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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 534

The main argument of this book is best summed up in several parts. First, there is a tradition built around Esu-Elegbara that characterizes him as the double-voiced god of indeterminate rhetorical meaning, a feature that renders him particularly attractive to the practices of postmodernist criticism. Second, although the connection cannot be proved, Esu-Elegbara reasonably can be seen as the inspiration for the Signifying Monkey, that imaginative imp, mimic, mischief-maker, and rhetorical genius of African American lore and legend. Third, the introduction into print by Gracilasso de la Vega of the trope of the Talking Book provided the authors of slave narratives with a figure that evokes movingly their hunger for “the Word,” and in their preoccupation with this word they create a tradition of African American narrative rich in Signifyin(g). Fourth, the three modern novels examined reveal a considerable network of influences, as twentieth century African American writers have gone about their creative business with their predecessors on their minds.

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The main point of Gates’s analysis of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is to explain her resolution of the long debate over “how an authentic black voice should be represented in print.” Hurston’s answer was to employ neither the third-person omniscient point of view that Richard Wright later used in Native Son (1940) nor the first-person voice that Ralph Ellison would use in Invisible Man (1952), but instead to compose a “speakerly text” that derives from an oral literary tradition and that suits the search for self that is the central character’s challenge. Hurston’s “bivocal” text incorporates elements of both first-and third-person narrators, achieving exposition by a third-person narrator in the idiom of the milieu represented.

Gates’s brilliant chapter on Ishmael Reed’s novel Mumbo Jumbo is virtually unsummarizable in its intricacy. The title—“On ’The Blackness of Blackness’: Ishmael Reed and a Critique of the Sign”—points to what Gates sees as Reed’s central theme, that there is no preordained eternal blackness, only the...

(The entire section contains 534 words.)

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Critical Context