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The story is a look at early 20th-century American race relations. In Hurst’s novel, Bea Chipley is a quiet, mousey, Atlantic City teenage girl whose mother passes away, leaving her to keep house for her father (Mr. Chipley) and Benjamin Pullman, a boarder who peddles ketchup and relish on the boardwalk and sells maple syrup door-to-door on the side. Within a year, her father and Pullman decide that she should marry Pullman, and shortly thereafter Bea becomes pregnant. Her father suffers an incapacitating stroke, confining him to a wheelchair, and Pullman is killed in a train accident. Bea is left to fend for herself, her father, and her infant daughter Jessie.
Bea takes in boarders to defray expenses and assumes Benjamin’s trade of door-to-door maple syrup sales, using his «B. Pullman» business cards to avoid the ubiquitous sexism of 1910s’ America. To care for her infant daughter and disabled father, Bea Pullman hires Delilah, a black mammy figure, who brings with her a light-skinned infant daughter named Peola. Delilah is a master waffle-maker, and Bea capitalizes on Delilah’s skills to open first a single «B. Pullman» waffle restaurant, from which she eventually builds a nation-wide and then international chain of highly successful restaurants. Frank Flake, a striking young man intent on entering medical school, becomes Bea’s business manager.
In the meantime, Jessie and Peola have grown up side by side, and Peola is painfully aware of the tension between her white appearance and black racial identity. She continually attempts to pass as white, and Delilah, equally pained by the tension, continually attempts to develop in her a sense of pride about her blackness. Eventually Peola severs all ties, marries a white man, and moves to Seattle, causing such pain in Delilah that Delilah passes away not too long after.
As Delilah is slowly dying, Bea is falling in love with Flake, who is eight years her junior. Jessie, by now in her late teens, comes home for a visit just as Bea is planning on selling the «B. Pullman» chain to marry Flake. The three are mired in a love triangle in the last dozen or so pages, resulting in a tragic ending.
Literary significance and criticism
Hurst was a Jewish white woman and supporter of feminist causes. She also supported African Americans in their struggle for greater equality. She was deeply involved in the Harlem Renaissance, especially with Zora Neale Hurston. Hurst helped sponsor Hurston in her first year at Barnard and employed Hurston briefly as an executive secretary. The two traveled together on road trips that may have contributed to Hurst’s understanding of racial discrimination. Both Hurston and Langston Hughes claimed to like Imitation of Life, though both reversed their opinion after Sterling Allen Brown lambasted both the book and the first film in a review entitled «Imitation of Life: Once a Pancake», a reference to a line in the first film. The novel Imitation of Life continues to be highly controversial, as some read it as heavy-handed stereotyping, while others see it as a more subtle and subversive satire of and commentary on race, sex, and class in early 20th century America. Both text and films have remained deeply embedded in American consciousness, for better or worse, as evidenced by Toni Morrison’s use of a character named «Pecola» in her 1970 novel The Bluest Eye.
Film, TV or theatrical adaptations