Critical Context

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Last Updated on May 9, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 607

The Signifying Monkey continues a discussion that Gates began in Figures in Black: Words, Signs, and the “Racial” Self (1987). These works will clearly constitute a monument to African American literature and its history and theory. The Signifying Monkey adds to the story of Esu-Elegbara and his many-faceted nature, bringing the Monkey himself front and center in American culture. The protean figure of the Monkey, whatever its origin, vitalizes African American literature with a trope that helps link the works of a living corpus. Ironically, Gates devotes his subtlest, most satisfying explication to Reed’s Mumbo Jumbo, explicating that complex novel as a rejection both of the theory of a double-voiced African American, at once American and black, and of the notion of a transcendental blackness.

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Gates has done truly groundbreaking work in slave narratives, and the section on that genre and its trope of the Talking Book will be for many readers the most valuable. No theory is necessary to account for the power of the passages quoted: The speakers reach out with human voices that command respect for their courage and longing. The accounts of the slave writers, moreover, are free from the mostly gratuitous postmodernist jargon that frequently gnarls the other chapters.

As for the explications of the novels by Hurston, Reed, and Walker, the chapter on Mumbo Jumbo has an impressive substantiality to it that the other two discussions lack. The whole analysis in Mumbo Jumbo is built on a foundation of the theory of the sign conjured by the Swiss linguist Ferdinand de Saussure; hence Gates’s subtitle “A Critique of the Sign.” Briefly, Saussure defined a sign as an alloy of a signifier (the vocalization of the word) and a signified (the idea named by the signifier). Gates’s interpretation of Reed is that Reed accepts a signifier (the word blackness) and a signified (the idea of blackness) but will not allow any transcendental blackness that gives the signified meaning. Not every student of African American literature will assent to Gates’s dense argument about Mumbo Jumbo.

To find a “speakerly text” in Their Eyes Were Watching God seems fair enough, but it remains to be proved that Hurston invented it. As Gates interprets Hurston’s intentions, the “speakerly text” solves the problem of an authentic voice that Hurston faced, and she undeniably used it well.

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