LIT. 203: ZORA NEALE HURSTON’S THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD

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ZORA NEALE HURSTON’S THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD

 

Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, to John Hurston, a carpenter and Baptist preacher, and Lucy Potts Hurston, a former schoolteacher. Hurston was the fifth of eight children, and while she was still a toddler, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, the first all-black incorporated town in the United States, where John Hurston served several terms as mayor. In 1917, Hurston enrolled in Morgan Academy in Baltimore, where she completed her high school education.

 

Three years later, she enrolled at Howard University and began her writing career. She took classes there intermittently for several years and eventually earned an associateq degree. The university’s literary magazine published her first story in 1921. In 1925, she moved to New York and became a significant figure in the Harlem Renaissance. A year later, she, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Thurman organized the journal Fire!, considered one of the defining publications of the era.

 

Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937, long after the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance. The literature of the 1920s, a period of postwar prosperity, was marked by a sense of freedom and experimentation, but the 1930s brought the Depression and an end to the cultural openness that had allowed the Harlem Renaissance to flourish. As the Depression worsened, political tension increased within the United States; cultural production came to be dominated by “social realism,” a gritty, political style associated with left-wing radicalism. The movement’s proponents felt that art should be primarily political and expose social injustice in the world. This new crop of writers and artists dismissed much of the Harlem Renaissance as bourgeois, devoid of important political content and thus devoid of any artistic merit. The influential and highly political black novelist Richard Wright, then an ardent Communist, wrote a scathing review of Their Eyes Were Watching God upon its publication, claiming that it was not “serious fiction” and that it “carries no theme, no message, no thought.”

 

A stroke in the late 1950s forced Hurston to enter a welfare home in Florida. After she died penniless on January 28, 1960, she was buried in an unmarked grave. Alice Walker, another prominent African-American writer, rediscovered her work in the late 1960s. In 1973, Walker traveled to Florida to place a marker on Hurston’s grave containing the phrase, “A Genius of the South.” Walker’s 1975 essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” published in Ms. magazine, propelled Hurston’s work back into vogue. Since then, Hurston’s opus has been published and republished many times; it has even been adapted for the cinema: Spike Lee’s first feature film, She’s Gotta Have It, parallels Their Eyes Were Watching God and can be viewed as an interesting modern adaptation of the novel.

 

One of the strengths of Hurston’s work is that it can be studied in the context of a number of different American literary traditions. Most often, Their Eyes Were Watching God is associated with Harlem Renaissance literature, even though it was published in a later era, because of Hurston’s connection to that scene. Certain aspects of the book, though, make it possible to discuss it in other literary contexts. For example, some critics argue that the novel should be read in the context of American Southern literature: with its rural Southern setting and its focus on the relationship between man and nature, the dynamics of human relationships, and a hero’s quest for independence, Their Eyes Were Watching God fits well into the tradition that includes such works as Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury. The novel is also important in the continuum of American feminist literature, comparing well to Kate Chopin’s The Awakening. More specifically, and due in large part to Alice Walker’s essay, Zora Neale Hurston is often viewed as the first in a succession of great American black women writers that includes Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Gloria Naylor. But Their Eyes Were Watching God resists reduction to a single movement, either literary or political. Wright’s criticism from 1937 is, to a certain extent, true: the book is not a political treatise—it carries no single, overwhelming message or moral. Far from being a weakness, however, this resistance is the secret of the novel’s strength: it is a profoundly rich, multifaceted work that can be read in a number of ways.

 

Plot Overview

 

Janie Crawford, an attractive, confident, middle-aged black woman, returns to Eatonville, Florida, after a long absence. The black townspeople gossip about her and -speculate about where she has been and what has happened to her young husband, Tea Cake. They take her confidence as aloofness, but Janie’s friend Pheoby Watson sticks up for her. Pheoby visits her to find out what has happened. Their conversation frames the story that Janie relates.

 

Janie explains that her grandmother raised her after her mother ran off. Nanny loves her granddaughter and is dedicated to her, but her life as a slave and experience with her own daughter, Janie’s mother, has warped her worldview. Her primary desire is to marry Janie as soon as possible to a husband who can provide security and social status for her. She finds a much older farmer named Logan Killicks and insists that Janie marry him.

 

After moving in with Logan, Janie is miserable. Logan is pragmatic and unromantic and, in general, treats her like a pack mule. One day, Joe Starks, a smooth-tongued and ambitious man, ambles down the road in front of the farm. He and Janie flirt in secret for a couple weeks before she runs off and marries him.

 

Janie and Jody, as she calls him, travel to all-black Eatonville, where Jody hopes to have a “big voice.” A consummate politician, Jody soon succeeds in becoming the mayor, postmaster, storekeeper, and the biggest landlord in town. But Janie seeks something more than a man with a big voice. She soon becomes disenchanted with the monotonous, stifling life that she shares with Jody. She wishes that she could be a part of the rich social life in town, but Jody doesn’t allow her to interact with “common” people. Jody sees Janie as the fitting ornament to his wealth and power, and he tries to shape her into his vision of what a mayor’s wife should be. On the surface, Janie silently submits to Jody; inside, however, she remains passionate and full of dreams.

 

After almost two decades of marriage, Janie finally asserts herself. When Jody insults her appearance, Janie rips him to shreds in front of the townspeople, telling them all how ugly and impotent he is. In retaliation, he savagely beats her. Their marriage breaks down, and Jody becomes quite ill. After months without interacting, Janie visits him on his deathbed. Refusing to be silenced, she once again chastises him for the way that he treated her. As she berates him, he dies.

 

After Jody’s funeral, Janie feels free for the first time in years. She rebuffs various suitors who come to court her because she loves her newfound independence. But when Tea Cake, a man twelve years her junior, enters her life, Janie immediately senses a spark of mutual attraction. She begins dating Tea Cake despite critical gossip within the town. To everyone’s shock, Janie then marries Tea Cake nine months after Jody’s death, sells Jody’s store, and leaves town to go with Tea Cake to Jacksonville.

 

During the first week of their marriage, Tea Cake and Janie encounter difficulties. He steals her money and leaves her alone one night, making her think that he married her only for her money. But he returns, explaining that he never meant to leave her and that his theft occurred in a moment of weakness. Afterward, they promise to share all their experiences and opinions with each other. They move to the Everglades, where they work during the harvest season and socialize during the summer off-season. Tea Cake’s quick wit and friendliness make their shack the center of entertainment and social life.

 

A terrible hurricane bursts into the Everglades two years after Janie and Tea Cake’s marriage. As they desperately flee the rising waters, a rabid dog bites Tea Cake. At the time, Tea Cake doesn’t realize the dog’s condition; three weeks later, however, he falls ill. During a rabies–induced bout of madness, Tea Cake becomes convinced that Janie is cheating on him. He starts firing a pistol at her and Janie is forced to kill him to save her life. She is immediately put on trial for murder, but the all-white, all-male jury finds her not guilty. She returns to Eatonville where her former neighbors are ready to spin malicious gossip about her circumstances, assuming that Tea Cake has left her and taken her money. Janie wraps up her recounting to Pheoby, who is greatly impressed by Janie’s experiences. Back in her room that night, Janie feels at one with Tea Cake and at peace with herself.

 

Character List

Janie Mae Crawford –  The protagonist of the novel. Janie defies categorization: she is black but flaunts her Caucasian-like straight hair, which comes from her mixed ancestry; she is a woman but defies gender stereotypes by insisting on her independence and wearing overalls. Behind her defiance are a curiosity and confidence that drive her to experience the world and become conscious of her relation to it. Part of Janie’s maturity rests in her ability to realize that others’ cruelty toward her or their inability to understand her stems not from malice but from their upbringing or limited perspective.

 

Tea Cake –  Janie’s third husband and first real love. Twelve years younger than Janie, Tea Cake impresses her with his quick wit and zest for living. But behind the flash, he has a real affection for, and understanding of, Janie. He doesn’t try to force Janie to be anything other than herself, and he treats her with respect. He is not without faults, however; he does steal from her once and beat her. These reprehensible incidents, though, make him a more real character than one who possesses only idealized positive qualities.

Read an in-depth analysis of Tea Cake.

 

 

Themes

 

Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

LANGUAGE: SPEECH AND SILENCE

Their Eyes Were Watching God is most often celebrated for Hurston’s unique use of language, particularly her mastery of rural Southern black dialect. Throughout the novel, she utilizes an interesting narrative structure, splitting the presentation of the story between high literary narration and idiomatic discourse. The long passages of discourse celebrate the culturally rich voices of Janie’s world; these characters speak as do few others in American literature, and their distinctive grammar, vocabulary, and tone mark their individuality.

 

Hurston’s use of language parallels Janie’s quest to find her voice. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. writes in the afterword to most modern editions of the book, Their Eyes Were Watching God is primarily concerned “with the project of finding a voice, with language as an instrument of injury and salvation, of selfhood and empowerment.” Jody stifles Janie’s speech, as when he prevents her from talking after he is named mayor; her hatred of him stems from this suppression of her individuality. Tea Cake, on the other hand, engages her speech, conversing with her and putting himself on equal terms with her; her love for him stems from his respect for her individuality.

 

After Janie discovers her ability to define herself by her speech interactions with others, she learns that silence too can be a source of empowerment; having found her voice, she learns to control it. Similarly, the narrator is silent in conspicuous places, neither revealing why Janie isn’t upset with Tea Cake’s beating nor disclosing her words at the trial. In terms of both the form of the novel and its thematic content, Hurston places great emphasis on the control of language as the source of identity and empowerment.

 

POWER AND CONQUEST AS MEANS TO FULFILLMENT

Whereas Janie struggles to assert a place for herself by undertaking a spiritual journey toward love and self-awareness, Jody attempts to achieve fulfillment through the exertion of power. He tries to purchase and control everyone and everything around him; he exercises his authority hoping to subordinate his environment to his will. He labors under the illusion that he can control the world around him and that, by doing so, he will achieve some sense of profound fulfillment. Others exhibit a similar attitude toward power and control; even Tea Cake, for example, is filled with hubris as the hurricane whips up, certain that he can survive the storm through his mastery of the muck. For both Jody and Tea Cake, the natural world reveals the limits of human power. In Jody’s case, as disease sets in, he begins to lose the illusion that he can control his world; the loss of authority over Janie as she talks back to him furthers this disillusionment. In Tea Cake’s case, he is forced to flee the hurricane and struggles to survive the ensuing floods. This limit to the scope of one’s power proves the central problem with Jody’s power-oriented approach toward achieving fulfillment: ultimately, Jody can neither stop his deterioration nor silence Janie’s strong will.

 

LOVE AND RELATIONSHIPS VERSUS INDEPENDENCE

 

Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of how Janie achieves a strong sense of self and comes to appreciate her independence. But her journey toward enlightenment is not undertaken alone. The gender differences that Hurston espouses require that men and women provide each other t

hings that they need but do not possess. Janie views fulfilling relationships as reciprocal and based on mutual respect, as demonstrated in her relationship with Tea Cake, which elevates Janie into an equality noticeably absent from her marriages to Logan and Jody.

 

Although relationships are implied to be necessary to a fulfilling life, Janie’s quest for spiritual fulfillment is fundamentally a self-centered one. She is alone at the end yet seems content. She liberates herself from her unpleasant and unfulfilling relationships with Logan and Jody, who hinder her personal journey. Through her relationship with Tea Cake, Janie experiences true fulfillment and enlightenment and becomes secure in her independence. She feels a deep connection to the world around her and even feels that the spirit of Tea Cake is with her. Thus, even though she is alone, she doesn’t feel alone.

 

Motifs

 

Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.

 

COMMUNITY

As Janie returns to Eatonville, the novel focuses on the porch-sitters who gossip and speculate about her situation. In Eatonville and the Everglades, particularly, the two most significant settings in the novel, Janie constantly interacts with the community around her. At certain times, she longs to be a part of this vibrant social life, which, at its best, offers warmth, safety, connection, and interaction for Janie. In Chapter 18, for example, when Tea Cake, Janie, and Motor Boat seek shelter from the storm, the narrator notes that they “sat in company with the young  others in other shanties”; of course, they are not literally sitting in the same room as these others, but all of those affected by the hurricane share a communal bond, united against the overwhelming, impersonal force of the hurricane.

 

At other times, however, Janie scorns the pettiness of the gossip and rumors that flourish in these communities, which often criticize her out of jealousy for her independence and strong will. These communities, exemplifying a negative aspect of unity, demand the sacrifice of individuality. Janie refuses to make this sacrifice, but even near the end of the book, during the court trial, “it [i]s not death she fear[s]. It [i]s misunderstanding.” In other words, Janie still cares what people in the community think because she still longs to understand herself.

 

RACE AND RACISM

Because Zora Neale Hurston was a famous black author who was associated with the Harlem Renaissance, many readers assume that Their Eyes Were Watching God is concerned primarily with issues of race. Although race is a significant motif in the book, it is not, by any means, a central theme. As Alice Walker writes in her dedication to I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, “I think we are better off if we think of Zora Neale Hurston as an artist, period—rather than as the artist/politician most black writers have been required to be.” Along the same lines, it is far more fulfilling to read Janie’s story as a profoundly human quest than as a distinctly black one.

 

But issues of race are nonetheless present. Janie and Tea Cake experience prejudice from both blacks and whites at significant moments in the book. Two moments in particular stand out: Janie’s interactions, in Chapter 16, with Mrs. Turner, a black woman with racist views against blacks, and the courtroom scene, in Chapter 19, after which Janie is comforted by white women but scorned by her black friends. In these moments, we see that racism in the novel operates as a cultural construct, a free-floating force that affects not only how white characters treat black characters, but also how black characters perceive themselves. Hurston’s perspective on racism was undoubtedly influenced by her study with influential anthropologist Franz Boas, who argued that ideas of race are culturally constructed and that skin color indicates little, if anything, about innate difference. In other words, racism is a cultural force that individuals can either struggle against or yield to rather than a mindset rooted in demonstrable facts. In this way, racism operates in the novel just like the hurricane and the doctrine to which Jody adheres; it is an environmental force that challenges Janie in her quest to achieve harmony with the world around her.

 

THE FOLKLORE QUALITY OF RELIGION

As the title indicates, God plays a huge role in the novel, but this God is not really the Judeo-Christian god. The book maintains an almost Gnostic perspective on the universe: God is not a single entity but a diffuse force. This outlook is particularly evident in the mystical way that Hurston describes nature. At various times, the sun, moon, sky, sea, horizon, and other aspects of the natural world appear imbued with divinity. The God in the title refers to these divine forces throughout the world, both beautiful and threatening, that Janie encounters. Her quest is a spiritual one because her ultimate goal is to find her place in the world, understand who she is, and be at peace with her environment.

 

Thus, except for one brief reference to church in Chapter 12, organized religion never appears in the novel. The idea of spirituality, on the other hand, is always present, as the novel espouses a worldview rooted in folklore and mythology. As an anthropologist, Hurston collected rural mythology and folklore of blacks in America and the Caribbean. Many visions of mysticism that she presents in the novel—her haunting personification of Death, the idea of a sun-god, the horizon as a boundary at the end of the world—are likely culled directly from these sources. Like her use of dialogue, Hurston’s presentation of folklore and non-Christian spirituality celebrates the black rural culture.

 

Symbols

Symbols are objects, characters, figures, and colors used to represent abstract ideas or concepts.

 

HAIR

Janie’s hair is a symbol of her power and unconventional identity; it represents her strength and individuality in three ways. First, it represents her independence and defiance of petty community standards. The town’s critique at the very beginning of the novel demonstrates that it is considered undignified for a woman of Janie’s age to wear her hair down. Her refusal to bow down to their norms clearly reflects her strong, rebellious spirit. Second, her hair functions as a phallic symbol; her braid is constantly described in phallic terms and functions as a symbol of a typically masculine power and potency, which blurs gender lines and thus threatens Jody. Third, her hair, because of its straightness, functions as a symbol of whiteness; Mrs. Turner worships Janie because of her straight hair and other Caucasian characteristics. Her hair contributes to the normally white male power that she wields, which helps her disrupt traditional power relationships (male over female, white over black) throughout the novel.

 

THE PEAR TREE AND THE HORIZON

The pear tree and the horizon represent Janie’s idealized views of nature. In the bees’ interaction with the pear tree flowers, Janie witnesses a perfect moment in nature, full of erotic energy, passionate interaction, and blissful harmony. She chases after this ideal throughout the rest of the book. Similarly, the horizon represents the far-off mystery of the natural world, with which she longs to connect. Janie’s hauling in of her horizon “like a great fish-net” at the end of the novel indicates that she has achieved the harmony with nature that she has sought since the moment under the pear tree.

 

THE HURRICANE

The hurricane represents the destructive fury of nature. As such, it functions as the opposite of the pear tree and horizon imagery: whereas the pear tree and horizon stand for beauty and pleasure, the hurricane demonstrates how chaotic and capricious the world can be. The hurricane makes the characters question who they are and what their place in the universe is. Its impersonal nature—it is simply a force of pure destruction, lacking consciousness and conscience—makes the characters wonder what sort of world they live in, whether God cares about them at all, and whether they are fundamentally in conflict with the world around them. In the face of the hurricane, Janie and the other characters wonder how they can possibly survive in a world filled with such chaos and pain.

 

Janie Mae Crawford

Although Their Eyes Were Watching God revolves around Janie’s relationships with other people, it is first and foremost a story of Janie’s search for spiritual enlightenment and a strong sense of her own identity. When we first and last see Janie, she is alone. The novel is not the story of her quest for a partner but rather that of her quest for a secure sense of independence. Janie’s development along the way can be charted by studying her use of language and her relationship to her own voice.

 

At the end of her journey, Janie returns to Eatonville a strong and proud woman, but at the beginning of her story, she is unsure of who she is or how she wants to live. When she tells her story to Pheoby, she begins with her revelation under the blossoming pear tree—the revelation that initiates her quest. Under the pear tree, she witnesses a perfect union of harmony within nature. She knows that she wants to achieve this type of love, a reciprocity that produces oneness with the world, but is unsure how to proceed. At this point, she is unable to articulate even to herself exactly what she wants.

 

When Jody Starks enters her life, he seems to offer the ideal alternative to the dull and pragmatic Logan Killicks. With his ambitious talk, Jody convinces Janie that he will use his thirst for conquest to help her realize her dreams, whatever they may be. Janie learns that Jody’s exertion of power only stifles her. But just before Jody’s death, Janie’s repressed power breaks through in a torrent of verbal retaliation. Her somewhat cruel tirade at the dying Jody measures the depth of Jody’s suppression of her inner life. Having begun to find her voice, Janie blows through social niceties to express herself.

 

Janie flourishes in her relationship with Tea Cake, as he “teaches her the maiden language all over.” Her control of speech reaches a new level as she learns to be silent when she chooses. This idea of silence as strength rather than passivity comes to the forefront during Janie’s trial, when the narrator glosses over her testimony. Dialogue has been pivotally important up to this point, and one might expect Hurston to use the courtroom scene to showcase Janie’s hard-won, mature voice. The absence of dialogue here, Mary Ellen Washington argues in the foreword present in most editions of the novel, reflects Hurston’s discomfort with rhetoric for its own sake; Hurston doesn’t want Janie’s voice to be confused with that of the lawyer or politician. Janie’s development of her voice is inseparable from her inner growth, and the drama of the courtroom may be too contrived to draw out the nuances of her inner life. Janie summarizes the novel’s attitude toward language when she tells Pheoby that talking “don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans” if it isn’t connected to actual experience.

 

Tea Cake

Tea Cake functions as the catalyst that helps drive Janie toward her goals. Like all of the other men in Janie’s life, he plays only a supporting role. Before his arrival, Janie has already begun to find her own voice, as is demonstrated when she finally stands up to Jody. As we see at the end of the novel, after Tea Cake’s death, Janie remains strong and hopeful; therefore, it’s fair to say that Janie is not dependent on Tea Cake. Nevertheless, he does play a crucial role in her development.

 

When she meets Tea Cake, Janie has already begun to develop a strong, proud sense of self, but Tea Cake accelerates this spiritual growth. Ever since her moment under the pear tree, Janie has known that she will find what she is searching for only through love. In Tea Cake she finds a creative and vivacious personality who enjoys probing the world around him and respects Janie’s need to develop. Whereas Logan treats her like a farm animal and Jody silences her, Tea Cake converses and plays with her. Instead of stifling her personality, he encourages it, introducing her to new experiences and skills.

 

While Tea Cake is vital to Janie’s development, he is not an indispensable part of her life, a crucial truth that is revealed when Janie shoots him. He plays a role in her life, helping her to better understand herself. By teaching her how to shoot a gun, ironically, he provides her with the tools that ultimately kill him. Janie’s decision to save herself rather than yield her life up to the crazy Tea Cake points to her increasing sense of self and demonstrates that Tea Cake’s ultimate function in the novel is not to make Janie dependent on him for happiness but to help her find happiness and security within herself.

 

Important Quotations Explained

1.Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

This passage, which opens Their Eyes Were Watching God,establishes the novel’s unusual perspective on gender difference. Because it is the story of a woman and because it was the first major novel published by a black woman, Their Eyes Were Watching God is often classified as a feminist novel. But feminism is often associated with the idea that men and women are absolutely equal; here, the narrator immediately establishes a fundamental difference between men and women. The idea that men and women need certain things from each other recurs many times throughout the novel, as Janie searches for the man who can complement her and give her those things that she doesn’t have, and Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake attempt to fill their respective needs in their respective relationships with Janie. Finally, the passage foreshadows the novel’s thematic concerns: the statement about women is proud and defiant, saying that while men never really reach for their dreams, women can control their wills and chase their dreams. As the novel unfolds, Janie acts according to this notion, battling and struggling in the direction of her dreams.

 

Culled from Sparknotes.com

About author

Kemi Wale-Olaitan

Kemi is a retired broadcaster from the service of Federal Radio Corporation of Nigeria; while in service, she had her interest in women issues and had interviews with several notable women in the course of her duty as a producer in the service of the Federal government. Her interest in broadcasting was informed by her creative writing prowess; she has been very active in creative writing since her undergraduate days, and she has written a few fictional works in form of short stories and novel. Some of her short stories have appeared in anthologies of Short stories. Kemi was also very active in the establishment of the Women Writers Association of Nigeria (WRITA) and she served on its first Executive Council.

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