28 pages 56 minutes read

Zora Neale Hurston

Drenched in Light

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1924

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Summary: “Drenched in Light”

Zora Neale Hurston’s “Drenched in Light” is set in 1920s Florida and follows a single day of a young girl named Isis Watts, or Isie. The setting of a small town right outside of Orlando resembles Hurston’s own childhood in Eatonville. Published in 1924 by Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, “Drenched in Light” debuted early in Hurston’s career and includes some of her recurring themes dealing with race, gender, and identity. Hurston went on to become a major writer in the Harlem Renaissance, publishing more than 50 works of literature in her 35-year career as a writer, anthropologist, and folklorist.

This guide refers to “Drenched in Light” as it appears in Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick, a short story collection published by HarperCollins in 2020.

Content Warning: The source text contains instances of domestic violence.

“Drenched in Light” is written in two parts, and its third-person point of view is limited to Isis’s perspective.

At the beginning of the story, young Isis is sitting on a fence post watching cars drive by on their way to Orlando while Grandmother Potts chastises her for not doing her chores, specifically raking the yard. The narrator describes the scenery, including the white shell road in front of the home where Isis lives with her grandmother, brother, and father. Grandma Potts says no one wants Isis to wave and run after them as they drive along the road, but Isis, who is saddened by her grandmother’s remarks, thinks of the Robinson brothers—local cattlemen—who always stop to give her a ride on their horses. Just as she thinks of them, Jim Robinson appears on his horse, and Isis jumps on the back of his saddle for a ride.

Before they pass the house’s line of sight, Grandma Potts reemerges to ensure Isis is doing her chores. Isis must leave Jim and begins her tasks, lying to her grandmother that she was in the backyard the whole time. After she rakes everything from the yard under the porch, Grandma Potts scolds Isis for how she behaves. According to her grandmother, Isis does not behave appropriately for a young girl, and she reminds her of the domestic duties she must carry out for the family.

Shortly thereafter, Isis must wash the dishes, and Grandma Potts sits down in her rocking chair to knit and inevitably takes her daily nap. During her nap, Isis lays underneath a table and imagines what life would be like in a fairytale. She envisions herself as different people with elegant clothes fit for royalty and riding off to the horizon on horses.

She then studies her sleeping grandmother and fixates on the long, gray hairs curling on her Grandma Pott’s chin. Isis takes it upon herself to shave her grandmother’s “whiskers.” After stumbling upon her plan, Isis’s brother, Joel, argues with her over who will do the actual shaving, and eventually, they strike a compromise: Joel lathers the soap on their grandmother’s face before Isis goes in with the razor. However, Grandma Potts wakes up before Joel can finish lathering the soap, and she runs to get their father, whose razor Isis has stolen. Scared of the consequences, Isis runs outside and hides under the house to prevent “the whipping she knew would come” (49). She quickly gets distracted by the sound of music from a marching band traveling down the road. Being a gifted dancer, Isis feels compelled to follow the band to the carnival.

Running back to the house to change her clothes, Isis steals her grandmother’s new tablecloth, drapes it around her, and places a flower in her hair. Isis creates a spectacle of herself, and the surrounding adults and children clap for her as she dances to the music. During her dance, two white men and a lady come into the narrative who are “suppressing mirth discretely behind gloved hands” (51). Isis waves to them before carrying on with her dancing. When Grandma Potts arrives and sees Isis wearing her new tablecloth, Isis flees into the woods.

The second part begins with Isis approaching a creek, wading in the water as she decides to die. However, she starts to splash in the water and sing just as she hears a car pull over on the side of the road. Pulling up close, the two men and the white lady, Helen, ask for directions to Maitland, a nearby town. Isis decides she does not have any reason to die, and the group drives her home on their way to Maitland. During the car ride, Isis tells Helen about her daydreams of being a princess and living in a fairy tale, sharing stories about Hercules, dragons, and riding horses to the horizon.

Once they arrive at her home, Grandma Potts is waiting, and she immediately reprimands Isis for ruining her tablecloth and running away. Helen asks the grandmother to take it easy on Isis and requests that Isis accompany her and the two men to a hotel to dance with them. After giving Grandma Potts five dollars for the ruined tablecloth and Isis’s company, she agrees to let Isis go with them.

Helen claims Isis is a “joy itself” and that she’s “drenched in light” (54). She enjoys Isis’s messy hair and free spirit.

In the car, Isis and Helen snuggle up together. At the end of the story, one of the men, Harry, jokes that Isis has adopted Helen, and she draws Isis to her side as they ride off. The story ends with Helen “hungrily” remarking: “I would like just a little of her sunshine to soak into my soul. I need it” (54).

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