Mules and Men Part I, Chapter Five: Summary and Analysis
by Zora Neale Hurston

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Part I, Chapter Five: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Lonnie Barnes, Larkins White, and Peter Noble: more workers who participate in the storytelling session at the sawmills.

The storytelling session continues as the swamp workers and Zora walk up to the mill. Finally they reach the mill, but no one is around to tell them what to do. Jim Allen thinks that they should go inside the mill and ask the mill-boss if he has any work for them to do, but the workers finally decide not to attract attention to themselves and instead sit outside one of the buildings. Once the workers are comfortable, they begin to share stories with each other. The chapter is a series of tales about John and how he is able to outwit Old Massa. John is able to outwit Old Massa at every turn, though Old Massa has the advantage in power. In the final story of the chapter, John, through his hard work, is given his freedom and escapes to Canada.

The chapter is devoted almost entirely to folktales, with the narrative hardly moving forward at all. Zora Hurston provides the reader with a wonderful group of stories, all centered on the protagonist, John, who outfoxes Old Massa at almost every turn. John is a typical folklore hero—one that prevails over stronger, tougher, and more powerful opponents due to his wit and charm. Old Massa, meanwhile, is the typical folklore antagonist—the embodiment of power and evil. Within the context of post-slavery America, Old Massa becomes an even more fearful symbol: the symbol of oppression that was endured by African Americans not too long ago. The fact that Old Massa is easily outwitted and usually portrayed as a buffoon indicates the contempt with which he is held by the storytellers, a contrast from the portrayal of the Devil, who is evil but nonetheless inspires some sense of awe from John in folk stories.

While the conflict between good and evil is not unusual in folklore, there is a reason why the conflict between John and Old Massa might be even more popular in the context of African-American folklore. One powerful theme that has been touched upon in earlier chapters, but is stressed now, is how these tales have some direct connection with life. These are the first stories that give us the classic folktale rivalry between John and Old Massa. Why are they presented so late in the text, and why does the reader hear about these stories here rather than in Eatonville? The first stories of John and Old Massa almost directly correspond to the first contact that Zora has in the narrative with people who hold a position of power over her friends. The reader may safely conclude that the workers, who work in dangerous conditions for low pay and live in shantytowns, are aware of similarities between their situations now and not too far in the past. The frustration that the workers may feel is most certainly embodied in the song “John...

(The entire section is 761 words.)