Zora Neale Hurston

Drenched in Light

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Drenched in Light Summary

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Set in 1920s Florida, Zora Neale Hurston’s short story, “Drenched in Light,” follows Isis Watts, a little black girl who lives with her short-tempered Grandma Potts, her father, and her brother, Joel. After Isis gets into trouble with Grandma Potts, she runs to a carnival to avoid a whipping and catches the attention of a white woman who appreciates her sunshiny personality. Opportunity published the story in 1924.

As the story opens, Isis, described as a “small brown girl” is sitting on a gate post and looking up the shell road that leads to Orlando. She often looks up or down the shell road, greeting passersby; anyone who travels by the house knows her, white and black alike. Sometimes, they will take “Isie the Joyful” up on their horses for a short ride down the road.

Isis’s Grandma Potts hollers at her to get down from the fence and rake the yard. She implores Isis’s brother, Joel, to get her something to use to discipline Isis.

When Grandma Potts goes inside, however, Isis sees the cattleman Jim Robinson and climbs up onto his horse with him, riding until Grandma emerges again. She lies to Grandma, telling her that she’s been in the back yard, then quickly rakes everything under the porch. She begins playing with the dogs, but Grandma tells her to sit on the porch. She sits on the step, but Grandma tells her to sit in a chair, and Isie reluctantly slumps into a chair. Grandma is quick to scold her for sitting in such an unladylike manner and for whistling. Isis’s widowed father comes home, distracting Grandma from her scolding.

Isis washes the dishes, even giving a puppy a little swim in the soapy water. Grandma sits down to her sewing and falls asleep, as she does every afternoon. Isis crawls under the table and begins to imagine herself as different people, with elegant clothes, a beautiful horse, and golden slippers with blue bottoms. She imagines going to the end of the road, which to her is the end of the world, and staring over the edge.

Isis begins studying her sleeping Grandma and notices that she has long, gray hairs curling on her chin. Pitying Grandma, she decides that she is going to shave her. Joel comes into the house as she is preparing, and Isie explains her plan. The two argue about who knows how to shave best. They eventually come to a compromise: Joel will lather, and Isie will shave. Joel plays with the lather, splashing it on the walls and the dogs, and Isie gets out the razor. Grandma suddenly wakes up, sees Isie coming at her with the razor, and runs out of the house.

Joel tells Isie she is probably going to get a whipping; Isie crawls under the house to contemplate this. While there, she hears a cymbal and realizes that a marching band is going down the road. Isis, a gifted dancer, begins dancing to the music. She decides to follow the band to the carnival. Running inside, she fetches Grandma’s new red tablecloth and drapes it over her shoulders like a Spanish shawl, making her look like a little gypsy.

Isie joins the carnival in her new regalia and begins dancing. Everyone watches her and claps for her. A white car pulls up with a white lady and two white men who are “suppressing mirth discretely behind gloved hands.”

When Grandma returns to the house and Isis isn’t there, she goes looking for her at the carnival. There, she sees Isis in her tablecloth, smelling of her improvised “perfume,” lemon extract.

Seeing Grandma, Isis runs. She goes to a little creek, bewailing the whipping she is sure to get when she gets home. Deciding to die, she wades into the river. Instead of dying, she splashes and sings. The car from the carnival pulls up with the two men and the white lady. They ask for directions and offer to drive her back to her house. Along the way, Isis chatters to the white lady, Helen, about how she’s really a princess with gold and blue slippers.

Arriving at the house, Grandma complains about Isis and tells her she’s “gointuh ketchit f’um yo’ haid to yo’ heels m’lady.” Helen soothes the old lady by paying for her tablecloth plus extra and asking if she can take Isis to her hotel to dance for her, as she said she could “stand a little light today.” Grandma agrees.

In the car, Isis snuggles up to Helen, and one of the men, Harry, comments that it seems Helen has been adopted. Helen replies that she hopes so. The story ends with Helen saying, “I would like just a little of her sunshine to soak into my soul. I would like that a lot.”

Hurston uses African-American dialect for the black characters in her story, which she often did in her novels. This choice is one that some of her Harlem Renaissance contemporaries disagreed with, saying that Hurston’s work was fulfilling racist stereotypes. A folklorist as well as a novelist, Hurston thought it important to record speech patterns; her work was once again recognized in the late twentieth century.