Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God - Reading with Literary Theory

The Blackwell Guide to Literary Theory - Gregory Castle 2007

Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Reading with Literary Theory

Feminist Theory * Ethnic Studies * Narrative Theory

For a Feminist critic, zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) represents a landmark achievement, for it offers the perspective of an independent-minded black woman, Janie Crawford, who tells the story of her life and loves. Though now regarded as one of the most acclaimed works of the Harlem Renaissance, it was neglected after its first publication, only to be rediscovered and promoted over forty years later by Alice Walker. One of the things that impressed Walker was Hurston's representation of Janie and the women in her life on their own terms and in their own language. Her uncompromising representation of a black woman's self-formation was a direct challenge both to the prejudices of white readers and the literary standards of black male writers. Just before her first marriage, Janie's grandmother, Nanny, tells the story of her escape from slavery and the violent circumstances of her granddaughter's birth: “ ’Dat school teacher had done hid her [Janie's mother] in de woods all night long, and he had done raped mah baby and run on off just before day' ” (19). A legacy of slavery and sexual violence does not prevent Janie from exploring her own sexuality and eagerly awaiting the day when she might discover the joys of marriage. At first, she experiences a rush of delight at the thought: “She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sistercalyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage!” (11). However, after her first marriage to Logan Killicks, a local man with a bit of property, she has another revelation: “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie's first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (25). Her second husband, Joe Starks, is more ambitious and exciting, a vibrant force behind a new town founded by black people. But Janie soon discovers she is meant to be a silent and passive wife among men who do not understand the desires of women. To her husband and his friends she says, “ ’how surprised y'all is goin' tuh be if you ever find out you don't know half as much 'bout [womenfolks] as you think you do' ” (75).

A feminist reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God inevitably dovetails with an Ethnic studies approach. Hurston addresses the issue of race as inextricably bound up with gender identity, and constructs the relationship between Janie and Tea Cake, her third husband, around the same PROBLEMATIC that we find in Nella Larsons Passing: the identity and self-formation of light-skinned black women. Janie's friend Mrs. Turner makes note of her “coffee-and-cream complexion and her luxurious hair” but cannot “forgive her for marrying a man as dark as Tea Cake” (140). Unlike Larson's protagonist, Janie embraces blackness, primarily in the form of the carefree, exciting, and unpredictable Tea Cake. With him she seeks to affirm a particular vision of being black, one that she formed in the wake of her disappointments with Logan and Joe. She did not want to be the kind of black woman who marries for social status. When she longs for love and desire to enter her relationship with Logan, her Nanny exclaims, “ ’Lawd have mussy! Dat's de very prong all us black women gits hung on. Dis love! Dat's just whut's got us uh pullin' and uh haulin' and sweatin' and doin' from can't see in de mornin' till can't see at night'” (23). Janie defies her grandmother's wisdom and seeks to define love and marriage for herself. Though life with Tea Cake is rough, Janie feels a “self-crushing love” (128) for him in large measure because she can speak her mind with him. When things go badly for them it is not the result of an accident, nor a loss of love. A dog bite infects Tea Cake with rabies and during one of his “fits of gagging and choking” (177) Janie kills him in self-defense. she is acquitted of murder, though some people believe that her light-skinned appearance rather than Tea Cake's condition was the cause. “ ’Well, you know whut dey say,' ” she overhears one man say to another, “ ’“uh white man and uh nigger woman is de freest thing on earth.” Dey do as dey please' ” (189). But what these men do not realize is how strongly Janie had identified, through her intense love, with a black man. “Of course he wasn't dead,” she thinks to herself. “He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking.” Janie's appeal lies in her will to consolidate racial and gender DIFFERENCES : “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net… . So much of life in its meshes!” (193).

The final words of the novel just quoted are transmitted by the narrator, but they are spoken from Janie's point of view and are informed by her style and word choices. In Narrative Theory, this is known as a variation of third-person perspective (or “voice”), free indirect discourse.

The bulk of the novel is narrated this way, with point of view shifting from an omniscient voice to one that sounds a lot like Janie. Describing her in her Jacksonville boarding house, the narrator concludes, “But, don't care how firm your determination is, you can't keep turning round in one place like a horse grinding sugar cane. So Janie took to sitting over the room… .” (118). The third-person point of view is here permeated by Janie's sensibility, though there is no trace of the dialectal forms Hurston uses when she records speech. Free indirect discourse gives the reader access to a character's consciousness without surrendering a vantage point outside of it. Another important facet of Hurston's narrative style is the use of dialect. Hurston studied anthropology under Franz Boas and possessed a sensitive and intuitive ear for folklore, especially the performances of “mule-talkers” and “big picture talkers” who used “a side of the world for a canvas” (54). Lengthy portions of Their Eyes Were Watching God are given over to speakers whose words are rendered in dialectal form. A notable example is Nanny's story in chapter two. A Formalist approach to narrative might concentrate on skaz, a technique for rendering precisely the speech characteristics of an oral storyteller. In the examples quoted above, skaz calls our attention to the individualized teller, as opposed to the omniscient narrator. This narrative polyphony, which M. M. Bakhtin called HETEROGLOSSIA, undermines the dominance of an omniscient narrator and creates a dynamic, DIALOGIC space in which Janie's own voice can be discovered, heard, and appreciated.


Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperPerennial, 1998.