A Lie and A Myth: Defining Folklore in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Mules and Men”

Mules and MenMules and Men
by Zora Neale Hurston
Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2008
ISBN: 978-0061350177
368 p.p.

A Lie and A Myth: Defining Folklore in Mules and Men

A lie, as most would see it, is an intentional omission or misconstruction of truth. A myth is a story that has been passed down through many generations explaining some sort of phenomenon or idea. In a way, a lie and a myth work together in order to convey a specific message—what that message may be varies, but they nonetheless go together for better or for worse. This suggests the paradoxical idea that these myths are lies based on life events. In other words, the stories themselves have morals that are often layered and veiled by other circumstances that are not true to the original stories. Furthermore, this juxtaposition also suggests the idea that a myth seems false due to the continuous interpretations narrators voice over in each telling. It may seem strange to say that a lie and a myth work together to convey a message but these two concepts work together in different degrees. As seen in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Mules and Men, the myths that Hurston collects are dismissed as “lies” by the local people of Eatonville, Florida. Though they see these stories as lies by the characters, Hurston acknowledges that there is a possibility that parts of the story could be false, though she argues that they are a piece of history that must be recorded nonetheless. Thus, the varying levels of “lying” (as mentioned by the characters) within a myth demonstrate that the way stories are understood are contingent upon perspective; not all stories are inherently lies, but some form of lying is involved since stories are objective and they bend truths that serve for different reasons in the novel. The variations, as well, transform classic and new tales into modernist literature.

The myths and folklore of Eatonville, though they are old tales, are turned into modernist literature. This occurs when stories are traditionally handed down orally and turned into printed literature. Hurston’s decision to make these stories into works of literature distorted the traditional form of oral stories, since they were transcribed as literature; this distortion from the oral to the literary is what classifies Hurston’s work as modernist literature because Hurston challenges the norm of what literature should be. The fact that the myths are referred to as “big old lies,” by characters like B. Moseley, is also modernist because there is a shift in the way these stories are looked upon. In other words, legends were long ago taken as absolute truth (even if they were far fetched), but when they were narrated they were told with a persuasive tone of absolute truth. But now people acknowledge the fact that elements of the stories can be false, especially in printed works because that vocal tone of certainty is lost even though it is recreated by the author. This is important to note because in the novel, Hurston writes about her interactions with locals and then proceeds to introduce us to the myths. This is can be considered modernist because Hurston could have written the book just as a collection of folklore, but instead included her experiences as well. Clearly she combines realistic elements to her work, but it is her combination of the fiction and reality that makes her work modern.

Hurston layers her work with separate yet unified voices; while she tells the tale of her time in Eatonville, she embodies the voices of the people she engages in dialogue with. Simultaneously, the people that tell her stories also assume a voice of authority when telling the folktales. This is important because it demonstrates how Hurston plays with modernism and shows how layering voices is a variation of “lying.” This becomes evident when Calvin states, “Lemme tell you ‘bout John and dis frog: It was night and Ole Massa sent John…” The first layer of voices consists of Hurston writing down recollections of her conversations with Calvin. The second layer consists of Calvin as himself speaking, while the third is the narration of the story in Calvin’s voice. When put together, it seems as if Hurston is the only dominating voice, but when the layers of voices are considered it becomes clear that traditional forms of realism are broken because multiple voices are combined. Furthermore, before the reader is presented with the story, Calvin or Moseley regard the stories as false, and warns Hurston that they are lies. It is because of this, that as the myth is being told, the reader is well aware that the story is a work of fiction. Hurston also contributes to this as she initially states that she comes to Eatonville to collect old stories and tales. With this, the multiple layers of voices in the recollection of the myth help convey the idea that the stories are lies, as Moseley would say. It is essential to note that all of the stories that are told should not be judged as fiction because, like every story, it is based on some or complete form of truth.

It is important to say that lying—in this context—should not be considered a bad thing. When reading the novel, the constant reference to myths as lies sparked a curiosity as to why myths would be referred to as lies. In this case, the definition of a lie varies because the characters are not being dishonest whatsoever. They openly acknowledge that in telling stories there is some form of white lie. When they recall their stories, they enter a world that is not contemporary to theirs and tell the tale as if it were currently happening by recreating moments as a sort of fiction, but a harmless fiction based on truths. The truth could be moral, societal, historical etc. but the myth or the folklore itself is layered by voices and other circumstances that may or may not coincide with the truth.

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Zora Neale HurstonZora Neale Hurston is considered one of the pre-eminent writers of twentieth-century African-American literature. Hurston was closely associated with the Harlem Renaissance and has influenced such writers as Ralph Ellison, Toni Morrison, Gayle Jones, Alice Walker, and Toni Cade Bambara. In 1975, Ms. Magazine published Alice Walker’s essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” reviving interest in the author. Hurston’s four novels and two books of folklore resulted from extensive anthropological research and have proven invaluable sources on the oral cultures of African America.

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