Community and Identity

Over the course Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie resides in several communities, each of which play an important role in the story, and serve as essential influences on Janie’s life. At different stages in her life, Janie lives with her Nanny, in Eatonville, and in the muck. The presence of these different communities in Hurston’s writing contributes to Janie as a character, and also enhances the story by playing the part of either antagonist or protagonist. Until Janie reaches her late teens, she lives with her grandmother in a community inhabited by black and white people. This community only serves as an antagonist to Janie, who does not seem to fit into the society in any respect. Race plays a large factor in Janie being an outcast, as she is black, but has lighter skin than all the other black people. As a child, Janie does not even realize that she is actually black until she is pointed out in a photograph among a group of white children. After growing up confused about her identity, Janie struggles with conflicting thoughts about love and marriage. As a young adult, Janie envisions a pear tree that represents love and the relationship she desires: “I want things sweet wid mah marriage” (24), says Janie, who wants to marry someone she loves, and wants to spend her lifetime with that person. When Nanny sees that her granddaughter is becoming a woman, she tells Janie that at this point in her life, she must consider marriage. Nanny worries for Janie, and forces upon her the idea that marriage does not have to be about love. According to Nanny, Janie’s first priority is to find a husband that will be able to provide for her own security. This pressure from Nanny leads Janie to marry Logan Killicks, who owns a respectable 60 acres of land. Janie is not one bit attracted to her husband, who she believes is one person that “was never meant to be loved” (24). Janie “knew now that marriage did not make love,” and she realized that her “first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (25). These thoughts are the main reason why Janie’s life in this community represents her broken dreams. Janie’s life with Logan only adds to her collection of miserable memories in the early stages of her life, as her unattractive and dull first husband treats her like she is his property. For this reason, Janie runs away with Joe Starks shortly after meeting him, hoping that this man can provide for her while also giving her a life that is closer to her dream. Upon her arrival in Eatonville, Janie begins a new chapter of her life, which she shares with her new husband Jody. Jody quickly becomes mayor of Eatonville, establishing that he and Janie make up the higher and wealthier social class in this black community. It immediately becomes obvious that the small town of Eatonville revolves around the group of “porch sitters,” whose recreation is gossip. Janie becomes a popular discussion topic among the porch sitters, who are jealous of her and find satisfaction in showing antipathy towards her for her differences in class, gender, and race. As the Mayor’s wife and companion in “the big house,” Janie is regarded as somewhat of an authority figure in Eatonville, and she “soon began to feel the impact of awe and envy against her sensibilities” (46). Janie is aware that she is a common topic of gossip among the town’s porch sitters, but she goes about her life without letting any of this get to her. Unfortunately, once Janie is settled with Jody, she finds dissatisfaction in the way that she is now forced to live. After years of being completely controlled and publicly picked on by Joe, Janie reaches her boiling point and decides to snap back, making fun of Joe while other men of Eatonville are present. The devastating comments take away Joe’s manhood, and hurt him more than ever. At this point, he basically ends his life with Janie, and although they continue to live under the same roof, Joe never talks Janie and hardly ever even sees her. Even when Joe becomes fatally ill, he refuses to see Janie, and never forgives her for what she has done to him. Janie is left well off after Joe’s death, and is now free in many aspects of her life. Without many of her previous obligations, Janie continues to run the store in Eatonville, carrying out a life that she is content with. At this time, the emerging friendship between Janie and Phoebe Watson becomes apparent. Phoebe actually leaves the group of porch sitters to accompany Janie. Janie becomes close to Phoebe, and the reader is able to see that Janie has made perhaps her only true and lifelong friend. When Janie meets Tea Cake at the store and their romance begins, she is finally part of a relationship that resembles her first dream. Still represented by the now faint image of the pear tree, this dream had been growing more and more distant as her life progressed. The people of Eatonville are skeptical about Janie getting into a relationship with Tea Cake so quickly following Jody’s death, and they question whether she ever felt grief when her husband died. Phoebe even advises Janie not to make her love for this new freedom obvious, as “folks will say [she] ain’t sorry he’s gone” (93). Janie now finds that at this point in her life she is freer than ever, as she possesses love, money, and friendship for the first time. Although Janie has her share of bad experiences in the town, Eatonville can be seen as a protagonist because the community allows Janie to acquire these feelings and possessions that she has never had before. When Janie leaves Eatonville in able to be with Tea Cake, the couple soon settles in the muck. Although Tea Cake takes Janie to work with him in the fields during the day, Janie is happy with her life in the muck, and enjoys having fun with Tea Cake. The couple’s house attracts guests on a regular basis, and they even become friends with some Bahamian workers. Janie’s experience in the muck also shows the reader that she truly loves her new husband, and will do anything to maintain their relationship. This is seen when Janie does not refuse Tea Cake’s beating, which serves as his means of establishing control. Janie’s time with her husband in the muck is cut short because of the devastating hurricane and the events leading to Tea Cake’s death following the disaster. When Tea Cake’s rabies leave him with little hope of survival, Janie continues to love him more than anything in the world; “Ah loves him fit tuh kill. Tell me anything to do and Ah’ll do it” (177), Janie tells the Doctor. Although Janie’s life in the muck results in the death of Tea Cake, the community continues to represent the type of life similar to Janie’s dream. As long as Janie’s memories of her life with Tea Cake in the muck continue to live, so will Tea Cake’s spirit. “He could never be dead until [Janie] herself had finished feeling and thinking” (193). It is because of this that the muck can be seen as a protagonist in the story of Janie’s life. In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie’s experiences in each of the communities, the muck, Eatonville, and the environment in which Janie spends her early life, all impact Janie as a character in both positive and negative ways. Overall, communities play an important role in Janie’s character development throughout Hurston’s novel, serving as both protagonists and antagonists.

Nature’s Role in Their Eyes Were Watching God

“It [the tiny bloom] had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously” (13). Zora Neale Hurston, an African-American author, is known for her expressive and imaginative language. Her use of imagery, particularly of nature, is used to stimulate the audience’s imagination while communicating deep significance in a novel. The imagery of nature in one of her most famous works, Their Eyes Were Watching God, creates a unique parallel between the two sides of nature: its beauty and its devastation. Protagonist Janie Crawford’s ideal of contentment is shown in Hurston’s imagery of a pear tree, which represents nature’s beauty. The pear tree represents Janie’s idealized views of nature, as it demonstrates her naïve and romantic character which constantly seeks true love, and her idealism of the harmony in a marriage based upon love as she travels a path of self-discovery throughout the novel. “Oh, to be . . . a tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world” (14). Hurston deliberately describes the pear tree in this fashion to show the relation between a blossoming tree, which is blooming as it grows, to the significant character changes in Janie as she marries different men in an attempt to discover happiness in a loving marriage. As the bees interact with the tree’s blossoms, she witnesses perfection in nature’s simple beauty, which is captured in Hurston’s imaginative description. This energy, passionate interaction, and blissful harmony are ideals Janie chases throughout the rest of the novel. As the protagonist sees harmony with nature, she ultimately seeks harmony within herself, as her final husband Tea Cake brings out true love that is deeply rooted in Janie’s ideals of marriage.The devastating aspects of nature in Their Eyes Were Watching God are shown through the hurricane, as natural disasters depict Mother Nature’s most destructive elements. Hurston personifies the sea, the most destructive force of the hurricane, by comparing it to a monster that “had left its bed.” As Lake Okechobee breaks through the dikes with two hundred mile per hour winds, the author describes the monster with, “he seized hold of his dikes and ran forward until he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers” (189). To describe the further devastation, the sea is described as “walking the earth with a heavy heel.” The imagery gives a haunting description of how nature, often thought of as peaceful, can also cause immense devastation. To expand on this description, Hurston shows the character’s thoughts with, “through the screaming wind they heard things crashing and things hurtling and dashing with unbelievable velocity . . . and the lake got madder with only its dikes between them and him [God]” (186). The devastation of nature, shown in Hurston’s colorful imagery of the hurricane, greatly enhances the characters’ perception of God, the creator of the world. The storm that ultimately determines the direction of the novel includes the first appearance of the title as Tea Cake, Janie, and Motor Boat look up to the black sky and “their eyes question God.” Hurston writes, “night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands” (185). The imagery in this scene not only personifies nature and the storm, but immediately draws attention to the importance of the title within the characters Janie and Tea Cake. The hurricane causes the characters to see God’s power through nature, and thus submit to forces beyond their control as they realize they are inferior beings. Hurston makes several references to Janie and Tea Cake’s eyes, which are focused on God. As the two stand in awe of the storm, the author writes “they seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God” (187). In following passages, the book reads, “their eyes were questioning God” (186), showing the perplexity of the characters in God’s plan for them as powerless human beings. It is interesting that two Christians question all that they know about God’s universal love and protection through a single event, as they realize that nature’s power far surpasses their own. As the storm dies down and the two characters rest after wading through floods for several miles, Janie begins to notice the anguish and pain of the world around her. The author remarks, “havoc was there [in a town of refuge] with her mouth wide open” (195). Not only do the characters submit to his almighty power, but the hurricane identifies another question of how can be God a loving heavenly father when he creates such devastation.The destructive side of nature brings about dark imagery that decides the novel’s conclusion. Chaos resulting from the hurricane brings about nature’s dark side as Tea Cake gets bitten by a rabid dog in an attempt to save Janie from drowning. The image of darkness is used to show fierceness and the destructive side of nature, contrasting previous descriptions of nature’s divine beauty in the pear tree. To depict darkness in the scene with the dog, the novel reads, “the dog stood up and growled like a lion, stiff-standing hackles, stiff muscles, teeth uncovered as he lashed up his fury for the charge” (194). Janie tells Tea Cake later on, “Ah don’t speck you seen his eyes lak Ah did. He didn’t aim tuh jus’ bite me . . . he aimed tuh kill me . . . Ah’m never tuh fughit dem eyes [of] pure hate” (196). It is interesting that Janie remarks not on the dog’s fierceness, but on the hate and cruelty in his eyes. This quote relates back to the importance and significance of the title, as eyes watch God, and question the future. The mad dog’s eyes that infect the love of Janie’s life life, Tea Cake, causing him to die, foreshadow the ending of the novel and cause her to question God’s seemingly dark plan in her life’s journey to find contentment in herself and the world around her.

The Alpha Female

The Alpha FemaleZora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God shows the Southern black women not as the weak and submissive slaves of their husbands, but rather, Eyes traces the development of Janie as the independent black woman. Stepping over her three husbands over the course of her adolescence to middle-age adulthood, she establishes her own role in the community. Fundamental differences between men and women govern her relationship with these men; but regardless, she triumphs over all of them. By taking strength from Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake, Janie, in effect, becomes the alpha male.In her first marriage with Logan Killicks, Janie is too young and inexperienced to realize the complexities of male and female communication. Drawn into the fantasy of the “dust-bearing bee sink[ing] into the sanctum of a bloom”, she thinks that marriages are a simple unification of any man with any woman like any bee to any blossom. Directed by her grandmother, Janie marries Logan, a man who although certainly deserves some merit for his self-subsistence farm, definitely lacks the power to be the alpha male. Instead, he attempts to compensate for his lack of physical attractiveness with Janie the most desirable female. However, she sees clearly through his facade and leaves him to his self-delusional world living on his farm at the edge of society. By leaving him, Janie gains a better sense of love; and that to attain it, she must reach it by herself.Joe Starks, better known as Jody, draws his power from those he steps on to reach the top. Although originally, Jody seems like “a bee for her bloom” that would have “flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything”, his charm and magic vanishes immediately with their wedding. Her first impressions of him that of the alpha male, sharply dressed and well educated; however, soon she realizes that his own insecurities cause him to lash out at others. According to Tannen’s book You Just Don’t Understand, Jody lives “as an individual in a hierarchical social order in which he [is] either one-up or one-down” from the people of Eatonville. In his struggle to rise to the top, he flaunts Janie as his prized possession and representation of his power. However, Jody becomes overly flamboyant and ostentatious with his gold spitting cup that, according to Gladwell’s article Listening to Khakis, “a fop” or overly “effeminate”. By doing this, he loses his manhood and his rank in the male hierarchical social order. In essence, he becomes the woman, concerned with fashion and overly self-confident.For years, Jody silences Janie and forces her to put her hair up to hide her budding sexuality. Even toward the end of his life when his power over the townsfolk wavers, he tries to hang on to the person over whom he thinks he has overwhelming influence. Like a beaten wolf fighting off other wolves from his idolized mate, Jody tries to keep her out of public reach. Instead, he wants her visible enough to show her off; but far away so that the men like Hicks would “sink back and lose interest at once.” The final confrontation between him and Janie eventually destroys him by castrating the leadership that he cherishes. Her attack not only humbles his rank, but also robs “him of his illusion of irresistible maleness that all men cherish” as their undeniable privilege. No matter how low a man’s position can be, he would still be a man. In Jody’s case, Janie even takes that away from him. By killing him, Janie becomes the alpha male of the town. However, Jody’s influence over her still ties her down to the position of a widow and not as an independent woman.Strongly contrasting the two previous husbands, Tea Cake does not just live in a fantasy world of self-delusion; but he is actually the alpha male. As Gladwell points out, Tea Cake is the nervous “Vons bagboy”, that is not overly confident. Such as when he throws the party for the poor workers on the muck, he worries that they are “no high muckty mucks” for Janie’s sophistication. It is this little degree of self doubt that keeps him a man and different from Jody. Throwing parties, beating Janie, winning poker, are all ways in which Tea Cake asserts himself as the alpha male. He also seems to be outside of society; like in the way he leaves the crowd when everyone watches the baseball game. With this isolation and hard work on the muck, he personifies Tannen’s idea of a man in constant “struggle to preserve independence and avoid failure.” Always independent and avoiding economic failure, Tea Cake leads the life desired by so many other men. It is interesting to note however, that this isolation makes him desire the friendship that so many men, as in the Dockers commercials, also want. He finds the friendship through Janie; and throughout their marriage, it seems as if they have more of a best friend relationship than a husband and wife relationship.During her relationship with Tea Cake, Janie goes through a massive reversal of roles as she becomes the alpha male. First, by association with Jody, the former mayor, the townspeople already respect her and revere her to a certain degree. Also, the other men try to move in on her by “driving considerable distances to ask her welfare” to try to curry her favor. In her control of suitors, she exerts a certain amount or alpha male quality. Second, when Janie courts Tea Cake, the townsfolk do not openly attack her for her age or her association with him. She controls Eatonville and in her new status as alpha female, no one dares approach her. Third, although unintentionally, Janie kills Tea Cake. In killing the alpha male, she takes his place as the head of the pack. As evident in her opening return to Eatonville, the women of the town may talk badly of her, but none are brave enough to approach Janie face-to-face. Tea Cake finalizes her transition from the curious young girl to the powerful societal debutante with no opposition.Through each of her three husbands, Janie learns an important part of her own development. Also, by killing each husband, she steals what they have or what they represent. In her first marriage, Janie learns that love does not come easy and that she would die id she settles with security. By leaving him, she frees herself from the mediocre life guaranteed by Logan. Eager for love, Janie marries Jody. However, the goals she hoped to accomplish through him died out with the years of suppression. In his death, she earns the title and power that he wielded in a town of leadership rabble. Her last marriage to Tea Cake, is neither for security nor for the false hopes of a happy future. She marries him for the love that she believed had forsaken her. When he dies, she realizes that her happiness does not depend on other people, but rather it is for her to reach.

Uses of Metonymy in Their Eyes Were Watching God

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston uses metonymy several times in order to express motifs which appear throughout the novel. For instance, one of the clearest examples of metonymy, the porch, appears as a whole or general entity, which Hurston uses to describe specific elements of Janie’s experience, in this case, the people, or particularly, the men. The porch represents a community, a cooperative body of people. At the end of the day, Hurston notes, the porch serves as a place to relax for the black people, after, “Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins” (1). Here, people gather to socialize, becoming one body, an example of metonymy.Most importantly, the porch acts as a gathering place for Eatonville’s men to engage in discussions and forums. For example, Hurston states, “The porch was boiling now. Starks left the store to Hezekiah Potts, the delivery boy, and come took a seat in his high chair” (66). This quotation shows the conformist nature of the black men of Janie’s community. Instead of describing how Lige Moss, Sam Watson, or others boiled, Hurston depicts them as a collective body where all share the same ignorant sentiments and views and find themselves unwilling to profess a different set of opinions. They boil, laugh, and cry at the same time for the same reasons. The “boiling” does not apply to Jody’s porch itself, but the men which occupy and define it. Plus, this example shows that Jody’s porch holds a central role in the community and reinforces his role as the leader ­the one who sits in the “high chair.”Moreover, the men often engage in misogynistic talk, as Hurston describes the black female experience. She notes, “That was what the porch was waiting for. They burst into a laugh.” When a destitute, but persistent mother begs Joe for a little free sustenance from his store (73). By laughing at her, the entire porch humiliates her, ensuring that she, as well as other women, remain lower than men. This quotation shows how the men, in their conformity, mistrust the woman and reduce her to an inferior status, knowing she must subordinate herself to them to survive and taking advantage of that. Thus, Hurston vents her distaste with certain spineless black men. However, this metonymy represents both the negative and the positive of black life: the collectively oppressive force of black men as well as a strong sense of community.Another example of metonymy appears in chapter six. Here, the mule roughly represents the black woman; an example of metonymy where one word substitutes another that seems closely associated. Although most readers do not often see the comparison of a black woman to a mule, in black tradition and in the black experience, this comparison often surfaces. As a black female writer, Hurston most likely chose this metonymy for its empathy towards the black woman. As Nanny forewarns Janie in her younger years, “De nigger woman is de mule of de world so fur as Ah can see” (14). Nanny also confesses that she prays Janie can receive a better life. Yet, the way Matt Bonner starves his mule of food reminds the reader how Jody starves Janie of independence. Janie empathizes with the poor creature when, “Five or six more men left the porch and surrounded the fractious beast, goosing him in the sides and making him show his temper. But he had more spirit left than body. He was soon panting and heaving from the effort of spinning his old carcass about. Everybody was having fun at the mule-baiting. All but Janie” (57).The mule represents the black woman, especially Janie, a mulatto. Like the half-horse, half-donkey mule, Janie comes from the merging of different parents, one black and one white. The two words even sound alike. Even Joe’s purchase of the mule serves as a clever metaphor for Jody’s exploitation of the townsfolk, especially the woman, to glorify himself. Jody buys the mule not to save it from its master’s torment, but to convince the people of his kindness and charity, which he indeed lacks. He therefore prohibits his wife from attending the funeral because the whole charade strikes Jody as a gathering where he can once again promote himself.Yet, he must rid himself of Janie, who might protest against the spectacle. Despite Janie’s absence, the buzzards speak for her when the Parson asks, “What killed this man?” To which the crowd of buzzards replies, “Bare, bare fat.” Meaning the cruelty and starvation the mule endured at the hands of Matt Bonner (62). This echoes the plight of the black woman, who constantly finds herself tormented, controlled, starved, exploited, and beaten by the black man, supposedly her counterpart and supporter. This metonymy serves to depict the toilsome struggles of Janie and her peers via the pathetic and saddening life of the yellow mule.

A Voice of Abandonment

In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie is encouraged to develop her own personality throughout the book, and she is forced into constant movement down roads after being abandoned by her grandmother and her three husbands. This movement allows her the opportunity to explore and form her ideas and voice in solitude. These external variables cause her to look inward and not depend on others as a source of survival. When she finally comes to terms with her influence, she stops fleeing. She realizes that her voice can be heard no matter where she is.Janie’s grandmother and primary caretaker, passes away when Janie is only seventeen years old, this is the rudimentary cause of her flight. In counseling and pacifying Janie, Nanny says that she wanted to “throw up a highway through the wilderness” for her, so that “she [Janie] would expound what Ah [Nanny] felt” (15). Nanny knows that she will be unable to reach a point of freedom to exhibit her own voice in her lifetime, nonetheless this goal is crucial; consequently, she feels that by passing on her stories of slavery and strife to her granddaughter, Janie will accomplish what she has always strived for, and she too will be free. Although Nanny does not feel that she was able to construct a “highway”, in effect, she does give Janie at least the direction of one. Nanny forces Janie out of the ‘cocoon’ when she is sixteen years old, this enables Janie to be exposed to different types of husbands, allowing her to freely conclude that some do not suit her needs. Had she been older, the narrow mind set of her Nanny to remain in one place, even if unhappy, would have been too incorporated into her own unconscious for her to overcome. Nanny also serves to inspire Janie to proceed in the way she does, saying “your grandma done been long uh few roads herself” (23). Janie transcends her grandmother’s ideas — those familiar “roads” her grandmother has walked. Nanny’s ideas, however, are no less important, as they need to be in place in order to allow Janie the opportunity to surpass them. Janie’s relationships with Logan and Joe are a continuation of the journey she is sent on by her grandmother. The two are obstacles that threaten her self-assurance, pride and strength by pushing her to be a subservient wife; she must surmount these to eventually proclaim her voice in the world. Janie first asserts her voice when she decides to leave Logan “even if Joe [is] not there waiting for her… the morning road air [is] like a new dress” (31). Janie realizes that for her to be recognized as an individual with personal tenets she must move her life along the road, the new freedom of thought she attains is so wonderful that it feels like a new garment. She flings her old apron “on a low bush beside the road,” (31), declaring to herself that she will be shrouded in her ideas, not those of others that stray or sit passively beside her road to freedom. In this instant, she actively decides to move on, not simply towards another man. Although this is only the first step, it shows her willingness to become a self-sufficient woman. After taking this action, however, Joe, paradoxically, becomes a more acutely negative version of Logan; he reprimands her, saying, “git yo’ mind out de streets and keep it on yo’ business” (66). What this quote demonstrates is that he is trying to exercise ultimate control over Janie, even to the point of keeping her locked up — immobile. Roads and streets symbolize her ideas and voice, in telling her to keep out of “de streets” he is attempting to take these things away from her. The fact that Janie, even if she externally appears to give in, keeps her mind on the streets, is an illustration of the strength she holds within that allows her to evolve. Streets symbolize her attraction to concepts such as people, community and culture which are larger than herself, as a street is more formal, more heavily traveled upon and usually bigger than a road; these concepts give rise to the texture of her voice. When Joe is on his death bed, Janie verbally expresses her comprehension that he “ain’t de Jody [she] run off down de road wid” (82). She realizes that she has become stagnant and must keep in movement or become discarded as her apron was. This attitude places her in a position to be open to someone like Tea Cake who will come and take her away.Tea Cake focuses all of Janie’s unguided energy by presenting her with knowledge and experiences which enable her to take this intensity and transform it into her own ability to verbalize. He exposes her to “dirt roads so rich and black that a half mile of it would fertiliz[e] a Kansas wheat field” (123). Tea Cake presents her with an opportunity to experience the world, to feel it, and go down the roads that she had only observed. Her ideas which had been malnourished are “fertilized” by his ability to bring her away from the town in which she is stuck and to a more creative environment — the muck, where Janie is surrounded by “pianos living three lifetimes in one. Blues made and used right on the spot. Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour” (125). These are all signs of life, the community and richness of black culture, in which Janie has desperately wanted to partake. Tea Cake must take her away from the town where their leader, Joe, “is like a hog dying down in the swamp and trying to drive off disturbance,” (81). Joe got stuck in the swamp (strayed from her road) and died there, trying to bring Janie down with him, “he didn’t want her to stay young while he grew old” (73). Joe so monopolized her physical movement that her thoughts became her only passage, “now and again she thought of a country road at sun-up and considered flight. To where? To what?” (72). Janie’s life had been structured and planned by Nanny, Logan and Joe to the extent that she would not have known where to seek her freedom without Tea Cake’s guidance. Tea Cake acts as her tour guide to the world, showing her “where” and “what” is available. While Tea Cake is the one to reverse Janie’s muteness and enable her to assert her existence, it is necessary that he die in the storm in order to again place Janie in solitude so that she can attain self-reconciliation. Tea Cake doesn’t die in the actual storm, though the novel suggests that his “time [had] come” (151), which according to Janie is the point that people are destined by God to pass on. This is in order to allow Janie the chance to verbally express her love to Tea Cake and to care for him while he is sick, to pay back the debt she feels she owes him for helping her to travel down her road and assert her voice. When he is sick, with his head in her lap, she tells him “dat God snatched [her] out of de fire through [Tea Cake],” (172). Appropriately, this well articulated gratitude is a result of Tea Cake’s encouragement for her to be an individual. At the end of Janie’s story, she is sitting “combing the road dust out of her hair” (183). She has finally developed herself and gotten her ideas “out”. Her movement has ended. For the rest of her life she will be able to process and enjoy her independence and voice.Although Janie had three husbands, she never became a mother. If Janie had borne children, they would have tied her down to a specific place, hence squelching her voice by terminating her journey. In addition, the concept of giving birth and rearing children is the classic definition of womanhood; Janie must move beyond this concept by asserting her womanhood in unconventional ways. Janie demonstrates a more individual, solitary vision of what it means to be a female. Janie also needs to make an impact on the world. Traditionally, this is done by having children and passing one’s beliefs through them, as her grandmother did with her. Janie shows that she is able to transcend this by making an impact on the world through different venues. By telling her story to Phoebe, who will then pass it on to her neighbors and friends, Janie will live on as a story, not simply in her children’s’ fading memories and physical features. Her contentment does not depend on the acceptance of any male character in the book, similarly, it does not rest on a child, she will not allow it to rest outside of herself. Janie “pull[s] in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pull[s] it from around the waist of the world and drape[s] it over her shoulder” (184). Sitting, wrapped in her memories, experiences and voice as the horizon represents all roads and where they all lead to, she no longer needs agitated movement away from where she is; “here [is] peace” (184).

Their Eyes Were Watching God: Double Consciousness as an Indicator of Growth

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, utilizes a struggle W.E.B. Du Bois describes as “double consciousness” to chart the journey of Janie Crawford into selfhood. In “The Souls of Black Folk,” Du Bois describes African Americans as both gifted and cursed with “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings” because of their race. Hurston’s text applies this theory, not to the struggle of finding selfhood within the demands of two differing races, but to the struggle of a woman searching for selfhood amidst the differing demands of society and herself. Early in the novel, Janie plays roles that others expect her to play, rather than fulfilling her own desires. This disparity between her needs and her actions creates a division in her, leaving her with two selves: the self who follows society’s expectations, and the self with its own desires. Janie’s journey toward selfhood reveals itself in the gradual dissipation of the submitting self, and the emancipation of the inner one.The text first establishes the division between Janie’s two selves when Nanny discovers Janie kissing Johnny Taylor. In her heart, Janie wants to be a “tree in bloom” and feel “the love embrace”(11). Her soul cries out to “struggle with life”(11) and release her newfound sexuality. Nanny however, feels this is “harm and danger”(13) and wants to save Janie from it by marrying her “off decent”(13) to Logan Killicks. Nanny’s phrase, “marry off decent”(13), indirectly conveys to Janie that she must conform, marry, and shun her sexuality in order to be acceptable. The word “decent” suggests that sexuality is indecent, improper, vulgar, and unacceptable. Even though Janie’s inner self disagrees with this interpretation of sexuality, Janie acts according to it. She feels that marrying Logan Killicks would be “desecrating the pear tree,” but she doesn’t “know how to tell Nanny that”(14). At this moment, Janie divides into two selves. One self submits to Nanny’s belief that sexuality is base and wrong, and agrees to marry Logan Killicks. Her other, unrealized self, continues to long “to be a pear tree”(11) and embrace her sensuality. The fact that Janie cannot and does not convey this desire to Nanny shows her inability to assert her selfhood. In additions, her behavior shows that she values the demands and beliefs of others above her own.In her marriage to Jody, Janie puts her husband’s desires above her own, but she finally becomes aware of the self within her that struggles against her submissiveness. Jody “want[s] her submission”(71) so he can force her into a “high chair” and have her as a symbol of his own greatness. He prevents her from participating in talks on the porch and other community events because he says she is above “dat mess uh commonness”(60). At first, her submissive self relents to the demands Jody makes. In order to cope with his desires, “she [doesn’t] change her mind but she agree[s] with her mouth” (63). For a while, she “learn[s] to hush”(71) about her own desires and play the role that Jody and the town expect of her. However, unlike with Nanny, Jody realizes that she “knows uh few things”(71) herself, and does not have to mutely submit to Jody’s beliefs as if they were more valid than her own.In addition, her many disagreements with Jody cause her to realize that she has “an inside”(72) where her forbidden desires and ideas lie. She discovers that her “inside”(72) contains “a host full of thoughts she ha[s] never expressed”(72). This discovery marks a turning point in Janie’s development. The realization brings her into “double consciousness,” where she recognizes the divide between how she behaves for her husband, and how she longs to behave. Because of this new awareness Janie attempts to fight “back with her tongue”(71). She “thrusts herself into [a] conversation”(75) and she verbally humiliates Jody. These courageous outbursts are signs of the struggle within Janie to overcome the outer “show of humbleness”(80) and submission she has been displaying.Even though Janie attempts to assert her selfhood by beginning to vocalize her desires, her behavior after Jody’s death reveals the continuing influence of others’ expectations on her. On the inside, Janie feels like “rollicking with the springtime”(88), but on the outside she displays a facade of “expensive black folds” and a “starched and ironed”(88) face for the benefit of the town. Her behavior shows that others’ expectations continue to dictate her actions. Despite becoming aware of her inside self and the things it desires, she remains divided. She has not achieved the confidence to make her outer self match her inner feelings.With Tea Cake, however, Janie begins to follow her inside self more often than she follows the dictates of society. She ignores the fact that the town begins to “notice things”(110) and continues to do whatever her heart tells her to. She goes to “baseball games and huntin’ and fishin”(112) even though others judge her, because she has always wanted to do these things. She has never wanted to “class off”(112), it was her other self who submitted to Jody’s expectation that she disdain such activities. She “quit[s] attending church” and “she goes sashaying off to a picnic in pink linen”(110) even though Jody has only been gone for nine months. Significantly, she does not experience guilt for wearing spring colors instead of mourning ones because she realizes she “wasn’t wearin’ it for [Jody]” she was “wearin’ it for de rest of”(113) the town. This realization shows Janie’s growing awareness of her motivations. She starts to believe that her own desires are valid and possibly more significant than the desires of others.Despite all of Janie’s progress with Tea Cake, her lack of freedom from her submissive side is revealed when Tea Cake “slap[s] her around”(147). The fact that Tea Cake “beat her to show dem Turners who is boss”(148) and Janie accepts it, suggests that Janie still experiences the sensation W.E.B. Du Bois describes as “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” Janie accepts the beating, and even parades it around as a display for the others. She shows them what they expect to see. This incidents suggests that Janie accepts herself enough to “listen and laugh and even talk some”(134) with everyone else, but because she continues to live by others’ expectations she has not completely let go of her second, submissive side.If selfhood is the ability to value one’s own interpretations of life above others’, to accept oneself enough to follow one’s heart and not the dictates of society, then Janie exhibits true selfhood not with Tea Cake, but during and after her conversation with Pheoby. She arrives wearing grubby “overhalls,” but manages to keep “walking straight”(2) past the porch, whom she knows sits “in judgement”(1) of her. Despite having all eyes on her, she does not react to their open-mouthed stares. She does not change her direction or behavior to suit their expectations. Likewise, after she relays her story to Pheoby, she invites her to “tell ’em”(191) all her story. The reader knows Janie has confidence in herself, because she has complete confidence in the story that is the embodiment of her. Since she accepts the story and agrees to display it unaltered to the judgmental crowd outside, then she also accepts herself. Janie’s submissive side, who would want the story to suit the neighbors’ expectations, has been conquered by Janie’s true self.

Living for Yourself in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Through Janie’s growth from a girl so far removed from any identity that she doesn’t know her own race, to a woman strong enough to return to her hometown that wants nothing more than to revel in her miseries, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God shows that the only way to achieve fulfillment is to ignore society’s pigeonholing and concentrate on one’s own desires, all the while avoiding selfishness. This is highlighted as Janie moves through abusive relationships to one which finally allows her room for her own thoughts and dreams. The novel itself serves as a model for independence as it shuns the stereotypical makeup of black literature, focusing sparingly on black-white relations but instead magnifying the black female interior, implying that she has the power to control her own destiny.The novel opens as Janie returns to her town the recipient of cutting remarks about her marriage to the younger Tea Cake. She walks right on by the porch-sitters, prompting this remark from one: “‘Don’t keer what it was, she could stop and say a few words with us. She act like we done done something to her. She de one been doin’ wrong.'” (3) Janie has clearly learned something from her journey, and that is to slough off criticism from those who waste “up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothing about.” (6) But Janie was not always so sure of herself. As a child she was called “‘Alphabet ’cause so many people had done named me different names.'” (9) To add to her identity crisis, she didn’t know she was black until she saw a picture of herself with white children: “‘But before ah seen de picture Ah thought Ah was just like de rest.'” (9) As a teenager curious about sexuality she watches a bee pollinating and thinks “So this was a marriage!” (11) Eager to experiment, she finds her bee in Johnny Taylor but her Nanny wants her to marry the “‘ole skullhead'” (13) Logan, revealing her selfishness and lack of care for Janie’s wishes: “‘So you don’t want to marry off decent, do yuh? You just wants to hug and kiss and feel around with first one man and then another, huh? You wants to make me suck de same sorrow yo’ mama did, eh?'” (13)Janie leaves Logan and marries Joe Starks, an enterprising man who appears promising but is more restrictive and self-important than Logan was. His philosophy is shown as anything but feminist at a mayoral speech: “‘She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.'” (41) Janie’s sense of oppression in her all-black town doesn’t comes from a white man, but from her husband: “It must have been the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off of things.” (41) The final blow to Janie’s free will comes when Joe orders Janie to tie her hair up in the store they run, her main tie to sensuality. “She was in the store for him to look at, not those others,” is his selfish reasoning. Her struggle is useless, as Hurston writes, “Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.” (67) Joe’s deathbed commentary to Janie is quite ironic on the matter: “‘Dat’s ’cause you ain’t got de right feelin’ for nobody. You oughter have some sympathy ’bout ‘yo’self. You ain’t no hog.'” (81) Before he dies, however, Janie fights back: “‘And now you got tuh die tuh find out dat you got tuh pacify somebody besides yo’self if you wants any love and sympathy in dis world. You ain’t tried to pacify nobody but yo’self.'” (82)Finally Janie meets Tea Cake, a young, brash man who is willing to do anything to make her happy. His different approach is emphasized when Janie refuses to buy groceries for herself, and he answers her with “‘You sells groceries for ordinary people. We’se gointuh buy for you.'” (104)The marriage goes along well until Tea Cake gets sick after a rabid dog bites him while he protects Janie. In his rabid state he attacks Janie with a gun. She shoots him with a rifle before he can kill her, but her self-defense is not selfishness. Instead, “she was her sacrificing self with Tea Cake’s head in her lap.” (175) After her acquittal, in which she gained support from whites but received bitter looks from blacks, she overhears some men saying “”uh white man and uh nigger woman is de freest thing on earth.’ Dey do as dey please.'” (180) Though their meaning is terribly corrupted, Janie has emerged as a free soul, doing what she needs for herself and for her loved ones; at Tea Cake’s funeral she puts on no airs for any others: “No expensive veils and robes for Janie this time. She went on in her overalls. She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief.” (180)Janie’s odyssey, told to her best friend Pheoby, ends with urging women to action: “”Course, talkin’ don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else. And listenin’ tuh dat kind uh talk is jus’ lak openin’ yo’ mouth and lettin’ de moonshine down yo’ throatŠthey got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.'” (183) “Theyselves” is appropriate, because Janie doesn’t necessarily mean “each for himself,” but “all for each other,” a fitting conclusion as two friends talk, even more fitting as Janie “[calls] in her soul to come and see,” (184) once again underscoring the notion of self-identity.

Sore Must Be The Storm That Could Abash the Little Bird’: Janie’s Perseverance in Their Eyes Were Watching God

The novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston is known for being a prominent piece of feminist literature. It is full of recurring symbols and metaphors, which Hurston uses as an outlet to express her most important messages. She begins the book by setting the stage with a specific distinction between men and women; one that is essentially shattered as the book progresses, through Hurston’s utilization of two essential symbols: a pear tree and a mule. Hurston has many messages that she conveys in her book through these symbols, but her most imperative message is that women are just as independent, powerful, and entitled as men. Therefore, the opening statement that Hurston makes about the difference between men and women is presented only to be proven wrong, and Hurston succeeds in sending the message that women and men should be considered equals.

The distinction between men and women that Hurston begins the novel with simply states, “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.” (Hurston, 1) Here, Hurston is basically saying that men live their life dreaming. They hope and they wish and they keep those hopes and wishes and dreams with them throughout life, up until the moment where it has been too long and they know they have to let go. On the other hand, Hurston says that 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.” (Hurston, 1) In contrast to the previous idea about men, here Hurston is saying that women really don’t dream at all. Their dreams are reality, they live in the moment, and they don’t act on dreams or hopes, they merely act upon the necessity to keep living the life they are living because they don’t have the ability to hope for something better-they have no ships floating along their horizons.

This difference between men and women is one that remains present throughout the story; coming to the surface mostly when Janie’s persistent dream of finding true love and a happy marriage, (essentially her accomplishment of womanhood) is threatened. Coincidentally, this is how the symbol of the pear tree ties in to the picture. In the beginning of the story, it is used to represent the development of Janie’s sexuality, the beginning step to her achieving her womanhood. Hurston mentions “a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver” (Hurston, 11) As Dilbeck points out in his paper, the pear tree symbol develops and grows with each of Janie’s marriages, but consistently illustrates the possibility of true love and a happy marriage. During Janie’s marriage to Logan Killicks, the pear tree is brought up on page 13. The book quotes “Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree”, which basically points to the fact that Logan was killing Janie’s hope of a happily, lovingly married life. With Jody, Dilbeck brings to light the idea that “While Jody provides for her financially, he is jealous of the attention Janie receives from other men. In this marriage, Janie realizes that a man should have faith in his wife and give her freedom to experience life.” He goes on to use the quote from the book on page 28, which says, “Janie pulled back a long time because [Jody] did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees”. Fortunately, after two unsuccessful marriages, Janie finally finds what she is looking for in Tea Cake, and as Dilbeck says, she “achieves womanhood”, supporting this statement with a passage from page 101 of the novel, which says “[Tea Cake] looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom- a pear tree blossom in the spring”. As Dilbeck explains it, “Not only does he appreciate Janie’s beauty, intelligence, and independence, but he also shows her tenderness, trust, and respect.” With Tea Cake, Janie finally achieves that blossoming pear tree kind of love and marriage that she had dreamt of for her whole life. The fact that she somehow held on to this dream, not giving up on it even in the most challenging times, completely fractures the originally presented idea that men are the ones who get to dream, while women’s dreams are just their reality.

Before Janie finds Tea Cake, there are multiple times in the story where it starts to seem like the men and women distinction will actually end up holding true. These are the times when Hurston’s second important symbol comes into play: the mule. Early in the novel, Nanny says to Janie “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different with you” (Hurston, 14) The image that comes to mind for a mule is a weak, sad animal, walking with their heads bent in submission, and just going along step by step not really looking up, carrying a load that really shouldn’t be theirs to bear. Tying the idea of the mule back to the introductory contrast between men and women, we see that it’s consistent with the women’s absence of dreaming- it’s hard to imagine a mule having hopes for a better life for itself- everything about the mule seems so dejected and submissive. As the story progresses, the mule is brought up again and again, used to “develop the female identity”, says Keiko Dilbeck of Northern Arizona University. A townsperson in Eatonville, Matt Bommer, is mentioned to have a misbehaving mule, causing him countless amounts of stress because he is always running after him. All the men in the town make fun of him and inability to control his mule; which is a situation that could definitely parallel with a man and his wife. If a man’s wife is too independent, too freethinking, and too free speaking, their husband is considered to be weak, submissive, and generally just not manly. Thus, the parallel of the woman to the mule continues. However, Dilbeck points out something interesting: the idea of the mule is never brought up again after Jody’s death. Dilbeck references this in his paper, saying it represents that “Janie is free of her ‘load,’ no longer required to bear the expectations of men or others.” It’s interesting to think about: the relationship between a mule and its owner (or the metaphorical man and woman) is very unequal and unfair- one definitely takes on a lot more than the other, and only one really benefits. However, a comparison can be made to the relationship that the bees and blossoms in the pear tree presents. In that situation, the relationship between a bee and a flower blossom is very symbiotic- both benefit from one another, and actually won’t survive without the existence of each other. It’s easy to tie those ideas back in with Janie’s hopes for marriage, and reiterates the belief that the pear tree represents the woman’s dreams for a loving marriage and accomplishment of womanhood, while the mule represents the woman’s dreams crushed by controlling men. In the end, though, the pear tree wins out, while the mule dies along with Jody and his commandeering and dominant ways.

The fact that Janie sticks to her dream of the blossoming pear tree marriage until she finally achieves it is what effectively breaks apart the idea that, to put it simply, men get to dream and women don’t. Janie is the example that women should not let themselves and their hopes and dreams be reigned in by commanding, ignorant men who view them as inferior. This is the message that Hurston is trying to send with Their Eyes Were Watching God. The true accomplishment of womanhood is finding your power and independence, and not letting a man get in the way of that. There should be no distinction between men and women, because they are equal in every way.

Works Cited:

Hurston, Zora Neal. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Collins, 2000. Print.

Dilbeck, Keiko. “Symbolic Representation of Identity in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Explicator 66.2 (2008): 102-04. Print.

Hurston and Her Novel’s Critics: Racism, the Harlem Renaissance, and the Disputed Merits of The Eyes Were Watching God

“The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy” – Richard Wright.

Although Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God[1] was published during the tail end of the Harlem Renaissance, her novel is widely considered to fall within the brackets of its literary movement. However, her work provoked substantial criticism from other black writers and critics of the period; the focus of this criticism was her apparent failure to align her writing with the aims and values of the Harlem Renaissance movement. Perhaps the most censorious of this criticism is that of Richard Wright; in his New Masses article “Between Laughter and Tears”[2], Wright chastises Hurston’s work for carrying “no theme, no message, no thought”[3]. Certainly, comparisons of Their Eyes with other key instances of Harlem Renaissance literature that directly confront racism, may initially appear to highlight the novels ‘ignorance’ to the social and political issues of race that saturated its contextual backdrop. However, removing Hurston’s novel from the overshadowing boldness of her contemporaries allows for an unobscured analysis of its content. Although refusing to sacrifice the artistic significance of her novel to render it a mouthpiece for social commentary, her novel does contain substantial subtext on the issue of race relations, together with significant attempts to assert the humanity of the black community.

It is tempting to argue that Hurston’s text does indeed retain a distinct separation from the core values of the Harlem Renaissance. Indeed, when juxtaposed against much of the African American literature emerging from the movement, the apparent unwillingness of Hurston to place race issues at the forefront of her work can be seen to put her at odds with her black literary contemporaries. Certainly, the theme of racial injustice pales significantly next to issues of gender and self-discovery; Janie’s story is only concerned with race when it needs to be, rather than serving as a conduit through which to make comments of protest. Lynn Domina aligns herself with this view, as she states that “Their Eyes Were Watching God is not a directly political novel like Native Son, which Richard Wright would publish just three years later, nor are relationships among black and white characters a central concern of Hurston’s novel. It is not a social protest novel”[4]. Here, Domina draws a relevant comparison between the work of Hurston and the work of Wright, who perhaps acted as her harshest critic. Throughout his work, Wright focuses on actively and directly attacking the treatment of the black community; this stands in contrast to Hurston’s attempts to transcend it. In Native Son, Wright’s protagonist, Bigger, is a reactionary character. He is very much a product of the inequality that he has been subjected to and this renders him an ideal conduit through which to conspicuously grapple with the mistreatment of the black community. Ralph Ellison, in a New Masses article of his own, supports Wright’s insistence that Hurston’s novel fails to speak out against the plight of black people. However, he suggests that she not guilty of ‘betrayal’, but simply of refusing to involve herself in a social or political debate. He describes Their Eyes as the story of “a Southern woman’s love-life against the background of an all-Negro town into which the casual brutalities of the South seldom intrude[5]. Similarly, Alice Walker, in her prelude to the Hurston anthology I Love Myself When I am Laughing…And Then Again When I am Looking Mean and Impressive, comments: 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”[6]. Here, Walker aligns herself with the notion that Hurston should be viewed as separate from the Harlem Renaissance movement, without appearing accusatory or critical.

Negative criticism of Hurston’s work amongst her black contemporaries is perhaps more aggressively concerned with her endeavour to “satisfy” the white audience with little regard for furthering the values of the Harlem Renaissance movement. It is particularly notable that Janie is a mixed race protagonist as opposed to a purely black one; she is described as having a “coffee-and-cream complexion” that is lightened significantly by her white ancestry. Her hair is smooth, straight and much closer in texture to the hair of white people than the hair of black people. By underlining these aesthetical symbols of Janie’s ‘whiteness’, Hurston forges links between the novel’s protagonist and her white readers, and ensures that they are not excluded from the potentiality of finding relatability in her writing.. Here, a stark contrast can be drawn against the poetry of Harlem Renaissance writer Sterling Brown; in his poem “Strong Men”[7], his audience is self-evident. With repeated use of the pronoun “you”, Brown is directly addressing the black audience, whilst simultaneously attempting to categorize white readers as outsiders through the use of pronouns such as “them” and “they”. Notably, only black people have been referred to as an “audience” here, with white people being referred to simply as “readers”. Indeed, Brown’s poetry makes no attempt to “satisfy”, or even to relate to, the latter. When juxtaposed against Brown’s work, Wright’s view that Hurston is writing for the white audience becomes somewhat more convincing. In light of the notion that black and white audiences are entirely separate, and therefore unable to be ‘satisfied’ simultaneously, her refusal to specifically address a black audience implies that she must instead be writing for a white one. On this basis, it can be argued that Hurston delineates a distinct lack of regard for her own community, instead prioritising the furthering of her writing career by gaining recognition amongst the ‘dominant’ race.

In particular, critics have chastised her portrayal of the black figure for intentionally transcribing to the damaging stereotypes long perceived by the white community, in order to make her African American characters more ‘palatable’ for her white readers. Wright goes as far as to suggest parallels between Hurston’s portrayal of black characters and the racist theatre practise of minstrelsy: “Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre that is the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh”[8]. Wright argues that Hurston also also implements a sense of black subservience reminiscent of slavery via the creation of black characters which exist solely to serve the whites through the provision of entertainment. Throughout the novel, Hurston utilises a phonetic dialogue akin to the black southern vernacular, and it is this stylistic element which has fuelled much of her criticism. Neal A. Lester underlines this use of a dialect which was widely “considered the “street talk” of the illiterate common folk”[9], and comments that “Her presentation was believed to satisfy white audiences’ racist views of blacks as silly, simple, care-free, and unburdened by the complexities of white peoples’ lives”[10]. In light of this, Hurston’s use of black southern vernacular is directly interlinked with notions regarding her ignorance towards mounting racial tensions. Indeed, the perceived portrayal of the black community as “care-free” and “unburdened” by the confines of white supremacy seems to drastically defer from the Harlem Renaissance values, which encouraged the confrontation of racial injustice and its effects, together with the active rejection of racial oppression. For Wright, Hurston’s bid to “satisfy” her white audience expands beyond the comic. Indeed, he berates her use of “highly-charged language”[11] to explicitly depict Janie’s sexuality, and suggests that this serves as a means by which to appeal to the sexual tastes of white males. Indeed, Hurston refuses to enforce limitations on the sexual liberation of Janie; this refusal is perhaps most evident as the novel depicts the black female protagonist experiencing her first orgasm: “She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid” (15). The inclusion of such sexually uncensored acts can be viewed as an extremely provocative move, as African American literature of the early twentieth century largely avoided the representation of black sexuality. James Baldwin once underlined this avoidance as he commented that “In most of the novels written by Negroes until today…there is a great space where sex ought to be”[12]. W. E. B DuBois supported Baldwin’s notion, and attributed this “space” to the attempts of the black community to diminish the perpetuation of those stereotypes which render them as bad, primitive or corrupt: “Our worst side has been so shamelessly emphasized that we are denying we have or ever had a worst side”[13]. In light of this, Hurston’s publication of a novel in which that “great space” was absent can be seen as a betrayal of these attempts; she does not attempt to “deny” those things which may reflect negatively on, or even fetishize, the wider black community.

In addition to ‘playing up’ to white tastes, it can be argued that Hurston avoids the direct portrayal of the white ‘villain’, opting instead to create a fictional black community which sabotages its own progression. Indeed, the novel presents a segregation which goes beyond black and white dynamics. The phenomenon of internalized racism is embodied by Mrs Turner, a black woman who discriminates against her own ethnicity and worships ‘whiteness’. This can be seen to represent Hurston’s betrayal of Harlem Renaissance values. Instead of writing about black people as a deeply wronged community who must raise awareness of their humanity and push back against the whites, she seems to imply that they are, at least to some extent, complicit in their own oppression. Through the character of Coker, Hurston offers an insightful observation on jealousy as a motivator for internalized racism: “Us colored folks is too envious of one ‘nother. Dat’s how come us don’t git no further than us do. Us talks about de white man keepin’ us down! Shucks! He don’t have tuh. Us keeps our own selves down.”(48). Here, Hurston portrays a black man speaking out against the actions of other black men. He suggests that, instead of standing united, the black ‘community’ sabotage one another’s progress in a bid to appease their own sense of inferiority. Here, a comparison of Their Eyes and Brown’s “Strong Men” is relevant once more. In Brown’s poem, the white community is an external and oppressive force. As he speaks directly to his black audience, he places the “keepin’…down” of black people solely on the shoulders of the whites: “They tried to guarantee happiness to themselves/ By shunting dirt and misery to you”[14]. Simultaneously, he highlights the refusal of the black community to submit to their imposed “misery” as he refers to them as “the strong men gittin’ stronger”[15]. With this, Brown rejects any notions of black people propagating their own subjugation; they appear as fighters, who press back against their oppressors. Unlike Brown, who is clear in his assignment of condemnation, Hurston’s suggestion that black people may actually be contributors to their situation can be seen to place her once again at odds with the Harlem Renaissance movement.

Furthermore, it can be argued that Hurston’s black characters, in addition to serving as ‘entertainers’, are portrayed as being backwards in their actions, practises and beliefs. The portrayal of traditional African practises of voodoo may be seen to solidify the rendering of damaging black stereotypes. Alain LeRoy Locke, himself an avid supporter of the Harlem Renaissance movement, accused Hurston’s novel of perpetuating “the legend of these entertaining pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weep over and envy”[16]. From this standpoint, Locke aligns himself with Wright’s assertion that “she exploits that phase of Negro life which is “quaint,” the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the “superior” race”[17]. Both critics suggest that Hurston presents the black character as a figure whose purpose entirely disregards the values of the racial uplift programme by instigating a regression from the recognition that black people are capable of intellectualism. B. C McNeill underlined this regression in a review of Hurston’s earlier work Mules and Men, as he noted that “Certainly the writer, if she has not convinced all readers of the powers of Voodooism, has offered new evidence of widespread ignorance and superstition”[18]. It can also be argued that Hurston’s use of “backwards” practises, together with the implementation of southern vernacular, delineates a disregard for the importance of Locke’s notion of the ‘New Negro’. Indeed, Hurston’s representation of the “quaint” but intellectually limited black man seems to impede the emergence of an intellectually and artistically competent class of blacks. Her explicit depictions of black sexuality, together with her refusal to omit the inclusion of black folk culture in its raw state was seen as counterproductive by her aspiring “New Negro” contemporaries, and may be seen to place her novel outside of the Harlem Renaissance literary movement.

However, to condemn Hurston’s use of vernacular and traditional African practises as a depiction of the “backwards” black figure is to misread her intentions. Robert E. Hemenway supports this notion as he rejects the view that Hurston intentionally portrays her black characters as embodiments of southern stereotypes: “A more likely interpretation is that she refused to repudiate the folk origins that were such a rich part of her total identity. She abhorred pretence, and she had no desire to adopt a bourgeois respectability”[19]. Indeed, it can be argued that it is her refusal to sacrifice a part of her identity in order to achieve social progression which actually solidifies her novel’s position within the Harlem Renaissance movement. Sharon L. Jones directly disputes Locke’s assertion that the use of black vernacular renders the black character as “pseudo-primitive” as she suggests that “One of Hurston’s lasting legacies is her ability to show how sophisticated African-American English is. Rather than presenting dialect in a condescending or patronizing manner, she shows its richness and complexity”[20]. Indeed, Hurston frames the black southern voice of Janie with the eloquent English of her own narration. In light of the fact that both Janie and Hurston are African American, this framing technique epitomizes the diversity within the black community; there is no singular ‘black dialect’, just as there is no singular ‘black identity’. Jones goes on to suggest that such use of dialect is actually key in the assertion of black individuality through the medium of literature: “By using black southern dialect, Hurston emphasizes the importance of presenting realistic language in representing American life and culture”[21]. Daphne Lamothe defends the depiction of voodoo in the novel, as she rejects the McNeill’s assertion that it “offered new evidence of widespread ignorance and superstition”. Instead, she argues that it actually serves as a medium through which to underline the very issues that the Harlem Renaissance aimed to tackle: “Hurston’s incorporation into her novel of a religious tradition which she viewed as ancient and African does not preclude the text’s relevance to the condition of modern African Americans. The Vodou intertext in Their Eyes actually enabled Hurston to grapple with the issues which preoccupied black intellectuals in the 1920’s and 1930’s, such as class, gender, and inter- and intraracial conflicts”[22]. Indeed, it allows Hurston to explore the changing nature of African culture, and to underline the emergence of a new, dual identity. In this sense, Hurston epitomizes the idea of the ‘New Negro’ and his African-American culture.

Although Hurston’s tendency to appeal to the white audience is indisputably prevalent throughout; what remains disputable is her intention. Ultimately, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel which acts as a “Trojan Horse” of sorts, as she “satisfies” the whites in order to take action from within. By establishing connections with the white community, even by way of perpetuating black stereotypes, Hurston manages to circulate her message amongst blacks and whites alike. Unlike Brown and Wright, whose direct attacks on the white community serve to alienate them further, Hurston acknowledges that a movement towards equality requires action from both sides. Sandra L. West notes the necessity of this penetration of ‘white circles’, in particular its academic ones, for the advancement of the Harlem Renaissance movement. According to West, the Harlem Renaissance movement was divided into two phases: the first was concerned with “reveal[ing] the humanity” of black people, while the second phase “Connected Harlem writers to white intelligentsia with its access to established publishing companies”[23]. Indeed, Janie’s position as a mixed race protagonist with numerous ‘white’ traits expands the reach of her novel, allowing for her message to spread throughout both white and black communities.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a passive venture, as Hurston adopts cautious subtlety with which to address issues of race and equality, but she addresses them nonetheless. To support Ellison’s assertion that “the casual brutalities of the South seldom intrude” on the setting is to view the novel solely in terms of its surface meaning. Although it is apparent that Hurston avoids the aggressive frankness of certain Harlem Renaissance writers, her work is not without the conveyance of the movements values. Although racism does not appear as a primary issue, it helps to form a contextual backdrop for the novel: it does not drive the plot, it surrounds it. Indeed, the effects of Jim Crow laws and the legacy of slavery repeatedly penetrate both the plot and the setting without ever being allowed to occupy the direct line of focus. W. E. B DuBois’s notion of Double-Consciousness or “twoness”, a key topic of the Harlem Renaissance, is repeatedly dealt with throughout the novel. According to Dubois: “One ever feels his twoness, – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body”[24]. Indeed, as a partially black character who has grown up amongst white people, Janie often embodies these “warring ideals”. A key example of this occurs as Janie recounts the moment that she first became aware of her ‘blackness’ at the age of six. However, she does not refer to it as the moment she realised she was black, but rather as the moment she realised that she “wuzn’t white” (13). The implication here is that Janie sees whiteness as the default aesthetic because she is surrounded by white children; she defines herself by her the white community in which she lives, but she herself is not white. The repercussions of this duality for Janie’s ability to ‘know herself’ are profoundly apparent as she recounts her failure to identify her own image in a group photograph: “Ah couldn’t recognize dat dark chile as me. So Ah ast “where is me? Ah don’t see me”” (13). Janie sees herself in two lights: the light of “blackness” which has been allocated to her because of her race, and the light of “whiteness” which has been learned because of the community in which she was raised. Perhaps the most obvious instance of racial tension in Their Eyes comes as the bodies of the deceased are cleared away after the hurricane. White bodies are laid to rest in makeshift coffins, while black bodies are simply buried beneath the dirt. The sole justification for this is a shortage of coffins and the ‘practical’ need to prioritise one race over another. This literal and physical division of black and white bodies stands as a symbol for all racial segregation. The enforcement of Jim Crow laws ensured that white people were universally prioritised over black people, with the two occupying separate toilets, entrances, public transport seating and, in the case of Hurston’s novel, burial sites. Loren Lee epitomizes the importance of Hurston’s balance between explicit protest and implicit subtly as she suggests that “although racial constructs of power permeate the novel, Hurston’s artful rendering of racial conflict is both noticeable enough to be appreciated and subtle enough to allow Janie’s existence to not be defined solely by her race”[25]. Indeed, Hurston takes great care not to widen the division between white and black, endeavouring instead to offer evidence of similarity.

Essentially, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel which promotes racial equality through the realization that the separation between ‘black’ and ‘white’ is both unnecessary and irrational. Hurston seems to draw on the work of anthropologist Franz Boas of whom she was a student. Specifically, she adheres to his suggestion that race holds no biological or inherent basis for division and that racial inequality is a manufactured construct; Boas argued that “The behaviour of an individual is determined not by his racial affiliation, but by the character of his ancestry and his cultural environment”[26]. Indeed, as previously mentioned, Janie is unable to identify herself based on aesthetics and, to her child-self, aesthetical differences account for the entirety of racial separation. The implication here is clear: racial differences beyond appearance are a product of environment and experience. When read in light of this notion, the division of black and white corpses following the hurricane takes on a new significance. The hurricane does not discriminate between black and white: regardless of skin colour, both races are united by the universality of death. However, once the bodies are reclaimed by the society of the living, they are divided once more. Even in death, the prevalence of racial difference arises from societal constructs as opposed to inherent contrasts. Hurston’s utilization of a protagonist of both white and black descent allows her to portray the union of two ‘separate’ races within one individual; the individual in question is neither black nor white, but simply human. Any alienating effects of this commixture, such as the interplay of Janie’s “twoness” are shown to be societal as opposed to genetic. Loren Lee highlights the importance of the inclusion of Janie’s white characteristics alongside her black ones as she notes that “Janie straddles the physical and social lines of race through her fluid racial identity and establishes herself as an individual instead of a type”[27]. Indeed, it this ‘fluidity’ which allows Janie to act as a bridge, illustrating a harmonious coexistence of both black and white traits within “one dark body”[28]; this harmony works to bridge the perceived gap between races.

By comparison, Sterling Brown’s aforementioned poem “Strong Men”[29] is a Harlem Renaissance work which asserts black “humanity” in such a way as to deepen the chasm between black and white. By addressing the black audience as “you” and the white readers as “them”, he perpetuates the very notion that Hurston attempts to diffuse: the unlikeness between the two races. An even more poignant example of this can be observed in Claude McKay’s early Harlem Renaissance poem “If We Must Die”[30] as he declares: “Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack”[31]. Here, McKay goes further than to strive for equality, suggesting instead an impending reversal of power. In referring to the whites as a “pack” and the blacks as “men”, he creates connotations of the dehumanizing effects of slavery and Jim Crow laws on the black community. However, in McKay’s poem, it is the whites who are reduced to animals while the blacks stand their ground and take back their humanity. Furthermore, the poem acts a sort of ‘call-to-arms’ for the black community to rise up against their white oppressors, inciting ideas of violence and conflict. Indeed, the narrator calls for the blacks to “defy”[32] the whites, and “for their thousand blows deal one death blow!”[33]. The encouragement of conflict between two races stands in stark contrast to the ideas implied in Hurston’s novel; Whilst McKay aims to eliminate the rift by eliminating the white ‘opposition’, Hurston aims to heal the rift through the realization that black people have all the humanity of white people. In this sense, her novel is no less valuable to the Harlem Renaissance movement than the work of McKay. She simply focusses on different, but still appropriate, values. As opposed to issues of race, it is issues of gender that occupy the very heart of Hurston’s novel. These issues act as a unifying force between women of both black and white communities. Joe demonstrates that the place of the early twentieth century black female is aligned with that of the white female as he states that “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.” (53). Indeed, by emphasizing the universality of female oppression across races, Hurston draws further parallels and suggests that women of both colours ought to unite against patriarchal oppression. Harold Bloom supports this notion as he argues that “Hurston’s Janie is now necessarily a paradigm for women, of whatever race, heroically attempting to assert their own individuality in contexts that continue to resent and fear any consciousness that is not male”[34].

In contrast to the notion that Hurston’s refusal to directly confront racial issues entirely diminishes the significance of Their Eyes within the Harlem Renaissance, her reluctance to saturate her novel with the “casual brutality” of Jim Crow law or the reverberations of slavery offers far more aid to the advancement of the African American community then the forthright literary protests of Wright or Brown. Hurston’s novel distinguishes her from what she once referred to as the “sobbing school of negrohood”[35] that she viewed as dominating much of the Harlem Renaissance movement. The ‘black character’ as rendered by Hurston is not a downtrodden victim or a product of racial abuse, but an individual with all the potential, passions and capabilities of the white character. By refusing to perpetuate the division between races, Hurston, in all of her subtlety, offers a far more powerful statement of protest. Hemenway suggests that issues of racial equality are allocated little attention in the novel so that the artistic capabilities of the African American culture can be brought to the forefront instead. He states that “Their Eyes Were Watching God celebrates the art of the community in such a manner that the harsh edges of life in a Jim Crow South seldom come into view”[36]. Indeed, Hurston does not minimise the conveyance of racism in a bid to avoid issues of politics, but in a bid to allow for the unobscured promotion of the idea that the ‘negro’ has a culture which expands far beyond the forced confines of victimhood. By offering the black community some degree of separation from their situational drawbacks, she restores the individuality and humanity of each member far more effectively than those Harlem Renaissance writers who ardently portray their mistreatment.

Throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston does indeed subscribe to some of the literary actions of which her critics accuse her; her efforts to tailor her work to the tastes of white audiences and her refusal to directly grapple with racism are particularly evident. However, much of the criticism she was subjected to for her perceived ‘betrayal’ of the Harlem Renaissance movement is based on a misreading of the purpose behind these actions. Indeed, amidst the publication of such aggressively outspoken “New Negro” works as Brown’s “Strong Men”, Wright’s Native Son and McKay’s “If We Must Die”, the subtle anti-racist subtext in Hurston’s novel could be reasonably overlooked. Although her goal is aligned with these writers – specifically, the attainment of complete racial equality – her means differ significantly. The novel is concerned with closing the divide between two races through the realization that their inherent differences are only skin deep. In this sense, Their Eyes Were Watching God does not ‘betray’ the values of the Harlem Renaissance so much as it builds upon them and approaches them in an alternative manner; Hurston attempts to bridge the gap between the white and black communities and pursue equality through racial unity. Primarily though, it is Hurston’s creation of art for art’s sake that truly epitomizes the Harlem Renaissance; By removing all literary constraints including sexual censors and political expectations, and illustrating an uninhibited rendering of African American culture in all of its richness, complexity and diversity, Zora Neale Hurston effectively stands as the definition of the literary ‘New Negro’.


Baldwin, James. “Alas, Poor Richard”. In Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son, by James Baldwin. London: Penguin UK, 1991. Kindle edition.

Bloom, Harold. Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, edited by Harold Bloom, 7-11. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009.

Boas, Franz. Race and Democratic Society. New York: Bilbo and Tannen Publishers, 1969.

Brown, Sterling. “Strong Men”. In The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, edited by Michael S. Harper, 56-58. Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996.

Domina, Lynn. The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Exploration of Literature. Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2014.

Dubois, W. E. B. “Criteria of Negro Art”. In Crisis Magazine 32 (1926): 290-297. In Mass Communication and American Social Thought: Key Texts, 1919–1968, edited by John Durham Peters and Peter Simonson, 42-46. Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004.

DuBois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk. New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014.

Ellison, Ralph. “Recent Negro Fiction”. New Masses 40 (1941): 22 – 26.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1937.

Jones, Sharon L. Critical Companion to Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work. New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009.

Lamothe, Daphne. Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture and Ethnography. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013.

Lee, Loren. “The African-American female body as spectacle in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God”. Pursuit – The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee 6.1 (2015). Accessed April 5, 2017.

Lester, Neal A. Understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources and Historical Documents. Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999.

Locke, Alain. “Literature By and About the Negro”. Opportunity 16 (1938): 7-11. In Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates and Anthony Appiah, 16-20. New York: Amistad, 1993.

McKay, Claude. “If We Must Die”. In Complete Poems, edited by William J. Maxwell, 177-178. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004.

McNeill, B. C. “Review: Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston; Franz Boas; Miguel Covarrubius”. The Journal of Negro History 21.2 (1936): 223-25. Accessed April 06, 2017. doi:10.2307/2714574.

Walker, Alice. “On Refusing to Be Humbled”. In I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, by Zora Neale Hurston, 1-6. New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1979.

West, Sandra L. Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, edited by Aberjhani and Sandra L. West. New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2003.

Wright, Richard. “Between Laughter and Tears”. New Masses 25 (1937): 22 – 25.

[1] Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1937). Subsequent references in parenthesis are to this edition. [2] Richard Wright, “Between Laughter and Tears”, New Masses 25 (1937): 25. [3] Richard Wright, “Between Laughter and Tears”, 25. [4] Lynn Domina, The Harlem Renaissance: A Historical Exploration of Literature (Santa Barbara: ABC-CLIO, 2014), 185. [5] Ralph Ellison, “Recent Negro Fiction,” New Masses 40 (1941): 24. [6] Alice Walker, “On Refusing to Be Humbled”, in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing…And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive, by Zora Neale Hurston (New York: Feminist Press at CUNY, 1979), 3. [7] Sterling Brown, “Strong Men”, in The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown, ed. Michael S. Harper (Evanston: Northwestern University Press, 1996), 56 [8] Richard Wright, “Between Laughter and Tears”, 25. [9] Neal A. Lester, Understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources and Historical Documents (Westport: Greenwood Publishing Group, 1999), 7. [10] Lester, Understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, 7. [11] Richard Wright, “Between Laughter and Tears”, 25. [12] James Baldwin, “Alas, Poor Richard”, in Nobody Knows My Name: More Notes of a Native Son (London: Penguin UK, 1991), Kindle edition. [13] W. E. B Dubois “Criteria of Negro Art”, in Crisis Magazine 32 (1926): 290, in Mass Communication and American Social Thought: Key Texts, 1919–1968, ed. John Durham Peters and Peter Simonson (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2004), 42. [14] Brown, “Strong Men”. 57. [15] Brown, “Strong Men”. 58. [16] Alain Locke, “Literature By and About the Negro”, Opportunity 16 (1938): 8, in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, ed. Henry Louis Gates and Anthony Appiah (New York: Amistad, 1993), 16-17. [17] Richard Wright, “Between Laughter and Tears”, 25. [18] B. C. McNeill, “Review: Mules and Men by Zora Neale Hurston; Franz Boas; Miguel Covarrubius”, The Journal of Negro History 21.2 (1936): 225, accessed April 06, 2017, doi:10.2307/2714574. [19] Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1980), 27. [20] Sharon L. Jones, Critical Companion to Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Reference to Her Life and Work (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009), 213. [21] Jones, Critical Companion to Zora Neale Hurston, 213. [22] Daphne Lamothe, Inventing the New Negro: Narrative, Culture and Ethnography (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2013), 172. [23] Sandra L. West, Encyclopedia of the Harlem Renaissance, ed. Aberjhani and Sandra L. West (New York: Facts on File, Inc., 2003), 202. [24] W. E. B DuBois, The Souls of Black Folk (New York: Simon and Schuster, 2014), 7. [25] Loren Lee, “The African-American female body as spectacle in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Pursuit – The Journal of Undergraduate Research at the University of Tennessee 6.1 (2015), accessed April 5, 2017, [26] Franz Boas, Race and Democratic Society (New York: Bilbo and Tannen Publishers, 1969), 27. [27] Lee, “The African-American female body as spectacle”. [28] DuBois, “The Souls of Black Folk”, 7. [29] Brown, “Strong Men”. [30] Claude McKay, “If We Must Die”, in Complete Poems, ed. William J. Maxwell (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2004), 177. [31] McKay, “If We Must Die”, 177. [32] McKay, “If We Must Die”, 178. [33] McKay, “If We Must Die”, 178. [34] Harold Bloom, introduction to Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Infobase Publishing, 2009), 8. [35] Zora Neale Hurston, “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, World Tomorrow 11 (May 1928): 215. [36] Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston, 218.

Nanny, Leafy, and Strength over Slavery in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God follows Janie Crawford’s journey through three marriages and her search for freedom, independence, and love through black womanhood in the 20th century. In the beginning of the novel, Hurston, through telling Nanny’s story, shows how black women of the 19th and 20th centuries have dealt with attempting to find power and be resilient through adversity. In her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston uses Nanny’s journey in trying to protect Leafy and the story of her struggles in doing so to portray how despite those struggles, she can overcome them through finding strength in her vulnerability as a black, enslaved woman.

Hurston first portrays the idea of power in vulnerability through alluding to the historical and cultural context of the lives of black women, and more specifically, of enslaved black women and their female descendants. After Nanny has sat Janie down after reprimanding her for kissing a boy from the neighborhood, Hurston begins to describe the situation of black people, by saying that they are “branches without roots”, especially Nanny and other enslaved, black women (Hurston 16). Hurston’s use of imagery with the phrase “branches without roots” expresses on one level that black people have no foundation or basis from which to draw strength or power, and on another level, they factually do not have any roots in the United States, as nearly all black people were forced from their home countries and into America. Black people are branches without roots, connected only by their shared histories of struggle for freedom, independence, and humanity, with no foundation upon which they may draw any strength to fulfill dreams. This shows how black people are born into instability because of the fact that they are black. This is significant to mention because it means that although they have no foundation from which they may draw strength from behind them, they have those “branches” or their offspring to do so, by continuing to work hard and with hope to provide better futures for them. Hurston shows that despite the lack of stability and strength, Nanny and other black folk could never be “beat down…so low” as to be “[robbed] of they will.” (16). Hurston’s tone expressed through Nanny in this line is one of resilience, with her creating an image of a black person being physically beaten “low” but still maintaining their dignity and their will—they can never be beaten down low enough. Near the end of that paragraph, Hurston’s repetitive use of “Ah didn’t want” (16) in four different lines shows how Nanny’s sheer will and determination in wanting a better life for Leafy and herself allowed for her to find the strength to, without much support, escape her situation.

Later on in the chapter, Hurston details how Nanny found power in her vulnerable state and situation. Nanny’s mistress visits her bed after the Master has left for war, and is angered upon the sight of Nanny lying in bed with newborn Leafy. Hurston expresses this anger with the Mistress saying that Nanny does not realize “who is Mistis”, so she begins hitting her, and Nanny felt the “last licks” the Mistress gave her “burn like fire”, having not felt the first couple because she was looking after Leafy (Hurston 17). Hurston’s use of alliteration with “last licks” brings attention to Nanny’s resilience and strength, with the rolling ‘l’ sound contrasting with the simile “burning like fire”. Hurston’s use of this simile fleshes out the great physical pains Nanny endured in her fragile state, just having given birth to Leafy. Fire destroys anything it touches, and despite the burn of her face and body at the hands of the jealous and angry Mistress, Nanny was not destroyed. Instead, the Mistress has even gotten to the point of feeling like she must remind Nanny that she is the superior one.

Hurston says that Nanny showed no visible signs of being affected by the violence: “Ah didn’t cry” and “Ah didn’t do nothing else” (17). Hurston’s purposeful and repeated diction of “Ah didn’t” shifts the power over to Nanny, as she is making choices to not give in to the weakness the Mistress expected her to show. This is her finding strength despite her obvious vulnerability while lying in bed with Leafy in her lap. Instead she has a cool demeanor, saying that “Ah ain’t nothing but [an N—] and a slave” (17) to the Mistress’ face when asked how the baby was white. Hurston’s use of dialect with “ain’t nothing” and the diction of “[N—] and slave” are obvious reminders to readers and to the Mistress that despite being an object, not even a human being, in addition to being a black woman Nanny was able to be equal, in a sense, to her white Mistress, and probably even greater because Nanny is the one in bed having had the child of the Master, not the wife. In her submissiveness, saying she is “nothing”, Hurston is saying Nanny is everything—that she is equal to the white woman, perhaps even greater, and it is in this submissiveness and forced servitude that Nanny is still able to find strength. Hurston shows that Nanny is not the promiscuous black slave-woman all raped black women were believed to be when they gave birth to the mixed-white children of their masters, but that they she and women like her are more, more for being a woman and a mother who protect her children. Consequently, Hurston’s literary choices go beyond the story of Nanny as a character and serve to show the ways in which black women have shown resilience through adversity in a historical context for the sake of their children and for better futures.

Zora Neale Hurston uses Nanny’s story in Their Eyes Were Watching God and her struggles as a representation of the struggles of enslaved black women and attempts to further the idea that they are more than the subservient attitudes they must take and the loss of independence and freedom they have had to endure. Hurston instead shows that there is yet strength to be found in that submissiveness through using their dedicated love and hope for a better future as a path to relative independence and freedom.