Imitation of Life was originally published in 1933, but the first time I became aware of it was during the holiday break, when I happened to catch the 1934 movie adaptation. Fannie Hurst (October 18, 1889 – February 23, 1968) was a very popular and prolific writer during her lifetime, producing many novels and short stories. Despite poor reviews from the critics, her works were widely read, appealing especially to women, and the two movie versions of Imitation of Life, 1934 and 1959 versions, were both inducted into the National Film Registry lists. Fannie Hurst led a very interesting life, which all on its own, could be the subject of another article; but here, Imitation of Life is the focus and why the movie peaked my interest in this almost forgotten novel.
The copy of the book I read is a 2004 publication with the introduction by Daniel Itzkovitz of Stonehill College in North Easton, Massachusetts. This detailed and well written introduction of the novel, provides insight into the social implications at the time regarding racial identity and women’s issues. It also addresses the movie adaptions of the novel. and some of the more interesting aspects of Hurst’s personal life. It is an introduction that must be read to get a true appreciation of the basis of some of the attitudes and prejudices, during the early to mid-twentieth century, which permeate through the story.
It is precisely because of how those issues were covered in the movie, that led me to read the novel. While the movie does deviate from the novel in many ways, (probably to be more acceptable for the movie-going audience at the time), the premise however, remained the same which is based on the question posed in the third chapter: “What happens to girls thrown on their own resources?” Remembering that the general societal norm for girls at the time was that they would grow up and be taken care of by their husbands, or, if they had to go into the workforce, they should take jobs such as stenographers, nannies or teachers. In addition, racial issues and especially racial identity is another major theme addressed in both media forms, wading in, and not too cautiously, into the continuous difficult subject of being black in America.
The novel presents the main protagonist, Bea, as the young widowed mother of a blonde, blue-eyed daughter named Jessie. With the sudden death of her husband, she is now forced to find work to support her daughter and aging father. She decides to take on her deceased husband’s work as a maple syrup salesman, using his business cards which have “B. Pullman” as the representative. Since her clientele assumes she is a man, she is able to successfully continue and expand the business. With much of her time now spent working outside her home, she finds herself in need of a housekeeper and caregiver. As fate would have it, she meets Delilah looking for work, who is also a single mother. Delilah, a heavy-set black woman has a light-skinned daughter named Peola from her interracial marriage, is hired by Bea. Peola is a troubled child and struggles with her identity as she grows to hate her black ties. This coming together of two single mothers with similar needs but from different social stratas and circumstances, sets the stage for a story which often becomes a very graphic description of the different treatment given by society to women, and especially to black women, and how the author reinforces this by her portrayals of the women including the two daughters Jessie and Peola.
As the story progresses, Bea’s business grows to unimaginable success with diners opening across the country and with the face of Delilah as the symbol of good homemade hotcakes and home comfort. In the meantime, both girls continue to grow as friends, but at one point during a childish argument, Jessie calls Peola the vile “n” name unleashing further Peola’s rebellion at her background and her desire to be white. While Bea tells Jessie she was cruel and should apologize, Delilah believes Jessie should not apologize and Peola has to get use to this treatment and accept her background and who she is.
When the girls are grown, Jessie goes off to finishing school in Switzerland and Peola goes to Seattle where she meets and falls in love with a white boy who wants to marry her and take her to Bolivia where he will work as an engineer. He is unaware of her background knowing only that she is an orphan and to ensure he never discovers the truth through any children they might have, Peola “sterilizes” herself.
After not seeing her mother in years, Peola returns only to tell her mother that she never wants to see her again and that if she loves her, she has to give her up by letting her “pass” as white, meaning that even if there was a chance meeting in the future, she should not acknowledge her daughter and Peola would not acknowledge her mother. Delilah is heartbroken but finally agrees.
Bea reaches a point where she has had enough of success and now wants to sell her empire. She realizes she has worked so hard and gave up her own personal happiness for this success, making this discovery after falling in love with her accountant and confidant Frank, who is eight years younger than her. Their plans to marry almost go forward, except she catches Frank and Jessie together, and realizes something was going on between them. Before she has a chance to question Frank about the incident, Jessie announces that she and Frank are in love.
The novel implies, unlike today, women cannot have it all. To be successful in work, a woman had to sacrifice home life and family. Also, it is assumed, that women do not want careers, especially once they find love and can marry. This not only is the case for Bea, but another successful female friend of hers Virginia Eden, who leaves her beauty business empire to be a wife.
Imitation of Life portrays Delilah, as a stereotype of that time – the subservient “mammy” who was just happy to serve others, with no aspirations of her own, to accept her lot in life and try to teach her daughter to accept it as well. Peola tells her mother and Bea that they cannot possibly know how it is to look white and be black. That it would be better if she looked black as well, so passing as white would never be a question or an option. The difficult conversations between Delilah and Peola on being black were few in literature at that point, and the treatment by society towards them was demonstrated in one particular instance that stands out plainly. It occurs when one day after a sudden rainstorm, Delilha goes to Peola’s school to bring her a raincoat and galoshes. No one at the school, until that day, knew Peola was black. Distraught and sick from her mother revealing her secret to her classmates, she faints and a doctor is called in to see her. Thinking Peola is a white child, he see she is in need of rest away from school for a period of time. He strongly recommends she should not return to school and to receive her instruction at home. He then learns Peola is the daughter of the black woman he just sent out to get a bowl of hot water, after which he says, it was his mistake and to keep her in bed for the night and send her to school in the morning.
Finding a story from another time period such as Imitations of Life, can be an eye opener to what things were like back then, and it can also be an eye opener to how bad it was for certain classes of people and their everyday struggles to deal with life and the hand they were dealt. And while understanding that fictional novels are not history books with actual dates and events, we know they do reflect popular norms of the time periods they are written in. Societal values at the time of this novel can be evaluated to determine progress or lack there of, and also bring people to the realization of how much there is still left to do. And finally, when told well, a novel from the past that deals with serious issues, can bring insight and a deeper awareness to the same issues today – to know where they are coming from – that may otherwise, only be understood through media soundbites and the sensational aspects that appeal to the masses.