“’Tain’t no tragedy unless you make it one”: Imitation of Life, Melodrama, and the Mulatta

“’Tain’t no tragedy unless you make it one”: Imitation of Life, Melodrama, and the Mulatta

Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature, Culture, and Theory
Volume 66, Number 4, Winter 2010
pages 93-113
E-ISSN: 1558-9595, Print ISSN: 0004-1610

Molly Hiro, Assistant Professor of English
University of Portland, Portland, Oregon

“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 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…

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