Seraph on the Suwanee Summary
by Zora Neale Hurston

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Seraph on the Suwanee Summary

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Seraph on the Suwanee signals Hurston’s departure from her usual subject matter, the African American people and their culture, both of which are inextricably intertwined in her other novels. With the depiction of Arvay Henson Meserve, a poor, white, “cracker born, cracker bred” woman, Hurston focuses on the ambitious poor white class of the South.

When the novel opens, Arvay has spent the last several years retreating into a type of religious hysteria resulting from sexual repression. Believing herself to be in love with her brother-in-law, the uninspired preacher Carl Middleton, she alternates between feelings of guilt and erotic fantasy. Perceived by the poor white community of Sawley as “odd,” Arvay finds herself alienated. She constantly compares herself with her voluptuous, flirtatious sister ’Raine, Carl’s wife, and comes up wanting.

When Jim Meserve, the attractive, ambitious newcomer to the “teppentime mill,” decides to court Arvay, she is distrustful. Jim sees her as a woman of beauty and character. Arvay sees only her lack of sexual attractiveness as defined by the Sawley community. She views her mental adultery with her brother-in-law as a reason she is not fit to be the wife of Jim Meserve. In an effort to cleanse herself of her guilty thoughts, she leads Jim to the old mulberry tree, a “cool green temple of peace.” Instead of being purged of guilt, Arvay is raped by her suitor under this natural temple. Seeing his chance now that Arvay has been deflowered—and therefore “ruined”—he sweeps her off to the justice of the peace to cement their bond legally and properly.

The enterprising Jim knows that the turpentine mill offers no financial security or social mobility. He makes plans to make a new start in the Florida citrus groves but must delay the family move when Arvay becomes pregnant with their first child, the mentally and physically deformed Earl David. Arvay, believing that Earl David represents some sort of divine retribution for her mental adultery, becomes overprotective of the child, refusing to acknowledge his violent outbursts.

In Citrabelle, Jim becomes the premier citrus grower in the area. He builds a fine home for his wife and growing family on his carefully cleared and cultivated land. Only one detail mars Arvay’s happiness over such affluence: The house is built in front of a swamp that Arvay instinctively fears because it represents her own dark, guilt-ridden subconscious.

Arvay constantly judges by outward appearances, rather than looking at the realities of life. This injects constant tension into her marriage. During her third pregnancy, Jim teasingly commands Arvay that she must make sure that the child will be a boy. Arvay takes him at his word and is tormented for months by what she imagines might happen to her if the child were to be another girl. She finally confesses the source of her ongoing anxiety. Jim, horrified, astutely realizes that “there was not sufficient understanding in his marriage. . . . It could not keep on like this. He was panging and paining far too much. What help for it except by parting from Arvay?”

The child is a boy, whom Jim names Kenny. Kenny, like his older sister, Angeline, is a winsome, intelligent child. Both children provide a sharp contrast to Earl, who has grown more uncontrollable with age. Jim knows that Earl must be “put away,” but Arvay refuses to see the danger in allowing Earl to remain at home. After Earl viciously attacks a local girl, he hides in the swamp but is killed by a posse.

Years later, Jim decides to leave Arvay and move to the Florida coast. He admonishes her that if she wants to save their marriage, Arvay must make the offer of reconciliation. Instead, she draws upon her secret pride in her “cracker” heritage and decides to move back to Sawley.

When she returns to her hometown, she finds her mother neglected and dying in the filthy, ramshackle Henson home. ’Raine, Carl, and their ugly, mean-spirited...

(The entire section is 1,015 words.)