Spunk

by

Zora Neale Hurston

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Legal Justice vs. Moral Justice Theme Analysis

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Women and Misogyny Theme Icon
Legal Justice vs. Moral Justice Theme Icon
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Legal Justice vs. Moral Justice Theme Icon

Born in 1891, Zora Neale Hurston’s childhood was hugely influenced by religion. Her father was a Baptist preacher and her mother developed the Christian curriculum at their local church. After training as an anthropologist at university, however, Hurston devoted much of her writing to capturing the rituals and spirituality of the black folk religion practiced in the American South. Morality, superstition, and spirituality are central motifs in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Spunk.” Through this portrait of small-town life, Hurston examines community dynamics in a rural setting after a scandalous love affair sparks a series of immoral events. Hurston captures and pays tribute to black folklore and African-derived religious beliefs by illustrating how, in the absence of legal justice, moral justice will prevail.

In “Spunk,” the American legal system proves an incompetent defender of justice. After Spunk has murdered Joe in broad daylight, he walks “leisurely” into the general store, announces “calmly” that Joe has been shot, and then “saunter[s]” away home. He appears to feel no guilt for his crime whatsoever, instructing someone “in a careless voice” to bury Joe’s body. That Spunk should feel remorse is clear when considering that the men in the general store had sent Joe off into the woods on Elijah’s assumption that Spunk would never be so cruel as to “shoot no unarmed man.” The men underestimated both Joe and Spunk when presuming that neither one would go through with the fight. Rather than Spunk, it is Elijah who faces allegations and judgment from the village men, who glare at him “accusingly” for his role in Joe’s murder. By blaming Elijah, the men shirk responsibility for the part that they also played when mocking, jeering, and taunting Joe for not being “man enough” to fetch his wife back. The sheriff from Orlando symbolizes the arrival of law and order. Until he reaches the town, the community has been waiting in a morally liminal state; everybody knows that Spunk should be locked up, and yet “no one did anything but talk.” During the trial, Spunk pleads not guilty due to self-defense and walks “out of the court house to freedom again.” Hurston reveals the inadequate nature of the American justice system when suggesting that Spunk’s callous actions warrant more serious punishment and retribution. Further, the system is incapable of holding the general community accountable for their collective role in Joe’s death, a role that is left to Walter Thomas, who becomes the unofficial arbitrator of morality in the absence of law enforcement.

Hurston suggests that folk spirituality is the most potent and effective harbinger of justice; although the legal justice system fails to hold Spunk accountable for his wrongdoings, moral justice is served when Joe’s restless soul returns to haunt Joe. After moving in with Lena, Spunk is haunted by the sight of “a big black bob-cat” outside their house. When he gets his gun and tries to kill the creature, the wild cat howls loudly at Spunk until he got “so nervoused up he couldn’t shoot.” When Elijah explains that the cat was “black all over, you hear me, black,” he emphasizes the spiritual power of the creature, and juxtaposes it with the sheriff from Orlando, who would have likely been white, given the time in which Hurston was writing. The bobcat is an example of the superstitious customs and black American folklore that Hurston was intensely interested in exploring throughout her writing, and it signals the arrival of moral justice in the village. When Walter Thomas exclaims that Spunk “oughter be nervous after what he done,” it is the first time that another character in the story has placed blame or judgment on Spunk’s shoulders. Through Walter’s perspective, Spunk is no longer the admired town hero, but a despicable criminal. Although he faces “derision from the group” of men, Walter asserts that “Joe wuz a braver man than Spunk,” thus inverting the power dynamics seen earlier in the story.

Spunk believes that the bobcat is Joe’s spirit, come back to seek revenge. Whether the bobcat is actually a vengeful Joe, or merely a manifestation of Spunk’s guilty conscience, his superstitions materially, and catastrophically, affect his fate. Spunk fears the bobcat immensely, and this anxiety begins to undermine his confidence and mastery when using the circle saw at the sawmill, where he works. One day, while at work, Spunk has a terrible accident and falls onto the moving saw. The cause of Spunk’s death is ambiguous; it is unclear whether the spirit of Joe pushes Spunk, as he claims, or whether he has been so disturbed by the bobcat that he loses his nerve and makes a fatal mistake when working near the saw. What is clear, however, is that through spirits, superstitions, and powerful folk stories—not law and order—Joe is finally granted justice, and Spunk receives the punishment he deserves.

In “Spunk,” Hurston positions judicial law and folklore in opposition with one another. The sheriff and the courthouse represent official justice procedures, while the bobcat symbolizes a spiritual morality. The juxtaposition reveals the futility and ineptitude of the official (white man’s) legal system, in contrast to the superstitious (black) justice that finally triggers Spunk’s moral reckoning.

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Legal Justice vs. Moral Justice ThemeTracker

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Legal Justice vs. Moral Justice Quotes in Spunk

Below you will find the important quotes in Spunk related to the theme of Legal Justice vs. Moral Justice.
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:

“The fust thing he said wuz, ‘He pushed me, 'Lige—the dirty hound pushed me in the back!”—He was spittin' blood at ev'ry breath.”

Related Characters: Elijah Mosley (speaker), Spunk Banks, Joe Kanty
Related Symbols: The Circle Saw
Page Number: 31
Explanation and Analysis:

Everyone in the Village was there, even old Jeff Kanty, Joe's father, who […] stood leering triumphantly down upon the fallen giant as if his fingers had been the teeth of steel that laid him low.

Related Characters: Spunk Banks, Jeff Kanty
Related Symbols: The Circle Saw
Page Number: 32
Explanation and Analysis: