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Have You Considered My Servant?: Dunbar’s Sport of the Gods

Paul Laurence Dunbar (1872-1906)Many people, reading the story of Job from the Hebrew Bible, find it troubling how the tale plays out. After Job loses everything, including all of his children, the story seems to suggest that its all better when the hero’s fortunes turn around:

12 The Lord blessed the latter part of Job’s life more than the former part. He had fourteen thousand sheep, six thousand camels, a thousand yoke of oxen and a thousand donkeys. 13 And he also had seven sons and three daughters. (Job 42:12-13)

Happily, if for nothing else than for his literary reputation, Paul Laurence Dunbar’s Job-esque novel, The Sport of the Gods, does not end on such an unbelievably upbeat note. Of course, in fairness to the poet behind Job, the point of that work is not so much in the framing narrative as in the philosophical discourse inside that frame. The point of Dunbar’s narrative is not so obvious.

Early in the novel, we find Berry Hamilton and his free Black family living a positive, happy life in the American South. Although Berry and his wife Fannie do not come out of emancipation suddenly behaving like 21st-century college graduates, they do raise two articulate capable children. Clearly, it seems, the next generation of Hamiltons will fare better than the parents. That, as fate would have it, changes when Berry is falsely accused of stealing a considerable sum from his employer’s brother.

With Berry in prison and the community attitude foursquare against the Hamiltons, the remaining family relocates to New York. In relatively short order, all three of them move in negative directions. Fannie, convinced that a prison term gives her a divorce, feels compelled to marry an unpleasant man. Her son, Joe, winds up a drunkard, completely in the thrall of a captivating woman whom he murders when she refuses to endure his folly. Kitty Hamilton, the daughter, flourishes as a singer but allows her character to erode–at least in the view of her mother.

In the end, a helping of Karma is served as Berry is exonerated and freed. Still, he comes to New York only to find his wife married to another, his daughter on the road and absent, and his son incarcerated for life. Berry summarizes his experience powerfully.

He turned to the door, murmuring, “My wife gone, Kit a nobody, an’ Joe, little Joe, a murderer, an’ then I–I–ust to pray to Gawd an’ call him ‘Ouah Fathah.'” He laughed hoarsely. It sounded like nothing Fannie had ever heard before. “Don’t, Be’y, don’t say dat. Maybe we don’t un’erstan’.” Her faith still hung by a slender thread, but his had given way in that moment. “No, we don’t un’erstan’,” he laughed as he went out of the door. “We don’t un’erstan’.”

Berry, devastated, vows to kill his rival but delays that act and then finds that the man has been killed in a fight. The former employer, Maurice Oakley, is reduced to madness in the wake of the revelation that the money was squandered by Oakley’s brother rather than stolen by Berry, and the Hamilton parents return to the site of their previous happiness to live out their lives.

Still, Karma, as Dunbar presents it, is a harsher mistress than the Yahweh-dispensed justice enjoyed by the quickly forgetful Job. Living in their old cottage, they can hear the insane wailing of a broken Maurice Oakley.

It was not a happy life, but it was all that was left to them, and they took it up without complaint, for they knew they were powerless against some Will infinitely stronger than their own.

Job, like Berry Hamilton, never knew the cause of his problems. But as we read Job, we gain insight as to that cause, something that Dunbar never gives us. Instead, we see Berry Hamilton, bruised and battered, enduring the vagaries of life, slings and arrows that both that capitalized “Will” and the book’s title suggest are not simply the luck of a heartless, deterministic universe.

Posted in American Literature, Realism.

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