The OF Blog: Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God

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.
So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead.  Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet.  She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.

Zora Neale Hurston's second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) is widely considered to be her masterpiece.  Building upon her folkloric approach to storytelling found in Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) and her field work/memoir of life in her adopted hometown of Eatonville, Florida,  Mules and Men (1935), Their Eyes Were Watching God is a powerful commentary on the belief systems of Southern African-Americans in the early 20th century, as well as a pointed commentary on the endemic sexism during this time period.  Their Eyes Were Watching God generated a lot of controversy upon its release, as activists such as Richard Wright felt that the work was not radical enough in its condemnation of racism, while others felt that Hurston's treatment of sexism weakened the novel.  Due in large part to these protests, Their Eyes Were Watching God soon slid into a quiet obscurity, until Alice Walker began advocating for Americans of all ethnic backgrounds to rediscover one of the finest American social commentators of the early 20th century.

Their Eyes Were Watching God follows the life of Janie Crawford from a callow teen to a wiser, world-experienced woman who has battled through adversity and has overcome the pervasive sexist attitudes of her native society.  Hurston begins the novel with the passage quoted above.  Notice how eloquently she differentiates between male and female perspectives:  Men with their hopes and dreams, continually dashed; women having to make their way through a minefield of memory and regret in order to realize what dreams they may.  She explores these contrasting approaches to life through Janie's encounters with men, such as this little scene from early in the novel:
"What she doin' coming back here in dem overhalls?  Can't she find no dress to put on? – Where's dat blue satin dress she left here in? – Where all dat money her husband took and died and left her? – What dat ole forty year ole 'oman doin' wid her hair swingin' down her back lak some young gal? – Where she left dat young lad of a boy she went off here wid? – Thought she was going to marry? – Where he left her? – What he done wid all her money? – Betcha he off wid some gal so young she ain't so young she ain't even got no hairs – why she don't stay in her class? –"
When she got to where they were she turned her face on the bander log and spoke.  They scrambled a noisy "good evenin'" and left their mouths setting open and their ears full of hope.  Her speech was pleasant enough, but she kept walking straight on to her gate.  The porch couldn't talk for looking.
The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt.  They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye.  The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance.  It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day.
Hurston utilizes flashbacks to tell Janie's story.  When the story opens, we see Janie after her transformation into an assured woman.  We experience through speech and description the Eatonville townfolk alternating between staring goggle-eyed at her and resenting her for flaunting traditional social customs by having her hair long and loose while wearing overalls.  Hurston's use of dialect is spot-on, as the reader can almost envision these townfolk sitting around a general store, gossiping and staring incredulously at Janie.  When she describes Janie, we sense not how Janie views herself, but how the men and women of Eatonville view her presence:  the "firm buttocks" and "her pugnacious breasts" serve to accentuate the objectification of Janie's body by the men and the sensual challenge (in their minds, at least) of seeing a more direct hint of her body.  For the women, Janie poses another problem:  she is challenging their own roles by not accepting a subservient one to the men.  Instead of the male fascination and dreaming about her body, these women are honing their minds to remember how they might best cut her down to size and to reduce her outlandish presence in their community.

This is one of several indelible moments that Hurston expertly crafts here.  But how did Janie get to that point?  Early on, as she reflects on her life, we come to meet the domineering husbands that she had, who before their deaths expected her to be their servant and to cater to their needs.  We experience through her retelling of her life being raised by her grandmother the difficulties that she endured as she sought a love of equals, while discovering that the man her grandmother had chosen for her, Logan,  was more concerned about his control of his domains, including "his woman," than he was about placating Janie:
"If Ah kin haul de wood heah and chop it fuh yuh, look lak you oughta be able tuh tote it inside.  Mah fust wife never bothered me 'bout choppin' no wood nohow.  She'd grab dat ax and sling chips lak uh man.  You done been spoilt rotten."
As Janie grows estranged from Logan and flees to her second paramour/husband, Joe the Eatonville town mayor, not much changes but how Janie is objectified.  Instead of being Logan's manure hauler and log splitter, she is now Joe's chattel, placed there on earth to do his bidding in his own time.  Through interior monologue and a few dialogue-laden scenes, we seen Joe's attempts to crush Janie into submission.  It is one of the harshest and most vivid misogynistic scenes in that period of American literature and even three-quarters of a century later, it is a powerful commentary on the casual and purposeful cruelties that many women, African American and white alike, experienced during this time period.  But despite all of Joe's attempts to subjugate her, Janie manages to resist and as he aged and became infirm, the much younger Janie begins to fight back against his imperious commands more often.  Hurston uses biblical analogy to underscore this point when she writes:
Then Joe Starks realized all the meanings and his vanity bled like a flood.  Janie had robbed him of his illusion of irresistible maleness that all men cherish, which was terrible.  The thing that Saul's daughter had done to David.  But Janie had done worse, she had cast down his empty armor before men and they had laughed, would keep on laughing.  When he paraded his possessions hereafter, they would not consider the two together.  They'd look with envy at the things and pity the man that owned them.  When he sat in judgment it would be the same.  Good-for-nothing's like Dave and Lum and Jim wouldn't change place with him.  For what can excuse a man in the eyes of other men for lack of strength?  Raggedy-behind squirts of sixteen and seventeen would be giving him their merciless pity out of their eyes while their mouths said something humble.  There was nothing to do in life anymore.  Ambition was useless.  And the cruel deceit of Janie!  Making that show of humbleness and scorning him all the time!  Laughing at him, and now putting the town up to do the same.  Joe Starks didn't know the words for all this, but he knew the feeling.  So he struck Janie with all his might and drove her from the store.
Later, after Joe has died and Janie marries her final husband, "Tea Cakes" the traveling bluesman, we see a more complex portrayal of sexism.  This time, it's not the callous expectation of a woman to be a hired hand or the active suppression of her independence, but through their conversations and ultimately their later actions, Janie and her third husband come to blows, with Janie firing a fatal shot as she was being attacked and bitten by "Tea Cakes."  This scene, which has echoes to the opening scenes of her earlier novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine, in how a husband brutally attacks his wife, is the climatic scene of the novel.  Here we see the final metamorphosis of Janie's evolution from a teen who did what her "nanny" told her to do through her sullen and then direct resistance of her husbands to the awful need to defend herself from attack.  Although self-defense and battered woman syndrome were not accepted in most cases those days, Hurston bravely paints a heroic picture of a woman who has fought against others trying to define her and who ultimately prevails.  We see also the triumph of an argument presented earlier in the novel about nature versus nurture, as Janie's actions demonstrate clearly to the reader the falsity of those claims that women were by nature inferior to men and thus deserved to be subservient to them.  As the story comes full circle and Janie returns to Eatonville, which she had left after Joe's death, we see that she has learned what to remember and how to forget and that her dreams are under her control.  It is also in these final scenes that the novel's title, Their Eyes Were Watching God, becomes lucid for readers.  Sometimes, the dead are witnesses for the life and through their mute testimony, all eyes come to see the mystery of God in our lives.  Their Eyes Were Watching God lingers in memory, male and female alike, because the revelations and examinations of our beliefs are not restricted to one locale or ethnic group, but instead they act as witnesses to what we aim to become and what we are.  It truly is a towering masterpiece in American literature, one whose appreciation will continue hopefully for generations to come.

Originally posted in January 2012 at Gogol's Overcoat.

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