History in Fact and Fiction: Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee

The Course

History of the South (Fall 2010)

Combining Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee with historical documents, Strom led students in differentiating a fictionalized account from historical reality. Through the layered reading of Hurston’s novel, students examined issues of sexuality, environment, work, and family within the Florida cracker culture in the early 1900s.

Blog: History in Fact and Fiction: Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee

As a Result of This Course…

Three of Strom’s students—Matt St. Jean (Class of 2011), Sebastian Novak (Class of 2012), and Carlee Hoffmann (Class of 2013)—presented papers at the Phi Alpha Theta regional conference at Flagler College. St. Jean and Novak presented on key information about the levels of accuracy in Hurston’s novel regarding the production of citrus and turpentine in Florida during the early 20th century. Hoffman presented on the portrayal of middle-class white women in Seraph on the Suwanee compared to actual women living at the time. More…

About Claire Strom, Ph.D.

An agricultural and southern historian who specializes in the southern yeoman farmer, Rapetti-Trunzo Professor of History Claire Strom teaches classes on various aspects of American history. More…

Role of Women in the New South

By Kelly Walsh

Marriage and Motherhood

Reality: Most women married around the age of nineteen, which was consistent regardless of race or class. Most women in the South were raised and socialized to believe that men were superior, and women were created to be wives and mothers.

Novel: Arvay Henson married at the age of twenty-one, a few years older than most, which was typically looked down upon in society. Arvay was chosen by Jim to “just love him good, be nice and kind around the house and have children for him.” She was expected to have children in order to carry on Jim’s family line.

Sexual Role

Reality: Women were meant for procreation where they had little control of family size and sexual encounters, as white males wanted to ensure an heir. Prior to the Civil War, men had the sexual freedom to sleep with female slaves and show their virility; however, after the war, southern men no longer had this freedom, which frequently resulted in violent sexual relations to reinstate their dominance over women.

Novel: Arvay’s first sexual encounter with Jim was rape, which caused her to feel defeated and inadequate. The sexual relations between the two are never associated with emotion or love, only procreation and dominance.

Community Involvement

Reality: Industrialization allowed women to earn money, and explore society by joining women’s organizations that linked private home life to the public sphere. Women’s groups met to discuss a range of topics from social conditions, ways to improve the standard of living, to new approaches to childbearing and homemaking.

Novel: Hurston mentioned little about Arvay’s role within the community and described her as hesitant to engage in activities outside of the home. Arvay represented a woman caught in between the change from traditional Victorian values with which she was raised and the emerging modern ideas of feminism.


Household and Fieldwork

Reality: Regardless of one’s race or class, household work was considered a woman’s most important job. The majority of women from all ethnic groups had to perform some sort of field labor, and they made up a significant portion of the labor force prior to World War II. During the Great Depression, regardless of declines in income, investments, housing, and household amenities, women were expected to keep families fed, clothed, and healthy.

Novel: Arvay’s household was described with household amenities, such as electricity and running water that were uncommon prior to the 1930s in the South. She never has to perform fieldwork; however, she prepared all meals, cleaned, and sewed her children’s’ clothing.




Walker, Melissa. Southern Farmers and Their Stories: Memory and Meaning in Oral History. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

D’Emilio, John and Estlle B. Freedman. Intimate Matters: A History of Sexuality in America. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1988.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Seraph on the Suwanee. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1991.

Scott, Anne Firor. The Southern Lady From Pedestal to Politics 1830-1930. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1970.

Sharpless, Rebecca. Fertile Ground, Narrow Choices: Women on Texas Cotton Farms, 1900-1940. North Carolina: University of North Carolina Press, 1999.

Walker, Melissa. Southern Farmers and Their Stories: Memory and Meaning in Oral History. Kentucky: The University Press of Kentucky, 2006.

Florida as Represented in Seraph on the Suwannee

By Jake Pontius

Physical Land

Reality: Northwestern Florida was heavily wooded and dominated by the lumber and turpentine industries, although Sawley was a fictional town. Polk County was one of the centers of the citrus industry because of its fertile soil and location in Central Florida. Lakeland experienced massive growth, however, which was not thoroughly highlighted in Hurston’s novel. Also, the land boom caused the rise of southern Florida as a tourism mecca built around Miami and Coral Gables.

Novel: Hurston chose Sawley (in western Florida) and Polk County (central Florida) as the primary locations in the book. Sawley, located on the Suwannee River, was a turpentining town surrounded by woods and settled by Florida Crackers. Polk County’s sandy soil made it an ideal location for the citrus industry. As time progressed, both areas experienced massive growth with the rise of cars and tourism.


Reality: The time periods and locations of the economic situations in the book were accurate; however, Hurston failed to mention specific events that played major roles in some industries. For example, the citrus industry came under serious threat from the introduction of the Mediterranean fruit fly into the state. Also, every industry, especially turpentine, experienced the negative effects of World War I. Hatton’s land developments were reminiscient of real life entrepreneurs like Charles Morse and William Howey, though.

Novel: Jim Meserve worked in the turpentine (Sawley), citrus (Polk County), bootleg alcohol (Polk County), and fishing (Atlantic Coast) industries. He experienced great success in every endeavor except turpentining. Also, Hatton, Angeline’s husband, finds success in the land boom, developing a resort and golf course in Central Florida.

Social Life

Reality: The social mobility featured in the book did exist during those times. Many people were able to increase their status in life because of the land boom and success of the citrus industry in the 20’s, although Hurston’s portrayal of Florida Crackers seemed to be based more off of hearsay than actual facts. Education experienced a large growth in popularity with the rise of the Progressive movement and cities like Lakeland established high schools. Also, Florida State University and University of Florida started to see an increase in the number of students. Race relations were not as nice as Hurston made them seem in the novel. Incidents in places like Ocoee and Rosewood took place around the time the Meserves were in the area and there were about 300 lynchings in the 1920’s alone.

Book: There were many different aspects of social life discussed in the novel including race relations, education, and social mobility. Hurston’s version of Florida life was fairly mild. Race relations seemed stable. Racism was still prevalent, however, no violence ever occured. The Meserves were more than capable of going from small time turpentiners to wealthy land owners with little to no trouble. The wealth they earned made education a priority for their children who went to the University of Florida and Florida State University.


Considering that Seraph on the Suwannee was a fictional novel, Zora Neale Hurston represented the basics of Florida life fairly well. The landscapes and industries featured in the book stayed true to reality. Despite the accuracies, however, there were many things left out of the book that would have certainly played much larger roles (or roles at all) in the lives of the Meserves. The perfect example is World War I. The war affected almost every facet of life, but it was never mentioned once throughout the whole book. So when deeply comparing the novel to reality, it fell short of truly getting everything across, although it was not necessary considering that Hurston was still able to create a vivid, believable story.

Social Class and Race Relations in Seraph on the Suwanee

By Lloyd Firth

Understanding the history of social class and race relations is vital. What influence and power did social class actual have in 1920’s Florida? Does the novel reflect accurately the influence social class may have played? What was the role that race played in 1920’s Florida? And was the role of race portrayed correctly in the novel? By examining history, one can better determine whether or not the author Zora Neale Hurston accurately demonstrated social class and race relations.

Social Class

Reality: Social classes have always been prevalent throughout most of human history. One of the first uses of determining social class occurred around 3000 BC in China when it was common to practice the art of coloring fingernails. The color of the fingernails was known to determine the social class of the person. Gold and silver colors were reserved only for the early royalties.

The following article goes into detail about social classes in the South, including Florida, and how they were determined: http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/205267/history_of_the_deep_south_the_different_pg2.html?cat=37[1]

Social class in the South and Florida followed to a certain extent, the Pyramid Theory, which states that Blacks were on the bottom, SE Europeans in the middle, and WASP’s on top. However, in addition to SE Europeans in the middle, there were also the Yeomen or subsistent farmers. The amount of wealth of individuals follows the pyramid accordingly. Meaning those on the top had the most wealth while people on the bottom had the least wealth. The image below, although not related to the South, does a good job of showing social class construction. The wealthier one is the higher his/her social class and the poorer one is the lower his/her social class. The wealthier people in the South tended to be planters and politicians and the poorer people tended to be blacks. Although one of the images below is not related to the South or early 20th century Florida, it does a good job of showing the concept of social class construction based on wealth.

[2] [3]

Novel: Throughout Seraph on the Suwanee, Arvay Henson feels most assured of herself when she is comparing herself to lower class whites like her sister Larraine and brother-in-law Carl, the blacks of Citrabelle, and the Portuguese immigrants, whom Arvay calls the “furriners.” Social class is important in the novel and this is in accordance with the history of social class in the South.

Race Relations

Reality: Race relations have always been a part of American culture since the first slaves were brought over in the early 1600’s. The novel Seraph on the Suwanee takes place in 1920’s Central Florida, and understanding whether or not race relations are accurate in the novel requires knowledge of the history of Jim Crow laws in Florida.

The following link details the Jim Crow laws passed in Florida for over a century, from 1865 to 1967: http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/scripts/jimcrow/insidesouth.cgi?state=Florida[4]

Based on the numerous Jim Crow laws passed in Florida from 1865 until 1967, it is safe to say that Seraph on the Suwanee does a good job in depicting Race Relations in 1920’s Florida. The image below of literacy throughout the United States in the late 19th century also does a good job of showing that areas that are more segregated (the South) are more illiterate.


Novel: Seraph on the Suwanee begins with a lesson in geography, history, and racism. Zora Neale Hurston makes it obvious that Arvay Henson’s hometown of Sawley, Florida is segregated. “The Negroes were about their own doings in their own part of town, and white Sawley was either in church or on the way”.[6] Throughout her life, Arvay understands her hometown of Sawley mainly through Christian and colonialist frameworks. Stressing Arvay’s life with the connection between the social construction of white womanhood and economic and racial structures of oppression makes Seraph on the Suwanee quite interesting and makes understanding Arvay’s view or lack of view on race and social class much easier.


It is surprising how well the novel did in accurately portraying the roles that social classes and race played in 1920’s Florida life. This is even more astonishing given the author is a black women writing about the lives of white people. One would think given the magnitude of isolation of blacks and whites from the time in which the author lived early to mid 1900’s that she would have done a terrible job in correctly showing the impact of race relations and social classes in the novel but it turned out to be quite the opposite.

[1]http://www.associatedcontent.com/article/205267/history_of_the_deep_south_the_different_pg2.html?cat=37 (Web Article) “History of the Deep South: The Different Social Classes”

[2]http://i.dailymail.co.uk/i/pix/2006/08/class_228x259.jpg (Image)

[3]http://images-mediawiki-sites.thefullwiki.org/01/2/1/6/42657611042974616.png (Image)

[4] http://www.jimcrowhistory.org/scripts/jimcrow/insidesouth.cgi?state=Florida (Web Article)”Jim Crow Laws: Florida”

[5] http://pslarson2.files.wordpress.com/2010/05/us_illiteracy_1872.jpg (Image)

[6] Hurston, Zora Neale. Seraph on the Suwanee. New York: Library of America: 1995. Print.

White Southern Class Differences and Divisions

By Cathleen Ward

Socio-Economic Divisions


Representation of poor white class

  • Most of the rural poor whites were stuck in a poverty trap that would be passed on to their children.
  • If children attended school, they could not be useful laborers at home or at a firm.
  • In the lives of the poor at this time, “marriage followed as a logical extension of a youth devoid of any real childhood.”[2]
  • Disease usually afflicted the poor populations more because of their poor diet and inadequately built homes.
  • The poor white class families struggled due to lack of capital and little education, and felt the burden of disrespect from the upper classes that injured their sense of pride and dignity.[3]

Representation of wealthy class

  • The more prosperous continued to live in superior homes only now their dwellings consisted of electrical appliances and indoor plumbing.[4]
  • The South’s new upper class cared less about their decorum and in some cases family disorganization increased.
    • Lawyers handled family scandals, such as divorce.
    • Religion no longer had much influence on the class anymore.[5]


Representation of poor white class

  • Arvay and her family are poor “crackers” from a small town in west Florida.
  • The life of the townspeople of Sawley is depicted as simplistic; the people are mostly uneducated and quite poor.
  • Arvay’s father dies, seemingly without having achieved much in terms of wealth.
  • Arvay’s mother  barely survives in the same worn-down house she had always lived in.
  • Arvay’s sister, brother-in-law, and nieces and nephews were poverty stricken and greedily living off of Arvay’s dying mother.
  • In Citrabelle, Arvay and Jim live in a beautiful, big house, and are able to afford nice things for themselves and their children.
  • Arvay looks down upon everyone who is different from her: the Portuguese family, the poor girl in Citrabelle (Fast Mary), and even her own sister and brother-in-law because they are now in a lower class than she.
  • Jim and Arvay’s son attended college and their daughter had the option to go as well.

Representation of wealthy class

  • Jim represents a mixture of the Old South’s upper class and the new twentieth century southern upper class.
  • Jim’s ancestors had owned plantations near the Alabama River before the War.
    • “In that respect, Jim Meserve differed from the rest of the inhabitants of Sawley, who had always been of the poor whites who had scratched out some kind of existence in the scrub oaks and pines, far removed from the east of the big estates.”[1]
    • Jim never abandoned his traditional role as the patriarchal provider for his family.
    • Hurston portrays Jim as a very hard worker and good-natured toward everyone, black or white, rich or poor.
    • The people of Citrabelle regard Jim as an upright fellow and treat him with the utmost respect.

Southern Entrepreneurial Drive


  • “Lacking capital, Southerners became foremen and workers for Northern masters, and farmers were even further removed from the lines of power and wealth.”[7]
  • Southern whites that were afforded the opportunity to save any capital needed to be independent and resourceful in order to improve their socio-economic status.[8]


  • When Jim first arrived in Sawley, he obtained a job as a woodsman on a turpentine camp working for Arvay’s father, who was the over-rider for the firm.
    • “This was a miracle in itself, for ‘teppentime’ folks are born, not made, and certainly not over-night. They are born in teppentime, live all their lives in it, and die and go to their graves smelling of teppentime.”[6]
    • Despite an initial lack of capital, Jim made deals with everyone he met and even bootlegged distilled whiskey, in order to obtain land, a house, and plants for the grove he wanted.

Gendered Familial and Social Roles


  • The South was a male-dominated region that expected female vulnerability.
    • This gendered social marginalization meant that a woman could be a part of the wealthy, upper class yet would still be considered lower than her husband.[9]
    • “Although they were ceremonially placed on social pedestals…many white women had little or no position in the economic or political affairs of the region.”[10]
    • While the primary duty of almost all women was to be a wife and a mother, sex roles were less defined in poorer white society because of the need for women to work alongside men.


  • Arvay fails to fit her role in Sawley by not wanting to solely become a husband-service wife, and then in Citrabelle by not being able to figure out how to successfully become a proper companion to her elite husband, Jim.
  • In the beginning of the novel, Arvay is seen as a strong, independent woman who does not need a man in her life.
  • Arvay was unusual because she married late. At the time of her marriage, Arvay was twenty-one, about five years past the usual time girls got married in Sawley.
  • After Arvay gets married to Jim, she becomes entirely dependent on his every order and is constantly worried about how her actions are negatively or positively affecting him.

[1] Zora Neale Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee(New York: Harper Perennial, 2008), 7.

[2] J. Wayne Flynt, Folks Like Us: The Southern Poor White Family, 1865-1935. (Athens: The University of Georgia Press, 1985), 226-241, quotation 235.

[3] Wayne Flynt, Poor But Proud: Alabama’s Poor Whites. (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1989), 180-189, quotation 187.

[4] William J. Cooper, and Thomas E. Terrill. The American South: A History. 4th ed. Vol.II. (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009), 649.

[5] Rupert B. Vance, “Regional Family Patterns: The Southern Family,” American Journal of Sociology 53.6 (May 1948): 426-29.

[6] Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee, 8.

[7] Pete Daniel, Standing at the Crossroads: Southern Life in the Twentieth Century (New York: Hill and Wang), 3.

[8] Flynt, Poor But Proud, 206, quotation 206.

[9] Laura Dubek, “The Social Geography of Race in Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee,” African American Review 30 (Autumn 1996): 345-348.

[10] Joseph S. Himes, The South Moves into Its Future: Studies in the Analysis and Prediction of Social Change (Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1991), 3.

Religion in Seraph on the Suwanee

By Jake Steward

Religion is a central theme in Seraph on the Suwanee, which is apparent in the title. In Christianity, a seraph is an angel of the highest order; an angel who is closest to God.[1] Within Judaism a seraph is also an angel but is present on the fifth of the ten levels of Jewish angel hierarchy.[2] Additionally, a seraph can also mean a serpent, which has importance later in the novel when Jim is attacked by a snake.[3] The religious reference within the title foreshadows the importance that religion plays within the novel. Religion is present as a theme throughout Seraph on the Suwanee, but religion is especially important in analyzing Arvay. Zora Neale Hurston’s use of religion to shape Arvay’s actions, thought processes, and beliefs are historically accurate. Here are two excellent examples:


Reality: In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, India had a large Baptist mission presence. India was the sight of the largest British Baptist mission, which often shared resources with the nearby American Baptist mission.[5] The American Baptist mission specifically dealt with the Tegulus, Garos, and Assamese people—ethnic groups within India. In 1888 the Tegulus mission had 37 American missionaries, 17 men and 20 women. The American Baptist Yearbook described the need for more Tegulu missionaries: “The loss of the active service…creates a crisis in this important work, since the field is of such proportions that it demanded reinforcements rather than depletion.”[6]

Novel: Early in the novel, Arvay falls in love with Reverend Carl Middleton, and she believes that the Reverend of Day Springs Baptist Church loves her too. Arvay’s heart is broken when Reverend Middleton marries Arvay’s older sister Lorraine. After the wedding, a heartbroken Arvay decides that she will pursue a life devoted to God. She decides that she wants to become a missionary and travel someplace faraway, possibly India, hopefully inspiring the Reverend to leave Lorraine and accompany her.[4]

Here are the locations in India where Baptist missionaries were present:


Reality: Prohibition was a very popular cause among white southern Baptists in the 1900s. Many Baptist prohibition supporters cited bible passages as evidence why drinking was against the will of God. Several passages declare that drinking alcohol will prohibit entry into the kingdom of God.[2] Other parts of the bible state that drinking is immoral and will lead to a life of sin.[3] The Anti-Saloon League was the leading lobbyer for prohibition, comprised mostly of southern Protestants.[4]

Novel: The Meserve Family lived a very comfortable life, especially compared to their neighbors. While Jim was very hard working, he was able to provide for his family especially well by running an illegal moonshining operation with Joe Kelsey. Arvay objects to Jim’s moonshine business because it was illegal, but mainly opposed it because she religiously objected to alcohol.[1]

Here are two famous prohibition posters from the Anti-Saloon League:


Arvay’s actions, thought processes, and beliefs as depicted in Serpah on the Suwanee are representative of the Baptist religion during the time period. Hurston not only created a character that is historically possible, but she created one that is historically probable.

[1] Hurston, Zora Neale. Seraph on the Suwanee. (New York: Harperperennial) 2008.

[2] I Corinthians 6:10 & Galatians 5:21

[3] Hosea 4:11 & Isaiah 22:13

[4] John Rumbarger, Profits, power, and prohibition: alcohol reform and the industrializing of America, 1800-1930 (1989)

[1] St. Bonaventure University. “Seraph (plural = seraphim or seraphs).” www.sbu.edu. http://web.sbu.edu/theology/apczynski/courses/CLAR%20101%20Intellectual%20Journey/Study%20Guide%20Files/Seraph.htm (accessed November 9, 2010).

[2] Davidson, Gustav . A dictionary of angels: including the fallen angel. (New York: The Free Press, 1967.) 4

[3]Davidson, A dictionary of angels: including the fallen angel, 267

[4] Hurston, Zora Neale. Seraph on the Suwanee. (New York: Harperperennial) 2008.

[5] Merriam, Edmund Franklin. A history of American Baptist missions, (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publication Society, 1900.)

[6] American Baptist yearbook. (Philadelphia : American Baptist Publication Society, American Baptist Convention, 1884.)

Seraph on the Suwanee and the Florida Citrus Industry

By Matthew St. Jean

Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee is a novel about a white family and their life in Florida during the early twentieth century. Hurston was able to look at many aspects of life in Florida and one of the aspects that she discussed was the influence of the Florida citrus industry on the life of the Meserve family.

Florida Land Booms

Reality: During the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries many people from around the United States moved from their homes and into Florida. Many of these people moved to Florida because of the affordability of land and the promise that the Florida citrus industry provided.

Novel: The Meserves moved to Florida and, when they could afford it, bought land and started their own citrus grove.


Reality: During the land booms of the twentieth century, Florida began to develop major cities across the state such as Orlando, Tampa, Miami, and Jacksonville. The developing cities coupled with the expansion of the Florida rail system enabled citrus to be marketed and distributed with relative ease.

Labor Relations

Reality: Florida citrus remained a profitable industry throughout the early twentieth century because of the utilization of caretakers. Caretakers were usually lower class citizens of all different races.

Novel: The Meserve family used caretakers to tend to their grove and this enabled Jim Meserve to pursue other financial endeavors.


Hurston provided her readers with an accurate example of the best-case-scenario situation for a Florida citrus grove farmer during the early twentieth century. Hurston presented the citrus industry as sort of a stepping stone in Florida to other financial undertakings. However, in reality, citrus farming was a complicated and demanding task and not all farmers were as successful as the Meserves.

The Portrayal of the Turpentine Industry in Seraph on the Suwannee

By Christian Novak

White Laborers

Reality: It was uncommon for men in a position of power to perform more than one task, as Jim is described as doing. Brock’s role as ultimate supervisor or woodsrider is more accurate. The payment cycle explained in the novel is also inaccurate. Workers were paid monthly, not semi-monthly.[3]

Novel: In the novel, both Brock and Jim perform several different jobs at the turpentine camp. Jim ran the commissary, watched the laborers and paid them. Brock was the ultimate supervisor in the camp.

Black Laborers

Reality: Black workers were the dominant labor force on turpentine camps. Blacks were also often subjected to extreme violence from their white overseers, making it extremely unlikely that Jim would be fraternizing with Joe Kelsey.[4]

Novel: In the novel, blacks are only briefly mentioned and depicted as having an amiable relationship with their white superiors. Jim is even depicted as joking with one of the black laborers, Joe Kelsey.[1]


Role of Women

Reality: It is unlikely that Arvay would have worked in the commissary. Wives of overseers usually remained at home and wives of ordinary laborers performed odd tasks around the camp. Some camps even had no female workers.[5]

Novel: Arvay Henson works in the camps commissary.

[1] Zora Neale Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee: A Novel (New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008), 43.

[2] Daily Yonder. “Catfaces: Totems of Georgia’s Turpentiners”< http://www.dailyyonder.com/totems-georgias-lost-turpentine-industry/2010/06/10/2788>.

[3] Robert B. Outland, Tapping the Pines: The Naval Stores Industry in the American South (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2004), 172, 175.

[4] Jerrell H. Shofner, “The Legacy of Racial Slavery: Free Enterprise and Forced labor in Florida in the 1940s,” The Journal of Southern History 47 (August 1981): 413; Outland, Tapping the Pines, 176.

[5] Outland, Tapping the Pines, 181; Thomas F. Armstrong, “The Transformation of Work: Turpentine Workers in Coastal Georgia.” Labor History 25 (Fall 1984): 529.

Arvay Henson: The Depiction of the “Southern Lady” in Seraph on the Suwannee

By Carlee Hoffman


Reality: Expected to have companionate marriage and be subordinate to men

Novel: Arvay found a companionate marriage with Jim Meserve and was subordinate to him (i.e., he rapes her before their marriage and threatens to beat her)


Reality: Expected to run proper household and instill morals in children; motherhood is “sanctioned by God”

Novel: Feeds and clothes her family, believes that “her duty was mothering” and that “God had made her a mother”

Interaction with black women

Reality: Could interact and work with black women in domestic setting; often had cordial relationships with their servants

Novel: Employs Dessie Kelsey (a black woman) as a domestic worker; becomes very fond of her and has friendly relationship with her

Interaction with men

Reality: Women were not usually allowed to interact with black men in social situations and were obliged to follow strict rules of racial etiquette (i.e,. black men must use “ma’am” and enter through back doors)

Novel: Arvay often interacts with black men that her husband works with but never “breaks the rules” of racial etiquette (i.e., she never has sexual relations with them)

In conclusion, Hurston’s portrayal of a southern white woman in the form of Arvay Henson is consistent with historical reality. Arvay’s marriage to Jim Meserve, similar to actual marriages of the time, is based on companionship as well as submission to her husband. Like real southern mothers, Arvay participates in housework but also has domestic help and cares deeply about her children’s moral fiber. In addition, Arvay follows the rules of race common to southern society at the time by working with black woman servants but keeping black males at the proper distance. As a respectable “Southern Lady,” Arvay embodies domesticity, modesty, beauty, innocence, and complexity.

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