Teaching Notes: Imitation of Life

Fannie Hurst’s 1933 Imitation of Life is quintessential mass market chick lit. Or at least it was when it was first published. It has undergone something of a transformation in reputation since scholars have become more interested in the sentimental literature tradition. Imitation of Life tells the story of a white woman (Bea) and a black woman (Delilah) who live together, along with their daughters Jessie and Peola. 200px-Imitation_of_life_bookDelilah exchanges childcare, cooking, and housekeeping for her room and board while Bea runs the business her dead husband left her. Eventually Delilah’s recipes and cooking skills, as well as her likeness, form the basis of a chain of restaurants Bea starts. The novel follows the women’s lives as the business takes off and the daughters grow up. (If you’ve seen the movies, the book’s plot is different, although apparently the 1934 one is much closer to the book than the 1959 one. I haven’t seen the movies.)

The richest thematic issue in this book is consumption. Literal consumption of food is tied to the figurative consumption of Delilah, since her image appears on the restaurants and the food. The book itself is also an object to be consumed, especially since conversations about the status of a book (high culture vs. pop culture) often employ terms such as “taste” and “palate.” Consumption of food is also, predictably, tied to mothering and nurturing: Delilah is the good mother and the excellent cook, while Bea is the bad mother who doesn’t cook. Consumption in this book is also intricately tied to commodification, and to the body (especially the black, female body).

Other issues to teach with this book:

  • Certain authors have quite variable statuses over time. Like Harriet Beecher Stowe, Dashiell Hammett, and Philip K. Dick, Fannie Hurst wrote popular literature that has since come to be regarded as “classic” or at least suitable for scholarly attention. What is it about this book that encourages such a transformation? What will become of present day popular authors?
  • Although it is definitely not a high modernist book, Imitation of Life does display some elements of literary modernism, such as free indirect style and stream of consciousness. What is the relationship between high and mass culture not only in the book’s reception but also in its content and style?
  • In many ways this novel is a cautionary tale about women (especially mothers) trying to “have it all.” Is it possible for a book written before second-wave feminism to be post-feminist?
  • How does this novel’s treatment of relationships between white and black characters compare to those found in other sentimental literature (going back to Uncle Tom’s Cabin and forward to The Help)? Does Bea exploit Delilah? Does Hurst?
  • Although passing stories were familiar at the time of this book’s publication, they were almost exclusively stories of racial passing. Imitation of Life also features gender passing and a broader theme of surface performance versus authentic selves. How do gender and race compare and differ in this novel as they play out through passing stories?
  • In many ways this novel is about the rise of a business. What does Imitation of Life have to say about capitalism, and how does capitalism inform the book’s style as well as its content?