Wednesday, July 29, 2009

On Their Eyes Were Watching God

When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.

First published in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God was either ignored or disparaged by her contemporaries and was all but forgotten until 1975, when Alice Walker penned an article for Ms. magazine called "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston." Walker had learned of Hurston's burial in an unmarked grave and was furious at such an ignoble end for the author of such powerful, life-affirming works. Since then, Their Eyes Were Watching God has been ranked up there with Faulkner and Fitzgerald as a Modernist-era American classic. What I loved instantly about this book, recalls Mary Helen Washington in her introduction, "besides its high poetry and its female hero was its investment in black folk traditions." Janie Crawford's quest for identity and self-actualization takes her, "unlike so many other questing figures in black literature, not away from, but deeper into blackness, the descent into the Everglades with its rich black soil, wild cane, and communal life representing immersion into black traditions." Despite its short length (193 pages), Their Eyes Were Watching God is a complex tale of love, selfhood, and the relations between men and women, blacks and whites.

Ironically, it was Hurston's distinct use of African-American dialect and storytelling traditions, as well as her honest portraits of African-American life in the South, that earned her the harsh denunciation of other black writers. Alain Locke, a prominent scholar in the Harlem Renaissance, once asked, for example, when Hurston was going to quit writing about "these pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weep over, and envy" and instead "come to grips with the motive fiction and social document fiction?" To Ralph Ellison, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a "blight of calculated burlesque." At the core of such complaints is that Watching God does not "protest" enough, does not adequately depict the hardships of the Southern black community, and is, quite frankly, embarrassing in its frank portrayals of poor and working-class African-Americans. In fact, I wonder if the character of Mrs. Turner was meant, at least in part, to be a subtle answer to such claims.
[Janie] ". . . We'se uh mingled people and all of us got black kinfolks as well as yaller kinfolks. How come you so against black?"

[Mrs. Turner] "And dey makes me tired. Always laughin'! Dey laughs too much and dey talks too loud. Always singin' ol' nigger songs! Always cuttin' de monkey for white folks. If it wuzn't for so many black folks it wouldn't be no race problem. De white folks would take us wid dem. De black ones is holdin' us back."
Ultimately, Watching God is not a political novel, no, but there is an element of protest in the way it brings to life a time, place, and culture in all its highs and lows. It is worth noting that nearly all these harsh and/or dismissive critics - black and white - are male. Watching God is a feminist story, one now considered the first real feminist work in the history of African-American literature.

Janie Crawford's mother was the daughter of a slave and her master, conceived near the end of the Civil War. Janie's grandmother, Nanny, wished for her daughter to achieve security and respectability, but her rape at the hands of a schoolteacher (Janie's father) and subsequent alcoholism placed the burden of the such high hopes on Janie. By age sixteen, Janie is aware that love between men and women exists, but is more or less forced into marriage to a widower decades her senior who just happens to own forty acres. Later, Janie will sum up her grandmother's attitude as one of ignorant hope, of praying for only the appearance of a thing without knowledge of what fulfillment of her prayers actually entailed.
"She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn't sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin' on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat's what she wanted for me - didn't keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn't have time tuh think what tuh do after you got up on de stool ud do nothin'. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Phoeby, Ah done nearly languished tud death up dere. Ah felt lak de world wuz cryin' extry and Ah ain't read de common-news yet."
According to Eugene D. Genovese's Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made, a study in the antebellum institute of Southern paternalism (similar to the seigneurial societies of slave-holding Latin America and the Caribbean), all was not what it seemed with white women high up on the pedestal. The plantation master was essentially the stern patriarch of "the family, both black and white," as was the common term. And therein lay the danger, says Genovese, "for Southern men at this time had significant leeway with regards to the treatment of wives and children [and slaves] that was also informed by a rigid sense of honor. The result was a doctrine of fundamental arrogance and domination that sanctioned cruelty to wayward familial subordinates." Genovese talks extensively about the Southern code of honor, which is essentially about at least the appearance of The Man being in control of his castle (or semi-feudal fiefdom) as it relates to his social status among other men.

Jody Starks, Janie's citified, highfalutin' second husband (whom she ran off with), may be seen as a black, twentieth-century descendant of this old system, ironically upholding the ideal of the "good master." His charisma quickly establishes him as the life-long mayor of Eatonville, Florida, the country's first all-black incorporated township. He resides in the "big house" (the biggest in the neighborhood) with a wife (Janie) whose aloof, genteel character is to set her apart from her husband's "subordinates," for whom he admits to having little actual respect (he states all this explicitly). Of course, the problem with this notion of idealizing women as distant, unattainable objects - besides the basic denial of female humanity - is that these women (white) must inevitably be set against another group of women (black) who are thereby prevented from ever achieving "respectability" and are consequently seen as guilt-free objects of abuse and derision. Nanny's forced "relationship" with her former master exemplifies this. But overall, inherent to this system of gender relations is a dichotomous objectification of women. One group is held up as mere decorative symbols of their male relatives' status. The other group is, well, the "other" who somehow embodies everything the former group is not to be.

Whereas Nanny may have suffered from being part of the "other" (as does Mrs. Turner, in her self-loathing and desire to be "more white"), Janie, as "Mrs. Mayor Starks," is crushed under the burden of a husband who dominates her and everyone else around him, and who risks "losing face" if Janie is ever seen to publicly rebuke him (as she eventually does). The oppression is so onerous that his death after twenty years of marriage is not a tragedy but a moment of freedom and self-reclamation.
Years ago, she had told her girl self to wait for her in the looking glass. It had been a long time since she had remembered. Perhaps she'd better look. She went over to the dresser and looked at her skin and features. The young girl was gone, but a handsome woman had taken her place. She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there. She took careful stock of herself, then combed her hair and tied it back up again. Then she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see, and opened the window and cried, "Come heah people! Jody is dead. Mah husband is gone from me."
It is while enjoying her life as a single woman (and rejecting many well-heeled suitors) that Janie meets Tea Cake and re-ignites her journey from object (Jody's status symbol) to her own subject. In his essay (my edition's Afterward) "Zora Neale Hurston: 'A Negro Way of Saying,'" Henry Louis Gates, Jr. also notes the narrative's accompanying shift "from third to a blend of first and third person (known as 'free indirect discourse'), signifying this awareness of self in Janie." Kate Chopin's The Awakening is, I think, another great exploration of the South's traditional binary view of women, as seen from a totally different perspective: that of a wealthy white woman who ends up committing suicide, almost as though she has no idea what to do once she has achieved this "awareness of self." Janie, by contrast, and as Mary Helen Washington has observed, has another route available to her: that of going "deeper into blackness," living among and appreciating the rich African-American folk culture.

Not that Tea Cake is quite the paragon as he seems at first. He hits Janie at one point (Hurston says "whipped," but it doesn't sound like that's what it actually was), acting out of jealousy for the attention given to her by the other male migrant workers. He simply wished to ease his mind. It was a violent action solely for his benefit, regardless of its effect on Janie.
Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it the next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.

"Tea Cake, you sho is a lucky man," Sop-de-Bottom told him. "Uh person can see every place you hit her. Ah bet she never raised her hand tuh hit yuh back, neither. Take some uh dese ol' rusty black women and dey would fight yuh all night long and next day nobody couldn't tell you ever hit'em."
Today, a woman who returns to a man who hits her is seen as pitiable and suffering low self-esteem; here, however, domestic violence is just another fact of life. Although Hurston's narrative is very straightforward at this point - no judgment, just a description of what happened and how people reacted to it - for the male critics to argue there is no "protest" in Watching God is simply laughable. This is a world where even the most adoring, liberal-minded man still sees violence against women as a natural extension of his male dominance. True, within a few pages it's like the whole episode never happened. But I don't think that indicates Hurston's implicit approval. If anything, it's a reminder of the harsh reality for Southern women (black and white - refer to Genovese's theories on Southern patriarchy again). Sometimes, the best method of protest rhetoric is to simply describe rather than loudly condemn or indulge in pathos.

That instance of domestic violence may also be taken as foreshadowing of Tea Cake's rabies infection, which eventually drives him so murderously insane that Janie is forced to shoot him in self-defense. She is subsequently tried for murder. Strangely enough, the white people - including the all-white, all-male jury - are the ones who sympathize with her, while the other African-Americans jeer and denounce her in the courtroom. "She didn't kill no white man, did she?" one black man says to another. "Well, long as she don't shoot no white man she kin kill jus' as many niggers as she please." His companion agrees: "Well, you know whut dey say 'uh white man and a nigger woman is de freest thing on earth.' Dey do as dey please." In addition to the extremely uncomfortable depiction of the dymanics both within the African-American community and between African-Americans and whites, this particular attitude is striking in light of the earlier incident with Tea Cake, as well as the oppression Janie had previously experienced with Jody Starks. I see it as a reminder of the hard time some men seem to have accepting that feminism is needed because women do not receive the respect in society that they deserve. There's the race element too, but that's a whole 'nother can of worms.

Hurston does indeed deal with both the wrongs and the rights of Southern society, but she also celebrates is positive aspects and writes a female protagonist who rises above the obstacles thrown in her way. Their Eyes Were Watching God is an incredibly rich book that as much an historical document as it is a novel. Hurston's portrayal of a time and place is vivid and done in stunning prose. Every so often, the literary atmosphere changes and a near-forgotten author is remembered again, and the world of fiction is all the better for it. This is one of those cases.

Also: in my last Sunday Salon post, I expressed my annoyance with the disparity between the standard English of the narrator and the heavy dialect spoken by the characters. Reading some essays written on Watching God has led me to change my mind on that, however. Henry Louis Gates sees this as a literary manifestation of what W.E.B. Du Bois, in his book The Souls of Black Folk, called African-Americans' "double-consciousness." According to Gates: "Hurston's unresolved tension between her double voices signifies her full understanding of modernism. Hurston uses two voices in her text to celebrate the psychological fragmentation both of modernity and of the black American." I think it was jarring at first to see this "disconnect" between the narrator and the dialogue, but now it makes sense.

7 comments:

julie said...

This novel was such a shock to me! I read it almost ten years ago, when living in Virginia as an au-pair... It's a burning book.

E. L. Fay said...

Yep. I agree - especially when you consider the time it was written in. Even today, it's still a bit radical.

Emily said...

Oh man, this is definitely in my top ten novels of all time, and your analysis and excerpts reminded me how much I love it. Her prose is so gorgeous, and her world so rich. I want to re-read right now!

E. L. Fay said...

"Rich" is definitely the right word for her world. It's like a mini social history lesson!

Eric said...

Watching God is a feminist story, one now considered the first real feminist work in the history of African-American literature.

I don't know. I listened to a friends paper at a grad conference where he argued Phillis Wheatley wrote the first feminist works in African-American and American literature.

But I loved this book when I originally read it. You're review made me remember how much I loved it.

claire said...

I just read it and stunned by its beauty.

E. L. Fay said...

Eric: Hmmm, I was going by what I read in the introduction and another essay included as the afterword. But since Wheatley was a poet, maybe Watching God is the first prose work of its kind?

Claire: Amazing, isn't it? Having read Huck Finn, though, I find myself comparing the two uses of black dialect. Twain still gets trashed for it today, whereas Hurston was controversial for it at first, but is now praised it today.

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