On “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

by vinnyhaddad

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was an intensely fun, intensely harrowing book to encounter for the first time in my QE prep. The ways in which Hurston develops the consciousness of Janie through the form of the novel illustrates both the flexibility and adaptability of the form and Hurston’s creativity with the tools of narration at her disposal. In a number of exemplary early novels, the art of writing and the physical inscription of the words on the page were integral to the storytelling. The documentary or early realist novel, often labeled as “histories” or “life stories,” often exploited this act of physical inscription as part of its aesthetic practice. For example, Pamela’s ability to capture moments of her tenuous love affair with Mr. B is dramatized by her ability to write them down quickly in letters to her parents. Robinson Crusoe’s journal faces the danger of him running out of ink on the island. Tristram Shandy humorously satirizes this preoccupation with both realism and documentation by exploring the deep anxiety of recording one’s life (where to begin, what happens when I reach the point when its just me writing everyday, how do I ever catch up to the present, etc.). While the physical inscription of words on the page was not ubiquitous by any means, it represents for many, Walter Ong comes to mind here, an actual, epochal shift in what story-telling is and can be. Their Eyes are Watching God inverts this model. When Janie initiates the story of her life in a conversation with Phoeby in Chapter 2, Hurston utilizes an extended first person narratorial mode that is justified much in the way the writing of Crusoe and Pamela is “justified.” Following the evolution of Janie’s consciousness occurs with the backdrop of us “learning to read” the “Other’s” storytelling, the both “non-novelistic” and “hyper-novelistic” heteroglossia.As Janie’s consciousness moves from, in Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s terms, “being object to subject,” the narrator shifts between multiple modes. It is noteworthy that in this crucial foregrounding of Janie’s storytelling, she conflates her own story with her Grandma’s voice, beginning with the direct speech act of her grandma: “You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways” (16). The grandma goes on the recount a few memories from her time as a slave and the ways in which Janie’s situation still have attachments to that historical moment. Marianne Hirsch, in her writing on transgenerational trauma of the Holocaust, terms this foregrounding of a prior generation’s memory as postmemory:  “Postmemory describes the relationship of the second generation to powerful, often traumatic, experiences that preceded their births but that were nevertheless transmitted to them so deeply as to seem to constitute memories in their own right.” There is such a strong attachment to this memory of her grandmother that Janie cannot help but tell her own story without her grandmother’s story. Against this backdrop, Janie’s opportunities to vocalize her desires, to both “feel historical” and live in the moment, emerges in the tension through language, dialect and oration.

On the one hand, Hurston’s interest in anthropology is on display in this utilization of dialect. In her essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression,” she lays out a fascinating map of “negro expression,” including insightful arguments about the origin of metaphor and the adornment of language (verbal, physical, and cultural). In her section on dialect, she states, “If we are to believe the majority of writers of Negro dialect and the burnt-cork artists, Negro speech is a weird thing, full of ‘ams’ and ‘Ises.’ Fortunately we don’t have to believe them. We may go directly to the Negro and let him speak for himself.” Her use of dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God can be seen as serving as a sort of corrective for misinterpretations of Negro dialect and as opening a narrative space to “let [the Negro] speak for himself.” On the other hand, the oral is clearly valuated by its contrast to the linguistic prowess of the “author.” Although, in a similar fashion to The Golden Bowl, the narrator does not offer much in the way of moral judgments on the character’s actions, or as a corrective force over their language, the contrast in the language itself creates a sometimes synergistic, sometimes antagonistic reading experience.  The lyrical beauty of the narrator is contrasted by the sometimes painfully limited ability for characters to express themselves. However, the two speakers, narrator and protagonist, are united in fascinating moments through free indirect discourse, like, for example, in the court case:

“They all leaned over to listen while she talked. First thing she had to remember was she was not at home. She was in the courthouse fightin something and it wasn’t death. It was worse than that. It was lying thoughts. She had to go way back to let them know how she and Tea Cake had been with one another so they could see she could never shoot Tea Cake out of malice. She tried to make them see how terrible it was that things were fixed so that Tea Cake couldn’t come back to himself until he had got rid of that mad dog that was in him and he coulnd’t get rid of the dog and live. He had to die to get rid of the dog. Be she hadn’t wanted to kill him. A man is up against a hard game when he must die to beat it. She made them see how she couldn’t ever want to be rid of him. She didn’t plead to anybody. She just sat there and told and when she was through she hushed” (187).

In this moment, when Janie ought and need to give an account of herself in order to save her life, in a space that requires an oration, the lack of direct speech is fascinating. This moment has an interesting symmetry to a moment in her marriage with Jody, when she is the town asks for a ‘few words of encouragement from Mrs. Mayor Starks,’ prompting Jody to stand up and say: “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” (43). In a later moment when Jody helps protect a mule from overwork, Janie steps “in front of Joe” and the following interaction takes place:

“Jody, dat wuz uh mighty fine thing fuh you tuh do. ‘Tain’t everybody would have thought of it, ‘cause it ain’t no everyday though. Freein’ dat mule makes uh mighty big man outa you. Something like George Washington and Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, he had do whole United States tuh rule so he freed de Negroes. You got uh town so you freed uh mule. You have tuh have power tuh free things and dat makes you lak uh king uh something.’

‘Hambo said, ‘Yo’ wife is uh born orator, Starks. Us never knowed dat befo’. She just put de right words tuh our thoughts.’

Joe bit down hard on his cigar and beamed all around, but he never said a word.”

In this moment, Janie steps out of her position of silent object and offers a caustic appraisal of Joe’s self-aggrandizing action. Her words have power, as she “put de right words tuh our thoughts’ and facilitated the mule becoming a topic of conversation across the town for a week. This moment recalls Hurston’s discussion of “metaphor” as a way to put an image to language, which exists as an abstraction from reality earlier in that same essay “Characteristics of Negro Expression.” Interestingly, however, this moment also illustrates Janie’s ability to subtly manipulate multiple affective planes while speaking in coded language. Again, the reference to Lincoln is one that is a memory that is not her own, or the people to whom she is addressing. He is a myth who calls to the surface that postmemory that contains within it a different sort of trauma, a psychic trauma caused by existing in a world that is not one’s own because it is dominated by a previous generation’s experiences. Yet, it also operates as an emasculating weapon against Joe, who ventriloquizes the greatness of white leaders on an impotently small scale. And yet, it is ambiguous whether or not the other’s in the town have the interpretive capacity to understand exactly how this speech act functions as a metaphor, as a way of “making real” the abstractions of “white” language (an abstraction that Hurston poignantly uses “money” as the metaphor to explain). That the court case exhibits a return to this absenting of Janie’s direct speech acts suggests the possibility that her transformation from an object to a subject, as Henry Louis Gates Jr. suggests in his Afterword to the text, is not entirely straightforward. It is still mediated through the “expert” linguist in Bakhtinian terms: the “author.” Hurston creates an aesthetic through these shifting linguistic acts that suggest an ambivalence towards  Janie ever “achieving” freedom, whether that freedom is from men or from a memory.