Seraph on the Suwanee by Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston (she/her) is my favorite author. And yet, Seraph on the Suwanee was one of her more contentious books. The main characters are Jim and Arvay Meserve — and they’re white. Jim’s family comes from money, and Arvay is a “Florida cracker.” Because Hurston is and was known for writing the voices of African American folks who live and work in the swamps of Florida, readers were confused by Seraph on the Suwanee. Did she write white characters because she didn’t feel limited? Or because she was pandering to white readers? Regardless of your feelings about Hurston writing white characters, her novel is a complicated look at what marriage even means, especially since Hurston herself never stayed married long and did not have children.

Seraph on the Suwanee begins in Florida in the 1910s. Arvay is twenty-one and single. She’s been in love with Carl, the local minister, since she was a teen, but Carl, who seems oblivious, marries Arvay’s sister. Angry, Arvay swears she’s going to be a missionary in Africa. She’s repeatedly told by her parents that she doesn’t have the sense she was born with, and Arvay doesn’t do much to prove readers wrong. Whenever she’s unhappy, she goes into “seizures,” so her mother gives her turpentine, a medicinal practice of the time, to bring her around. Interestingly, we don’t see Arvay ingest the turpentine; she flails her hand and knocks the spoon out of her mother’s grip then “comes to.”

Enter Jim, a newcomer who, for reasons unclear to me, falls in love with Arvay and ignores all the other women swooning over his handsome figure. Arvay resists Jim, and when he comes to her family home, she goes into “fits” again. Grabbing the turpentine, her mother prepares to bring Arvay around. Jim snatches the spoon and ends up getting turpentine in Arvay’s eye — on purpose, the narrative suggests — which burns. Though the scene almost reads as funny because Arvay is play acting to avoid what she doesn’t like and Jim is calling her out on it by punishing her, it is still an act of violence. She never fights back:

Her resolutions against Jim Meserve were just like the lightning-bugs holding a convention. They met at night and made scorning speeches against the sun and swore to do away with it and light up the world themselves. But the sun came up next morning and they all went under the leaves and owned up that the sun was boss-man in the world.

The summary of Seraph suggests that the entire plot is Jim chasing Arvay until they get married, but they’re wed early in the novel, right after Jim rapes her. The scene is bizarre, with Jim ripping Arvay’s clothes and afterward kissing her affectionately, suggesting he thought that a sexual act would trap her in marriage. It does. They head for the town clerk to sign the marriage papers. I wondered, does Arvay know she was raped? Does Jim know what that was? They both do. This is the second act of violence against Arvay.

Hurston has a masterful way of making you see one thing and emphasizing its opposite. In other words, hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick. Later, Jim’s love and devotion to his wife reads like the stuff of a deep romance. She feels less than due to her impoverished roots, and he only wants to be seen as worthy and man enough for her. To that end, he gathers information from people — typically African American and immigrant men and women — to better his (a white man’s) own position. When he’s doing it, though, you could argue Jim is motivated rather than a user. So, does Jim’s abuses of power make him more manly, more worthy?

Arvay isn’t innocent. She’s as mean as a snake over the smallest infraction:

It would be better if she let on that they themselves had got her out of humor by the foolishness they were carrying on. She would go about her business of fixing breakfast just as usual, then wait till somebody said or did something that she could take exception to, and turn their dampers down for ’em good and proper.

People enjoying themselves can rankle Arvay, and she’s apt to run off the folks who stand by Jim’s side feeding him information and labor. So, if we’re left with two nasty characters, but Hurston’s writing is twisted in just a way that makes you forget that and hope for their happily ever after, what is the author saying about the institution of marriage itself? Is it a contract? A decades-long negotiation? A requirement to survive? A co-dependence?

If you’re a fan of novels about marriages, I would recommend Seraph on the Suwanee as an interesting depiction of what the institution of marriage was and how it has changed today. Has much changed? Also, Hurston is the Queen of characterization, getting to the hearts of people, so her novels are enjoyable in that regard. The way Hurston writes people alone can carry a whole book lacking in clear plot.

CW: sexual abuse, racism

30 comments

  1. This sounds tough. Probably a fairly accurate portrayal of a lot of marriages at the time – and some today too, unfortunately. Did her characters feel much different from those in other books?

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    • Biscuit and I joined the Zora Neale Hurston book club, and folks on there noted that some of the characters felt a bit recycled from other books, so overall, they didn’t seem terribly different. Arvay seemed new to me, though. Women are typically independent women who love large in Hurston’s novels, and it seemed like Arvay was more trapped.

      I actually wondered what you would think of this book because I know you’re in a book club that discusses marriage. In the case of Seraph on the Suwanee, it beings bad and has bad moments, but then you almost feel tricked into believing this is a love story. It’s like the characters and their situation are so complicated that you can’t say anything definitively, and that’s why I think Hurston is a master at capturing life.

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  2. “hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick” haven’t heard that one before – love it!

    Like many amazing authors I have discovered in recent time thanks to bloggers, Zora is one I have collected a few of her other books (besides Their Eyes which I enjoyed a lot and would love to reread one day too) but have yet to get around to reading them!

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    • Zora is my favorite author, so I’ve read most of her stuff. She’s come out with a few books in the last few years thanks to papers discovered in colleges that have her things. The phrase “hitting a straight lick with a crooked stick” implies that you see how to get a thing accomplished, but if you go about it directly, you may not get what you want. You have to go about it sideways, which often involves a little bit of trickery to not upset the person you’re trying to do the thing to.

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    • The writing style feels similar to me, though there is less dialect. The characters are different because Jim can navigate the world as a white man differently than the black residents. During book club, someone mentioned that the characters in Seraph feel a bit recycled from other characters in previous books, so in that sense, they’re similar.

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  3. I adore Hurston’s prose! No one else writes the way she can. I’ve not read this novel of hers but, as someone who has always been fascinated by all this (and, at times, teaches a course “Love & Evil” which considers relationships and how we related), I so want to read this! I just read an article exploring monogamy. Essentially it argued we have always tried for it, across all societies and all cultures, but we rarely succeed at it. So it explored why we seek monogamy when we lifelong partner pair bonds don’t seem to be easy/natural for our species. It was a fascinating read! It comes to mind here, reading your piece and thinking about why we marry, what we get from it, healthy vs. unhealthy unions, social pressure, and all that. Basically, now I’m gonna be thinking about this anew all day! So thank you for that :).

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    • Okay, if you’re teaching that course again, I would highly recommend Seraph on the Suwanee, especially if you want students to write interesting papers. There’s so much to say and unpack, so much to disagree about, that you’ll have a grand time grading. I know there’s nothing quite as tedious as grading 50 essays on the same book for which the students all came to the same conclusion.

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      • OH MY GOSH, YES! I tell my students all the time, “I don’t want you to agree with me! I want you to tell me what you think!” I’ve found, interestingly enough, in my pop culture courses (where we analyze comic books and comic book movies or the Star Wars films or Doctor Who) the kids tend to lean into their own opinion a bit more. As they aren’t “classic texts” I think they feel a little more comfortable going with their gut, as it were. So a text like this – by an author like Hurston which would naturally yield a wide variety of opinions – is perfect! Thank you for helping me write my future lesson plans :D.

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          • I understand that. I often wonder when my time teaching will end. There are so many wonderful parts of the job but it takes so much from you, too. I don’t know that I could ever do it long enough to retire from the profession.

            And, weirdly enough, I’ve realized how much teaching cuts into my own reading/learning time! I used to read so much! Fiction as well as loads of nonfiction. But now the bulk of what I read/learn is centered around what I teach and I learn so much less than I used to before I was teaching. While that’s the way it goes, it also makes me sad.

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            • I was an adjunct for 9 years, and I kept being told that a full-time position was right around the corner, but then something would happen with the budget, etc. So, they were getting quality teaching out of me (as evidenced by their desire to have me full-time) while paying a stipend, which is not a working wage but a thank you gift, in my opinion. With teacher, there is always more you can do, so it creeps into all subsections of your time. At one point, the only thing my spouse and I were doing together regularly as a couple was watching Jeopardy! and the rest was me grading, lesson planning, etc.

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              • YEP. If you’re not hyper vigilant it will consume your entire life! And sometimes, even if you are, it still takes and takes and takes more than any job ever should. I teach high school so I’m not regularly dealing with the horrors of adjunct life but a few of my best friends have been adjuncts in several different universities over the years and one seems worse than the next. I really think, of all the woes that come with teaching, adjuncts have one of the worst positions – allllllllllllllll that work and allllllllllllllll the headaches at the COLLEGE level with no adequate, let alone humane, compensation for any of it while more is always asked of you. It’s terrible.

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