Spunk

by

Zora Neale Hurston

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Spunk Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
The men in the general store watch with interest as Spunk Banks, “a giant of a brown skinned man,” struts through the only street in the village with Lena, Joe Kanty’s wife, on his arm. Spunk’s bold parade elicits admiration from Elijah, who praises Spunk for being so confident and self-assured. Elijah emphasizes Spunk’s strength and courage by sharing an anecdote from the sawmill, where they both work.  Elijah explains how, just moments after ‘Tes Miller’s tragic death on the dangerous circle saw, Spunk had stepped “right up” to use the machinery, when everyone else had been too “skeered to go near it.”
Through Elijah’s dialogue, Hurston quickly positions Spunk as the epitome of archetypal masculinity. Spunk embodies strength, pride, and potency and is envied by the other men, who look up to him for both his fearlessness at work and his success with women. It is clear that, for Elijah, the moral repercussions of Spunk’s involvement with Lena, a married woman, are of little importance. Spunk’s physical dominance and status in the community permit him to bypass societal notions of honor, respectability, and decency, which would typically require him to be more discreet about the affair.
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Moments later, Lena’s husband, Joe, arrives and orders a drink. Elijah immediately begins taunting Joe by asking after Lena. Walter tries to get Elijah to stop, but Elijah presses on, telling Joe that his wife coincidentally just passed by. Joe is nervous and embarrassed because he knows that the village men have seen Lena and Spunk together, and “he knew that the men knew he knew.”
Joe is immediately positioned as a contrasting character to Spunk. The two rival men embody diametrically opposed characteristics; while Spunk is large, bold, and shameless, Joe is shrunken, nervous, and ashamed. Walter and Elijah are also portrayed as contrasting characters to one another, where the former represents compassion and goodness, and the latter cruelty and judgment.
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Joe is visibly upset and humiliated by Elijah’s cruel teasing—“One could actually see the pain he was suffering”—and declares to the “men lounging in the general store” that he is going to “fetch” Lena back. As he speaks, Joe pulls a “hollow ground razor” from his pocket, declaring that “Spunk’s done gone too fur.”
While Spunk seems immune to critique, Joe is easily shamed and humiliated by Elijah and the men, who taunt him for being too weak and passive about his wife’s affair. These accusations emasculate Joe and push him to reveal his hidden razor — an attempt to prove his worthiness and masculinity after all. Joe dehumanizes Lena when he shares his plans to “fetch” her, as if she were an animal or object without autonomy or agency of her own.
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The men laugh “boisterously” as they watch Joe “shamble woodward” in search of Spunk and Lena. Walter warns Elijah that he and the other men have sent Joe to his death, declaring that “Spunk will sho’ kill him.”
The use of the adverb “boisterously” to describe the men’s laughter evokes the thoughtlessness of their bullying. For the men, the laughter is playful and harmless, but for Joe, it has real, material consequences. Here, then, male laughter becomes a poignant metaphor for masculine power and dominance. The men use laughter as a way of policing Joe’s masculinity and demanding that he conform to their strict and rigid notions of manhood. Walter’s warning is a chilling reminder of the dangerous and destructive nature of unchecked masculinity, in contrast to the lighthearted attitude of the other men.
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Elijah ignores Walter’s warning, assuring the men that Joe is calling their “bluff.” He thinks that Spunk would never actually shoot Joe, nor would Joe be stupid enough to confront Spunk “knowing he totes that Army 45.” Elijah predicts that Joe will avoid an altercation altogether with Spunk, “hide that razor,” and then “sneak back home to bed.”
That Walter’s warning goes unheeded by Elijah and the men demonstrates the depth of their carelessness. Elijah’s prediction underestimates both Joe’s bravery and Spunk’s callousness. Elijah makes the mistake of conflating Spunk’s virile masculinity with honor and virtue, an assumption that costs Joe his life.
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Elijah then tells a story about how Joe had meekly confronted Lena and Spunk the week before. Elijah denounces Walter’s accusation that Spunk only “carries on wid Lena” because her husband is timid and passive, asserting that even if Joe “was a passel of wile cats Spunk would tackle the job just the same.”
Elijah’s monologue centers him as the narrative voice for this part of the story. It is unlikely that he could accurately remember the conversation that passed between Lena, Spunk, and Joe the week before, and therefore, it becomes clear that his storytelling is unreliable. Nevertheless, his assertion that Spunk would fight Joe even if he “was a passel of wile cats” is an important one because it foreshadows later events in the story, when Joe’s spirit returns in the form of a wild cat.
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Elijah reports how Lena was “disgusted” by her husband when he begged for her to come back to him, and how Spunk authoritatively took Lena by the arm, declaring “youse mine.” Lena emphasized that she didn’t want to leave her house, explaining that her father had given it to her. Spunk assured her that she need not “give up whut’s yours, but when youse inside don’t forgit youse mine.” When Lena and Spunk walked off together, Joe “jus’ stood there,” powerless to stop them.
Elijah’s story reinforces archetypal constructions of masculinity when suggesting that Joe’s passivity was repulsive to his wife, Lena. In contrast, despite the dishonorable nature of the affair, Elijah casts Spunk as a Lothario like figure, able to successfully woo and court women through his charm and appearance. However, the description that follows portrays Spunk as quite the opposite of charming; Elijah recounts how Spunk grabbed Lena by the arm and pulled her away. Here, then, Spunk uses his strength and power to get what he wants, while Lena is controlled, objectified, and reduced to male property.
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The narrator interjects that “Joe Kanty never came back.” The men in the general store hear “the sharp report of a pistol” ringing out from the woods, and soon after, Spunk nonchalantly enters the general store and explains his version of events to the men.
The narrator reveals that Walter’s predictions were disturbingly accurate, while Elijah’s were naïve and misinformed: Spunk did in fact murder Joe. The fact that Spunk is indifferent to Joe’s death illustrates his cruel nature. Further, it suggests that Spunk knows that no one will challenge him, and that he won’t face repercussions for his actions. 
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While Lena cries, Spunk claims that Joe cowardly tried to attack him from behind, so Spunk was merely acting in self-defense by shooting his attacker. The men follow Spunk out of the general store and into the woods, where he shows off Joe’s “crumple[d] and limp” body. His hand is “still clutching his razor.” The men look at Elijah “accusingly,” and later talk about “locking [Spunk] up” for his crime, but it’s just empty talk.
Spunk shows no remorse for Joe’s death. He displays Joe’s lifeless body in the way a trophy hunter would show off game he’d hunted in the forest. The men take no collective responsibility for the part they played in leading Joe to his death, but look “accusingly” at Elijah in order to shift the blame. Although it is quite clear that Spunk could have fought Joe off without actually killing him, the villagers refrain from challenging Spunk, presumably because they are too scared.
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A sheriff from Orlando later arrests Spunk, but after a short trial, Spunk walks free. Some time later, Walter and Elijah discuss how Spunk and Lena have moved in together and are about to get married. The conversation then shifts to a mysterious altercation Spunk had with a bobcat.
The arrival of the sheriff symbolizes the arrival of the white man’s legal system in this black community. The sheriff’s authority is not often needed or used in the village. Indeed, Hurston based the setting on her hometown, Eatonville, which didn’t have a jailhouse while she lived there. While the sheriff supposedly represents law and order, Hurston illustrates the incompetence of the legal justice system when Spunk remains unpunished for his crime.
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According to Elijah, on Spunk’s first night in the house with Lena, he was startled when a massive black bobcat prowled around the exterior of the house, howling loudly. When Spunk attempted to shoot the wildcat from the window, it looked him directly in the eye. Convinced that the creature was Joe, “sneaked back from Hell,” Spunk found himself unable to shoot the bobcat.
In the dead of night, the same day he has moved in with Lena, Spunk is finally confronted with the moral reckoning he deserves. While the white legal justice system was unable to hold Spunk accountable for his crimes, the “black” bobcat forces Spunk to face his conscience. Through the black bobcat, Hurston acknowledges an alternative belief system, one shared by the black community and routed in African-derived folklore, that proves to be more effective in bringing justice to the town. This scene also symbolizes Spunk’s emasculation, because, despite being a good shot, he is unable to “tackle” the wild creature, contrary to Elijah’s earlier assertions.   
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Unsympathetic, Walter declares that Spunk “oughter be nervous after what he done,” and argues that Joe was more courageous than Spunk all along. After all, Joe was terrified and was armed with nothing but a measly razor, and yet was still willing to fight his bully—it’s less impressive when Spunk gets into fights, because he’s practically fearless.
As ever, Walter challenges the status quo when professing that Spunk deserves to feel concerned about the bobcat. Walter renegotiates the terms of masculinity when claiming that Joe was more courageous than Spunk all along.
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The men protest at this assessment, but then one of them explains that he witnessed Spunk getting anxious when he was working on the machinery at the sawmill earlier that day. When Spunk blamed his “wobblin’” on the equipment, the machinist declared that the saw was functioning just fine. Unsatisfied with this response, Spunk then accused one of the other men of pushing him, which is what must have made the machine shake, but “‘twant nobody close to ‘im.”
Walter’s statement prompts an important turning point with regard to how the men in the community perceive Spunk. When an unnamed villager describes how Spunk claimed that the machinery at work was faulty, rather than admitting that he was having a bad day, Spunk is portrayed as a liar and a coward. Spunk is desperate to maintain his status and reputation among the men, even if it means scapegoating them in the process.
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The following day, the men discuss Spunk once more, but there is “no laughter. No badinage this time.” Elijah and Walter somberly discuss Spunk’s death as they walk slowly towards Lena’s house for the funeral wake. Elijah explains how Spunk fell onto the circle saw at work, and how in his last moments, Spunk accused Joe of pushing him onto the deadly machinery. Walter speculates that Joe and Spunk’s spirits must be having “a powerful tussle […] some-where ovah Jordan”; he believes that “Joe’s ready for Spunk an’ ain’t skeered anymore.”
It remains ambiguous whether Spunk died on the circle saw through a mistake of his own, or whether he was somehow pushed by Joe’s spirit. Either way, it is clear that, ever since Spunk saw the bobcat, his confidence has been undermined, and his nerves have plagued him. For Walter, Spunk’s death represents justice because now Joe and Spunk’s spirits can have a fair and equal fight “ovah Jordan.”
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At the funeral wake, Lena grieves passionately. When Jeff Kanty arrives, he takes pleasure in imagining himself as the saw that caused Spunk’s death. Although he used to be terrified of Spunk, Jeff now looms down over Spunk’s dead body, feeling powerful and victorious. Meanwhile, Spunk’s body lies under a “dingy sheet,” and upon a modest homemade cooling board, which had been balanced on some “saw horses.” The men drink whiskey and make “coarse conjectures,” and the women eat “heartily” and gossip about “who would be Lena’s next.”
By substituting one domineering male figure, Spunk, with that of yet another controlling and authoritative bully, Jeff, Hurston reveals the cyclical nature of patriarchal power structures. Further, it is clear that the men in the village have not considered the moral implications of their cruel and toxic behavior, and it is likely that the village will continue to operate as it has always done—by objectifying women, pitting men against each other, and policing the very rigid parameters of masculinity.
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