Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.

Richard Wright hated Their Eyes Were Watching God, saying that it had no "basic idea or theme," and to some extent I sympathize with this observation. This novel, both despite and because of its verbal pyrotechnics, is a mess:

Janie starched and ironed her face and came set in the funeral behind her veil. It was like a wall of stone and steel. The funeral was going on outside. All things concerning death and burial were said and done. Finish. End. Nevermore. Darkness. Deep hole. Dissolution. Eternity. Weeping and wailing outside. Inside the expensive black folds were resurrection and life. She did not reach outside for anything, nor did the things of death reach inside to disturb her calm. She sent her face to Joe's funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world.

For those of you keeping score at home, in this scenario, Janie's face is a piece of cloth behind a wall of indiscriminate matter that she sends to a funeral so she can go "rollicking with the springtime." The incongruity suggested by using a veil to cloak a face that is already falsified seems not to matter.

But then again, there is such exuberance to Hurston's prose--an exuberance that matches Janie's--that can beguile even a savvy reader and conceal its erraticness. In short excerpts, like the one above, that exuberance can provide a sense of energy and movement, but over the course of the novel it becomes burdensome, and one sees what Wright meant when he said that Hurston wrote with "facile sensuality."

On the other hand, Their Eyes Were Watching God comes from a fundamentally different place than Black Boy. For her part, Hurston criticized the notion that black culture was a reaction to white oppression, which is one of the fundamental aspects of southern life that Wright found so alienating. Growing up in Eatonville, Florida, the nation's first all-black community, Hurston was not well-disposed to this attitude.

The story of Eatonville is woven into the narrative of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie's second marriage is to Jody Starks, the mayor of Eatonville, a larger-than-life man with a knack for inspiring followers and organizing a community. In fact, Janie's abandonment of her first husband, a poor and narrow-minded farmer named Logan Killicks, mirrors the transition from the slave-like sharecropper economy to the self-sufficient black community, and from traditional family-oriented values to broader civic ones. Jody is kind, handsome, and well-dressed when he chances on Killicks' farm, and Janie follows him to Eatonville, where he becomes mayor by the sheer force of his personality. Installing streetlamps and building post offices, he is successful, but Janie's role in town life is limited:

"Thank yuh fuh yo' compliments, but mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin'. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home."

Janie made her face laugh after a short pause, but it wasn't too easy. She had never thought of making a speech, and didn't know if she cared to make one at all. It must have been the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off of things. But anyway, she went down the road behind him that night feeling cold.

What Jody denies Janie is, for Hurston, the fundamental unit of community: the right to speak. In Eatonville she has more than she had on Killicks' farm, but because she cannot contribute to it, she cannot truly participate in it. Hurston was a Columbia-educated ethnographer who studied the folklore of Florida, and Their Eyes reflects what she knew about the power of the spoken word. It's for that reason that the dialect is so painstakingly rendered; without it, the building of Eatonville cannot be accurately rendered. Hurston's prose, too, though maddening to Richard Wright (and myself), seems to reflects the verbal ingenuity and looseness of the folk groups it represents. In this, Hurston exercises the right and ability that Janie cannot.

That is, until Jody dies and Janie takes up with a much younger man, Tea Cake, who is little more than a drifter. Tea Cake cannot provide Janie with wealth, but he can provide her with the conversation that Jody could not, and "they made a lot of laughter out of nothing." The two of them leave Eatonville to work in the Everglades as itinerant farmers, and the symbolic transition is complete: from near-slavery to civic triumph to personal triumph, engineered by the same basic verbal tools. In this way Janie is a vision of the black achievement that seemed impossible to Wright, not only the construction of a real black culture but true individual fulfillment. It's still a mess, but perhaps a well-justified mess.


Brooke said...

If you are teaching this book, a piece of literature that ties in well is the Audre Lorde poem "In Margaret's Garden".

I've always loved this book, but since I'm coming at it with a different lens (a female lens) I think the reading experience is probably a lot different. -Brooke

Christopher said...

Thanks, B.

Carlton Farmer said...

Interesting thoughts, Chris. Good review.

Lori said...

I'd like to teach this book next year to my 11th graders. Does anyone have any feedback for me on how well it is received by 11th grade boys? I love the book and taught it at an all girls school, but I'm not sure if I'll be able to get boys interested in it. Lori

Lori said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Christopher said...

Lori, I teach it to 12th grade AP students and their principal reaction has been that they find the use of dialect annoying. However, I think it would work in an 11th grade class of any gender.