Spunk

by

Zora Neale Hurston

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“Spunk” opens with a description of Spunk Banks, a man respected and revered in the community for his strength and courage at the local sawmill, where he works. One day, the villagers at the general store are surprised to see Spunk walking boldly up the village’s only street with Lena Kanty, a married woman, on his arm. One bystander, Elijah Mosley, commends Spunk for his audacity and fearlessness, while Walter Thomas is shocked at Spunk’s conspicuousness.

The men in the general store have hardly finished gossiping about Spunk when Joe Kanty, Lena’s husband, enters. Joe is nervous, self-conscious, and clumsy—the complete opposite of Spunk. The men in the store are aware that Joe already knows that his wife has just passed by with another man, and so Joe’s inaction and passivity renders him weak and pathetic in their eyes. Elijah begins to taunt Joe about Lena’s disloyalty, eliciting laughter from all the men but Walter, who accuses Elijah of being cruel.

Following the torment and humiliation he experiences in the general store, Joe announces that he is going to find Lena and “fetch her back.” He shows the men the “large and shiny” razor that he has been hiding in his pocket, presumably to use in combat with Spunk. Elijah praises Joe for this new approach and suggests that Joe is finally behaving “like a man.”

As Joe stalks off into the woods in search for Lena and Spunk, Walter warns that Spunk will likely murder Joe, should he try to attack Spunk with the razor. Elijah dismisses Walter’s concern and tells the men a story about an altercation between Spunk, Joe, and Lena just the week before, when Joe had tried to win Lena back and failed miserably. According to Elijah’s version of events, Lena had looked at Spunk “with her eyes so full of love that they wuz runnin’ over” when he declared that she belonged to him and that he would look after her from now on.

While the men wait eagerly for Joe to return, they hear “the sharp report of a pistol somewhere distant.” Spunk emerges “leisurely” from the woods with Lena and enters the general store. He explains to the men, without remorse, that he had to shoot Joe in order to defend himself. While the men direct some of their horror towards Elijah, who had previously assured them that Spunk would never direct his gun at Joe, Spunk seems wholly unfazed by the events in the woods. Although he is arrested, Spunk is found not guilty after a short trial, and he continues about his normal life with Lena and at work at the sawmill.

Some time later, on the first night that he and Lena have moved in together, Spunk encounters a wild bobcat slinking around outside his window. Spunk promptly fetches his gun. Upon making eye contact with the cat, however, Spunk felt unable to shoot the creature, convinced that it was Joe “sneaked back from Hell” to haunt him. The men discuss whether the bobcat could indeed be Joe, as they’ve never seen a cat like that before. Walter declares that he thinks Joe “wuz a braver man than Spunk,” and that Spunk is deserving of punishment.

The next evening, the men gather to discuss the most recent victim of the circle saw. That day, Spunk had been “loadin’ a wagon” when he fell onto the moving saw. Elijah describes how Spunk was cursing and swearing the whole time, accusing Joe of having pushed him into the machinery.

At Spunk’s funeral wake, Lena mourns loudly while Spunk’s dead body lies on a makeshift cooling board. When Jeff Kanty—Joe’s father—arrives, he looks down at the body, picturing himself as Spunk’s killer. Meanwhile, the village men make crude remarks about Lena while the women wonder who her next partner will be.