U. S. wheat crop breaks all records, driving down prices. Many farmers are forced off their land and banks foreclose on mortgages, thus adding to the poverty and food shortages of the Great Depression.

Today: There are fewer farmers than at any time before. Large commercial farming operations have made it difficult for most small farmers to compete. Many have chosen to sell their farms and move to cities.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Sources Barnes, Clive. Review of Mule Bone in the New York Post, February 15, 1991.

Beaufort John. Review of Mule Bone in the ChristianScience Monitor, February 26, 1991.

Boyd, Lisa. "The Folk, the Blues, and the Problems of Mule Bone" in the Langston Hughes Review, Vol. 13, no. 19, Fall, 1994, pp. 33-44.

Gates, Henry Louis Jr. Review of Mule Bone in the New York Times, February 10, 1991, pp. 5, 8.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, University of Illinois Press, 1977, pp. 136-58.

Kissel, Howard. Review of Mule Bone in the Daily News, February 15, 1991.

Lowe, John. ‘‘From Mule Bones to Funny Bones: The Plays of Zora Neale Hurston’’ in Southern Quarterly: A Journal of the Arts in the South, Vol. 33, nos. 2-3, 1995, pp. 65-78.

Rich, Frank. Review of Mule Bone in the New York Times, February 15, 1991.

Short, Randall. Review of Mule Bone in Mirabella, March, 1991, p. 72.

Stearnes, David Patrick. Review of Mule Bone in USA Today, February 13, 1991.

Watt, Doug. Review of Mule Bone in the Daily News, February 22, 1991.

Further Reading Hughes, Langston, and Zora Neale Hurston. Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life, edited by George Houston Bass and Henry Louis Gates, Harper, 1991. This book contains the full text of the play, and it also contains a selection of articles that deal with the controversy regarding its writing and the legal issues that resulted.

Kellner, Bruce, editor. The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Dictionary, Greenwood, 1984. This text provides a brief literary biography of artists who wrote during the same period as Hurston and Hughes.

Pryse, Marjorie, and Hortense J. Spillers, editors. Conjuring, Black Women, Fiction, and Literary Tradition, Indiana University Press, 1985. This collection of essays attempts to place Hurston within a context of other American black women writers and demonstrates her influence on the women writers who followed.

Rampersad, Arnold. The Life of Langston Hughes, 1902-1941, Vol. 1, Oxford University Press, 1986. Rampersad relates Hughes’s relationship with Hurston.

Watson, Carol McAlpine. Prologue: The Novels of Black American Women, 1891-1965, Greenwood, 1985. Watson compares Hurston to other writers and believes that she was unique among black women writers.


Critical Essays


Teaching Guide