Their Eyes Were Watching God
Divine Lessons from the Novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Jesus preaches that Man does not live by bread alone. From Maslows five tiered hierarchy of needs to the Freudian notion of unconscious motivation, man is naturally driven by many varying desires. Physiological needs are only the most basic, and represent only one step on the pyramid. Security, love, ego and finally self-actualization are all other significant human motivations. External influences also add another factor in determining mans motivation. Zora Neale Hurston wrote of the strong protagonist Janie Crawford and her quest for self-actualization and fulfillment. Mordecai Richler wrote of an incorrigibly ambitious, conniving, and sly protagonist Duddy Kravitz and his dreams of wealth and recognition. These two characters, although very different in their motives, are held back to different degrees by external influences that warp their wants and in the process impede their happiness. Bowing to external pressures and using others expectations to fuel ones motivation often come at an inordinately high cost. Generational differences encumber the success and satisfaction of the protagonists by altering their motivations and dreams in Zora Neale Hurstons novel of self discovery Their Eyes Were Watching God, and Mordecai Richlers account of growing up in The Apprenticeship of Duddy Kravitz.
Janie leaves her grandmother and now that she is alone, she starts to appreciate and recognize her own feelings. Janie comes to the realization that she has deep resentment harboured within her towards Nanny. Once alone in the real world she is able to realize and detest the values that her grandmother had ingrained within her since childhood. Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he dont tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. (Hurston:14) Nanny had didactically taught her granddaughter to seek prizes of a superficial nature; wealth, security, and status. This concern for only basic and superficial necessities occupied the scope of Nannys belief. Nannys slave mentality and dreams were imposed on her granddaughter; however, Janie was not emancipated or liberated by the dreams and wants of an older generation. The young woman never had experienced the terrors of slavery and her childhood and adolescence were in sharp contrast to the one that her grandmother had known. This imposition of foreign and antiquated beliefs prevents Janie from chasing her own dream and realizing her own success.
In marrying Logan, a relatively wealthy middle-aged black man, Janie submits to the dreams and advice of her grandmother. Taint Logan Killicks Ah wants you to have, baby, its protection. (Hurston:15) This marriage was destined to fail as the relationship was not built on a foundation of love or trust, but rather it was nothing but a function of necessity and practicality. Janie while pursuing her grandmothers dreams is never able to blossom and achieve the balance and sexual fulfillment that the pear tree of her youth had offered. The pear tree was a manifestation of the symbiotic vision of love that Janie had; however, her grandmother saw this love as a vice and an obstacle. Dats de very prong all us black women gits hung on. Dis love! (Hurston:23) Janie sees men and women as fundamentally different, and out of this difference is born her quest. An ideal love for Janie is found when a man could give her things that she does not have, and when she could reciprocate and offer men things that they do not possess. This idea of a mutual codependence is one of Janies dreams. However, thoughts and wants such as these are diametrically opposed to those of Nanny. When Janie leaves Logan for Jody, she successfully breaks away from the grip of her grandmothers slave mentality, dreams and ambitions. Janie overcomes her difficulty; however, up until this point her potential for fulfillment and happiness are encumbered by the influence and dreams of Nanny. This is such because Janie is not allowed to live her own life and maker her own decisions, but rather she is trapped in the dreams of her grandmother. Only when Janie discards her grandmothers legacy of conventional wisdom can she appreciate her envisioned ideal relationship similar to that of the buzzing bees and the pear tree forever present in her heart and mind.
The story of Duddy Kravitz presents a very similar situation of generational conflict. The values instilled within Duddy since childhood by his grandfather produce a dream that is not his own. Duddy is constantly striving, searching, and starving for an end that will not elicit feelings of fulfillment, but rather set up disappointment and anguish. A man without a land is no one. This phrase becomes a mantra for the young boy. While the realization of his dreams alleviates his indigence, it causes nothing but pain and comes at the price of respect and friendship. In the end Duddy has acres of land surrounding a large Laurentien lake; however, he has no-one to share this land with. Despite the fact that Duddy has land he remains a loser. The quest to acquire the land surrounding a beautiful lake north of Montreal forced the young protagonist to scheme and act at times immorally in order to succeed. Duddys most contemptible act was forging Virgils signature on a check to buy the last parcel of his coveted land.
Duddy took a quick look at Virgils bank balance, whistled, noted his account number and ripped out two cheques. He forged the signature by holding the cheque and a letter Virgil had signed up to the window and tracing slowly. (Richler:296)
This despicable act is the climax of Duddys descent into total dissolution. Duddy has isolated himself and now faces his relegation from all those that he previously had loved and who had loved him back. Although this young protagonist is utterly loathsome, he somehow educes a certain sense of pity and tragedy. The tragic element is that Duddy is steered awry by pursuing his grandfathers life long dream at all cost. Following the advice of his grandfather as gospel proved to be Duddys undoing and constituted his demise. The lesson learnt is that dreams rarely stand the test of time. Dreams and goals are not to be left for posterity as part of ones estate; rather, dreams, ambitions, desires, goals, these are all inwardly derived.
The Dave Mathews Band wrote about the fruitlessness of pursuing someone elses dreams in their song The Dreams of our Fathers. The song illustrates the dismal effects that following a parent’s, a grandparent’s or a family member’s dream can have on someone.
Oh, Im choking, Im choking
On the smoke from this burning house
I claw and I scrape
But I cant seem to get out
But who then, who is this
Thats scratching from the ground
Oh, its my world, too
But whose gold is this Im digging out?
Living the dreams of our fathers impedes the chances of reaching feelings of fulfillment and actualization. Where and what are you fighting for, whose gold are you digging for, what are you trying to accomplish; these are all questions that arise when following someone elses ambitions and dreams. I dont want to wake up/ Lost in the Dreams of our Fathers/ Oh, its such a waste child/ To live and die for the Dreams of our Fathers. One can easily squander his existence relentlessly pursuing another persons goals. Blindly following in someone elses footsteps often offers the realization that happiness escapes those who remain blind to their own internal desires.
Ignoring ones individual dreams and in place pursuing the dreams of an older generation with little inhibition results in a meaningless existence where happiness is checked by the nearly impermeable barrier of a dream that is not ones own. What path to pursue in life is a difficult decision that must be made in accordance with many set parameters. A goal must not be entirely the pursuit ones inward desire for that poses the risk of becoming a slave to ones own self imposed needs. As Rousseau teaches in the Social Contract a man who acts solely in his own self-interest is a slave; for he is a slave to his own uninhibited desires. However, as witnessed by Janie Crawford and Duddy Kravitz, the experience of attempting to live and succeed in the dreams of ones fathers is futilely unfulfilling and meaningless. One must strive for balance between oneself and others. Both the aforementioned novels and song show that one must be more than anything an individual with distinct goals, ambitions, and dreams. It is unfortunate indeed to follow the march of folly and end up tangled or trapped trying to live another mans dream.
The Importance of Janie’s Tea Cake in Zora Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’
Their Eyes Were Watching God
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, the main character, Janie, undergoes multiple bad relationships. Tea Cake, her third, and presumably last husband, treats her how she wants to be treated and provides her with a relationship she values. Tea Cake releases her from the feeling of confinement that Joe Starks and Logan Killicks have left her with. He frees Janie and helps her live a life she enjoys.
Logan Killicks tried to convince Janie that she would not be of value to anyone else, and that he was the best one for her. After Joe arrived and convinced Janie otherwise, he put her in a position she didn’t want to be in. He convinced her that she was above the other people in the community, while she only wanted to be seen as equal to her husband. When Joe doesn’t allow her to give her speech, she realizes that he won’t allow her to do many of the things that he or the other citizens of Eatonville do. He buys her nice things that she feels she doesn’t need, and creates a void in their relationship by not communicating or seeming to care about what she wants.
I believe that Joe’s death partially frees Janie from the life she lived. She enjoys herself, and does what she wants to, instead of what Joe wants her to do. Between the high standards and ridicule from the other citizens, and the waves of persistent men wanting to marry Janie, she still feels the influence of everyone’s idea of how she should be. Phoebe often mentions to Janie how the others disagree with her behavior. Janie only becomes completely comfortable with this after she meets Tea Cake.
Tea Cake treats Janie unlike Logan or Joe did. He listens to Janie and tries to provide her with what she wants, rather than telling her how to behave. Their relationship teaches Janie that she shouldn’t care what others think of her and Tea Cake. Janie and Tea Cake are more like close friends than just husband and wife. Janie gets to know Tea Cake, and Tea Cake gets to know Janie, which is something she wished she had been able to do with Joe. She feels like she has an actual relationship with her husband.
Excluding the time right before his death, Tea Cake loved Janie, and was more than willing to do the best for her. She learns to live how she wants to, to have fun, and to take her own opinions of herself over the opinions of others. In this way, Tea Cake sets Janie free.
Ontological Plurality: The Solution to Limited Racial Problematization
Problematizing the comfortably depicted notions of race is essential in the struggle for, not only racial equality but rather, the complete erasure of the racial binary. This entails an adoption of strategies stereotypically adhered to by a racial-culture. Catalyzing this (semi-complicated, but really just badly worded abstract principle) is the notion of ‘passing’. Passing presents itself as “more than just a racial strategy: it is a strategy to be a person.” It is a strategy that enables the abandonment of the stereotypically perceived behaviors of a racial sect all while embracing new cultural flavors. It is a strategy that facilitates the search for identity. However, it is “only when passing becomes a subversive strategy for avoiding the enclosures of a racist, classist, and sexist society [that it becomes] truly liberating.” For then passing becomes not an usurpation of a lifestyle/identity that one would like to be a part of or would like to be, but rather a way of escaping the society-erected Pygmalion defining and categorizing the races. Nella Larsen’s Helga Crane and Clare Kendry illustrate the different ways in which to tackle and, arguably, problematize the racial binary; while Helga Crane searches aimlessly and insatiably for an identity—a ‘real’ self—Clare Kendry continuously complicates her racial identity by embracing a contradicting plurality of customs and behaviors—ultimately achieving the liberation of ontological multiplicity.
The Harlem Cabaret hypnotized Helga. She loses herself in the sudden streaming rhythm and finds herself drawn to the captivatingly sexually suggestive moves of the dancers. Soon, Helga finds herself “blown out, ripped out, beaten out by the joyous, wild, murky orchestra ” in a moment suggestive of sexual climax. But once the music fades, Helga re-assesses and asserts that “she wasn’t, she told herself, a jungle creature… ” The dissonance Helga feels is potent. It is clear that she more than enjoys the cabaret and yet the reader sees her trying to convince herself otherwise. Why? Helga Crane is a victim to the racial binary. Helga Crane feels that her desire, as well as her appeal to dancers, is out of place. And, unfortunately, Helga feels this tension (between sexual freedom and restraint) throughout the novel.
In its fight for equality, the black social elite wanted women to emulate the conventions of mainstream society. Maintaining a good image was aimed at not only producing change within the race, but also at combating the white stereotypes that fed the discrimination against black people. And thus, described as primitive and promiscuous since slavery, black women suppressed their sexuality and heavily subscribed to contemporary ideas of social propriety. Helga here does the same. Helga “wants to belong to herself and herself alone ” but she never stops to question whether it is possible to have an identity that is (a) completely self defined and (b) the solution to her problem. “Helga never confronts the fact that perhaps her identity is both plural and social and therefore she can never stop passing; she is always on quicksand. ” Helga thinks she has to choose between two identities: the black and the white. “Why couldn’t she have two lives, or why couldn’t she at least be satisfied in one place? She didn’t, in spite of her racial markings, belong to these dark segregated people,” Helga claims. “She was different. She felt it. It wasn’t, merely, a matter of color. ” Helga seeks a synthesis of self; a way to reconcile the incongruities of what she feels and what she thinks she should feel. She searches for a purpose without realizing it is enough to just be Helga Crane. And thus, the way in which she utilizes ‘passing’ is ineffective. The way in which she ‘passes’ caters to the complete particulars of the racial binary—she doesn’t recognize the validity of ontological plurality, and she remains forever stuck in the dichotomous one-dimensional world of race. “The assumption of only one guise or one form of passing causes Larsen’s [Helga] to become stable, static, fixed, [and ultimately] entrapped within one social definition. ”
Destabilizing unitary definitions of race and embracing ontological plurality is Helga’s antithesis: Clare Kendry. Kendry’s actions disprove the idea of the ‘essential self’ for throughout the novel the reader sees Clare pass for a multitude of things. She passes for a white mother; she passes for a white wife. Clare Kendry passes for many things, but she, unlike Helga, searches not for an ‘essential self’ but rather identities with which to supplement the Clare she is at that particular moment in time. Clare Kendry “finds her identity […] on a self that is composed of and created by a series of guises and masks, of performances and roles. In so doing, she transcends the labeling of society, for the more she ‘passes’, the more problematic and plural her presence becomes. ” Clare and Clare’s actions thus become instrumental in the fight toward problematization. Clare’s actions, thought seemingly irrational, function as signifiers; Clare’s plurality, flexibility, and lies, ironically, become what facilitate the escape of the racial binary. She passes, yes, but not because she is inherently discontent with the person she is, no, she passes to surpass the illegitimate stereotypes and prejudices that are arbitrarily assigned to ‘her race’.
The more tense and tumultuous identities are, the easier it is to produce the instability of a unitary ontology. The chaos of ontological multiplicity inherently, irrevocably, and inevitably destabilizes what society dictates one’s social role should be. The tragedy of Helga Crane is that she, insidiously and perhaps unknowingly, seeks the acceptance of her audience more that she seeks acceptance from herself—and so she ‘passes,’ but passes not to transcend these trends, but to dodge them. Helga Crane dodges, but Clare Kendry destroys. For Helga, in her doomed quest for self-definition, never finds what she is looking for; rather, she becomes increasingly entrenched within the racial binary. Ultimately, she commits psychological suicide. Who cares if Clare was or was not cheating with Brian, she surpassed the racial binary!
1. Cutter, Martha J. ?Sliding Significations: Passing as a Narrative and Textual Strategy in Nella Larsen’s Fiction.? In Passing & the Fictions of Identity, ed. Elaine K. Ginsberg, 75–100. Durham: Duke University Press, 1997.
2. Larsen, Nella. Quicksand and Passing. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1995.
Analysis of Zora Neale Hurston’s Book, Their Eyes Were Watching God In reference To the Character of Jane
Love is Worth Fighting For
Love is something that everyone wants to achieve at some point in their life. In the fictional novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, written by Zora Neale Hurston, love is exactly what Janie, the main character, wants. This book is set in the early 1900s and describes the story of a woman named Janie, who is on the hunt for love. She runs into many obstacles in her three relationships with Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake. She struggles in her relationships until she meets Tea Cake, where her journey comes to an end. Overall, this heroic journey that Janie is on, is all for love. To Janie, and many others, love is worth fighting for.
The Call: There is always something that motivates a person to begin their journey. In regards to Janie, her motivation is the pear tree. When Janie was sixteen years old, she would sit under this pear tree and conjure up her idea of what love is, and what kind of love she wants in life, while doing this Hurston says “She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw 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 of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation” (11). As she sat under this tree, it was almost like it was sending her a message to find a love that was pure, and after that moment she spent there, she wouldn’t stop until she found it. Janie left her first marriage with Logan for Joe to see if she could experience love with him, and she left with Tea Cake to see where their relationship could go. Janie was willing to do anything for love, and it all falls back on the pear tree.
Allies: Going through life without a friend who supports you in everything you do, is hard. Thankfully, Janie had someone there to help her get through the obstacles in her love life, and her name was Phoebe. She was the only person who understood Janie, and didn’t judge her. She wanted what was best for her, and didn’t want Janie to be hurt. When Janie finishes her story, Phoebe explains “Ah done growed teen feet higher from jus’ listening tuh you, Janie. Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo’. . . Nobody better not criticize yuh in mah hearin” (192). . She supported her and helped her get through it. Phoebe wouldn’t let anyone hurt Janie now that she knew the truth. She never held Janie back from experiencing everything she ever could in life. She supported her through thick and thin, and that definitely makes Phoebe an ally.
The Preparation: You can’t run a marathon without preparing for it. You need a test-run, and to prepare for the real thing. You have to experience it first, because your first attempt is never perfect. When Janie sat under that pear tree and created her own idea of love, she immediately shared her first kiss with Johnny Taylor. After her experience under the tree, she saw people differently through her own eyes. For example, “Through pollinated air she saw a glorious being coming up the road. In her former blindness, she had known him as shiftless Johnny Taylor, tall and lean. That was before the golden dust of pollen had beglamored his rags and her eyes” (12). In this moment, she realized that she needs to start seeing people for who they truly are. She had to start her expedition now and build up enough courage to succeed, and this is where she prepared for the long journey ahead.
Guardian of the Threshold: Life in the early 1900’s was difficult for colored people, and even worse as a woman. Janie’s grandmother, also known as Nanny, had Janie’s life planned out. Nanny didn’t live the easiest life as a black woman, she was a slave and never had a normal life, or any money to rely on. She wants Janie to marry a man with money, even if there is no love in the relationship. That is the opposite of what Janie wants. Nanny forces Janie to marry Logan Killicks, a man who owns many acres. Janie feels nothing for him, and only marries him to make Nanny happy. Logan is not what Janie imagined under the pear tree, it was even mentioned that “The vision of Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree, but Janie didn’t know how to tell Nanny that” (14). Nanny was holding Janie back from her dream, and she stopped Janie from doing many things. For example, when Janie kissed Johnny Taylor, Nanny was furious. That isn’t what she wanted for Janie, but Janie doesn’t care about how much money a person has, and what they can provide her. All she wanted from a relationship was love, nothing else.
Crossing the Threshold: When you are on a mission, you have to get to the point where it actually begins, it could take days, months, or even years. Her first marriage was to Logan Killicks, she thought that maybe her love would come for him eventually, but it never did. She married him because she was following Nanny’s rules. He wanted her to work, but she didn’t think that work suited her very well. When Joe came to the city where Logan and Janie worked, everything changed. Janie ended up running off with him, to see if she could experience actual love. Janie’s idea of marriage changed, “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (25). Leaving Logan is where Janie’s journey began. She thought that running off with Joe was the best thing possible for her. Everything comes to an end at some point.
Road of Trials: Every couple experiences problems in their relationships, Janie being one of them. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie had her ups and downs with three men, Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake. Logan wanted Janie to work, which is not what she wanted to do, Jody treated her like a trophy wife, and there was no actual love there, and though her relationship with Tea Cake seemed perfect, they had difficulties. Janie had to fight through the fact that Tea Cake might be with her for the money, it might not have been true, but she had to listen to the whole town criticize their relationship. No relationship is perfect, but it can always improve in some cases.
Logan and Janie’s relationship was complicated. Janie never loved him, and she realized that she never would. For example, “Cause you [Nanny] told me Ah mus gointer love him [Logan], and, and Ah don’t. Maybe if somebody was to tell me how, Ah could do it” (23). Janie didn’t even know how to love him, she couldn’t see past the old man that he was on the outside. Also, Logan wanted Janie to work in the fields with him since he owned many acres. Logan didn’t understand that working isn’t what Janie wanted, he told her “If Ah kin haul de wood heah and chop it fuh yuh, look lak you oughta be able tuh tote it inside. Mah first wife never bothered me ‘bout choppin’ no wood nohow. She’d grab dat ax and sling chips lak uh man. You done been spoilt rotten” (26). Logan criticized her for not working, and compared her to his first wife. To Logan, it was normal for woman to work. But, under the pear tree, Janie imagined a relationship where she could stay home and relax while the man worked and brought home the money. That was almost every normal relationship back then. Everyone has a different opinion.
Janie expected a perfect relationship when she left with Joe, he made her feel amazing in the beginning of their relationship. When Joe became mayor, things started changing. He felt the rush of power and started to turn into a different person. He would never let her speak, she was told to sit and look pretty. An example of that, is when Jody is speaking in front of the town of Eatonville before the lighting of the street lamp. He finishes up his speech, and the crowd asks to hear Janie speak. Jody turns their request down, and doesn’t let her speak. Janie feels like her opinion doesn’t matter. She is extremely hurt by this and doesn’t appreciate it at all. Throughout their relationship, he continues to do things like this. She can’t wear her hair down because he doesn’t like other men touching it, and she isn’t allowed to play checkers because she is a woman. Their relationship was ruined, and there was no coming back. Joe ruined it, and didn’t care one bit. If your wife is happy that you died, that sends a very important message. Power can change a man.
Tea Cake is where Janie hit the jackpot, but there are still problems. Dating a younger man sends a confusing message to others. People believed that Tea Cake was after money, and he would never actually love her. Janie had to trust her gut on this one and believe the love she had for Tea Cake was genuine. When Janie speaks with Phoebe, she hears things that she doesn’t want to hear. Phoebe says “But anyhow, Janie, you be keerful ‘bout dis sellin’ out and goin’ off wid strange men. Look whut happened tuh Annie Tyler. Took whut little she had and went off tuh Tampa wid dat boy dey call Who Flung. It’s somethin’ tuh think about” (114). Phoebe was putting thoughts into Janie’s head. When Janie woke up one morning after they left for Florida, and she found that Tea Cake was gone, and so was her money she jumped to conclusions because of what people had told her. She was furious with Tea Cake, she was never able to fully trust him till she was sure that it was true love. Other people’s opinions can actually change your way of thought.
Janie faced problems in all of her relationships, and she was only able to fight through it in one of them, the one where there was actually love between the two. She couldn’t work with Logan because she didn’t love him enough to do that for him, she couldn’t deal with Jody’s rules because he controlled her and sucked every bit of love for him out of her. Janie couldn’t be in a relationship that only made the other person happy, she needed happiness also. Janie is thankful to have finally found her one true love.
The Saving Experience: Though Janie never felt the tragedy of Joe dying, it still affected her in other ways. She was forced to wear black to satisfy the town, and pretend she was sad. The black she wore seemed to represent her sadness of all the misery she lived with Joe more than it did his death. Thankfully, Tea Cake came into the picture. He made her feel amazing, and she fell for him instantaneously. He didn’t hold her back from anything, and he truthfully saved her from misery. Before him, she wouldn’t be allowed to do anything that Joe wouldn’t have allowed her to do. One example, is when Tea Cake and her first met in the store. “He [Tea Cake] set it [checkers] up and began to show her and she found herself glowing inside. Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play. That was even nice. She looked him over and got little thrills from every one of his good points” (96). Janie has never felt like this around someone, he brought out the best in her. He saved her from the terrible memories with Joe. He made everything she remembered with Joe, move out of her mind, and inserted the good memories with himself. Tea Cake brought Janie happiness she couldn’t have ever imagined having.
The Transformation: Throughout the entire novel, Janie changes in many different ways. She sees love in a completely new way now. Janie had a lot of experience with relationships, and it transformed her way of thinking. She knew what love truly was when she went off with Tea Cake. She changed both mentally and physically. She could wear her hair down, she smiled more, and she knew how to actually love a person for who they really are. She changed after leaving with Tea Cake, he taught her many things. While speaking with Phoebe she says, “Ah’m older than Tea Cake, yes. But he done showed me where its de thought dat makes de difference in ages. If people thinks de same they can make it all right. So in the beginnin’ new thoughts had tuh be thought and new words said. After Ah got used tuh dat, we gits ‘long jus’ fine. He done taught me de maiden language all over” (115). The age difference no longer affected Janie, she didn’t care what people thought. When she got over the fact that there was a big age difference, she was able to love. She was now able to look past everything that was being said, and have fun. She had no Jody to worry about, no Nanny to tell her to marry a ‘rich’ man. She was free and happy now, she transformed for the best.
The Return: When people work so hard for something, it makes you look at things differently. People realize what they have been waiting for, for so long. In Janie’s case, when she returns back to Eatonville after Tea Cake dies, she realizes something. She experienced the love that she always wanted, and she couldn’t ask for anything better. She got what she wanted, her journey is completed, and she has accomplished her lifetime goal. Similarly, when she finishes telling Phoebe her story, she expresses her feelings by saying “Now, dat’s how everything was, Phoebe, jus’ lak Ah told yuh. So Ah’m back home agin and Ah’m satisfied tuh be heah. Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons. Dis house ain’t so absent of things lak it used tuh be befo’ Tea Cake came along” (191). Janie can live the rest of her life in peace knowing that she succeeded, if she were to die right there, she would die filled with happiness. Her house isn’t filled with terrible memories of Joe anymore, all she sees is Tea Cake in the kitchen, in the bedroom, or in the parlor, and it’s a good feeling. Everything is different now, she never has to live in vain and can live knowing what she saw under the pear tree actually happened to her. Janie returned to Eatonville a changed woman.
Sharing the Gift: Janie had to tell someone her experiences with love, and she decides to do that with Phoebe. She shared her gift by telling her story to Phoebe. Janie had a happily ever after, and gained a lot through her journey. She found out what was right, and what was wrong. She shared her experience, information, and understanding on love. Phoebe looked at her very differently now, but it was for the better. She appreciated Janie telling her the truth, Phoebe wants what is best for Janie. Sharing her story was a brave thing for Janie to do, she had to re-experience all the terrible and happy moments in her life, and she most likely struggled. Overall, Janie fought for love, and won in the end.
The Rise to Motherhood in Larsen’s Passing
Throughout much of Nella Larsen’s Passing, Irene Redfield and Clare Kendry are portrayed as polar opposites. Though they both occupy the role of a young African-American mother living during the prosperous 1920s, they define that role in intensely different ways. Clare is a vivacious, wild woman who rejects her “people” in favor of freedom and glamour, whereas her good childhood friend Irene is more subdued and tries to act proud of her racial background for the sake of her family. Their differences ultimately manifest in their approaches to motherhood, and much of the novel revolves around the choices they make with regards to racial passing and parenting. Maternity is central to the racial passing experiences of both Irene and Clare, because Larsen is suggesting that mothers are responsible for carrying on the honor of the race that they belong to. Clare’s attitude towards her racial passing and Irene’s beliefs against it are each shaped and affected subsequently by the ways they view themselves as mothers, and it is this friction that drives the narrative towards its inevitable tragic conclusion.
The importance of the maternal figure is established early on in the novel, beginning with the free spirited Clare Kendry. Her own origins are tense and dramatic, with her “drunken father, a tall, powerfully built man” (p. 143) often asserting his masculine dominance over her. The lack of Clare’s own mother – a Negro girl, who as “they say, would have run away if she hadn’t died” (p. 153) – would later prove to be detrimental to Clare’s development. After the death of her father leaves her orphaned and without anyone to help her deal with her interracial heritage, Clare continues to evolve into an emotional roller coaster, something Irene remembers more clearly while she scrutinizes Clare’s character: “Sometimes she was hard and apparently without feeling at all; sometimes she was affectionate and rashly impulsive” (p. 144-145). Without a mother to properly nurture her feelings and sensibilities, Clare chooses to rebel against all expectations of her black race by passing for a white woman in order to compensate for her troubled childhood.
In addition to lacking a nurturing mother, Clare is left under the care of her father’s sisters, considerably the biggest influences behind Clare’s passing. Her aunts serve as substitute maternal figures for Clare, and they basically teach her to ignore the ancestry of her biological mother. “For all their Bibles and praying and ranting about honesty, they didn’t want anyone to know that their darling brother had seduced…a Negro girl. […] They forbade me to mention Negroes to the neighbours, or even to mention the south side. You may be sure that I didn’t,” Clare explains to Irene while discussing her life with her aunts (p. 159). These women essentially condition Clare to deny the existence of her Negro blood, and with nobody else around to show her how to be proud of the African American race, Clare rejects her heritage and readily slips into the persona of a pure white woman.
When Clare becomes a mother herself, she earnestly continues to pass as white and this leads to her neglecting even her own child. Throughout Larsen’s novel, Irene points out to Clare that she must remember the well-being of her daughter Margery. Clare laments over the prospect of leaving New York, and even when Irene reminds her about Margery, Clare is still daunted that she cannot stay and mingle with the rest of the Harlem society. “Children aren’t everything… There are other things in the world, though I admit some people don’t seem to suspect it,” Clare complains (p. 210). Clare obviously admires the glamour of her white appearance, and to be reminded by her child that she still carries (and has passed on) Negro blood would set her back. Coupled with her husband John Bellew’s adamant rule that there be “no niggers in my family” (p. 171), Clare cannot be a good mother to her child without admitting to her true nature. She understands that within the white race, there is an expectation that the pure white blood will carry on in future generations. Rather than nurturing her child to atone for her own mother’s absence, Clare continues the cycle by making herself as unavailable as she can for her daughter. With Margery around, Clare cannot be as vibrant and as exuberant as she wants to be.
In contrast to Clare’s rejection of maternity and family in favor of self-gratification and social status, Irene takes her own role as a mother very seriously. “I am wrapped up in my boys and the running of my house. I can’t help it. And really, I don’t think it’s anything to laugh at,” Irene responds to Clare (p. 210). She believes it is her responsibility to instill proper values in her two sons, and wants them to be able to grow up and freely embrace their African American heritage. After young Ted inquires about why only colored people were lynched, Irene and her husband Brian feud over how best to approach the subject of their sons’ race. Brian argues that if “they’ve [Ted and Junior] got to live in this damned country, they’d better find out what sort of thing they’re up against as soon as possible” (p. 231). He wants their children to be equipped to handle racism, but Irene wants “their childhood to be happy and as free from the knowledge of such things as it possibly can be” (p. 231). Irene fears that if her sons are more aware of the harsh bigotry and prejudice that awaits them out in the real world, they will become ashamed of their African American heritage and will suffer for it. If she fails to make her children’s lives happy and ‘as free from the knowledge’ of racism before they are ready for it, then Irene will not only have failed her position as a mother, but she will have failed her position as a mother of the Negro race. Unlike Clare, who does not want to be discovered that she is secretly carrying on the blood of the slaves, Irene wants to see her race progress into a better social stratum.
Irene’s decision to remain within the confines of her race and not publicly deny it also relates to the fact that the rest of her family is of a darker tone: “Irene…now said in a voice of whose even tones she was proud: ‘One of my boys is dark’” (p. 168). She has to be honored by her family’s skin color for the sake of her children. Irene ‘proudly’ describes her son as dark, and she sees it as her duty to foster this darkness and show off to the world how great the African American man can be. As opposed to Clare – who, as a deserter, has “to be afraid of freaks of the nature” (p. 169) – Irene has to deny actively passing and embrace her black heritage, and she believes that by uplifting future generations into overcoming white racism and prejudice, she will have done her part superbly as a colored mother.
The differences that separate Clare and Irene as mothers ultimately lead to their final confrontation and the tragic circumstances that surround them in the novel’s conclusion. Clare wants to free herself from John Bellew, but Irene believes that she is being selfish in neglecting Margery. “I think…that being a mother is the cruelest thing in the world,” Clare declares (p. 197). Clare believes that her child is holding her back from happiness and independence, and Irene tries desperately to explain to her that she has a duty to Margery. “We mothers are all responsible for the security and happiness of our children,” Irene argues to Clare in response. As a fellow parent, Irene wants to stop Clare from ruining the lives of herself and her child. It almost appears as if she wants to take them under her wing as well and nurture their appreciation – or at least acceptance – of their African American ancestry. When at the end, it seems as if Clare might have done the unthinkable and violated Irene’s own family, Irene comes to see Clare as a failure of the black race. Though Clare may have openly denied her race by passing as white for her entire adult life, Irene still believed that there was a chance to reclaim Clare.
In the end, Clare’s lack of dedication towards her maternity and family holds steady and Irene is zealous at maintaining the visage of a happy, successful African American family unit. The themes of family and womanhood are constantly being questioned and refashioned by Larsen in Passing because Clare and Irene’s passing – whether active or passive – experiences are deeply shaped by their maternal identities. These two radically different mothers interact with each other the entire novel, but their beliefs are too firm to be shaken. Mothers are expected to uphold the pride of her race, and since Clare could not do this for the white race she was a part of, she paid the consequences for it.
Contrasting Beliefs and Lifestyles Give Purpose and Affirmation: Irene and Clare in Passing
Desmond Tutu once said, “A person is a person through other persons…. I am because other people are.” In essence, what Tutu is saying is that without other people to influence and affect an individual, a person is not really anyone. It is the things that other people do and say, and how an individual reacts to those things, that build personality, depth, and character. In Nella Larsen’s novella, Passing, protagonist Irene Redfield embodies Tutu’s quote. She lives a life in which her children, husband, and greater race guide her every move, and she abides by rigid social rules in order to maintain harmony within her community. On the contrary, her peer, Clare Kendry, disrupts this balance by making decisions purely in an individualistic manner, threatening Irene’s concept of a society in which everyone belongs to and lives for their respective communities. Because Clare is a personification of everything that Irene fears, Clare’s life gives Irene an affirmation of her ways of life, but also threatens Irene’s lifestyle by challenging the social constructs that give her safety, comfort, predictability, and security.
Irene and Clare have extremely different definitions of safety, which consequently threaten the other’s security. Irene’s security is dictated by other people – her husband, her children, and the greater black community; she is always a part of a collective identity. After Irene and her husband Brian get into a fight about their son, Irene expresses: “It was only that she wanted [Brian] to be happy… all other plans, all other ways, she regarded as menaces… to that security of place and substance which she insisted upon for her sons and in a lesser degree for herself” (90). The definitive and conclusive tone of this quote shows the self-sacrifice that guides Irene in her life. Additionally, the choice of the word “menaces” to describe all other plans that do not have to do with the happiness of her husband and her sons, and the word’s negative connotations, display the high degree to which Irene has dedicated her life to others. Lastly, the phrase “security of place and substance” clearly defines for the reader what safety is for Irene: happiness for her husband, her kids, and doing whatever it takes to achieve that, even that the expense of her own happiness. On the other hand, Clare’s security is dictated by her own individual desires, and her identity is not bound by that of anyone else. When she and Irene discuss their contrasting lifestyles, Clare explains, “‘Why, to get the things I want badly enough, I’d do anything, hurt anybody, throw anything away. Really, ‘Rene, I’m not safe’” (125). The blatancy of this quote and the ease in which Clare is able to articulate these emotions reveal her selfish and individualistic mindset. Also, the use of such all-encompassing words as “anything” and “anybody” suggests the extremity of Clare’s egotistical personality, as there is not a single person or thing she would not harm to get what she wants. Lastly, the use of the phrase “not safe” in respect to Clare shows the the mutual exclusivity between being selfish and being safe. Overall, their contrasting definitions of safety create conflict between the two, causing Irene to want to distance herself from Clare, but causing Clare to be more motivated to reintegrate into the black community.
As a result of their different definitions of safety, Clare and Irene are bound to one another; each of their lifestyles creates contrast to the other and either reaffirms or destroys their beliefs in the rightness of their respective ways of life. As a result, their differences each give them purpose: Irene needs to distance herself from Clare, while Clare wants to get closer to Irene. When Irene gets a letter from Clare, she reflects that “Clare Kendry cared nothing for the race. She only belonged to it” (76). The unquestionable and confident tone that Irene uses here demonstrates the strength and purpose that Irene gains from Clare’s disrespect toward the race. Irene wastes thought and energy on Clare because it reminds her of her own dedication to her race, and allows her to isolate Clare from the group. The fact-like conciseness and conclusivity of this quote indicates that Clare’s own treason to the race gives Irene an excuse and outlet to separate herself from those who do not commit their entire lives to their race. Besides giving Irene someone and something to speak out against and to separate herself from, Clare’s lifestyle also reaffirms Irene’s belief that her way of life is the right one. When Irene and Clare are talking and Clare begins to cry about the struggles she is having, she says to Irene: “‘How could you know? How could you? You’re free. You’re happy. And… safe” (100). This clear, concise, and powerful statement by Clare to Irene validates Irene’s lifestyle. The words such as “free,” “happy,” and “safe” are all of the things that Irene aspires to be in life, so Clare’s acknowledgment of this serves to prove to Irene that all of her self-sacrifice is worth it. Overall, Irene’s ideas of safety and freedom are bound to Clare because without her, Irene would not have such personal and firsthand experience with those who pass to the white world. As someone so entirely dedicated to her race and collective community, interacting with Clare gives Irene purpose and confidence in her own way of life.
However, as the novella progresses, Clare’s unfiltered honesty brings out the flaws in Irene’s seemingly perfect life, causing her to further isolate herself from Clare and from the truth. Irene and Brian have had many difficulties in their marriage throughout the novella, but it was always something that Irene swept under the rug in order to protect her sons and the stability of her life. However, after she develops a suspicion that Clare and Brian are having an affair, she tries with all of her might to suppress the painful memory. At a party at her house, she distracts herself and cuts the thought out of her mind rather than confronting it: “Downstairs the ritual of tea gave her some busy moments, and that, she decided, was a blessing. She wanted no empty spaces in time in which her mind would immediately return to that horror…” (138-9). Here, Irene’s ability to realize her husband might be cheating on her but then to completely distract herself with something as insignificant as pouring tea suggests an unfailing ability to hide her feelings. Even if it is her marriage being threatened, she never fails to hide the painful truth and go on with her life. Her coping mechanism is to repress and refuse this truth, and distance herself psychologically from anything that might threaten her security. She further demonstrates this later on in the scene, where she is finally able to actually think about the situation rather than just pushing it out of her mind: “It hurt. It hurt like hell. But it didn’t matter, if no one knew. If everything could go on as before. If the boys were safe” (147). Here, she conveys a more introspective and analytical approach to this painful truth that Clare has surfaced. She is able to recognize her own emotions and bring to light how she is feeling. However, the arc of her thought process ending with her decision to once again suppress her feelings shows her inability to do anything to threaten her life and security. The solution to Irene’s conundrum being hiding her feelings and continuing to serve everyone except herself implies her undying dedication and almost enslavement to others, but never to herself. Finally, at the end of the novella, it becomes clear that Clare’s very existence poses a threat to the security, predictability, and comfort of Irene’s lifestyle. Irene decides that the only way for her to be freed of the discomfort and vulnerability that Clare brings to her life is to get rid of Clare: “She was an American. She grew from this soil, she would not be uprooted. Not even because of Clare Kendry, or a hundred Clare Kendrys” (169-70). The end of the novella makes reference to the American dream, and the American identity to which Irene lives so strongly by. Her connection to America and her feeling that Clare threatens this connection is what makes her decide that nobody, not even Clare, can stop her from pursuing the American lifestyle that she wants. However, even when she has this realization, she continues the same habit of pushing whatever threatens her and her lifestyle away, rather than dealing with the issues in front of her.
The end of the novella is a tragic one, as Clare dies from falling out of a window. It is unclear how exactly the tragedy occurred, but it is clear that Clare’s death is a symbolic one. Clare is the only character in the novella who successfully and wholeheartedly takes control of her own life and destiny, rather than letting social constructs or the demands of a collective identity get in her way. Unlike Irene, who fears individuality and self-reliance, Clare is able to threaten the society in which she lives by passing from one world to another, never picking one, and living in the in-between. Irene, on the other hand, continues to repress the truth in order to keep living in a predictable, comfortable, ideal world dictated by social constructs. However, the fact that Clare dies suggests that unfortunately, the only way to be truly safe and free is to stick to the status quo and conform to societal norms. This is because the perpetuation of any social constructs requires people to believe in and sustain them; when one person attempts to disrupt such an ideologically homogeneous society, he or she unfortunately cannot change the fixed views or behaviors of anyone else.
Improper Politics: Quicksand and Black Female Sexuality
The entertainment of a Harlem cabaret hypnotizes Helga Crane, the protagonist of Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. She loses herself in the “sudden streaming rhythm” and delights in the sexually suggestive moves of the dancers. Helga is “blown out, ripped out, beaten out by the joyous, wild, murky orchestra” in a moment suggestive of a sexual climax. But when the music fades, Helga returns to reality and asserts that “she wasn’t, she told herself, a jungle creature.” Helga feels this struggle between sexual freedom and restraint throughout the novel. As Larsen shows in the cabaret, black women of the early twentieth century repressed their sexual desires so that white America would perceive them as respectable. In its fight for equality, the black social elite wanted women to emulate the conventions of mainstream society. Maintaining a good image was intended not only to produce change within the race, but also to combat white stereotypes that caused discrimination against black people. Thus, described as primitive and promiscuous since slavery, black women hid their sexuality under socially accepted behavior. But, as Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham refers to it, this “politics of respectability” had profound consequences.
The politics of respectability shifted the blame for racist stereotypes from whites to blacks. Instead of stopping whites from unfairly labeling black women, the ideology of racial uplift forced black women to change their behavior in response to stereotypes. As Kevin K. Gaines argues in his book Uplifting the Race: Black Leadership, Politics, and Culture in the Twentieth Century, racial uplift supported an internalized form of racism. He writes, “Racial uplift ideology’s gender politics led African American elites to mistake the effects of oppression for causes…” Larsen’s Quicksand shows the psychological consequences of repressing sexuality. Helga moves from place to place and searches for happiness without rationality. Her unhappiness arises because the politics of respectability prevented black women from defining the terms of their sexuality. They were either lascivious “jungle creature[s]” or the ideal Victorian lady. Thus, uplift stopped black women from embracing their sexuality in a healthy way. Although the politics of respectability had good intentions, it severely curtailed individual freedom and prevented black women from forming their own identities.
The black elite intended the politics of respectability to prevent discrimination. They reasoned that if whites saw that blacks had similar morals, they would have no basis for treating them unequally. The politics of respectability aimed at thwarting the dissemination of negative black images that occurred in films like D. W. Griffith’s Birth of Nation and other media. Among the most ingrained stereotypes-and therefore most contested- was the promiscuous black woman. Higginbotham argues that “black womanhood and white womanhood were represented with diametrically opposed sexualities.” She gives the example of a white woman quoted in a newspaper as saying, “I cannot imagine such a creation as a virtuous black woman.” Whereas American society saw white women as chaste, it viewed black women as sex-crazed and loose. Thus, the black elite sought to reinvent the image of the black female. They took on white society’s norms and morals and instructed black women on issues from proper conduct on streetcars to appropriate colors for clothing. But, as Larsen illustrates in Quicksand, the politics of respectability promoted strict conformity and erased individuality. The black elite censured people who engaged in inappropriate behavior. The Shiloh Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., required individuals caught dancing and drinking to come before a church court. The black elite also attacked jazz, perhaps the most significant contribution to American culture at the time. Echoing the thoughts of Helga Crane in the cabaret, they said going to jazz halls amounted to “a voluntary return to the jungle.” Black women were no longer free to enjoy themselves without judgment. They became, like Helga, psychologically incomplete, needing sexual fulfillment but denied this by dominant society.
The politics of respectability emphasized that the individual determined the fate of the race. The black elite believed that individual behavior reflected on everyone. Higginbotham writes about the fear that Baptist women had of nonconformity to their morals. “The Baptist women spoke as if ever-cognizant of the gaze of white America, which in panoptic fashion focused on each and every black person and recorded his transgressions in an overall accounting of black inferiority,” she argues. To keep everyone in line, the social elite intruded into the family life of black women. They linked poor eating habits with “chewing, smoking, and…drinking.” The woman who kept her house dirty became an “enemy of the race.” Aside from nutrition and housekeeping, the black elite emphasized that the dignified individual required good parenting and lineage. For people like Helga who came from broken families, this expectation made them outsiders. Helga struggles with the tainted image that she inherits throughout Quicksand. When she wants to marry James Vayle, his parents disapprove of her lack of family. Lamenting the black social structure, Helga claims that “Negro society, she had learned, was as complicated and as rigid in its ramifications as the highest strata of white society. If you couldn’t prove your ancestry and connections, you were tolerated, but you didn’t ‘belong.’” By scrutinizing every aspect of personal life, the politics of respectability eliminated the individual in favor of the collective. It placed so many burdens on black women that Helga tries to escape her race. When she leaves Harlem for Copenhagen, Helga delights in “that blessed sense of belonging to herself and not to a race.” But, as she quickly realizes, she could not sever her racial ties by changing location.
Larsen also dealt with the oppression of racial uplift and infused Quicksand with her personal experience. Like Helga, she had parents of different races. Her mother was Danish and her father was West Indian. Like Helga, Her mother later married a white man who looked down on Larsen because of her race. Larsen studied science at Fisk University in Tennessee and also took classes at the University of Copenhagen. In 1915, she went to the South and became the superintendent of nurses at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. She left Tuskegee because she disliked its teaching methods and went to New York City, where she began to write several years later. She published her first novel, Quicksand, in 1928. As an author of the “New Negro” period, Larsen wrote for an audience that expected her to conform. Many leaders of the race believed that black literature should combat white stereotypes. In the “New Negro,” Alain Locke argued that African-American literature should promote race pride. W.E.B. Du Bois wrote a review of Quicksand for “The Crisis” in which he compared the novel to Claude McKay’s Home to Harlem. He applauds Larsen for a “fine, thoughtful and courageous piece of work,” but criticizes McKay for his emphasis on sex. DuBois describes the book as nauseating and says that it made him “feel distinctly like taking a bath.” Du Bois enters the debate on sexuality and uplift in his review. He condemns Home to Harlem for playing into “that prurient demand on the part of white folk” and praises Quicksand for portraying “honest, young fighting Negro women.” He thus promotes the idea that blacks should suppress their sexuality to combat white stereotypes of their promiscuity. Du Bois shows that the black elite preferred to address sexuality indirectly or not all.
Despite her conservative audience, Larsen criticized the goals of uplift and dealt seriously with female sexuality. Social expectations constrained her, but she asserted that black sexuality could not be ignored. Deborah E. McDowell, in the introduction to Quicksand, writes, “Larsen wanted to tell a story of the black woman with sexual desires, but was constrained by a competing desire to establish black women as respectable in black middle class terms.” McDowell adds that because of the second consideration, Larsen could only deal with sex “obliquely.” Larsen used Helga to express her thoughts on uplift and sexuality. She based the fictional Naxos on Tuskegee and had the same criticisms as Helga does of its social rules. Helga finds the social environment of Naxos oppressive and rigid. She believes that, although it was founded with good intentions, Naxos has turned into a machine. Helga claims that “it was… now only a big knife with cruel sharp edges ruthlessly cutting all to a pattern, the white man’s pattern.” Naxos teaches its students to give up their individuality, and associated sexuality, in favor of a respectable image. Larsen shows that even the smallest expressions of sexuality could not exist in this environment. The female faculty wears dull-colored clothing and becomes uncomfortable when Helga puts on “dark purples, royal blues, rich greens, [and] deep reds.” Unwilling to accept social convention, Helga leaves Naxos when Dr. Anderson calls her a “lady,” a loaded term in her mind. For Helga, it means giving up her individuality and being untrue to herself.
Although Helga defies social convention by leaving Naxos, she retains a preoccupation with “ladylike” behavior. In a situation reminiscent of the Harlem cabaret, Helga watches a Copenhagen vaudeville show in which two American blacks perform. Their “loose” movements embarrass and repulse Helga, who attends the show with her white friends. “She felt ashamed, betrayed, as if these pale pink and white people among whom she lived had suddenly been invited to look upon something in her which she had hidden away and wanted to forget,” Larsen writes. The thing that “she had hidden away” is her sexuality. Helga wants to challenge the white stereotype of primitive, lascivious blacks, but she also wants to express her own sexuality. She shows that the politics of respectability prevented black women from releasing their sexual tensions. Instead, it bottled up their physical desires and allowed them to reach a near-boiling point. Higginbotham demonstrates that African-American women in the early twentieth century felt social obligations similar to Helga’s. “Respectability, too, offered the black Baptist women a perceived defense of their sexual identities,” she claims. Just as the white audience put Helga in a defensive position, black women fought a society that placed them in a negative role. The Woman’s Convention, Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention, argued that the black woman “must become a tower of moral strength and by her reserve and dignified bearing, defy and cower her aggressors.”
Although the black elite wanted to fight stereotypes, they often accepted them unwittingly. The politics of respectability assumed that blacks gave white people reasons to treat them unequally. Higginbotham argues that “the politics of respectability equated nonconformity with the cause of racial inequality and injustice.” In this way, uplift made discrimination about supposedly improving black morals rather than combating white bias. Gaines claims that the emphasis on family life also shifted the blame for sexual misconceptions to black women. “Such emphasis on family life as a racial panacea often treated the problem as a failure of blacks to conform to Victorian sexual mores, instead of an outgrowth of ongoing, systematic repression,” Gaines writes. Inspired by the black elite, this self-reproach contributed to a confused racial identity. Helga fluctuates between looking down on blacks and feeling connected to them. “She didn’t, in spite of her racial markings, belong to these dark segregated people,” Helga claims. “She was different. She felt it. It wasn’t merely a matter of color.” Helga goes to Copenhagen to escape her race, but finds that color is important there, too. Her Danish relatives support the stereotype of the exotic black female and make Helga into a sex object. Her aunt and uncle put her in bright revealing clothes and exhibit her to their friends. Unwilling to accept this new role, Helga returns to Harlem and yearns to be apart of her race again. “How absurd she had been to think that another country, other people could liberate her from the ties which bound her forever to…these lovable, dark hordes,” Helga muses when she returns to Harlem. The inability to define her own sexuality causes Helga’s vacillation between the races. In Harlem, she must repress her physical desires to be respectable. In Copenhagen, her relatives transform her into an object of lust.
When Helga returns to Harlem, she begins to express her sexuality, but in bizarre and misguided ways. Soaked and looking for shelter, Helga finds refuge in a church and has an experience that is both religious conversion and sexual liberation. Larsen blurs the lines between religious fervor and passion in this intense scene. She writes, “as Helga watched and listened gradually a curious influence penetrated her; she felt an echo of the weird orgy resound in her own heart.” After releasing her sexual frustration at the church, Helga seduces a preacher who helps her home. But her decision has far-reaching consequences. She enters a loveless marriage and becomes pregnant five times. Larsen equates motherhood with a slow death as each child increases Helga’s suffering. All hopes for her happiness end when she has her first child. “She had ruined her life. Made it impossible to do the things that she wanted, have the things that she loved, mingle with the people she liked,” Larsen claims. Thus, Larsen argues that black women had to sacrifice their dreams to satisfy their physical desires. She criticizes the politics of respectability for offering either a non-sexual existence or domestic servitude. McDowell argues that “Larsen castigates the dual price- marriage and pregnancy/childbearing- that women must pay for sexual expression.” By ending Quicksand with Helga pregnant once again, Larsen attacks social convention for the burdens that it placed on black women.
Helga’s mixed background further complicates her search for sexual satisfaction and happiness. She is unsure of where she belongs and how the politics of respectability affect her. When she leaves Copenhagen, Helga laments not feeling a part of either race. “Why couldn’t she have two lives, or why couldn’t she be satisfied in one place?” she thinks. At times, she wants to escape other black people and to forget the ties to her race. But when she travels to Copenhagen, she realizes that her white relatives treat her as only an exotic curiosity. Helga’s confusion is similar to what Du Bois refers to as double-consciousness. Du Bois argues that white perceptions of black people influenced how blacks saw themselves. Du Bois writes, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at oneself in the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity.” Because Helga is a person of mixed background, the feeling of double-consciousness becomes pronounced. When Helga describes the Harlem nightclub as a jungle, she looks at the scene through white eyes. She accepts the stereotype of the savage black and stops herself from enjoying the dancing. Larsen writes, “She cloaked herself in a faint disgust as she watched the entertainers throw themselves about to the bursts of syncopated jungle.” Larsen shows the power of white stereotypes in black life. Helga lives with the fear of being watched and analyzed. Even when she is free to enjoy herself, white ideas still influence her behavior.
Larsen not only deals with double-consciousness, but also grapples with what it means to be black. She examines whether being black can be a choice in Quicksand and her other novel Passing. Helga moves between black and white communities to find where she belongs. She attempts to move in with her uncle in Chicago, but the thought of having a black person in the family terrifies his wife. Rejected and desperate for work, she goes to Harlem, where she stays with Anne. But she grows tired of talking with Anne about the “Negro problem.” Helga believes that discussion of the Negro problem only emphasizes black oppression. “She wanted to be free from this constant prattling of the incongruities, the injustices, the stupidities, the viciousness of white people. It stirred memories, probed hidden wounds, whose poignant ache bred in her a surprising oppression,” Larsen claims. Unable to accept her inferior position in America, Helga leaves for Copenhagen to embrace her white relatives. Although her Danish relatives treat her nicely, they do not regard her as equal. “True she was attractive, unusual, in an exotic, almost savage way, but she wasn’t one of them. She didn’t at all count,” Helga thinks at her relatives’ dinner party. Helga wants to return to Harlem when she realizes that she is different from her white friends. Because Helga needs to associate with black people, Larsen suggests that blackness is innate even for people of mixed backgrounds. Helga’s separation from her race is impossible.
Similarly, Larsen’s connection to the black middle class affected her work. Because Larsen was a part of this class, she could not criticize the politics of respectability freely. McDowell argues that “however much Larsen criticizes the repressive standards of sexual morality upheld by the black middle class, finally she cannot escape those values.” Although Larsen attacks the morals of racial uplift, she deals with sexuality within its framework. Larsen makes marriage and pregnancy the inevitable consequences of expressing physical desire. She writes after Helga sleeps with Reverend Green, “And so in the confusion of seductive repentance Helga Crane was married to the grandiloquent Reverend Mr. Pleasant Green.” Helga’s “repentance” suggests that she must atone for fornicating with Reverend Green. She never accepts Christianity in her heart, but uses it to cloak her guilt. The marriage also has inappropriate motives. Helga feels that she must marry Green because Christianity demands it. She neglects her husband and despises both motherhood and marriage. “For the preacher, her husband, she had a feeling of gratitude, almost amounting to sin. Beyond that, she thought of him not at all,” Larsen writes. By ending with Helga unhappy and pregnant again, Quicksand suggests that no appropriate place for black sexuality exists. Larsen implies that escaping society’s morals was impossible. Helga challenges them but succumbs to their consequences in the end.
The repression of black sexuality still occurs today. Cornel West argues that it is still a taboo in his book Race Matters. He regrets that black families, churches, and schools have ignored black sexuality. West believes that these organizations have neglected black sexuality to gain the acceptance of white America. West writes, “struggling black institutions made a Faustian pact with white America: avoid any substantive engagement with black sexuality and your survival on the margins of American society is, at least, possible.” This “Faustian pact” has caused many black women to treat their physical desires with apprehension and disgust. Helga feels the psychological damage that the politics of respectability inflict. She searches for sexual fulfillment throughout the novel, and when she finds it, social expectations suffocate her. The title “Quicksand” alludes to the hopelessness of Helga’s search for happiness. The more she struggles, the faster she sinks. Ironically, the politics of respectability could neither inhibit white stereotypes of black sexuality nor improve race relations. More than seventy years after Larsen published Quicksand, West discusses the same assumptions that whites have of black sexuality. Because stereotypes are not always based on truth, the public-image campaign, promoted by black elites, could only achieve so much. Uplift also increased racial misunderstanding. The politics of respectability put black sexuality under the rug, but, by leaving it unaddressed, fostered contradictory images of black women. They were either sex-crazed or sexless. In this way, the politics of respectability obscured the fact that sexual desire is natural and failed to engage in a realistic dialogue.
Folklore in Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks while she was in Port-au-Prince, Haiti, researching the country’s major voodoo gods and studying as an initiate under the tutelage of Haiti’s most well-known Voodoo hougans (priests) and mambos (priestesses). However, while many scholars have explored Hurston’s interest in and study of voodoo in her ethnographical texts, such as Mules and Men (1935) and Tell My Horse (1938), only a few have explored the relationship between voodoo and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Close analysis of the novel reveals that voodoo imagery and symbolism is integral to the development of the predominant themes of Hurston’s second novel.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston explores the natures of black women and black men; the ways in which their natures are shaped by their individual and collective experiences within American and African American cultures; and how their experiences inform their self-knowledge, their connection with the world around them and their relationships with others. More specifically, Their Eyes Were Watching God is concerned with a young black woman’s quest for self-discovery beyond the false values imposed on her by a society that allows neither women nor black people to exist naturally and freely. Through her female protagonist, Janie Crawford, Hurston critiques the status of black women and the roles available to them within American and African American cultures; and she offers them an alternate frame of reference for their unique experiences within the world and an alternate path to self-determination and autonomy. That path is Voodoo, a religion which Hurston describes as “the old, old mysticism of the world in African terms . . . a religion of creation and life” (Tell My Horse 376).
Voodoo is a syncretization of African and European religious beliefs and practices, through which its devotees strive for personal and communal power by achieving harmony with their respective individual natures and with the world in which they live. According to scholar of voodoo, Alfred Métraux, the religion has “no national church, no association of priesthood, no written dogma, no code, no missionization” (Métraux 13). Consequently, it is a religion that can be and has been adapted—through the integration of new symbolic materials—to address the changing social and political circumstances of the cultures that practice it. It is the adaptability of the religion and the religion’s historical and social relevance to the unique experiences of black people (especially women) upon which Hurston draws in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Employing voodoo as an intertext for her novel, Hurston has at hand a system of beliefs and practices replete with powerful female deities, female leaders and female adherents. As a religion which reflects the desires and aspirations of its followers, which functions as an alternate form of power for those that might otherwise feel powerless, and which privileges women’s lives in ways other religious traditions do not, Voodoo is an effective vehicle through which to explore the role and status of black women within modern African American culture. Through the integration of voodoo imagery and symbolism, Hurston provides an alternate path by which women can transform and transcend the socio-cultural pathologies and existential constraints that distinguish the African American female experience.
Despite the apparent absence of a unified social or ideological superstructure, Voodoo has a body of basic beliefs and practices that characterize the religion throughout the world (Métraux 13). Central to the religion is the existence of loa or mystères, spirits or deities that personify the experiences, hopes, and aspirations of their devotees or followers and upon whom followers call for the remedy of ills, the satisfaction of needs, and for hope and survival. When summoned in a voodoo ceremony, the loa ‘mounts’—as a rider mounts a horse—or ‘possesses’ his or her servant and then speaks and acts through his or her ‘horse,’ addressing the specific circumstances for which s/he has been summoned.
There are two classes of voodoo loa: the rada and the petro. The rada loa are considered “high and pure” (Tell My Horse 441). They are gentle gods who do only good things for people. They may exercise violence to punish a Vodouisant, but never—like certain petro—out of sheer spite. Petro loa are more implacable and violent than their rada alter ego. There is a category of petro loa known as gé-rouge or “red-eyes” that are, without exception, evil and even cannibal. While the petro loa are known as evil, they can also be made to do good things. However, the petro work for an individual only is s/he makes a promise of service. When someone swears her- or himself to the petro, s/he must pay for the debt; or the petro will exact revenge.
Central to Hurston’s narrative is her female protagonist, Janie Crawford-Killicks-Starks-Woods, as the embodiment of Erzulie (or Ezili), the loa that governs the feminine spheres of life. The figuration of Erzulie entered the religion during a time when slave owners sexually exploited their female slaves and separated families at will (“Erzulie” A-muse-ing Grace). In her rada and petro manifestations (Erzulie Freda, Erzulie Danto and Erzulie Gé-Rouge), she represents the ideality of love, the sanctity of motherhood, women’s innate strength and creativity, their ability to endure and survive adverse circumstances and their determination to fight for what is most dear to them. Through her characterization of Janie-Erzulie, Hurston explores a more complex subjectivity for African American women beyond that of sexually-exploited slave and tragic mulatta (two of the earliest female character types to appear in African American literature); and she inscribes a new archetype into the pantheon of African American female selves: a heroic African American ‘Everywoman’ who masters her world and claims her place within it as a fully-integrated, autonomous and creative self.
Through her seamless integration of voodoo, Hurston challenges and subverts the predominant stereotypes of voodoo as ‘primitive magic’ and ‘witchcraft,’ legitimating what she fervently believed to be an authentic, African spiritual path and establishing its viability as a medium of empowerment for those without power. She also challenges and subverts the predominant myths and stereotypes that perpetuate the condition and treatment of women, in general, and black women, in particular, within American culture; and she re-elaborates existing archetypal patterns of the African American female socio-cultural experience, loosening the constraints under which black women exist.
The result is a narrative of ‘mythic’ status and import. Just as myths transcend the limitations of common life and imbue daily actions with universal (i.e., archetypal) significance, Hurston uses voodoo imagery and symbolism in Their Eyes Were Watching God to create a modern American myth—grounded in the African diasporic tradition—that transcends what is expected and accepted as historically and culturally plausible for black women within the prevailing social order. She valorizes a tradition through which black women can achieve selfhood that integrates both their public and private selves and that reflects agency and authority over their own lives and their own stories.
Hurston relies on the stages of the archetypal quest paradigm, which comprise the foundation for the monomyth of the hero’s journey, to structure her novel. Each culture has its version of the monomyth. However, in all cultures, the quest is traditionally cyclical and can be divided into three major stages, as follows: (1.) Separation (Call to Adventure); (2.) Initiation (the Journey); and (3.) The Return (“Ageless Wisdom,” Divine). Each section of Hurston’s novel represents a different stage of Janie’s quest toward selfhood. However, Hurston uses imagery and symbolism from both voodoo and black American folklore to adapt and transform the conventions of the paradigm and to situate the text within a tradition that is identifiably African American and female. Also, the novel is a frame narrative. Janie’s story of her journey to selfhood, recounted in her own voice, is framed and aided by that of a third-person omniscient narrator, who possesses the folk wisdom and knowledge of the black experience for which Janie is questing and can, therefore, represent the minds and speech of all of the characters from a timeless perspective that Janie’s direct discourse alone cannot. The distinctive blending of spiritual and folk imagery and symbolism, coupled with Hurston’s use of both direct discourse and an omniscient point-of-view which functions to “present past and fictional present as if each is present time” (Pondrom 201) contributes to the mythic status of Janie’s story.
As the novel begins, Janie’s quest is completed, and she returns to Eatonville, the place from which she embarked on her journey, to narrate to her friend, Pheoby Watson, the manner in which her identity has been revealed to her. Hurston establishes an immediate connection between African-Haitian and African-American southern cultures in her description of the residents of Eatonville:
It was time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. (1)
The description of the townspeople as “tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences” recalls Hurston’s description of zombies in Tell My Horse. Zombies, according to Hurston, are individuals who have died and whose bodies have been, following their burial, taken from the grave and given an “antidote” that “resurrects” them. The antidote restores the body’s vital signs, allowing the body to move and act, but leaves the victim with no memory, no willpower, unable to speak or hear, and with “dead eyes” that stare without recognition (Tell My Horse 469). In this state, zombies can be easily used as field laborers, as ‘beasts of burden.’ In her description of the townspeople, Hurston links the experiences of African diasporic people and alludes to the dehumanizing effects of slavery as the possible genesis of the figuration of zombies in the Voodoo religion. She alludes, as well, to the perpetuation of this aspect of slavery in the lives of poor southern African Americans beyond the Reconstruction era. Also, in her description, Hurston points to the restorative capabilities of the community. Once they are removed from the authority of “the bossman” and are safely ensconced within their own community, the townspeople reclaim their strength and humanity; and it is the community’s potential for individual and collective self-possession and self-expression with which Hurston is ultimately concerned.
However, Hurston makes it clear from the beginning of the novel that while communal self-determination plays a significant role in the novel, it is “the woman”—as Janie is referred to for the first three pages of the novel, reinforcing her archetypal persona—who is the central focus of the narrative. Janie returns to Eatonville wearing overalls, with her long hair swinging in a braid down her back; and the townspeople sit in appreciation or judgment, according to gender, upon her return:
The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grapefruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye. The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance. It was a weapon against her strength. ( 2 )
Janie is the essence of Erzulie Freda in physical appearance, carriage and demeanor. Erzulie Freda is the rada loa of love, beauty and elegance; she is the potential lover of all of the men of Haiti and the rival of all of the women. In Tell My Horse, Hurston describes her as a mulatta—as is Janie; she is the product of her mother’s rape by her white schoolteacher—with long dark hair, “a beautiful woman of lush appearance [with] firm, full breasts and other perfect female attributes” (384). In fact, Hurston’s description of Janie closely resembles Alfred Métraux ‘s description of Erzulie Freda in Voodoo in Haiti: “At last, in the full glory of her seductiveness, with hair unbound to make her look like a long haired half-caste, Ezili makes her entrance . . .. She walks slowly, swinging her hips” (111).
Like Erzulie Freda, Janie stirs the lust of the men and evokes the envy of the women. However, while she physically resembles Erzulie Freda, Janie’s overalls recall the petro aspect of the loa, Erzulie Danto. While Erzulie Freda is “a city girl of refined tastes and desires,” Erzulie Danto is a hard-working, industrious country woman who can become overbearing, aggressive and acerbic in her aspect and who is frequently envisioned wearing the blue denim of a Haitian peasant woman (Filan 1). In integrating the two figurations of Erzulie, Hurston indicates that Janie has succeeded in integrating all aspects of black womanhood in her journey; and upon her return, she shares with Pheoby the specifics of the adventures through which she has achieved this integration.
Janie begins her story at the point at which her “conscious life” (10) began—at the age of sixteen, when she lay under a blossoming pear tree in her back yard. As she watches a bee pollinate a bloom on the pear tree, Janie experiences her sexual awakening. She identifies with the pear tree (“Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom!”); and as she leans over the gate post, “waiting for the world to be made,” she commits herself to finding “a bee to her bloom” (Their Eyes 11, 31). The recurring metaphors of the blossoming pear tree and the horizon (the world) frame and help to unify Janie’s quest. The pear tree symbolizes unpossessive, mutually affirming, passionate love—the idyllic union of equals. In using organic imagery to symbolize Janie’s dawning awareness of herself as a woman, Hurston elevates her protagonist’s sexual awakening above the profane stereotypes imposed on black women’s sexuality by society; and she legitimates passion and sexual desire as natural, rather than aberrant, aspects of black womanhood. The horizon symbolizes the life experiences that are necessary to achieve a complete awareness of self, including meaningful participation in the traditions of the black community (Hemenway 239). The imagery symbolizes the inner (spiritual) and outer (material) aspects of life, respectively; and the successful integration of the pear tree vision and the horizon signifies the telos of Janie’s quest to selfhood.
Voodoo imbues the imagery with another level of symbolic significance. The tree and the horizon are both symbols connected to the loa Legba, who, in keeping with the ceremonial order of the Voodoo religion, is the first loa ‘summoned’ in the novel. Legba, like the tree, symbolizes the connection between heaven and earth, the spiritual and material worlds. He is the gatekeeper, the lord of the crossroads, who provides “the way to all things” (Tell My Horse 393). As the bridge that the Vodouisant uses to transverse into the spiritual realm of the loa, Legba aptly represents Janie’s spiritual awakening. Along with Legba, Erzulie Freda, the loa of ideal dreams, hopes and aspirations, is invoked in Janie’s pear tree vision. It is said that “Erzulie looks into mirrors and dreams of perfection” (“Erzulie Freda,” Sosyete); and as Janie—who is described as having “glossy leaves and bursting buds” (11)—looks into the mirror of the pear tree, she dreams of the perfect union of equals.
With her dawning awareness of self, Janie is poised to accept the Call to Adventure of the archetypal quester. However, before Janie can embark on her journey to the horizon in her quest to actualize the pear tree vision, her quest is indefinitely deferred by her grandmother Nanny. Nanny, whose world-view establishes the contrast between the ‘real’ or ordinary world and Janie’s vision, witnesses Janie kissing a neighbor boy over the front gate and immediately declares Janie “a woman” (12). As a former slave who was raped by her master and bore his child, Janie’s mother, Nanny embodies society’s conventional notions of black women as “mules,” “work oxes,” and “brood sows” (15). She tells Janie, “Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high . . . fulfil[ling] dreams of what a woman oughta be and to do” (15). However, Nanny’s life experiences enable her to testify only to her racial and sexual oppression as a black woman. Nanny wants to see Janie safe in life, and safety for her means a life that mirrors as closely as possible the material stability and social status of the white middle-class. Consequently, she has arranged a marriage for Janie; and she has chosen Logan Killicks, a widower much older than Janie who has the only organ in the town and owns sixty acres of land (22).
Janie, incapable at this point of expressing her own desires, refuses her Call to Adventure in exchange for security and seeks a way to meld Nanny’s vision with her own. She reasons that with the legal union of marriage comes love: “Husbands and wives loved each other and that was what marriage meant” (20). However, living with Killicks on the back road isolates Janie from the larger community, and Killicks ultimately attempts to turn her into the ‘mule’ Nanny sought to prevent her from becoming. Consequently, Janie realizes that the institution of marriage does not guarantee the love she envisions; and with this realization, “she became a woman” (24). It is the first significant lesson of Janie’s adult life.
Disappointed in her first attempt at love, Janie turns her attention to the horizon. She meets Joe Starks, a stylishly dressed man from the city who is traveling through town on his way to Eatonville, Florida, where he plans on being “a big voice” (28). Janie is initially skeptical of Joe because “he doesn’t represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees;” however, he does “speak for far horizon . . . for change and chance” (28). The prospect of fulfilling her dream of the horizon renews Janie’s hope for fulfillment of her dream of romantic love, and she leaves Logan to accompany Joe to Eatonville.
In her marriage to Joe, Janie channels Erzulie Freda. Like Freda, who prefers sweetened drinks and sweet food, Janie, when she initially meets Joe, tells him that she drinks sweetened water (27). In fact, Joe’s relationship with Janie resembles that of the Haitian male devotees of Erzulie Freda, a kept woman who does not work and who eschews menial labor. As the wife of the storekeeper, postmaster and mayor of Eatonville, Janie has material comforts and enjoys a social status that sets her above and apart from the common townspeople. In this respect, Janie’s marriage to Joe perpetuates Nanny’s vision of material stability and respectability.
Joe “classes off” (107) Janie; he isolates her from the community, forbids her to engage in the daily store porch conversations with other townsfolk, and he excludes her from the observances of the town’s rituals and traditions. He reasons that as the wife of Eatonville’s “big voice,” Janie should be satisfied to sit silently and submissively on her social throne. However, the potential power of Janie’s voice is indicated when she publicly compliments Joe on the way he handles a community dispute, and one of the men comments: “ Yo’ wife is uh born orator, Starks. Us never knowed dat befo’. She put jus’ de right words tuh our thoughts” (55). Janie’s voice has the potential to build and affirm the community, while Joe’s “big voice” seeks submission and imposes divisiveness. Janie, in her effort to transform Joe into a “bee for her bloom” (31), initially submits to Joe’s control, allowing him to place her on a pedestal. However, she soon realizes that she has, again, equated marriage with her pear tree vision and that her ideal has, again, been debased.
As Joe continues to deny Janie’s freedom of expression and participation in the community, the organic imagery is revived; Janie discovers that she has “no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man” (68). The revival of the pear tree imagery indicates the progress of Janie’s developing self. After twenty years of marriage, she is much more aware of the differences between women and men and of how these differences negatively influence the status of women within their relationships and within the community. She continues to make an outward show of obedience to Joe while she nurtures and protects her innermost self. She realizes that “she was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them” (67).
This new stage in Janie’s self-discovery is foreshadowed when Joe orders Janie to tie her hair up in a head rag so that she is less attractive to the town’s men. Having to wear the head rag is a serious point of contention for Janie and marks the beginning of her fighting back against Joe. The conscious defiance on Janie’s part conjures the figuration of the petro loa, Erzulie Danto, who is sometimes envisioned wearing a moshwa, or head scarf (Filan 1). Danto, a fearsome defender of women, gives her female devotees the strength to endure and to overcome adversity and the confidence to stand up for themselves, which is exactly what Janie does in compartmentalizing the inner and outer aspects of herself.
The invocation of Erzulie Danto also heralds Janie’s coming to voice. When Janie makes a mistake measuring a quantity of tobacco in the store, Joe uses the incident as an opportunity to attack her womanhood in a way he hasn’t before: “A woman stay round uh store till she get old as Methusalum and still can’t cut a little thing like a plug of tobacco! Don’t stand dere rollin’ yo’ pop eyes at me wid yo’ rump hangin’ nearly to yo’ knees” (74). Janie’s bitterness and resentment boil over; and for the first time ever, she stands in the middle of the store in front of all of the men and responds: “Naw, Ah ain’t no young gal no mo’. . . . But Ah’m a woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. . . .Talkin’ ‘bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change of life” (74-75).
Janie’s attack on Joe indicates her awareness of and increasing confidence in her femaleness. In confronting Joe she publicly exposes the ineffectiveness of his masculine authority, which goes to the very core of his being; and she speaks herself down from the pedestal upon which he has set her as an outward sign of his status and power. As a result, she and Joe are permanently estranged. The damage to Joe’s psyche contributes to his already failing health, resulting in his death.
After Joe’s death, Janie, in keeping with the quest paradigm, takes stock of herself. She confronts those social conventions that have restricted and limited her growth; and she finally rejects Joe’s and Nanny’s value system, which privileges material possessions and social status over spiritual freedom and romantic love, and the imitation of white success over the celebration of the lives of black folk. She reflects:
She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; . . . But she had been run off down a back road after things. . . . Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon . . . and pinched it into such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love. (85)
With Joe’s death, Janie becomes an active agent in her own life and is finally poised to accept the quester’s Call to Adventure. It is Verigible “Tea Cake” Woods who will facilitate Janie’s physical journey and around whom all of the imagery of the novel comes together.
Tea Cake embodies the organic union of Janie’s pear tree vision; he is “a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring” (102). He also embodies Erzulie Freda’s ideal of the perfect lover. Just as Freda craves sweets, Janie wants “things sweet” (23) in her relationship. Tea Cake’s name indicates that Janie’s desire is satisfied in her union with him. Perfumes and flowers are traditional offerings to Erzulie Freda; Tea Cake “seems to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps” (99).
Tea Cake also speaks for horizon. His last name, Woods, connects him with the symbolism of the tree and thus with Legba, the spirit of the fields, the woods and the general outdoors. Tea Cake is, for Janie, the “Son of Evening Sun” (169), which is also an allusion to Legba, who has been described as “the Orient, the East, the sun and the place the sun rises” (“Vodoun,” The Mystica). Janie and Tea Cake’s relationship symbolizes the melding of African American southern folklore and Haitian Voodoo. Also, Janie physically resembles the mulatta goddess Erzulie Freda, while Tea Cake has the black skin of Erzulie Danto. Their union foreshadows the integration of the two aspects of the loa in Janie’s life.
Janie and Tea Cake’s relationship indicates the culmination of the mythology surrounding Erzulie Freda. Just as “troubled dreams” (Tell My Horse 387) are a signal that a man has been called as a devotee of Erzulie Freda, Tea Cake tells Janie that his sleep has been troubled by dreams of touching her long, thick hair, an attribute she shares with Erzulie Freda. Janie begins wearing the color blue—Erzulie’s color—because Tea Cake loves her in blue. Erzulie is considered a triple goddess. As such, she has three husbands: Damballah, the sky god; Agwe, the sea god; and Ogoun, the god of fire and iron. Janie’s wedding to Tea Cake, at which they both wear blue, is Janie’s third marriage, mirroring Erzulie Freda’s three husbands.
Through her relationship with Tea Cake, Janie enters into communion with the world. Tea Cake takes Janie dancing and to the movies; he teaches her to fish, to hunt, to play checkers and to drive. Within the context of the quest paradigm, Tea Cake is Janie’s mentor and helper. He helps Janie to gain confidence and insight, and he accompanies her on her journey as an equal partner in confronting the journey’s trials. Tea Cake also, channeling Legba, facilitates Janie’s “crossing of the threshold” from the ordinary or everyday world (Eatonville) into the “world of adventure,” when he and Janie move to the muck on the Florida Everglades.
Janie’s pear tree vision is actualized in her marriage to Tea Cake, and their idyllic union flourishes on the muck. However, Janie tells Pheoby before she and Tea Cake leave Eatonville, “Ah wants to utilize mahself all over” (107). In order to achieve this level of agency and autonomy, there are aspects of Janie’s identity that must still be developed, aspects that invoke the figuration of Erzulie Freda’s alter ego, Erzulie Danto. Janie begins to embrace these aspects of herself when she and Tea Cake move to the muck with its “rich black earth” (125), an image which evokes Erzulie Danto’s black skin. The description of the workers who settle on the muck reflects Janie’s introduction to the working-class folk identity that characterizes Erzulie Danto: “Skillets, beds, patched up spare inner tubes all hanging and dangling from the ancient cars on the outside and hopeful humanity, herded and hovered on the inside . . .. People ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor” (125). Janie immerses herself in the life of the folk and becomes an accepted participant in the community. While Joe required her silence and submission, Janie and Tea Cake are peers and co-workers. They work side-by-side on the muck, picking beans. Janie learns to shoot and becomes a better shot than Tea Cake. She develops her story telling skills and adds her voice to the others on the muck. Their house becomes the center of the community.
On the muck, which represents the poor, working-class folk that Hurston loved so much, Janie and Tea Cake accomplish what Hurston herself aims to accomplish with her novel: a redefinition of the black community that acknowledges and privileges the unique gifts of all of its members. This act of communal re-creation is explicit in Janie’s and Tea Cake’s befriending of the Bahamans or “Saws” who work on the muck and perform their drum rituals and fire dances in secret, away from the scornful eyes of the Americans. Rather than demanding that the “Saws” relinquish their practices and traditions in order to gain acceptance, Janie and Tea Cake assimilate the Bahamans and their unique cultural expressions into the community that they have created on the muck.
However, the idyll on the muck cannot last. Just as the archetypal quester must confront trials and tests along his or her journey, Janie must ultimately confront those societal—and natural—forces that proscribe her journey to selfhood. Ironically, while Tea Cake facilitates Janie’s quest, he ultimately problematizes its successful completion. This stage of Janie’s quest finds its context within the mythology surrounding Erzulie Freda, who embodies all that is good and noble about love as well as all that is unattainable or painful about it (Collins 148). The Haitian rituals honoring Erzulie Freda begin with gaiety, as the loa’s ‘horse’ greets and flirts with the men; however, they typically end with inconsolable weeping, as the loa recalls a past betrayal or disappointment (Collins 138). Derek Collins explains: “Erzulie Freda is . . . intrinsically unable to be satisfied by, or truly able to satisfy another in love. Although she may offer men the most bounteous and perfect love, it is fleeting, perhaps because such a full and overflowing love is beyond the capacity of men to keep” (148-49). This aspect of the mythology surrounding the loa manifests when Tea Cake discovers that Mrs. Turner, who operates a diner on the muck, plans to fix Janie up with her brother. Although Janie has given no indication that she is receptive to Mrs. Turner’s plans, Tea Cake gives in to his male insecurities and slaps Janie around in order to show Mrs. Turner and the people on the muck “who is boss” (141).
This incident signals the beginning of the end of Janie and Tea Cake’s idyllic union and sets in motion the events that will culminate in the supreme ordeal—the central life-or-death crisis (“Ageless Wisdom,” Divine)—of Janie’s quest. Tea Cake’s actions indicate a need for an outward show of his possession, which places him in the same league with Joe Starks. However, while Janie’s treatment at Starks’ hands brings her to voice and self-awareness, her love for Tea Cake is “self-crushing” (122). She seems satisfied to subordinate her life to Tea Cake’s. Hurston culls this situation from her personal experience. When Hurston’s lover, who inspired Their Eyes Were Watching God, hit her in the heat of an argument, Hurston did not retaliate, nor did she immediately end the relationship. However, as she relates, her uncharacteristic passivity made her realize that “she had lost hold of herself” (qtd. in Boyd 275). The realization frightened her, and she soon left her lover in order to regain control of herself and her life.
Similarly, Janie has lost hold of herself in her relationship with Tea Cake; and Hurston realizes—even if Janie does not—that Janie will have to proceed on her journey without Tea Cake if she is to reclaim herself. The dilemma for Hurston is to devise a way to set Janie back on the path to self-realization, autonomy and independence while preserving the integral aspects of Janie’s identity that she has gained as a result of her ‘perfect’ union with Tea Cake. Janie, satisfied that she has achieved the ultimate treasure of womanhood in her marriage to Tea Cake, is reluctant to leave. Consequently, just as the reluctant quester may require supernatural forces to urge him or her on, Hurston draws on the forces of nature—as t
New Voices in the Harlem Renaissance
Despite disparities in the poetic styles of Sterling Brown and Arna Bontemps, each author was equally effective in conveying the “new voice” of the black American during the Harlem Renaissance. The idea of a more suitable expression for African Americans repudiates the Renaissance’s fundamental ideology. Unconscious variety in interpretations of new black society represents the most defining aspect of the movement: the culmination of diverse black backgrounds in a single entity. While Brown wrote the poem “Southern Road” in the black vernacular, Bontemps’ poem “Golgotha Is a Mountain” uses a more standard literary style. Together, they epitomize the Harlem Renaissance as a natural progression for the coalescence of black culture.
A spark of spontaneous, intrinsic culture, the Harlem Renaissance provided a break from traditional stereotypes, ushering in a new identity for the black Americans. Following the abolition of slavery in the United States, former slaves poured out of the South and migrated to industrialized northern cities, brewing a volatile concoction of culture. This condensed mixture comprised of African Americans from distinct backgrounds and various geographies united under the pursuit of life and liberty, sculpting the new voice and identity for the modern black American. Best explained by Renaissance artist Aaron Douglas, the black man of this era “did not actually consciously make a contribution; he made his contribution in an unconscious way” (Lewis 119). Essentially, the Renaissance was not an activist movement with a specific agenda. Rather, it represented an era of unprecedented prosperity for black culture in the United States, developed unintentionally through natural happenstance. Thus, every black man and woman equally participated in the formation of the Renaissance, even “the man on the streets…who would have been hard-put to explain it at all”; in fact, his “contribution [was] greater than if he had attempted consciously to make a contribution” (Lewis 119). Simply by existing, the black American emanated his culture through life’s daily trivialities and habits, leaving a lasting imprint on the history of America.
Sterling Brown exemplifies the rise of an original black voice during the Renaissance through the use of an African-American Vernacular in his poem “Southern Road.” By articulating the words of black Americans in a purely natural dialect, Brown instills a sense of black harmony into literary art. His style is an authentic portrayal of the black voice, yet also creates a worthy poetic composition. For example, the stanza “doubleshackled—hunh— / guard behin’; / doubleshackled—hunh— / guard behin’; / Ball an’ chain, bebby, / on my min’,” incorporates a wide variety of turns of figurative language (Lewis 228). Repetition represents the endless toil experienced by the black man working in a chain gang, while also providing the sense of rhythm and song embodied in African tradition. Symbolic of many elements in the life of a black man, the term “doubleshackled” not only suggests that the man is chained by both feet, but also insinuates he is figuratively bound, with no hope or desire for life beyond his bonds. The man’s physical and mental imprisonment serves as a depiction of the civil trappings of the black American. Clearly, Brown’s use of black vernacular does not diminish the literary merit of his work. He merely provides an authentic representation of the voice of the black man through the adaptation of English: despite potential controversy over the use of such “non-poetic” speech, Brown defined a new voice for black Americans.
A point of contention for Brown’s style is that his use of black vernacular may be interpreted as degrading, and perhaps even stereotypical. This argument possesses some merit, since the essence of the Renaissance manifests itself in abandoning former conventions and forging a new identity for the black American. Yet, it does not undermine Brown’s work. Introducing black vernacular into the literary world was certainly not a stereotype; it was in fact a revolutionary innovation, truly significant in that it marked the dawn of black sophistication and its impact on American society. Reasonably, a contemporary reader may misinterpret the lines “po’ los’ boy, bebby, / evahmo’…” as diminishing (Lewis 229). However, in the proper context of the Harlem Renaissance era, such an utterance would be more indicative of pride. By adopting the demeaning slurs slaves endured, such as “boy,” the black man absorbs the negativity associated with the term, and instead redefines the connotation to his inclination. Yet while Brown’s utilization of black vernacular gives the black American an original, genuine voice in literature, other Renaissance poets chose to embrace European approaches.
Arna Bontemps’ poem “Golgotha Is a Mountain” emulates the standard literary style of the time, exhibiting black Americans’ cultural flexibility. By expressing himself with a white style of poetry, Bontemps displays the black man’s intellectual capacity through a European lens. The first two lines of his poem, “Golgotha is a mountain, a purple mound / almost out of sight,” reference Christianity, introduced to Africans by whites, along with the English language (Lewis 224). Bontemps uses Golgotha, the location of Jesus Christ’s crucifixion, as a symbol for a history of suffering and sacrifice, a more than familiar concept to former slaves and their descendants. He essentially synthesizes white culture with black culture, creating a bridge between whites and blacks in traditional society, redefining the role of the black American. In addition, he stresses that “there are mountains in Africa too. / treasure is buried there: gold and precious stones / and moulded glory” (Lewis 225). Even though Bontemps writes in a European style, he emphasizes the significance of African tradition, claiming Africans also possess a rich cultural history. Using a standard literary style broadens Bontemps’ audience, potentially attracting white readers, and thus further cementing the black American’s place in society. Consequently, Bontemps’ work effectively aids the establishment of the new voice of the black American during the Renaissance, but not without inviting criticism.
Inevitably, Bontemps’ standard literary style suffers criticism on the principle that it does not create a new image for the black American, but rather mirrors the techniques of whites. Supporters of this mentality fail to recognize the magnitude of the Renaissance as a beacon of diverse cultural expression. By adopting a standard literary style, Bontemps attempts to assimilate white tradition within black culture. Lines such as “I slept at the foot of Fujiyama and dreamed of legend and of death” could be easily mistaken for fragments of the white literature of the time (Lewis 225). However, the fact that this is indeed the voice of a black man completely changes the meaning behind the phrase, suggesting the black man also possesses the universal ability to philosophically wonder. Not merely mimicking White civilization, he seeks to build upon existing foundations in society, to manipulate prevalent standards to pioneer a new voice for the black man, while avoiding alienation of the general public. Rationally, Bontemps realizes thateinventing established conventions is not a prerequisite for innovation. He expresses black culture through a European style, and in doing so, contrives a novel voice for the black American.
Even though Brown’s “Southern Road” and Bontemps’ “Golgotha Is a Mountain,” feature remarkably different poetic styles, they both equally contributed to the Harlem Renaissance through differing portrayals of new black culture. While Brown used black vernacular to provide an authentic, prideful identity for the black man, Bontemps chose to adopt a standard literary style, displaying the black man’s intellectual flexibility in the advancement of history. Since the Harlem Renaissance was a largely intuitive rise of black cultural development in America, neither Brown nor Bontemps could have possibly contributed more to the new voice of the black American.
The Multiple Meanings of “Their” in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
In Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Hurston leaves part of the title ambiguous and therefore open to interpretation. Throughout the novel, the characters mention or allude to God, or a “god.” The multiple meanings of the word “God” allow the word “their” to have multiple meanings. This pronoun in the title refers to both the people of Eatonville and African-Americans due to their looking up to Joe Starks and God, respectively, who are both higher authorities.
In the novel, the people of Eatonville are watching Joe because of his godlike nature. The townspeople are shown to be watching Joe when he publicly snubs Janie after she is asked to make a speech. The townspeople recognize Joe’s godlike persona, which he has exhibited through his development of Eatonville, and for this reason they fear him. Their reluctance to criticize Joe for not letting his wife speak, though they would like to hear her, shows the power he has amassed. Additionally, no one objects to Joe’s humiliation of Janie because they are all too busy watching Joe and what he has to say. Therefore, when he says Janie should not speak, they simply accept his statement and continue listening to their “god.” This also shows how moldable the minds of the townspeople are. By simply being a leader, Joe is able to take power and make himself their focus, though Joe has not done a lot to help the town yet. Because Joe is the only character to show any leadership qualities, he quickly wins their support, submission, and attention. Joe’s power and the townspeople watching him are also shown at the assembly to install the streetlight. Joe’s obsession with power leads him to buy a streetlight for the town and have a ceremony for it. By doing so, Joe is gaining the heart of the town, and as a result, power. While the town may see the streetlight as a benevolent gift, in reality it is only a tool in his ascension to the “throne” of the town. Joe’s true agenda is shown by how he chooses to go about giving his gift to the people. Instead of simply taking it out of its box and placing it on a post, Joe chooses to first display the lamp for everyone to see, and then have an elaborate celebration in order to show the people all he has done for them. Joe’s desire to be the town’s god is also shown when he says how the “sun-maker,” God, brings the sun up in the morning and brings it down at night. Joe acts this way in order to make it clear to the town that he is their almighty leader, and actually possesses the godlike ability to control light and dark. By buying the light, Joe is giving the “sun” to the town, and thus acting like God. Because of this celebration and what the community thinks of as a kind gift, Joe is able to attract the entire community’s attention and make it want to watch him speak at the ceremony and watch his actions in general. Joe’s ability to lead allows him to gain ultimate power and thus gain the undivided attention and allegiance of the people of Eatonville.
The title of the novel can also be a reference to the African-Americans of the Everglades, especially Janie and Tea Cake, when they are forced to watch God after being left with no other options. When “Ole Massa is doin’ His work now” as the storm comes through the Everglades, Janie, Tea Cake, and Motor Boat begin to question God, since the time has passed for asking the white folks what to do. This represents the African-American community as a whole relying on the advice of the white people. Only after they can no longer ask for help from white people do they begin to question God, proving that they have lost faith in God. The irony of their actions is shown by the fact that God is referred to as “Ole Massa,” a name that could be used for a white slave owner. It is as if God, in the form of a white slave owner, is causing the storm. Though the African-Americans are aware that the white people were, and to some degree still are, their oppressors, they still value the opinions of those white people, who do not necessarily like them, over the opinions of their God, who does not discriminate. After Janie and Tea Cake are left with no other options, they finally begin to question God. However, this soon turns to watching God, not just questioning him. They finally begin to watch God, and gain faith in him, waiting to see what he will bring them, but only after all other options have been exhausted. In the novel, Janie, Tea Cake, and Motorboat watching God after all else fails represents the African-Americans as a whole regaining their faith in God during a time of need.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston leaves parts of the title ambiguous to leave it open to interpretation. The title can mean both that the people of Eatonville are watching Joe due to his godlike characteristics and that the African-Americans are watching God due to their need for help. In both cases, an almighty figure is asserting himself over others in order to gain the attention of people and make the people “watch” him.