Spunk

by

Zora Neale Hurston

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The Bobcat Symbol Analysis

The Bobcat Symbol Icon

The big, black bobcat that appears towards the end of the story, after Spunk has murdered Joe Kanty in the woods, symbolizes justice. Spunk and Lena’s first night in their new house together is interrupted when the wild cat circles their house, howling loudly. Spunk takes his gun to the window, preparing to shoot the creature, but is startled when the cat looks him directly in the eye. Spunk is unable to shoot the bobcat and claims that it is Joe, come back from “Hell” to seek revenge. As an anthropologist, Hurston was fascinated with African-derived religious customs and superstitions and she often celebrated and paid tribute to vanishing black spiritual traditions through her writing. Walter Thomas gives credibility to Spunk’s superstition when agreeing that the bobcat must be a manifestation of Joe’s spirit because they have never seen a creature like it locally. The villagers’ credulousness reveals a shared belief system within the community; they don’t need evidence to prove that the bobcat is Joe, because they feel that it must be the truth. When Walter hears about the incident, he declares that Spunk “oughter be nervous after what he done.” In this context, the bobcat comes to represent justice; Walter believes that Spunk deserves to be punished after taking Joe’s wife and then murdering him so ruthlessly. Spunk did not face significant legal retribution for his crime (he is arrested, but his trial is short, and he’s quickly set free), so the arrival of the bobcat symbolizes a form of just retribution.

In addition, Walter publicly denounces Spunk when arguing that Joe was the bigger man all along, explaining that Joe challenged Spunk knowing that he would be carrying a gun, while Joe had a measly razor. Not only is the bobcat a catalyst, then, to Spunk’s bloody demise on the circle saw, but his inability to shoot the bobcat is also the reason that he begins to lose respect in the community. Spunk was previously envied and admired throughout the community for his fearless and unflappable approach to the dangerous circle saw, but after his disturbing encounter with the bobcat, Spunk begins to lose his nerve at work. It is unclear whether the bobcat is actually Joe or not, but Spunk’s superstitions have a real, material impact on his fate. His distrust and fear manifests itself at work where he is unable to work the circle saw safely. Ultimately, Spunk does not die courageously attempting to conquer the saw, but falls onto it clumsily while loading wood onto a wagon nearby. In this sense, Spunk cannot be martyred in the village for his strength or bravery, but rather, he dies in an undignified way, cursing, shouting and blaming Joe for pushing him, as justice is finally served.

The Bobcat Quotes in Spunk

The Spunk quotes below all refer to the symbol of The Bobcat. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
Power and Masculinity Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the HarperCollins edition of Spunk published in 1996.
Spunk Quotes

“’Tain’t cause Joe’s timid at all […] If Joe was a passel of wile cats Spunk would tackle the job just the same.”

Related Characters: Elijah Mosley (speaker), Spunk Banks, Joe Kanty, Walter Thomas
Related Symbols: The Bobcat
Page Number: 28
Explanation and Analysis:

He could work again, ride the dangerous log-carriage that fed the singing, snarling, biting, circle-saw.

Related Characters: Spunk Banks, Joe Kanty
Related Symbols: The Bobcat, The Circle Saw
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

“…a big black bob-cat, black all over, you hear me, black, walked round and round that house and howled like forty, an' when Spunk got his gun […] he says it stood right still an' looked him in the eye, […] He says it was Joe done sneaked back from Hell!”

Related Characters: Elijah Mosley (speaker), Spunk Banks, Joe Kanty
Related Symbols: The Bobcat
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:

“Humph!” sniffed Walter, “he oughter be nervous after what he done. Ah reckon Joe come back to dare him to marry Lena, or to come out an' fight […] Joe wuz a braver man than Spunk.”

Related Characters: Walter Thomas (speaker), Spunk Banks, Joe Kanty
Related Symbols: The Bobcat
Page Number: 30
Explanation and Analysis:
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The Bobcat Symbol Timeline in Spunk

The timeline below shows where the symbol The Bobcat appears in Spunk. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Spunk
Legal Justice vs. Moral Justice Theme Icon
...about to get married. The conversation then shifts to a mysterious altercation Spunk had with a bobcat . (full context)
Power and Masculinity Theme Icon
Legal Justice vs. Moral Justice Theme Icon
...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... (full context)