Zora Neale Hurston Hurston, Zora Neale (Short Story Criticism) - Essay


(Short Story Criticism)

Zora Neale Hurston 1891-1960

American novelist, folklorist, short story and nonfiction writer, autobiographer, essayist, playwright, memoirist, and librettist.

The following entry presents criticism of Hurston's short fiction from 1989 through 2001. See also Zora Neale Hurston Drama Criticism, Zora Neale Hurston Criticism (Volume 7), and Zora Neale Hurston Criticism (Volume 30).

Hurston is considered among the foremost writers of the Harlem Renaissance, a literary and artistic movement centered in Harlem, New York, that redefined African American expression during the 1920s and 1930s. In addition to having published four novels, three nonfiction works, and numerous short stories and essays, Hurston is acknowledged as the first modern African American to collect and publish folklore. Her renowned 1935 collection, Mules and Men, is comprised of African American folktales derived from her academic studies and anthropological fieldwork. The book is regarded as an important contribution to American literature.

Biographical Information

Hurston was born on January 7, 1891. She was raised in Eatonville, Florida, which was the first incorporated all-Black town in America and became the setting for most of Hurston's fiction. At the age of thirteen Hurston was taken out of school to care for her brother's children. She worked briefly as a maid, and at sixteen was hired as a wardrobe girl for a touring theatrical troupe and traveled the South for eighteen months. Then, while employed as a live-in maid, she enrolled at a high school in Baltimore. She attended Howard University in Washington D.C. from 1923 to 1924 and in 1925 moved to New York City. During this period, Hurston began publishing short stories and establishing friendships with many important Black writers. She studied anthropology at Barnard College and Columbia University with the anthropologist Franz Boas, an experience that profoundly influenced her work. In 1927, together with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, Hurston founded Fire!!, a literary magazine devoted to African American culture. The publication collapsed after its first issue, as a result of financial difficulties. After graduating in 1928, Hurston received a fellowship to do anthropological field research on African American folklore in the South. The data she collected over the next four years, and during subsequent field excursions in Jamaica, Haiti, and Bermuda (1937-38), Florida (1938-39), and Honduras (1946-48), would be used both in her collections of folklore and in her fictional works. In 1948 Hurston, then living in New York, was arrested and charged with committing an immoral act with a ten-year-old boy. The charges were later dropped—Hurston was able to prove that she had been out of the country when the alleged incident took place—but Hurston was devastated by the ensuing publicity. By 1950 Hurston had returned to Florida, where she worked as a cleaning woman in Rivo Alto. Later in the year she moved to Belle Glade, Florida, and attempted to revive her writing career. During the remaining years of her life she worked variously as a newspaper reporter, librarian, and substitute teacher. She suffered a stroke in 1959 and was forced to enter the Saint Lucie County, Florida, Welfare Home, where she died on January 28, 1960.

Major Works of Short Fiction

Hurston's best-known work of short fiction is Mules and Men, a collection of African American folklore and stories gathered from her years traveling the American South living among sharecroppers and itinerant workers. In addition to tales and descriptions of voodoo practices and beliefs, Mules and Men includes work songs, legends, rhymes, and “lies,” all of which contain social and philosophical messages considered essential to survival in a racist society. Hurston categorized her findings in Mules and Men under such themes and motifs as biblical events, moral lessons, variations of plantation stories as delineated in the works of Joel Chandler Harris, and explanations of natural phenomena. The story “Why the Waves Have Whitecaps,” an example of a tale about natural occurrences, relates the tragic consequences of a rivalry between the anthropomorphic figures Mrs. Wind and Mrs. Water. In the tale, Mrs. Water, jealous of her adversary's children, drowns them in the sea, so that whenever Mrs. Wind grieves for her offspring, her sorrowful voice forms white caps on the ocean's waves.

Hurston also wrote several well-received short stories that explore the lives of African Americans. She was especially praised for her recreation of Eatonville's landscape, social customs, and colorful dialect. Hurston published nearly all of her stories in Opportunity, a Black American magazine produced by the National Urban League. “Drenched in Light,” Hurston's earliest story, is an initiation piece centering on a high-spirited girl whose sense of adventure and independence is constantly undermined by her puritanical grandmother. “Sweat” is a tale of hatred and revenge involving a long-suffering washerwoman and her brutal, adulterous husband. Hurston's last story, “The Gilded Six-Bits,” was published in Story magazine in 1933, and is considered her best work of short fiction. The story concerns Joe and Missie May, a newlywed couple whose idyllic marriage is nearly destroyed by Slemmons, a smooth-talking Northerner who operates an ice cream parlor in Eatonville. Impressed with Slemmons's affluence and sophisticated demeanor, Missie May takes him as a lover but quickly discovers that his lifestyle is as fallacious as the “gold” coins and jewelry he used to seduce her. These and other tales were collected in Spunk (1985) and The Complete Stories (1995).

Critical Reception

For many years, Hurston's work garnered little critical attention. In the late 1970s, however, critics began to rediscover her short stories and novels, and as a result a diverse body of critical studies has been published on Hurston's life and work. She is now recognized for her significant contribution to American literature. Most of the critical attention to Hurston's short fiction focuses on Mules and Men, which has often been discussed as a work of ethnography and as heavily influenced by the anthropological theories of Boas. Although many critics praise the book's entertaining qualities, some cite an absence of scholarly analysis and comparative notations and an abundance of authorial intrusions. Others have accused Hurston of ignoring racial oppression and exploitation in the South—accusations that recurred throughout her literary career. Commentators have asserted that these and other stories reflect Hurston's attitude toward racism: she refused to focus on the limitations of the Black experience, instead emphasizing the creativity and imagination of African Americans and celebrating her Black cultural heritage. Other critics have explored her depiction of the African American struggle with economic oppression and the relationship between Black men and women in her stories. Recent critics have examined the portrayal of strong African American women in her short fiction, contending that in Hurston's stories, female independence often emasculates African American men and results in domestic violence. In other feminist interpretations of her short fiction, commentators have perceived the key thematic concern of many of her stories to be the successful quest for female empowerment. Her use of female storytellers is regarded as subversive by some critics, in that it challenged conventional roles assigned to Black women, countered stereotypes, and provided a new perspective on the Black experience.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Mules and Men 1935

Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston 1985

The Complete Stories 1995

Novels and Stories (novels and stories) 1995

Color Struck (play) 1926

The Great Day (libretto) 1932

Jonah's Gourd Vine (novel) 1934

Their Eyes Were Watching God (novel) 1937

Tell My Horse (nonfiction) 1938; also published as Voodoo Gods: An Inquiry into Native Myths and Magic in Jamaica and Haiti, 1939

Moses, Man of the Mountain (novel) 1939; also published as The Man of the Mountain, 1941

Dust Tracks on a Road (autobiography) 1942

Polk County: A Comedy of Negro Life on a Sawmill Camp [with Dorothy Waring] (play) 1944

Seraph on the Suwanee (novel) 1948

I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader (fiction and nonfiction) 1979

The Sanctified Church (essays) 1981

Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings (folklore, essays, and memoirs) 1995

Collected Essays (essays) 1998

Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk Tales from the Gulf States (folklore) 2001

Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters (letters) 2002

Cheryl A. Wall (essay date winter 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wall, Cheryl A. “Mules and Men and Women: Zora Neale Hurston's Strategies of Narration and Visions of Female Empowerment.” Black American Literature Forum 23, no. 4 (winter 1989): 661-80.

[In the following essay, Wall contends that Hurston's narrative strategy in Mules and Men allows her to represent the ways in which women are relegated to subordinate roles in African American culture.]

Mules and Men, Zora Neale Hurston's first book of folklore, is a widely recognized if underdiscussed classic in Afro-American literature and American anthropology. Unlike many of its predecessors in the field, it presents lore not to patronize or demean...

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Mary Katherine Wainwright (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Wainwright, Mary Katherine. “Subversive Female Folk Tellers in Mules and Men.” In Zora in Florida, edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel, pp. 62-75. Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Wainwright views Hurston's female storytellers in Mules and Men as a way to subvert conventional gender roles and male authority.]

During the Great Depression, Zora Neale Hurston served as general editor of and a contributor to the Florida volume of the Federal Writers' Project American Guide Series. Robert Hemenway devotes only two paragraphs of his 1977 biography on Hurston to describing her brief tenure with...

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Kathryn Lee Seidel (essay date 1991)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Seidel, Kathryn Lee. “The Artist in the Kitchen: The Economics of Creativity in Hurston's ‘Sweat’.” In Zora in Florida, edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel, pp. 110-20. Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, 1991.

[In the following essay, Seidel asserts that “Sweat” is valuable for its depiction of the economic situation in Eatonville, Florida, in the early decades of the twentieth century as well as its “harsh, unrelenting indictment of the economic and personal degradation of marriage in a racist and sexist society.”]

Zora Neal Hurston's short story “Sweat” (1926) presents a radical transformation of an oppressed black...

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D. A. Boxwell (essay date winter 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Boxwell, D. A. “‘Sis Cat’ as Ethnographer: Self-Presentation and Self-Inscription in Zora Neale Hurston's Mules and Men.African American Review 26, no. 4 (winter 1992): 605-17.

[In the following essay, Boxwell assesses Hurston's achievement as ethnographer in Mules and Men.]

One of the most striking photographs ever taken of an African-American woman writer can be found in the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library at Yale. It depicts Zora Neale Hurston clad completely in white—dress, stockings, and shoes—standing in front of the Chevrolet she used on her folklore-collecting travels throughout the American South in the late 1920s. The...

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Evora W. Jones (essay date March 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Jones, Evora W. “The Pastoral and the Picaresque in Zora Neale Hurston's ‘The Gilded Six-Bits’.” College Language Association Journal 35, no. 3 (March 1992): 316-24.

[In the following essay, Jones contends that “The Gilded Six-Bits” reflects elements of the pastoral and picaresque literary traditions.]

The history of a people, recorded through folklore, reveals unique, significant, complex, and even virtuous behavior patterns of a culture. This kind of history is one of the contributions of Zora Neale Hurston, anthropologist and folklorist, and includes literature reflecting the pastoral and the picaresque. It also includes literature which...

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Rosan Augusta Jordan (essay date 1992)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Jordan, Rosan Augusta. “Not into Cold Space: Zora Neale Hurston and J. Frank Dobie as Holistic Folklorists.” Southern Folklore 49, no. 2 (1992): 109-31.

[In the following essay, Jordan finds similarities between Mules and Men and J. Frank Dobie's Tongues of the Monte, maintaining that because of their unconventional formats, both books offer “a more holistic version of the folklore they present.”]

The various collectors of Irish folklore have, from our point of view, one great merit, and from the point of view of others, one great fault. They have made their work literature rather than science, and told us of the Irish...

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David G. Hale (essay date summer 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hale, David G. “Hurston's ‘Spunk’ and Hamlet.Studies in Short Fiction 30, no. 3 (summer 1993): 397-98.

[In the following essay, Hale explores Hurston's allusion to Hamlet in her story “Spunk.”]

Zora Neale Hurston's “Spunk” (1925) is a story of lust, killing, and supernatural revenge set in rural Florida. Critics have praised its “mythic quality” achieved by her use of material from folklore and voodoo (Perry 123, Ikonne 184-85). Another aspect of Hurston's artistry appears through recognition of a complex allusion to Shakespeare's Hamlet, a work of high art with its own roots in myth and folklore.


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Myles Raymond Hurd (essay date fall 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hurd, Myles Raymond. “What Goes Around Comes Around: Characterization, Climax, and Closure in Hurston's ‘Sweat’.” Langston Hughes Review 12, no. 2 (fall 1993): 7-15.

[In the following essay, Hurd offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of “Sweat.”]

Shortly after her 1925 arrival in New York City from Washington, D.C., and her native Eatonville, Florida, Zora Neale Hurston sought to make her literary presence known by entering a contest in creative writing sponsored by Charles S. Johnson, editor of Opportunity, and by having one of her prize-winning fictions reprinted in Alain Locke's The New Negro (1925). Inspired by the encouragement...

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Suzanne D. Green (essay date fall-winter 1994)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Green, Suzanne D. “Fear, Freedom and the Perils of Ethnicity: Otherness in Kate Chopin's ‘Beyond the Bayou’ and Zora Neale Hurston's ‘Sweat’.” Southern Studies 5, nos. 3-4 (fall-winter 1994): 105-24.

[In the following essay, Green contends that Hurston and Kate Chopin “both construct communities in which woman is equated with Other” in their respective stories “Sweat” and “Beyond the Bayou.”]

In the short fiction of Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston, we often see women-particularly women of color—portrayed as a microcosm of society in which we are to view them not only as individuals, but as symbolic representations of the universal...

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Nancy Chinn and Elizabeth E. Dunn (essay date fall 1996)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Chinn, Nancy, and Elizabeth E. Dunn. “‘The Ring of Singing Metal on Wood’: Zora Neale Hurston's Artistry in ‘The Gilded Six-Bits’.” Mississippi Quarterly 49, no. 4 (fall 1996): 775-90.

[In the following essay, Chinn and Dunn assert that “The Gilded Six-Bits” underscores Hurston's artistry as a fiction writer, folklorist, and historian.]

“The Gilded Six-Bits” first published in Story, August 1933, is Zora Neale Hurston's last short story before she became a novelist with the publication of Jonah's Gourd Vine in 1934. In this tale of love, marriage, value conflict, and new beginnings, Hurston explores approximately one year in...

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Adrianne R. Andrews (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Andrews, Adrianne R. “Of Mules and Men and Men and Women: The Ritual of Talking B[l]ack.” In Language, Rhythm and Sound: Black Popular Cultures into the Twenty-First Century, edited by Joseph K. Adjaye and Adrianne R. Andrews, pp. 109-20. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Andrews explores the tradition of verbal assertiveness amongst African American women through an analysis of Mules and Men.]

Patterns of negotiating respect through verbal assertiveness, through the power of the word, are a part of a living tradition among black women in the African diaspora, including the United States. Evidence of the...

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Elizabeth Jane Harrison (essay date 1997)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Harrison, Elizabeth Jane. “Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Hunter Austin's Ethnographic Fiction: New Modernist Narratives.” In Unmanning Modernism: Gendered Re-Readings, edited by Elizabeth Jane Harrison and Shirley Peterson, pp. 44-58. Knoxville, Tenn.: University of Tennessee Press, 1997.

[In the following essay, Harrison investigates the influence of anthropological concepts developed by Franz Boas and his contemporaries on the narrative strategy of Hurston and Mary Hunter Austin.]

As twentieth-century “regional” or “ethnic” writers, Zora Neale Hurston and Mary Hunter Austin have suffered from a neglect of their literary strategies in favor of an...

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Neal A. Lester (essay date spring 1998)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Lester, Neal A. “Sounds of Silent Performances: Homoeroticism in Zora Neale Hurston's ‘Story in Harlem Slang: Jelly's Tale’.” Southern Quarterly 36, no. 3 (spring 1998): 10-20.

[In the following essay, Lester examines the homoerotic aspects of “Story in Harlem Slang: Jelly's Tale.”]

Erotica was never written by gay men. It couldn't have been. We were, by definition, obscene; therefore, anything written about us had to be declared pornography.

—John Preston, Flesh and the Word

true niggers ain't gay!


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Susan Edwards Meisenhelder (essay date 1999)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Meisenhelder, Susan Edwards. “‘Fractious’ Mules and Covert Resistance in Mules and Men.” In Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Race and Gender in the Work of Zora Neale Hurston, pp. 14-35. Tuscaloosa, Ala.: The University of Alabama Press, 1999.

[In the following essay, Meisenhelder analyzes the narrative techniques that Hurston utilizes to explore racial and sexual issues in Mules and Men.]

In an oft-quoted passage from her introduction to Mules and Men, Hurston stresses the difference between her childhood unreflective immersion in black folklife and her later understanding of it:

When I...

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David Todd Lawrence (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Lawrence, David Todd. “Folkloric Representation and Extended Context in the Experimental Ethnography of Zora Neale Hurston.” Southern Folklore 57, no. 2 (2000): 119-34.

[In the following essay, Lawrence discusses Hurston's Mules and Men and her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God as ethnographies, contending that “folklorists and anthropologists must trust in Hurston's skill as both a scientist and an artist in order to fully comprehend and appreciate the value of these works as exceptional representations of African American culture.”]

There is no story that is not true.

—Spoken by...

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Laurie Champion (essay date fall 2001)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Champion, Laurie. “Socioeconomics in Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston.” In Southern Quarterly 40, no. 1 (fall 2001): 79-92.

[In the following essay, Champion asserts that Hurston depicts strong women in her stories who “develop independence in spite of oppressive social conditions, particularly those influenced by a politics of gender- and ethnic-biased economics.”]

Zora Neale Hurston sets most of her work in or near the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida,1 which she uses to portray lifestyles of rural African Americans by showing folk customs and beliefs, communal attitudes, and voodoo practices.2 Hurston's choice...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Carr, Brian, and Tova Cooper. “Zora Neale Hurston and Modernism at the Critical Limit.” Modern Fiction Studies 48, no. 2 (summer 2002): 285-313.

Chronicles Hurston's participation in the Harlem Renaissance, discusses Mules and Men as a work of modernism, and examines interpretations of the book as a work of postmodern fiction and ethnography.

Dolby-Stahl, Sandra. “Literary Objectives: Hurston's Use of Personal Narrative in Mules and Men.Western Folklore 51, no. 1 (January 1992): 51-63.

Perceives Mules and Men to be one of the finest examples of self-reflexive, literary...

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