The Characters

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

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.)

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Arvay Henson Meserve

Arvay Henson Meserve, the protagonist, a woman whose insecurities and irrational fears dominate the novel. A lissome, delicately formed woman, Arvay fails to recognize that what she sees as faults are really indicative of her innate superiority over her “cracker” family. Unable to reconcile her initial sexual attraction to her brother-in-law, Arvay allows her feelings of sexual guilt and social inferiority to affect her marriage even though she truly loves her husband.

Jim Meserve

Jim Meserve, Arvay’s husband, an enterprising, rakishly handsome man of aristocratic, but impoverished, stock. He sees a fineness and goodness in Arvay not apparent to most of the people in Sawley and courts her relentlessly. After raping her under the mulberry tree, he marries her the same evening. Jim gauges his manliness by his ability to take care of his wife, believing that all women are unable, physically and mentally, to take care of themselves.

Earl David Meserve

Earl David Meserve, the genetically deformed firstborn child of Arvay and Jim. Earl is prone to violence and beastlike behavior. As he enters puberty, he becomes obsessed with one of the Carreigo girls and brutally attacks her. Pursued by a posse, he hides in the swamp and eventually is ambushed and killed.

Angeline (Angie) Meserve

Angeline (Angie) Meserve, the beautiful and sensual...

(The entire section is 519 words.)