Originally published in 1911, The Quest of the Silver Fleece was the first novel to come from world-famous sociologist and civil-rights leader W.E.B. Du Bois. A controversial title of its time, the novel chronicles the complex interactions between Northern financing and Southern politics as it follows the story of free-spirited Zora, child of a Southern swamp, and her romance with Yankee-educated Bles, who will eventually face the opportunity to claim political power through corrupt means. In the middle of it all is the silver fleece, a crop of cotton rich with meaning and symbolism.
In the tradition of other incendiary novels that explore market forces at the turn of the century, such as Frank Norris’s The Pit and Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, The Quest of the Silver Fleece was seen as an “economic study” by Du Bois, yet it was also a romantic and otherwordly saga, loosely based on the Greek myth from which it takes its name. Using literary conventions to expose and oppose America’s views on race, Du Bois presents a sprawling and provocative work that continues to engage readers and inspire debate among literary scholars today.
Excerpted from The Quest of the Silver Fleece by W.E.B. Du Bois. Copyright © 2004 by W.E.B. Dubois. Excerpted by permission of Broadway Books, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
W.E.B. DU BOIS (1868–1963) is regarded as one of the most influential Black leaders of the twentieth century, and his seminal work, The Souls of Black Folk, first published in 1903, is considered one of the most important works in the African American literary canon. Du Bois later went on to help create the premier civil rights organization, the NAACP, and moved to New York in 1910 to found The Crisis, the association’s magazine.
1. By the end of the novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece reveals itself as a tale largely concerned with exploring the complex issues of morality in American life. Considering W.E.B. Du Bois’s seeming affinity for the power of the “Word” throughout the story, how would you assess his characterization of Zora’s mother, the witch Elspeth? Described as “old...black and wrinkled with yellow fangs, red hanging lips and wicked eyes,” Elspeth potentially represents many things for Du Bois racially. What are the racial implications of her crude characterization? What is to be made of the nature and fact of her death? How important is her ghostly “return” toward the end of the book?
2. As a place of both oppression and redemption for Zora, the swamp is a contradictory location throughout the novel. What is the significance of Zora’s early departure from its confines? Is her flight to Miss Smith’s school and ultimately to the North a necessary one? What is Du Bois’s interest in staging her triumphant return to the school, the South, and the swamp? Why must the cabin of Elspeth be made to “tremble, sigh and disappear” from its boundaries by novel’s end?
3. At the outset, Bles and Zora quickly forge what seems to be an important bond. What is the significance of their differences? What larger issues of black life loom at the heart of their coupling?
4. The romantic pairing of Zora and Bles is soon ruptured when it is revealed that Zora has lost her “innocence” and is not “pure” due to her early sexual compromise by her master. Why is the issue of purity so important to Bles? How does gender figure in his quick and summary refusal ofZora as a suitable partner? How are traditional conceptions of female virture complicated by Du Bois’s representation of Zora’s and other black girls’ brutal violation? What is Du Bois suggesting about the nature and character of the institution of slavery?
5. Zora’s beauty and intelligence are the subject of much speculation and interest throughout. Compare her characterization in the novel’s early stages to her depiction toward its end. What differences emerge? How are her training at Miss Smith’s school and her relationship to Mrs. Vanderpool significant? What is Du Bois suggesting about the role of education in ending black suffering? Why is it important that Du Bois has placed a black woman at the center of this novel of black pain and resistance?
6. Through different means, Bles and Zora acquire knowledge and education and emerge as vanguards in their community. What issues of class are at work here? How significant is language? How does Du Bois’s famous notion of “The Talented Tenth” figure in the novel?
7. A central figure throughout, Miss Sarah Smith is presented as a white woman whose “noble efforts” over three decades to maintain a “Negro school” confirm her commitment to the upward mobility of black people. Looking at her expressions in defense of black humanity and those declaring her contempt for white exploitation and superiority, how would you describe her notions of race in America? Has she succeeded in transcending its pitfalls? Or does she continue to support some notions of white subjectivity and superiority?
8. As a title, The Quest of the Silver Fleeceis well chosen. Not only is the novel concerned with that special crop of cotton Zora and Bles succeed in producing in the swamp, but it is more generally interested in examining the historically central role of cotton in determining the economic future of the nation’s inhabitants. What is the connection between race and capitalism in the novel? What issues of morality does Du Bois bring up in this context? What is to be made of Bles’s negotiation of this complexterrain? How significant is Zora’s socially conscious economic venture toward the end of the book?
9. At the moment of his death, Colonel Cresswell grants Emma, his mulatto and previously unacknowledged granddaughter, a measure of financial legacy. Two hundred thousand dollars and the Cresswell home and plantation are later revealed as bequeathed to Miss Smith’s school. What is the significance of Colonel Cresswell’s deathbed generosity? How do you view the issue of white philanthropy throughout the novel?
10. Upon his return to the South after his “failure” in Washington, Bles asks Zora to marry him and she refuses. Why does Zora decline this offer? What accounts for her change of heart by novel’s end? Why is it significantthat ultimatelysheasks for Bles’s hand in marriage?