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