Spunk Summary

Zora Neale Hurston

Spunk

  • Plot overview and analysis written by an experienced literary critic.
  • Full study guide for this title currently under development.
  • To be notified when we launch a full study guide, please contact us.

Spunk Summary

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides that feature detailed chapter summaries and analysis of major themes, characters, quotes, and essay topics.  This one-page guide includes a plot summary and brief analysis of Spunk by Zora Neale Hurston.

Spunk is Zora Neale Hurston’s third published short story and helped launch her career. An influential magazine called Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life encouraged Hurston to submit the story to their fiction writing contest; Spunk won the second place prize. As a result, the story was published in The New Negro: An Interpretation, an anthology of fiction, poetry and essays describing African-American life in the 1920’s. Hurston’s success with the story cemented her role as a preeminent writer in the Harlem Renaissance. The setting is a rural, all-black town in the South much like Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida. The story centers around a love triangle between a confident man, a weak husband, and his cheating wife.

The story begins with Walter Thomas and Elijah Mosely sitting on the porch of a store. They notice that resident Lena Kanty walks off with “giant of a brown-skinned man” – Spunk, who is not her husband. The men at the store begin talking about the sight, and Spunk himself. They agree that Spunk is a fearless man that takes what he wants. One man describes a time at the sawmill when Spunk bravely took over the operation of a circle-saw after a coworker had just died operating it.

In the middle of the conversation, Lena’s husband Joe Kanty walks into the store. Joe is nothing like Spunk; he is a timid, anxious man that doesn’t defend himself. He knows Lena is having an affair with Spunk, but he’s too afraid to do something about it. The group warns Joe that his marriage is in trouble and he’s in danger of being cuckolded. Elijah in particular tells Joe that the pair of them just passed the store, and that he could do something about it now. Joe pulls a razor out of his pocket and leaves the store in the direction of Lena and Spunk.

The men continue gossiping about the love triangle, surmising that Joe would not fare well in a fight against Spunk. Spunk, after all, operates the dreaded circle-saw which takes a great deal of courage and strength. In the middle of the conversation, the group hears a gunshot from outside. Spunk walks in a few minutes later with a frightened Lena and tells the group that Joe attacked him from behind with a razor and had to kill him. The group of men accuse Elijah for convincing Joe to act, which led to his death.

Spunk eventually goes to trial but is let off on self-defense. He moves in with Lena and they plan to marry, but a number of odd things begin to happen. A black bobcat circles their house one night and howls. Spunk goes out to shoot the animal, but the bobcat stands on its hind legs and stares at Spunk. Frightened, Spunk goes back inside and is convinced that the bobcat is Joe coming back to haunt him and prevent the wedding.

The encounter with the bobcat rattles Spunk and he loses his confidence, trembling in fear wherever he goes. This trembling leads to Spunk having an accident at the mill. Normally an expert at the saw, Spunk accidentally falls on the saw and is cut badly. He swears that he felt a push of some sort and believes it was Joe’s spirit that pushed him.  Spunk dies from his wounds moments later.

The town holds a funeral for Spunk. Lena grieves, but the town secretly begins to gossip about the next man she might take up with.

Spunk is told from an omniscient third-person narration, but much of the story is told through dialogue. The gossiping men of the town are especially important to the narrative as their dialogue reveals much about the three main characters and their actions. Hurston decided to use colloquial English that reflected the way people spoke in the South at the time, a strategy she often used in later writing. While the strategy accurately portrayed the dialects of the time and place, critics debated whether her use of dialectal speech hindered black efforts to assimilate into mainstream society or realistically portrayed the poverty and regionalism of the southern black experience.

The main theme of the story is, like the title, ‘spunk,’ a slang term meaning feistiness or liveliness. This is Spunk’s main personality quirk, that he’s unafraid and spirited. Because of his masculine ‘spunk,’ he wins over the wife of another man. But does he win in the end? For all his spunk, he can’t overcome the superstitious fear that Joe has returned to haunt him. Perhaps it’s this superstition that kills him in the end, leading to the next theme: cowardice. Throughout the story, the townsmen describe Joe as the cowardly one instead of Spunk. By the end of the story, the roles are reversed. Spunk is spooked by what he believes to be the ghost of Joe, who is now the confident and assured presence with spunk.