The Role Of Imagery And Storytelling In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God   

April 27, 2022 by Essay Writer

When first published in 1937, Hurston’s novel about a black woman’s self-independence was denounced by male critics. However, the triumphant return of Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1978 enlightened the minds of readers becoming one of the most highly acclaimed works in African American literature. Hurston’s novel details the struggle of protagonist Janie Crawford who remains subject to her male counterparts for most of her lifetime but eventually flourishes as she learns to appreciate her independence. Their Eyes Were Watching God opens with Janie’s return to Eatonville as the young protagonist is ready to share her travel stories with her closest friend Pheoby. As seen through Janie’s interactions with Pheoby, storytelling is a most adorned cultural activity throughout the novel and remains both important to the black community and Janie herself. Throughout the novel Janie occasionally speaks in her own voice, but a majority is narrated from the third person voice, controlled by Zora Neale Hurston herself. Thus, Hurston adapted the novel to alternate between the narrator’s voice and Janie’s dialect in order for readers to immerse themselves in Janie’s life and that of other characters. By deviating from Standard English conventions and establishing the split in African American dialect of the South and the narrator’s own individual style, Hurston gives the black community a voice which was previously nonexistent and allows Janie to tell the story through her eyes, engaging in the traditional act of storytelling through direct characterization of Pheoby and the most praised porch scene.

At the time when Hurston crafted this novel, African American culture honored the act of storytelling as a means to escape persecution and create one’s own world, which is paralleled through the novel’s detail in regard to the relationship of Janie and Pheoby both on and off the porch. The novel begins with the image of the porch scene full of townspeople conversing in a particularly judgmental manner as Hurston details:

The people all saw her come because it was sundown.

The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky.

It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road.

It was the time to hear things and talk.

These sitters had been tongue less, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long.

Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins.

But now, the sun and the boss man were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human.

They became lords of sounds and lesser things.

They passed nations through their mouths.

They sat in judgement. (Hurston 1)

Here, Hurston opens the novel with the image of “sundown” (line 1) suggesting the beginning of a revelation, in this case, Janie’s journey. Yet, this journey is not without flaws as Hurston’s use of degrading diction shows the reader that African American people are viewed as “lesser” (line 9) lacking confidence during the day when the “boss man” (line 7) is active and instead feel comfortable only with the immediate departure of the white man. The use of visual imagery when describing the sitters as “tongue less, earless, and eyeless” (line 5) further exemplifies the comfortability the townspeople feel within the porch setting as they are able to develop a feeling of control through the act of gossiping. These porch sitters feel secure in self when conversing about the other townspeople but ultimately represent division is social structure at the time, known for causing a prominent break in individuality as they attempt to draw Janie’s attention from her community. The porch sitters wish to acquire knowledge about Janie’s story. However, Janie kindly refuses to be associated with them, reflecting her dominant independence which Hurston contrasts to the community’s conventionally, offering an outlet of exploration for Janie’s development over the remainder of the novel.

Hurston shows mastery of southern black dialect, making the novel unique through the incorporation of varying grammatical notations, vocabulary words, and a relatable tone. Hurston writes, “lemme speak to mah wife a minute and Ah’m goin’ see de man” (Hurston 37) and through this direct institution of dialogue and obscure grammar structure the reader is able to understand the dialect of the deep south. By conversing through informal dialogue, Hurston is developing character personality and allowing the reader to understand internal character motives. In this case, the use of dialogue shows slight frustration within the characters mind. “Lemme” is informal diction and therefore does not compare to saying “let me” or “I must” in a literary text but rather decreases the urgency of the situation and poses a command in a mild manner. The narrators voice provides a stark contrast to the character’s intermixed dialogue:

The idea was funny to them and they wanted to laugh.

They tried hard to hold it in, but enough incredulous laughter burst out of their eyes and leaked from the corners of their mouths to inform anyone of their thoughts.

So Joe walked off abruptly.

Most of them went along to show him the way and be there when his bluff was called. (Hurston 37).

The dialogue between the characters uses low diction to reflect an informal conversational tone while the narrator utilizes elevated diction in order to narrate the story giving the reader optimum knowledge about the situation. While dialogue uses diction such as “mah” and “goin,” the narrator incorporates higher level words like “incredulous” and “abruptly.” Hurston intentionally uses this split in dialect to establish her tone of sympathetic affirmation, paralleled through Janie’s journey for self-fulfillment.

For African American women finding one’s voice was not always easy and through the inspiration of Hurston herself black women authors began to write with free indirect discourse, merging the narrators and protagonists voice while keeping the same black vernacular throughout. Direct discourse is illustrated as: “[J]anie hung over the newel post thinking so long that she all but went to sleep there” (Hurston 101) while direct discourse is seen through, “[B]et he’s livin’ wid some woman or ‘nother and takin’ me for uh fool. Glad Ah caught mahself in time” (Hurston 102). Yet, free indirect discourse is seen through the blending of narrative voice as follows, “[I]n the cool of the afternoon the fiend from hell specially sent to lovers arrived at Janie’s ear. Doubt.” (Hurston 103). As seen through textual examples, direct discourse is crafted in the black vernacular while indirect discourse is in Standard English following the grammatical and stylistic conventions. Free indirect discourse involves the integration of both allowing both Janie and the narrator to achieve an authentic voice while simultaneously allowing Hurston to express herself as an author and provide a literary voice to the black members of the community which was previously nonexistent. Breaking apart the example of free indirect discourse, the narrators voice is seen through the statement: “In the cool of the afternoon the fiend from hell specially sent to lovers arrived at Janie’s ear” (Hurston 103) while Janie’s response is “Doubt” (Hurston 103). In this example the reader is able to separate the narration from Janie’s thoughts and thus sets up this textual dichotomy of informality and interpersonal narrative voice.

Hurston’s 1937 novel is written with varying dialects, where language is culturally specific in order to capture the unique nature of spoken word in a specific cultural group while also noting the discrepancies between different cultures and particular oral traditions. Hurston chose to craft her novel fully embracing dialect as an outlet of reflection of the African American community in the early 20th century. The spelling and pronunciations throughout the novel fully depict the commonalities in the black community and can be described as a social strategy since Hurston directly records how people spoke at the time when she wrote the novel. Today, Their Eyes Were Watching God is frequently used as a model for historians to note the linguistic dialectal differences over time and what factors have contributed to the change’s, particularity Hurston’s unique language adaptations. Over the course of the novel, Hurston incorporates a unique narrative structure, different from black female writers at the time, dividing the stories narration to celebrate Janie’s culturally specific voice. Richard Wright described Hurston as:

Being able to write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley.

Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that’s as far as it goes. (Wright 1)

Hurston was also acknowledged for:

Voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition, which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.

Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.

Thus, despite numerous criticisms from Harlem Renaissance authors, Their Eyes Were Watching God has flourished and Hurston has been praised as a successful black woman author who strives to depict the culture of society in her tremendously multifaceted works.  

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