W. E. B. Du Bois's first novel, The Quest of the Silver Fleece (1911), shifts its action from rural Alabama to Washington, D.C., and back again, achieving its narrative unity through a carefully constructed framework of contrasting symbols and the maturation journeys of its young protagonists, Zora and Bles. Identified by Addison Gayle, Jr., as “the first Bildungsroman in African-American literature,” The Quest traces the growth of the young, rural heroes from ignorance and exploitation (in Zora's case, sexual use by the wealthy landowners, the Cress-wells); to their encounter in Washington, D.C., with political deception by urban, talented tenth Africans, like the savvy, self-serving Carry Wynn; to the resulting appreciation of their own strengths and the potential of their people, and their return to Alabama to create a black-owned farming commune to develop the lucrative cotton crop, the “silver fleece.”
Adding an African American voice to popular novels at the turn of the century such as Frank Norris's The Octopus (1901) and The Pit (1903) and Upton Sinclair's The Jungle (1906), which explored the consequences of unregulated, free market forces, Du Bois's primary concern is to demonstrate the physical and mental serfdom that trapped blacks in ignorance and poverty after emancipation, and to suggest effective courses of action to overcome this new kind of slavery. To examine these economic issues and their personal results, he structures his work on the clash of two opposing world views, those of the Swamp and the Plantation.
The swamp represents all that is free, wild, joyful, and loving, but also the fear, jealousy, ignorance, and poverty fostered by racism, slavery, and the tenant farming system. The plantation, symbolic of a materialistic attitude clearly not confined to the southern locale, encourages all that is self-serving, cruel, and exploitative of humans and nature, but also thrives on knowledge, talent, and ambition, qualities Zora comes to recognize as essential for the self-reliance of rural workers, black or white. Throughout the first part of the narrative, the story of Jason and the Golden Fleece—with its correspondence of the valuable fleece with the special cotton Zora grows in the swamp and is cheated out of by Colonel Cresswell; Medea with the witch, Elsbeth, Zora's mother; and Jason with the thieving southern land owners and northern capitalists—appears as a mythic reference for Du Bois's complex plantation/swamp dichotomy.
The improvement of the situation of black farmers is intrinsically linked in The Quest to the developmet of Zora, who begins as the wild “elf-girl,” her creativity inspired by the beauty of the swamp where she was born, but her early powerlessness also linked to its other side, the “gray and death-like wilderness” symbolized by Elsbeth, in whose hut the local white men drink and sexually exploit black women. Nellie McKay believes “the ‘black’ heroine was born in this novel, marking a major breakthrough in the overthrow of the stereotypical use of near-white” heroines in earlier African American fiction. In Dusk of Dawn (1940), Du Bois referred to the novel simply as “an economic study of some merit.”