A former professor of mine once said, while discussing DH Lawrence's Lady Chatterley's Lover, that it's a book about female pleasure and female identity but not necessarily about female independence. The same can be said about Zora Neale Hurston's compelling but in many ways frustrating 1948 novel Seraph on the Suwanee. The character arc of the protagonist, poor white "Cracker" Arvay Henson, is in some ways an ultra-traditional one: she must learn to be the best wife possible to her husband, Jim Meserve. Nor is there anything progressive in the Meserve definition of a "good wife": early in the novel, Jim lays out for Arvay his vision of matrimony and gender relations:
Women folks don't have no mind to make up nohow. They wasn't made for that. Lady folks were just made to laugh and act loving and kind and have a good man do for them all he's able, and have him as many boy-children as he figgers he'd like to have, and make him so happy that he's willing to work and fetch in every dad-blamed thing that his wife thinks she would like to have. That's what women are made for.
Jim is not a caricature of Southern male arrogance. He's a sympathetic character; possibly the most sympathetic in the novel. He genuinely loves Arvay and he's an extremely hard worker, doing his utmost to live up to his own image of husband as reliable provider. What's more, he's up front about the contract he wants Arvay to enter into, although her initial reaction is "this deal is too good to be true," she eventually agrees. The rest of the book deals with Arvay's (very) slow realization that it's harder than she expected to live up to the terms Jim laid out, and with her even slower metamorphosis into a person able to hold up her end of the arrangement.
As a modern-day feminist fresh off of Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, the most difficult thing to wrap my mind around here is the question of whether or not Hurston is critiquing Jim's worldview. It would be easy to jump to her notoriously controversial biography and her other books to feed conjecture on this issue, but sticking to the text of Seraph on the Suwanee: what is being presented here? Is Arvay to be taken as an unfettered agent, who enters freely into a legal and emotional contract with Jim Meserve and is therefore bound by love and honor to conform as best she can to his proposed marriage model? This is certainly the reading that suggests itself initially, complete with a happy ending for the couple when Arvay finally finds the courage, assertiveness and commitment within herself to be the wife Jim wants. On a subtler level, though, does the very length and difficulty of Arvay's journey imply a critique of Jim's expectations? Or of the social context in which the couple lives? It's a question on which I'm still vacillating.
A few examples of the trouble between Jim and Arvay. While Jim's initial portrait of married life seems to remove most agency from the wife (her decisions don't matter because she doesn't have a mind to make up; she need only laugh, act loving, have babies and get waited on—oh, and "make [her husband] happy"), Arvay soon finds that her own passive yet insecure personality is a surprisingly bad match for these expectations. It's not so easy, after all, to act loving, kind and carefree when her husband decides to delay a move she's desperate to make; or when he takes her religion in vain; or when she finds he's been running an illegal liquor still on their property for fifteen years and never mentioned it. It's not so easy to be the person who is supposed to like all the decisions, but gets to make none of them.
Like Lawrence's Lady Chatterley, therefore, Arvay is constantly holding back a part of herself, hoarding her own wilfulness against her partner and refusing to submit herself to his will. And because she's devoting so much time to resentment and doubt, she doesn't see all the things he's constantly doing to support her and even, one could argue, submit himself to her in turn. He moves to a new place because she wants to, and scrambles hard to establish himself there (she doesn't realize how hard he's working or how broke they are, because he never mentions it and does his best to hide it from her). She talks frequently about how scared it makes her to live next to a swamp, so he plots and plans a way to clear it (at which point she is confused about why he went to so much trouble). He doesn't insist on institutionalizing their violent son, because he sees how much it means to her (but she resents him for even suggesting her son could act violently). And so on. It's only after she lets go of her insecurities and directs her self-will toward supporting, rather than resenting, her husband that she is able to look outside herself and notice the ways in which Jim has been loving her with his actions all along.
But those actions, those unexplained and hidden actions. They're a source of the real frustration in the novel, and the possible source of any critique Hurston may have for Jim Meserve's marriage model. Because, seriously: this is a couple the majority of whose problems could be completely resolved with a few heart-to-heart conversations. If Jim were able to say, "I cleared the swamp because I knew it scared you and I didn't want you to be scared," or if Arvay could put aside her passive-agressive anger and really speak to Jim about her pain over his indifference toward their disabled son, and if the other person could just listen: ninety percent of problems SOLVED. Instead, sitcom-like, they indulge in three decades of unnecessary misunderstanding.
Jim dropped down and began to unlace his shoes. He got more quiet and took a long time before he looked up at Arvay again.
"So you really ain't got no notion why I wanted that swamp cleaned off, have you, honey?"
"Naw I told you. Not at all."
Jim jerked off first one heavy shoe and then the other.
"Well, maybe it'll come to you some day."
They didn't talk about it anymore and went on to bed.
Yes, heaven forbid they should talk about it. In Jim's mind, if Arvay doesn't see his motivation on her own, she won't truly believe or appreciate it if he tells her. On the other hand, his own glorification of female mindlessness and passivity makes a bad training for the kind of active, intuitive reading he's looking for here. What's more, Jim's gender formulations are those of the culture at large: this is a group of people who use the word "rape" for consensual, passionate adult sex—presumably an extension of the assumption that women need their decisions made for them. From my perspective, then, the tension in the relationship is largely due to Jim's insistence on an "actions speak louder than words" ethos, even in the face of Arvay's demonstrated inability to read actions. Neither partner is willing to train the other, and they have the bad luck to have ended up with communication styles that are actively opposed.
In the end, Hurston grants Arvay agency up to at least this point: while Jim says that women have no minds to make up, and that all that will be required of a wife of his is to laughingly receive bounty, he is actually looking for a much subtler understanding of how to read and perform acts of love and consideration, and perform them bravely and well. When Arvay finally breaks through her cloud of self-centered vagueness and commits to her husband, she likens her situation to a battle, if only a battle to stand by her man whatever he may do.
Nothing ahead of her but war, and she was ready and eager for it to start. She sat down again on the coil of rope and pleasured herself with the night. She sat and fed her senses with the light, the movement of the sea and the march of the stars across the sky. This was all hers until death if only she had the courage and the strength to hold it, and that she meant to do.
Hurston is one of those writers, like Willa Cather, whose work sits uneasily at the border of feminism—and nothing of hers I've read is AS uneasy at that border as Seraph on the Suwanee. As a person who believes submission and domination relationship models are inherently flawed, this is a challenging novel for me—not because I'm incapable of reading books that diverge from my personal ideology, but because I spent this reading unsure to what degree my concerns were or were not the concerns of this book. By focusing on the power dynamics of gender, am I a good reader or a bad one for Seraph on the Suwanee? I'm still not sure. But as usual, Hurston provides ample food for thought.