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  • "'Tain't no tragedy unless you make it one":Imitation of Life, Melodrama, and the Mulatta
  • Molly Hiro (bio)

"I just moved here. My name is Maureen Peal. What's yours?"


"Pecola? Wasn't that the name of the girl in Imitation of Life?"

"I don't know. What is that?"

"The picture show, you know. Where this mulatto girl hates her mother 'cause she is black and ugly but then cries at the funeral. It was real sad. Everybody cries in it. Claudette Colbert too."

—Toni Morrison, The Bluest Eye, 1970

Sometimes, when I feel as though I cannot stand this agony, this torture, this scorn, I'm utterly glad that Peola did what she did. Sometimes when Fannie Hurst is engraved deeply in my mind, I say to myself while I am washing dishes or getting dinner, "I wonder how Peola and her white husband got along. I wonder if he ever found out."

—from a fan letter to Fannie Hurst, 1934

The epigraphs with which I begin demonstrate the remarkable emotional staying power of Peola, the young mixed-race character in Fannie Hurst's 1933 novel Imitation of Life and the two film adaptations titled the same. Yet even a cursory glance shows that Peola appeals quite differently to one of these speakers than to the other. In The Bluest Eye, Maureen Peal remembers Imitation of Life for its power to make "everybody cr[y]" along with Peola, who herself expresses regret for "hat[ing] her mother" by "cr[ying] at the funeral" (67). Here, Peola's fate—what makes the story "real sad"—communicates a clear moral [End Page 93] lesson through a shared emotional experience, but in the second quotation, Peola is made to seem far less accessible, her fate far more open-ended. The anonymous Fannie Hurst fan imagines Peola as someone to wonder about, and perhaps even one day to emulate; for her, Peola's story provides a means of escaping the pain of her own life, at least in her private musings.

What can account for these divergent reactions? First, the speakers behind these reactions come from starkly different subject positions. The white child in Morrison's novel (herself there to make a point about racial hierarchy) looks to Imitation of Life to confirm, through a cathartic emotional response, what she already takes as given about blackness (it equals ugliness). For the African American woman (she begins her letter "I know Peola . . . for I am a Negro" [qtd. in Kroeger 204]), on the other hand, Peola functions not as symbol, but as a person, whose story is still unfolding. Just as important, the epigraphs represent reactions to two different versions of Imitation of Life. Maureen Peal speaks of the 1934 film adaptation, and her response epitomizes a popular and critical opinion about Imitation of Life: that, as a melodrama of race, it deploys melodrama's generic structures to reinforce racial meanings. But in her letter to Hurst, the African American woman demonstrates that the novel version helped her to imagine an alternative to those same meanings. Indeed, the film versions of Imitation of Life—which have been the subject of far more critical attention than the novel—each effected the same small but significant change to Peola's story as Hurst originally wrote it, a revision that has received scant attention from readers and critics alike.1 John Stahl's film adaptation, released in 1934, closely followed the original, whereas Douglas Sirk's more famous 1959 adaptation made many significant changes, but the scene—referred to by Maureen Peal—in which Peola throws herself sobbing over her mother's coffin in the middle of the funeral is virtually identical in both films, and functions in each as its emotional climax.2 While the light-skinned Peola time and again rejects her mother (the darker-skinned Delilah) when she is alive, scheming instead to pass as white, her tearful and contrite return in the end fixes her identity as black in an emotionally-charged public scene. In the Hurst original, though, Peola never does return to her mother's funeral—and indeed, does not even know her mother has died—having departed...


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pp. 93-113
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