Arvay Henson is a puzzling female protagonist, one beset by irrational feelings of guilt and inferiority. Hurston admitted to her editor that she, too, found Arvay’s clinging tendencies to be irritating, yet she vowed that Arvay would grow into a self-confident woman. Unlike other Hurston protagonists, Arvay finds self-actualization only in relation to her husband. She discovers her worth only when she realizes that her husband is dependent upon her as a Madonna figure.
Conversely, Arvay is probably the most ambitiously conceived character Hurston ever created. The story is her story, filtered through her own troubled misconceptions. She is a haunted figure. Somewhat shadowy, she is most likely the “Seraph on the Suwanee,” a woman whose ethereal looks inspire her husband but repress her sense of self-worth.
Her husband is another matter. The symbolic significance of Jim Meserve’s name can be interpreted two ways, as serving himself and as one who serves others. Jim is a man burdened by chauvinistic views toward women, views reinforced by his friend Joe Kelsey’s advice that “women folks will love you plenty if you take and see to it that they do. Make ’em knuckle under. From the very first jump, get the bridle in they mouth and ride ’em hard and stop ’em short. They’s all alike, Boss. Take ’em and break ’em.” Both men, black and white, hold dominating and self-serving views toward women.
Despite this flaw, Hurston depicts Jim sympathetically. During the novel’s climax, when Arvay does not make a move to save her husband from a rattlesnake that has entwined itself around his body, Jim instinctively knows that unless she changes, Arvay cannot give him the type of love that he needs: “I feel and believe that you do love me, Arvay, but I don’t want that stand-still, hap-hazard kind of love. I’m just as hungry as a dog for a knowing and a doing love. You love like a coward. Don’t...
(The entire section is 795 words.)