Spunk

by

Zora Neale Hurston

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Themes and Colors
Power and Masculinity Theme Icon
Women and Misogyny Theme Icon
Legal Justice vs. Moral Justice Theme Icon
Storytelling Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Spunk, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Storytelling Theme Icon

Growing up in Eatonville, Orlando, the country’s first incorporated black township, Hurston loved to observe members of the local community sharing stories on from their porches. For Hurston, storytelling and folklore were important traditions that needed to be preserved, and she delighted in encapsulating the rich cultural and linguistic landscape of the rural South through her writing. Many of her stories are set in a town much like Eatonville, where her black characters speak in Southern vernacular. The majority of “Spunk” is told through the direct or reported speech of men in the community, stories that are framed by a distinct, third-person narrative voice. Hurston was interested in depicting the daily realities of the communities she observed and admired; in “Spunk,” she explores the parameters of storytelling as a means of preserving black voices, traditions, and experiences.

Oral storytelling is an important occupation for the town folk in “Spunk,” and most of the story’s action is told through their voices. By positioning the black, rural characters as storytellers in their own right, Hurston closes the gap between her and the marginalized communities she depicts, amplifying their perspectives and insisting that they are heard. The opening of the story is told through the perspective of an omniscient third-person narrator. The omniscient narrator employs refined vocabulary, using words such as “sauntered” and “nonchalance,” that is in direct contrast with the local dialect used by Elijah Mosley and the town folk for the majority of the story. The fact that Elijah and Walter’s voices dominate “Spunk” suggests that their insight is just as, if not more, valuable than the omniscient narrator’s. Elijah is a fantastic storyteller and captures the attention of all those around him whenever he speaks. Employing colorful imagery with ease and mastery, and narrating his stories through long, extended passages of speech, it’s easy to forget that Elijah isn’t the story’s official narrator. When he describes how Joe’s “Adam’s apple was galloping up and down his neck like a race horse,” and speculates that Joe must have “wore out half a dozen Adam’s apples since Spunk’s been on the job with Lena,” for example, Elijah effectively makes the men in the general store hang off his every word. The dialect and vernacular used by the characters in “Spunk,” is often difficult to read. The coarse language and the many local references might have seemed very alien to audiences or publishers from New York during the Harlem Renaissance. Instead of censoring or toning-down her characters’ local dialect, however, Hurston refuses to pander to white or middle-class audiences, choosing instead to make a political statement about power and representation.

Through the different modes of narration in the story, Hurston examines the importance of ethical and truthful storytelling. Despite Elijah’s obvious charm, he turns out to be a very unreliable narrator. Initially, he makes a grave mistake when assuring the men in the general store that Joe would never dare attack Spunk. What’s more, his misplaced trust in Spunk leads him to suggest that Spunk is far too honorable to shoot an unarmed man (Joe is practically unarmed, in that he only has a razor blade). Joe’s murder might have been avoided altogether, had Elijah used his gift and charisma to dissuade Joe from pursuing Spunk, rather than shaming and provoking him. When Elijah relays to the crowd of men a whole conversation that took place between Lena, Spunk and Joe “one day las’ week,” it becomes apparent that his stories cannot be wholly accurate. It would be near impossible for Elijah to have heard, let alone remembered, all of the dialogue that took place in a private conversation a week before. The fact that Elijah begins his tale by first checking if the men know anything about this conversation, throws into question whether the story has any truth to it at all. In a way, it doesn’t matter, because the men are gathered and eager for a story that confirms their worldview and opinions about the situation.

In contrast to Elijah, Walter undermines and challenges the status quo throughout the story. In the beginning, Walter is the only man to voice his concern about the way Elijah and the men are mocking Joe. In fact, he challenges Elijah three times: “Aw ‘Lige, you oughtn’t to do nothin’ like that,” “You oughn’t to said whut you did to him, ‘Lige,” and “Spunk will sho’ kill him.” In the context of the hazing he has just witnessed, Walter is brave to stand up against Elijah in this way. Later on, Walter articulates his disapproval of Spunk loudly. Despite “derision” from the group, he continues his monologue in support of Joe, imploring the men to see Spunk for his faults. In this way, the contrast between Elijah and Walter mirrors the opposition between Spunk and Joe, with one side clearly more representative of honesty, decency, and goodness than the other. Through their different approaches to storytelling, Hurston illustrates the importance of truth telling above all else. While Elijah’s stories were clearly more gripping, Walter was brave enough to challenge people’s perceptions and pursue the truth, a commitment that Hurston valued in her own writing.

On the one hand, by endowing Elijah and Walter with a powerful gift for storytelling, Hurston memorializes the tradition of oral storytelling and celebrates black dialects and vernacular. On the other, she sends an important message about the ethics of storytelling, warning speakers and writers about the ethical responsibility they have to share the truth. In a way, Hurston’s story is also a message for readers and listeners. She challenges her readers, in contrast to the men in the store, to think critically about the messages and stories that they receive, particularly about marginalized and vulnerable people.

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Storytelling ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Storytelling appears in each chapter of Spunk. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Storytelling Quotes in Spunk

Below you will find the important quotes in Spunk related to the theme of Storytelling.
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:

“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: