Zora Neale Hurston Short Fiction Analysis
The bulk of Zora Neale Hurston’s short fiction is set in her native Florida, as are most of her novels. Even when the setting is not Florida, however, the stories are informed by the life, habits, beliefs, and idioms of the people whom Hurston knew so well, the inhabitants of Eatonville primarily. One criticism often leveled at Hurston was that she frequently masqueraded folklore as fiction, or, in other cases, imposed folklore on the fictive narrative. Whatever the merits of such criticism may be, Hurston’s short stories abound with an energy and zest for life that Hurston considered instructive for her readers.
“John Redding Goes to Sea”
Hurston’s first published short story is entitled “John Redding Goes to Sea.” It was published in the May, 1921, issue of the Stylus, the literary magazine of Howard University, and was reprinted in the January, 1926, issue of Opportunity. While the story is obviously the work of a novice writer, with its highly contrived plot, excessive sentimentality, and shallow characterizations, its strengths are many, strengths upon which Hurston would continue to draw and develop throughout her career.
The plot is a simple one: Young John Redding, the titular character, wants to leave his hometown to see and explore parts and things unknown. Several circumstances conspire, however, to keep him from realizing his dream. First, John’s mother, the pitifully possessive, obsessive, and superstitious Matty Redding, is determined not to let John pursue his ambitions; in fact, she pleads illness and threatens to disown him if he leaves. Second, John’s marriage to Stella Kanty seems to tie him permanently to his surroundings, as his new wife joins forces with his mother to discourage John’s desire to travel. Further, his mother’s tantrums keep John from even joining the Navy when that opportunity comes his way. Later, when John is killed in a tempest while working with a crew to build a bridge on the St. John’s River, his father forbids his body to be retrieved from the river as it floats toward the ocean. At last, John will get his wish to travel and see the world, although in death.
If the plot seems overdone and the sentimentality overwhelming, “John Redding Goes to Sea” does provide the reader with the first of many glimpses of life among black Floridians—their habits, superstitions, strengths, and shortcomings. For example, one of the more telling aspects of the story is that Matty believes that her son was cursed with “travel dust” at his birth; thus, John’s desire to travel is Matty’s punishment for having married his father away from a rival suitor. Hurston suspends judgment on Matty’s beliefs; rather, she shows that these and other beliefs are integral parts of the life of the folk.
Another strength that is easily discernible in Hurston’s first short story is her detailed rendering of setting. Hurston has a keen eye for detail, and nowhere is this more evident than in her descriptions of the lushness of Florida. This adeptness is especially present in “John Redding Goes to Sea” and in most of Hurston’s other work as well.
By far the most important aspect of “John Redding Goes to Sea” is its theme that people must be free to develop and pursue their own dreams, a recurring theme in the Hurston canon. John Redding is deprived of self-expression and self-determination because the wishes and interpretations of others are imposed upon him. Hurston clearly has no sympathy with those who would deprive another of freedom and independence; indeed, she...
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