Spunk

by

Zora Neale Hurston

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Power and Masculinity Theme Analysis

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Zora Neale Hurston’s “Spunk” tells the tragic tale of two men and their virulent contest for one woman’s love. The two male characters at the heart of the story—Spunk Banks and Joe Kanty—are positioned as foils to one another when Spunk walks boldly through the neighborhood with Joe’s wife, Lena Kanty. Through these characters, and other men’s reactions to them, Hurston critiques notions of ideal or hegemonic masculinity. Examining the catastrophic consequences of the anger, shame, and jealousy experienced by men in pursuit of dominance, Hurston’s story is a damning indictment of American masculinity.

Admired by men and desired by women, Spunk embodies a socially constructed notion of ideal masculinity. The story opens with a telling description of Spunk, a “giant” man who “sauntered” through the town with “a small pretty woman clinging lovingly to his arm.” The juxtaposition between the “small” woman and Spunk’s large frame emphasizes his physical dominance. He is clearly confident, and his name, “Spunk,” has connotations of bravery, virility, and manliness. His authority and status is illustrated when Elijah Mosley slaps his leg “gleefully” in approval of Spunk’s boldness. Rather than condoning Spunk for strutting “round wid another man’s wife,” Elijah admires him for being “brassy as tacks.” Elijah conflates Spunk’s strength and dominance at work with his ability to win over Lena, and thus his romantic conquest is positioned as courageous, rather than immoral. Spunk’s hegemonic masculinity is reinforced when Joe Kanty enters the store wearing “overalls much too large” for him. Shrunken, nervous, and embarrassed, Joe’s inferior masculinity serves to strengthen Spunk’s through contrast, revealing how physical strength and dominance over women constitute successful masculinity, regardless of honor or morality.

The men in Hurston’s story are motivated far more by their need for male approval than they are by their heterosexual desires. Throughout the story, feelings of jealousy and shame and are used to police and monitor men’s behaviors and reinforce notions of ideal masculinity. When Spunk leads Lena past the general store, he is performing for—and showing off to—the men in the village. His scandalous parade down the “one street” is certainly not for Lena, who risks her reputation by being seen in public with Spunk. Instead, when he displays Lena proudly, he welcomes gossip, envy, and admiration from his peers. When Joe enters the store shortly afterwards, the men “looked at each other and winked,” a silent and demeaning gesture that symbolizes the way in which power circulates among men. Joe is emasculated, while the other men maintain their power through his subjugation. Elijah intentionally humiliates Joe by asking after Lena, performing the role of bully for the benefit of the other men in the store, who undoubtedly enjoy watching the “pain” spread across Joe’s face. Constantly calling Joe’s masculinity into question, Elijah suggests that it isn’t “decent for a man to take and take” and demands that Joe talk “like a man.” For Elijah, Joe’s passivity over the Lena situation renders him weak and unmanly. Although Walter Thomas tries to stop Elijah’s teasing, the other men laugh “boisterously behind Joe’s back” as they watch him walk nervously into the woods after Spunk, who they know will be carrying a gun. Elijah and “the loungers in the store” are therefore at least partially responsible for Joe’s death. In the end, it is not Lena’s affair that emasculates Joe, but the winking, mocking, laughing, and bullying that subsequently leads Joe to confront Spunk, with only a razor to protect him.

The tragic ending of “Spunk” illustrates the violent and destructive nature of men’s pursuit of power. Hurston demonstrates the dangerous repercussions of unchecked hypermasculinity when Spunk murders Joe in the woods. Joe’s anger, stoked by the men’s teasing, leads him into the woods to confront Spunk, who mercilessly shoots his unarmed assailant. Spunk’s unnecessary violence doesn’t lessen his status among the village men, who both revere and fear Spunk. Indeed, when one of the men explains that he’s “skeered of dat man when he gits hot,” it becomes clear that admiration is not enough to maintain Spunk’s dominant position in the community; he relies on fear too. However, Spunk faces his own guilty conscience, which manifests in the form of the black bobcat that spooks him in the dead of night. Convinced that he is being haunted by Joe’s spirit, Spunk then suffers from a lack of confidence when using the circle saw at work. When he eventually falls onto the moving saw, Spunk’s desperate desire for power and admiration leads him to shout out that it was Joe who pushed him; even in death, Spunk refuses to be humiliated or to lose face in front of his male peers. Ultimately, even Spunk is unable to embody the expression of masculinity that gave him notoriety in the community. Spunk’s funeral is modest and unremarkable; a “dingy shroud” covers his body as it lies upon some carpentry equipment. Joe’s father, Jeff Kanty, “stood leering triumphantly down upon the fallen giant.” The word “fallen” evokes Spunk’s dishonor and disgrace, while Jeff imagines himself as a victorious champion, responsible for avenging Spunk. Jeff feels powerful precisely because of his domineering position as he looms over Spunk’s dead body. Hurston has replaced Spunk with the figure of yet another callous and violent man, thus illustrating the destructive and interminable nature of men’s pursuit of power.

On the surface, this is a story about two men’s fervent love for Lena, but she is curiously absent throughout. In reality, this is a tale about men performing masculinity for one another, each one striving for authority and dominance. Feelings of jealousy, shame, fear, and admiration circulate throughout the story as masculine currencies, used to generate, deprive, or distribute power among the male pack. Ultimately, at the story’s tragic close, Spunk has ended an innocent man’s life and destroyed his own, through his unwavering pursuit of physical and social dominance.

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Power and Masculinity Quotes in Spunk

Below you will find the important quotes in Spunk related to the theme of Power and Masculinity.
Spunk Quotes

A giant of a brown skinned man sauntered up the one street of the Village and out into the palmetto thickets with a small pretty woman clinging lovingly to his arm.

Related Characters: Spunk Banks, Lena Kanty
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

“He rides that log down at saw-mill jus' like he struts round wid another man's wife—jus' don't give a kitty.”

Related Characters: Elijah Mosley (speaker), Spunk Banks
Related Symbols: The Circle Saw
Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

A round-shouldered figure in overalls much too large, came nervously in the door and the talking ceased. The men looked at each other and winked.

Page Number: 26
Explanation and Analysis:

“’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:

“Call her and see if she'll come. A woman knows her boss an' she answers when he calls.”

Related Characters: Elijah Mosley (speaker), Spunk Banks, Joe Kanty, Lena Kanty
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: