In the short story “Drenched in Light” by Zora Neale Hurston, the author appeals to a broad audience by disguising ethnology and an underlying theme of gender, race, and oppression with an ambiguous tale of a young black girl and the appreciation she receives from white people. Often writing to a double audience, Hurston had a keen ability to appeal to white and black readers in a clever way. “[Hurston] knew her white folks well and performed her minstrel shows tongue in cheek” (Meisenhelder 2).
Originally published in The Opportunity in 1924, “Drenched in Light” was Hurston’s first story to a national audience. Drenched in Light” is a story centered on a young girl named Isis Watts. Isis is faced with the oppressive nature of her grandmother, working constantly, and giving up her childhood. Every childish act Isis does is met with a beating from Grandma Potts. Being the only female child around increases the pressure she receives to be a lady.
When Grandma Potts wakes up to find Isis and her brother preparing to shave her, Isis runs out of the house in fear of another beating. After, Isis hears a band near her house and remembers that a carnival is in town.
With Grandma Potts out of sight and out of mind and nothing to look forward to besides a beating for the attempted shaving, Isis grabs the red tablecloth to use as a Spanish shawl and follows the band to town. Isis runs for the woods when Grandma Potts sees her dancing and entertaining a crowd of people.
Soon a white couple from the carnival find her playing in the water and promise to take her home and assist her in escaping Grandma’s wrath. Isis returns to an irate Grandmother, berating her with insults and frustrations about her brand new tablecloth being ruined.
The White lady offers Grandma $5 to replace the tablecloth and requests the company of Isis saying, “I want her to go on to the hotel and dance in that table cloth for me. I can stand a little light today”(Hurston 18). At first glance, the story just seems to be a simple tale of innocent “Isis the Joyful” and her naive relationship with a white couple. If you look beneath the planted stereotypes of Hurston’s racial manipulation, the story is in fact is a “complex interaction of race and gender in the lives of black women” (Meisenhelder 6).
Throughout the story Isis struggles not with not only whites, but her own identity and future as a black woman. It appears that Isis, a young vibrant black girl, has been purchased by a white woman for $5. This transaction feels a lot like slavery and at first we pity Isis to have been handed over by her Grandmother for such a small amount of money without hesitation or remorse. When the story is further dissected we realize that there is much more to little Isis than meets the eyes. “Everybody in the country, white and colored, knew little Isis Watts, Isis the Joyful” (Hurston 10).
Right now, Isis is adored by many. She is a mischievous little girl whose antics have earned her a place in the hearts of the entire town. As a young girl, she is not intimidating. The townspeople have not yet realized the power her spirit has over them. If she was able to entrance the entire town dancing in the street draped in a table cloth, imagine what power she might possess after becoming a woman. Ancient Egypt worshiped “Isis” as the goddess of fertility. She is the ideal mother and wife as well as the matron of nature and magic.
She was the “friend of slaves, sinners, artisans, the downtrodden, as well as listening to the prayers of the wealthy, maidens, aristocrats and rulers” (Clark 240). By giving Isis such an empowering name, Hurston suggests that she will grow up to be a strong, beautiful, and empowered black woman. Lillie Howard recognizes that “[Grandma Potts] keeps up a stern front to keep the girl in line, to perhaps break her spirit so that she will not fall victim to a world which had little tolerance for spirited blacks”(150). Grandma Potts may realize that those in town who adore and appreciate her granddaughter now may turn on her as she matures.
The story is full of conflict between Isis and her adversary Grandma Potts. Grandma represents tradition, instilling her principles at every turn, “[b]eing the only girl in the family, of course she must wash the dishes” (Hurston 11). Grandma believes that the girl’s place is at home, “within the community because [she] will never be appreciated by the dominant culture” (Williams 129). “You’se too ‘oomanish jumpin’ up in everybody’s face that pass” (Hurston 9). Isis is an oppressed female in the every sense of the word. She is forced to do chores while her male siblings are excused.
She takes beatings for things while her brothers get away unharmed. Isis rebels for her own sense of power, goofing off, doing cart wheels, and day dreaming as soon as Grandma Potts has her back turned. Once Grandma falls asleep, Isis assumes the authority in the house. Shaving Grandma’s “straggling beard” (Hurston 12) includes the “mythic overtones of the cutting of another’s hair to gain control” (Davis 275). Isis’s behavior is consistent with Zora Neale Hurston’s ongoing themes of “the quest for female empowerment in a patriarchal world” (Davis 275).
In this brief moment, Isis has a chance to push back against her Grandmother for all of her rules. Although she means her no harm, the act itself is literally taking a dominant hand to her Grandmother. This act of empowerment proves that little Isis Watts is more than capable of living up to her namesake. The white couple brings another interesting twist to the story. Susan Meisenhelder finds the white couple’s response to Isis condescending, “blind to her internal aspirations and frustration they see her only as ‘Isis the Joyful’, the carefree and ever-dancing black” (6).
They seem to have no genuine concern for Isis, even when she explains that she would rather kill herself than go back and be beaten again. They keep her for their own amusement, mockingly naming her “Madame Tragedy”. For Grandma Potts the decision to let Isis go with strangers is simple on two levels. “Grandma Potts seems to be the natural product of the slavery tradition. Grandma bowing and dissembling, happily turns her granddaughter over to the woman … because the woman is white, and a member of that ruling class whom Grandma has grown accustomed to obliging without question” (Howard 150).
Ironically, Grandma Potts is easily paid off by someone who would normally be seen as the traditional oppressor. Historically speaking we believe that a white person would be the oppressor over a black person. However in this situation, Helen is the one to save Isis from her Grandmother. “This exaggerates the theme of individual relationships as a White person saves an African-American person from oppression rather than subjecting her to it” (Williams). Unlike her grandmother, white people represent freedom to Isis.
The Robinson brothers, white cattleman, often let Isis ride with them to get away from the “danger zone” (Hurston 10). As she rode through the sugar cane or tried to crack the bull whip she briefly forgot her life. Susan Meisenhelder interprets that “this seemingly insignificant vignette is important for understanding Isis’s response to the white woman, for she has already learned from these men the potential benefits white patronage offers a black girl”(7). Isis is a dreamer. “She wore trailing robes, golden slippers with blue bottoms. She rode white horses with flaring pink nostrils to the horizon”(Hurston 12).
She dreamed of leaving behind her chores, dirty clothes, and beatings and heading for the “edge of the world”. She continues to do so even with Grandma Potts’ oppression. Hurston affirms that black people have the right to dream. At the same time she shows what Isis must face to not only attain her dreams, but keep them alive. Isis needs support, and it is implied that the future of the culture is dependent on its dreamers. Robert Bone suggests that at much deeper level the story suggests that in Zora Neale Hurston’s unconscious mind, having access to that experience was the equivalent to being white. Hurston makes much of the fantasies of Isis, and it is clear from “Drenched in Light” that one of her most potent fantasies – imagined as a princess, wearing stately robes and riding a white horse to the end of the earth- was that of being white herself” (136-137). With the white woman’s offer to go dance at the hotel in Maitland, Isis no longer has to dream. She has escaped the brutal beating she was due for her behavior that afternoon, left the rake in the yard, and dirty dishes in the sink.
Every day she has sat perched on the gate post looking “yearningly up the gleaming shell road that lead to Orlando” (Hurston 9). She once dreamed of horses taking her away, but now she sits in a car leading into that same horizon, still wearing her red table cloth which she know owns thanks to Helen. She is happy and unaware of her intentions. The white woman sees Isis as joyful and charming, but she will be exploited, absorbed and discarded. Helen, the white woman, “put her arm around the red draped figure at her side and drew it close until she felt the warm puffs of the child’s breath against her side.
She looked hungrily ahead of her… ‘I would like just a little of her sunshine to soak into my soul. I would like that a lot’” (Hurston 18). Like a parasite, Helen is living off of Isis. She devours her sunshine, drenched in her light. “Although Hurston’s story is focused on Isis, she named it ‘Drenched in Light’. ‘Drench’ means to administer a large dose of medicine. This implies that Isis heals people” (Williams 129). It remains to be seen at what cost this healing will have on Isis’s future as a strong, beautiful, and empowered black woman. Drenched in Light” is not only an interesting story of Isis Watts and her journey through a struggle of oppression, race, and gender, it is a self-portrait. Like Isis, Hurston herself was a dreamer of horizons past Orlando. She even gave Isis a harsh-mouthed grandmother like her own, with the very same name. Almost completely autobiographical, “Drenched in Light” was a declaration of identity, individuality, and independence. While other writers of the Harlem Renaissance struggled with their identity in life and as an artist, “Drenched in Light” revealed that Zora Hurston of Eatonville already decided to be herself (Williams 129).