Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston relates her mother’s dying moments:As I crowded in, they lifted up the bed and turned it around so that Mama’s eyes would face east. I thought that she looked to me as the head of the bed reversed. Her mouth was slightly open, but her breathing took up so much of her strength that she could not talk. But she looked at me, or so I felt, to speak for her. She depended on me for a voice.

Hurston fulfilled this destiny in her stories and novels; the African American voice is the first thing that a reader notices when reading Hurston’s work. In her article “Characteristics of Negro Expression” (1934), Hurston describes African Americans’ urge to adorn language and lists their linguistic techniques, such as metaphors and similes (“mule blood—black molasses”); double descriptives (“low-down”); verbal nouns (“funeralize”); and nouns from verbs (“he won’t stand straightening”). She disproves the notion that the black idiom is spoken by people of inferior intellect and sensibility. Instead, she asserts that their skill at embellishing the English language is the result of their belief that there can never be enough beauty, let alone too much.

The outcome of “Spunk” turns on the townspeople’s ability to manipulate Joe Kanty through their verbal dexterity. When Elijah first spots Spunk and Lena sauntering off to be alone, he cries out for all to hear: “Theah they go, big as life an’ brassy as tacks.” His judgment shapes the villagers’ perception of the situation. He reinforces his message by using colorful language. He tells the other men that Spunk is not afraid of anything on “God’s green footstool”; that by strutting around with another man’s wife, Spunk does not “give a kitty.” Joe, on the other hand, is “a rabbit-foot colored man.” When it is Spunk’s turn to be frightened of the bobcat, he gets so “nervoused up” that he cannot shoot. By first introducing the story of the bobcat and making the others—perhaps even Spunk himself—believe in it, Elijah helps to move the story to its grim conclusion.