Ah-Young Song Hurston’s final novel, Seraph on the Suwanee, is her only extant text that features a cast

of white protagonists. Critics find the text to contain a problematic portrayal of womanhood in the mid 20th century, and feminist critics in particular have expressed concern over Arvay’s decision to return to her domineering husband, Jim Meserve, at the close of the novel. Boyd, one of the fiercest proponents of Their Eyes as a feminist text, claims Arvay to be “a dubious protagonist at best” (Boyd 393). Hemenway, Hurston’s premier biographer, declares the novel to be unsuccessful because Arvay is unable to move “from fear into self-confidence” (Hemenway 313). He and female critics Alice Walker, Cheryl A. Wall, Amy Sickels, and Marion Kilson agree that Hurston fails to forge a strong, autonomous female. General disappointment surrounding the novel’s supposed representation of female subjugation has been challenged by more recent scholars such as Janet St. Clair, Ann DuCille, and M. Genevieve West. Their interpretations of the novel emphasize the purposefulness of Arvay’s submission, which reflects her newfound capacity for selfdetermination. DuCille notes, “For the first time in her more-than-twenty-year-marriage, Arvay, with calculated determination, manipulates the situation to get what she wants” (DuCille 139). Adding to the debate with reference to Hurston’s personal writings, West comments that Hurston noted that she intended Arvay “to find” and “discover herself” (Kaplan 558, 562).1 These critics’ proposed revisions highlight the self-directed agency Arvay assumes in returning to her husband. The couple reunites solely due to her fierce, independent resolve.

1

To Burroughs Mitchell [October 2, 1947].

Though these arguments are crucial in conducting better readings of Hurston, they possess certain limitations. The positivity in Arvay’s decision to (re)establish her role as wife to Jim is fairly incontrovertible, but what is disconcerting is that despite her supposed self-realization and newfound autonomy, Arvay is required to learn Jim’s words and wear his clothes, then feign submission to his patriarchy. Arvay’s appropriation of the male oppressor’s words, dress, and even socioeconomic status disturbs the assertive declarations of female rebirth and autonomy. How can a woman who left Percival McGuire Punter because she couldn’t bear to give up her career and be tied down to marriage allow her heroine to adopt characteristics of her husband in order to gain selfawareness? I would argue that Arvay, rather than assuming her husband’s patriarchal identity, attains skills cultivated during her marriage but subverts the order of power relations by recentering the household on the matriarch. Her subversion establishes Jim as a childlike figure relegated from the position of master into a dependent. Therefore, though she learns from Jim’s aptitude with words, rather than appropriating his identity entirely, she uses this acquisition to destabilize the patriarchal household. Another common criticism against Seraph lies in the ostensible universalist nature of the work. This argument presupposes that Hurston, in creating a white female character, was universalizing the experiences of females and thereby resistant to distinguishing the Black female experience from that of white bourgeois women. The idea that Hurston proposed the erasure of race distinctions is worrisome to a literary community that regards her to be a pivotal foremother for African-American female novelists such as Alice Walker. In closely examining Hurston’s construction of female

whiteness, however, it is possible to determine noteworthy differences between the stories of Arvay in Seraph and Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Their paths are acutely influenced, if not defined, by their race and locale. For instance, their individual oppressions, perceived roles in the community, and relationships with lovers differ greatly. Whiteness, instead of being an absence of color, actually denotes a set of particular privileges and sentiments that Arvay possesses because of her racial background. Even before she learns to use her words or wear men’s clothing, she commands the ability to harbor prejudices against foreigners and other races. On the other hand, despite Mrs. Turner’s high regard for Janie because of her light brown skin tone, Janie never presents similar prejudice. In fact, Tea Cake, described by Mrs. Turner to be dark-skinned and thereby lesser than Janie, is Janie’s closest and most encouraging partner. In addition, while both women achieve female power, ultimately their situations largely differ. Arvay resituates the family structure and supposedly lives happily ever after, but Janie is truly an autonomous woman, though at the expense of Tea Cake’s death. His demise reflects Janie’s bittersweet path towards independence – a path that was not a decision, as in Arvay’s case, so much as fate. Hurston’s purposeful writing thereby illustrates her desire to highlight subtle differences between the women. Though they seem at first to share similar circumstances, they endure distinct forms of oppression and achieve separate closings within Janie’s Eatonville and Arvay’s Sawley.

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