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.
Women and Misogyny Theme Icon

Writing during the Harlem Renaissance—an intellectual and artistic black liberation movement that aimed to celebrate black culture and interpret the African American experience in new and positive ways—black women writers like Zora Neale Hurston often felt they had to choose between fighting for the freedom of the black community, or fighting for the rights of women. Amid the context of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston garnered strong criticism from many of her black peers, who accused her work of pandering to white audiences, and who deemed her use of rural dialect to be a debasing portrayal of blackness. In contrast, more recent feminist readings of Hurston’s work have argued that her focus on poor, rural characters served to undermine the male-dominated, middle-class, and urban-centric nature of New York’s Harlem Renaissance. Indeed, in “Spunk,” Hurston explores the intersections of misogyny, racism, and classism, perhaps as a way of highlighting the intensified inequalities experienced by black women in America.

In “Spunk,” Hurston examines the ways in which women are controlled and objectified by men. It is no accident that Lena is introduced initially as the “small pretty woman” clinging to Spunk’s arm. By not immediately naming Lena, the story reduces her to her body and to her “pretty” appearance, reflecting the way in which women are valued primarily for their looks. In fact, the story is markedly male-dominated throughout, with Lena being the only named female character. Lena is positioned as an object of desire, rather than an active agent in her own love affair. For instance, Elijah explains that “Spunk wants Lena,” and that he’ll do anything to have her. In this context, Spunk is likened to an “alpha male” who is free to take his pick of the pack, and Lena’s needs and wants become irrelevant. Elijah recalls a conversation he overheard between the two rivals, in which Spunk claimed that “Lena was his.” Not only has Lena become Spunk’s property—to be owned, possessed, and controlled—but she is also equated with an animal or pet when Spunk confronts Joe, saying, “Call her and see if she’ll come. A woman knows her boss an’ she answers when he calls.” Even while mourning Spunk’s death, Lena is sexualized by the drunken men attending the funeral, who make “coarse conjectures” about her. She is subjugated and dehumanized again and again by the men who supposedly love her, and her body becomes a site of patriarchal control, as the men argue over their rights to it.

Hurston empowers Lena with property rights in order to draw attention to the precarious nature of women’s lives in a patriarchal context. Lena doesn’t have any dialogue in the story, but through Elijah’s storytelling, her one line of reported speech reveals that she is afforded some security through the house passed down to her by her father: “Thass mah house […] Papa gimme that.” Because she owns her own property, Lena is able to “speak up” for herself and asserts that she doesn’t want to leave her home. Lena’s property thus gives her a degree of resistance from patriarchal control, and in fact, it equips her with a voice for the first time in the story. However, Spunk is clearly threatened by this statement and declares that “when youse inside don’t forgit youse mine,” rendering her an object of his control once more. Spunk’s continued use of imperatives makes it clear that Lena has little choice in the matter. The house is therefore a metaphor for women’s need for control and security, but ultimately, Lena is trapped in a male-dominated system and, even in her own house, she must obey and worship Spunk.

Hurston interrogates the misogyny surrounding women’s reputations through the story’s ending. As Lena mourns for Spunk with “lamentations [that] were deep and loud,” the rest of the community discuss who will “be Lena’s next.” Lena’s reputation as a “good” woman has been sullied through her adulterous relationship with Spunk. Spunk’s actions, on the other hand, never faced the same level of critique from the community, highlighting the double standard applied to women’s sexuality. Lena is expected to find a new man, partly because she is now considered a “loose” woman, but also because women were perceived to be dependent on men. Lena still owns property, however, and she fills it with “magnolia blossoms” for the wake. The flowers are decidedly feminine, and their strong smell represents her newly harnessed control over the house, and perhaps, finally, over her life.

Through the character of Lena, and the curious absence of other women in the story, Hurston interrogates power and misogyny in a poor, rural community. Women (namely Lena) are silenced, sexualized, objectified, or made invisible by the men who purport to protect and care for them. Hurston illustrates how men render women property, fashioning them into tools to demonstrate their power in society, and how they utilize women’s bodies as objects of desire. Written at a time when Hurston was under pressure to contribute to an important black liberation and anti-racism movement, “Spunk” sends a clear message: there will be no freedom unless women are liberated too.

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Women and Misogyny ThemeTracker

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Women and Misogyny Quotes in Spunk

Below you will find the important quotes in Spunk related to the theme of Women and Misogyny.
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:

“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:

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: