Mule Bone Themes
God and Religion
The conflict between the Methodists and the Baptists has divided the town into factions, with there is fundamentally little difference between sides is not apparent to either group. Both are Protestant and both believe in one God, and yet, each side is prepared to battle over which religion is superior. The argument and near-violent confrontation that opens Act II, scene 2, illustrates the ridiculous nature of the conflict.
Hurston and Hughes use black vernacular English to illustrate a type of black comedy. But the play’s reliance on the common language of the people also reveals a great deal about the inhabitants of this small village. These people know one another intimately. They know each other’s business and they feel free to comment upon their neighbor’s private lives. Gossip is a big force in their lives. There is poverty, and Clarke carries most of the people in the accounts of his general store. Extending credit is expected among neighbors in this small town, but even though the people owe him money, they still feel free to rebel against his claims of authority. Their language is populated with shortcuts and abbreviations that all the inhabitants know. This common language also helps to establish a sense of community. They are poor and they argue about religion, but they also argue as a close family does.
Clarke establishes himself as mayor and authority for this small town. He appoints the marshal and then he controls how the marshal enforces the law. When someone needs to be imprisoned, it is to Clarke’s barn that he is taken. The trial is set in the Baptist church, of which Clarke is a member. Clarke presides over the trial and he pronounces sentence. Clarke finds it difficult to maintain order at the trial, and when Jim returns to town and ignores his banishment, it becomes clear that justice in this small village is more a matter for ridicule than it is a governing force.
Language and Meaning
Hurston and Hughes’s decision to use black vernacular English illustrates the differences that exist in English. Most Americans define English according to the formal rules of grammar that are taught in primary and secondary education. But the language of this play is also the language of southern blacks. To the untrained ear, the villager’s language may lack meaning or be difficult to understand. Such language may even be judged as ignorant or illiterate. In this way, people attach meaning to language. When it does not fit the accustomed model, listeners may seek to dismiss language as illegitimate. Hurston and Hughes sought to prove that, though unconventional, southern black vernacular English does have a role in defining a group of people within a particular location and time.
Race is less a theme of the play than it is an issue for the audience. Because of the play’s use of back vernacular English, there is a chance that the audience will make assumptions about the characters. The biggest fear is that members of the audience will embrace stereotypes of rural blacks as ignorant, silly, or as objects of ridicule. Blacks have worked hard to dispel old stereotypes and there exists a possibility that an uneducated audience might too quickly forget the reality of black life and fall victim to racial stereotypes.
In a play that focuses on romance, sexuality would be expected to be a motivating force for a character’s actions and words. Teets and Bootsie are former girlfriends of Jim and Dave, and both young men are now intent on pursuing Daisy. These serial relationships, though intermingled, appear devoid of sexual tension. Teets and Bootsie have gone on to other young men. There is much gossip about which young man Daisy will ultimately choose, but there is no question about possible impropriety. Another man, Cody, has married and yet, in the months since his marriage, no one has seen his wife. The villagers gossip about this, but no one makes jokes about newlyweds. It is clear that people are intensely interested in personal gossip, but no one gossips about intimate matters. Sex is present in romance and marriage, but it is not a subject for idle talk.
Success and Failure
Jim and Dave are successful entertainers. That they make a satisfactory living can be based on their happiness with their work and because both appear to have access to available cash. They both consider what they do a success. But according to Daisy, neither one is really ‘‘working.’’ She defines employment success as a job that involves physical labor and a salary, such as the position of yardman that she suggests Jim might assume. She will not marry a man who is not a success—according to her definition of success. This definition limits her prospects, since neither Jim nor Dave wants to meet her requirements. However, at the conclusion of the play, while both men seem slightly regretful as Daisy walks away, they are also clearly happy with their choices. Thus, their lives are a success by most definitions.