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

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Part I, Chapter Three: Summary and Analysis

New Characters:
Julius Henry: a young boy who tells stories for Zora and the people of Eatonville.

Henry Byrd: a man who responds to Shug’s story about speed.

John French: a storyteller who wants recognition for his tale.

Once Bennie Lee falls asleep, the storytelling session can continue, and Shug tells a story in which three men compete for a pretty girl: “The Quickest Trick.” Henry “Nigger” Byrd responds with another folktale about speed. Young Julius Henry, “who should have been home in bed,” jumps into the conversation. Although the other men joke with Julius because he is so young, Julius responds with an excellent tale, “Ah’ll Beatcher Makin’ Money,” which is applauded by everyone. John French then announces that he wants to tell a tale but lets Zora know that he wants the recognition as the teller of “How Jack Beat the Devil.”

After John finishes his story, another fight breaks up the storytelling session, and everyone goes home to bed. For the next two days Zora collects more stories and songs, and learns a few verses of the famous folk song, “John Henry.” Zora is told that she should go to Polk County, where the best folktales can be heard.

This chapter continues the previous chapter’s dedication to folktales, yet contains none of the narrative from the previous two chapters. Hurston has given the reader progressively more stories and less narrative, and, in doing so, has allowed the reader, unfamiliar with folklore, to become used to the conventions and styles that are evident in the folklore sections, but not in the regular narrative.

The focus of the chapter are the tales “How Jack Beat the Devil” and “Ah’ll Beatcher Makin’ Money,” which has a protagonist named John who is essentially the same type of character as Jack in African-American folklore. Hurston has already mentioned this folk-hero in her introduction when she reminisces about her own childhood. She remembers hearing tales of “ that over-noble hero Jack or John...outsmarted the devil.” Although a story in the first chapter also had a protagonist named John, this is the first time the reader meets the archetype for the hero in these folktales.

Through these two folktales, the reader can determine some of the characteristics of the typical folktale hero. John displays intelligence and cunning in the face of a more powerful adversary and succeeds. Every time Ole Massa attempts to defeat John with violence, John is able to get his revenge by being able to spot a flaw in his opponent (in this case, Ole Massa’s greed), and use that flaw to his advantage. John never directly attacks Ole Massa but, through manipulation, allows Ole Massa to make a fool of himself. In the second tale, “How Jack Beat the Devil,” the struggle is expanded to mythological proportions, but the end result is the same—the Devil defeats himself despite being more powerful. The reader may conclude that John has an appeal to the townspeople because of his continuous use of intelligence and cunning to overcome more powerful adversaries. The folk hero John/Jack is also described in the glossary of Mules and Men.

This is also the first time the great African-American folk song “John Henry” is mentioned. The name “John Henry” should not be confused with the John that shows up as the hero of folktales; the only place the full name “John Henry” is ever used is in this song. The story of the song (found in the glossary) “ of John Henry, who is a great steel-driver [a man who...

(The entire section is 936 words.)