Acclaimed for her pitch-perfect accounts of rural black life and culture, Zora Neale Hurston explored new territory in her novel Seraph on the Suwanee—a story of two people at once deeply in love and deeply at odds, set among the community of poor white Southerners at the turn of the 20th century. Full of insights into the nature of love, attraction, faith, and loyalty, the novel follows young Arvay Henson, convinced she will never find true happiness as she defends herself from unwanted suitors with hysterical fits and religious fervor. But into her life comes bright and enterprising Jim Meserve, who knows that Arvay is the woman for him, and nothing she can do will dissuade him.
Alive with the same passion and understanding of the human heart that made Their Eyes Were Watching God a classic, Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee masterfully explores the evolution of a marriage and the conflicting desires of a young woman in search of herself and her place in the world.
Zora Neale Hurston’s Arvay and Jim are part of a Western literary tradition that features a couple overcoming obstacles in order to marry and to stay married—making Seraph on the Suwanee a wonderful addition to any course that focuses on marriage and gender roles. Hurston’s novel will help students explore questions such as: Why has marriage been central to so many modern Western narratives? How has the cultural construction of marriage changed over time? What part has literature played in informing as well as reflecting these constructions? What does marriage represent? What are the politics of marriage? Does marriage mean different things to men and women? Are our expectations of marriage realistic?
To give students some historical perspective, the reading list might begin with Stephanie Coontz’s Marriage, A History: How Love Conquered Marriage, which will remind students that marrying for love is a very new development. Next, Shakespeare’s All’s Well that Ends Well could be followed by Charlotte Brontë’s Jane Eyre or Jane Austen’s Emma, Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary or Edith Wharton’s The House of Mirth, Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee, and—to end on a contemporary note—Natural Born Charmer by Susan Elizabeth Phillips—who is the recipient of the Romance Writers of America Lifetime Achievement Award.
The syllabus might also add or substitute the film adaptations for some of these novels, and include films such as George Cukor’s Adam’s Rib, Bridget Jones’s Diary, and Sam Mendes’s American Beauty.