Discussing “The Back Room”

You know, I am falling in love with Zora Neale Hurston's writing more and more as I read her short stories. This week I want to talk with you about her story “The Back Room”.

If this story had a sound track it would be the Billy Strayhorn song – Lush Life. The mood of that song is the same one you get when you read this short story. In this story, Hurston introduces us to another group of Harlemites. A different group of Black people who migrated from the south to make a life in the mecca called Harlem. The people of this story are high society, accomplished, professional, at the top of the social ladder. Hurston shows us that life for the people of Harlem was not all struggle and poverty.


Lilya Barkman (formally Lillie Barker) is the central character of this story. Lilya is facing a dilemma that we all must face. Age and its consequences. Lilya is a beautiful woman who realizes that time is beginning to affect the power she has due to her appearance. Lilya has lived a good life because she was the prize no man could catch and marry. However, she realizes that there are younger women coming up behind her that will soon take the interest away from her.

Lilya has to make a decision about her future and that involves selecting a man to marry for the next stage of her life. Lilya puts a scheme in place and drama develops quickly. Hearts are won, hearts are broken and true motives are revealed.

My Thoughts

When you read this story, you will be surprised because the characters and setting are so different from characters in the previous stories. Yet, you still get the feeling for the style and joy Black people in the upper class had.

I enjoyed this story because it shows the writing chops Hurston has. Her range is not limited to one type of story and one type of characters. She is not stuck talking about the people who sit on Joe Starks' store porch. While the characters in the story might be transplants from the south, they are now firmly rooted in Harlem and the life that is possible there.

In my discussion of The Country in the Woman with Alicia from the Pretty Brown Eye Reader YouTube channel, I learned from Alicia that Hurston did not have positive views of marriage and you can see a hint of those feeling in the words of Lilya. Lilya avoided marriage as long as she could so she could maintain freedom.

Lilya is a character I could see a whole book built around. This story is just one of the many rich stories that encompass her life. Lilya is a smart woman who uses her mind and beauty to survive and thrive in a world that seeks to limit her. I can see a little of Zora Neale Hurston in Lilya.

Hey, after you read this story, look for Sarah Vaughn's version of Lush Life or a version performed by Duke Ellington's orchestra. Let me know if you get the same feel from both the story and the song. I would definitely recommend that you read this story. Hurston is such a great story teller and painter of pictures with words.

More discussions of Hurston's short stories.