Essay, Research Paper
I enjoyed Their Eyes Were Watching God’s grasp on imagination, imagery and phrasing. Janie’s dialogue and vernacular managed to carry me along, slipping pieces of wisdom to me in such a manner that I hardly realize they are ingesting something deep and true.
Their Eyes Were Watching God recognizes that there are problems to the human condition, such as the need to possess, the fear of the unknown and resulting stagnation. The book does not leave us with the hopelessness of Fitzgerald or Hemingway, rather, it extends a recognition and understanding of humanity’s need to escape emptiness. “Dem meatskins is got tuh rattle tuh make out they’s alive (183)” Her solution is simple: “Yuh got tuh go there tuh know there.” Janie sets out on a quest to make sense of her inner questionings- a void she knew she possessed from the moment she sat under the pear tree. “She found an answer seeking her, but where?…where were the shining bees for her (11)?” Though tragedy invades her life, it does not cripple her, but strengthens her. Alone at novel’s end, having loved and lost, Janie sits in her home, banished of the “feeling of absence and nothingness (183).” Her road to discover led to herself, and she gains a better understanding of the world she lives in and how small a thing happiness is comprised of: “If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. (151)” .
The struggle Janie emerged from to find her inner self needed men as a catalyst. The male/female relationship cannot be duplicated with a female/female one. Logan Killick’s ownership of her being could not have happened with a woman counterpart. After marrying Killicks for protection rather than love, Janie realizes that she is living Nanny’s dreams rather than her own. She also realizes that with protection comes obligation-Killicks feels he deserves to slap her around. With that discovery, she makes the choice to escape with Jody and his ambitious ideas. Joe seems closer to her ideal, closer to the dream of marriage that she has nourished despite opposition.
Jody is complex. He represents a whole host of things, including the attempt of the black man to gain wealth and power, his effort to pattern success and failure after the model of the white man (”she was proud of what she saw. Kind of portly like white folks”), and the false sense of ownership that money brings. From the beginning of their relationship, there were signs that he was not necessarily the love Janie was looking for. “On the train the next day, Joe didn’t make many speeches with rhymes to her, but he bought her the best things the butcher had…” The effect money had on Jody’s life is already apparent. He bought her things because he was ownership-oriented. Throughout his life, he shows both the first flush of luxury and the futility and bypassing of what is truly important that upward mobility brings. All in all, wealth does not bring happiness, and Janie shares that sad realization with Fitzgerald’s Dick Diver. The suppression of Janie, both as a woman and a human, is Jody’s most interesting facet. He sets a limit on her self- fulfillment, treating her more like an object than a woman. Of course, he lumps women in with mere things–”Somebody got to think for women and chilun and chickens and cows (67).” He’s good to Janie, but he’s good to his animals also. In fact, Joe’s attitude towards Janie is echoed in his behavior towards the overworked mule he buys and sets free: he lets the mule loose to wander around town as evidence of his generosity and wealth. As Janie so bitterly sees, “Freein’ dat mule makes a mighty fine man outa you. Something like George Washington…you got uh town so you freed uh mule. You have tuh have power tuh free things and dat makes you lak uh king uh something (55).” Janie has begun to realize that she also, serves only as a reflection of his position and wealth.
Tea Cake, on the other hand, gave Janie the freedom to be who she was, not who someone wanted her to be. He was the catalyst in her inner blooming. He not only encourages her growth to independence, but furthers it by teaching her skills (the game of checkers that Janie “just ain’t never learnt how”) and praising her talents. Tea Cake has none of the financial stability of the first two men, but he has an openness of mind that allows Janie to escape from people’s expectations. He makes Janie realize that she has to decide what she wants out of life, and she discovers she hates the limitations Nanny imposed on self-fulfillment: “Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon…and pinched in into such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her.” Tea Cake defies Nanny’s conservative view of security, and represents Janie’s first decision that wasn’t an escape.
However, even thought Tea Cake aided in Janie’s growth, he was not to be a permanent part of her life. After his death, Janie ends up with no men, but a wealth of experience and a self- realization that brings her peace. “There are years that ask questions and years that answer,” and Janie has finally reached the ones that answer. The fact that she is alone when she settles with these answers emphasized the strength of the African American woman.
Fitzgerald, Barnes, and their compatriots wage war against the notion of a unified self, pointing out the self-war within all. Humanity is at war with and in itself, but this war is perpetual, and if people cannot learn to coexist peacefully amidst conflict, life will wear them out. I don’t think Hurston’s ideologies are completely unable to coexist with Fitzgerald’s and Barnes’. The latter critique the Romantic idea of the unified self. I see Hurston as realizing the disunity in existence, but portraying those who have chosen happiness in spite of it. Complete fragmentation doesn’t necessarily need to lead to Barnes’ world of despair. When Janie tells Phoeby that love is not a grindstone that makes everything it touches the same, but it’s like a sea that takes it’s shape from each shore it meets (182), she is referring to much more than just love. Hurston has couched her ideology on life in that paragraph. Janie’s search for love is parallel to the human search for meaning and what life truly consists of. There is no one answer, either of despair or happiness. Hurston is portraying a world of true individuality, where every experience will end differently with each person. Life is not like a grindstone, but the sea. Hurston does not promise it will bring happiness to all, she simply shows us the life of one woman who did end up with happiness and contentment.
A paragraph in Their Eyes’ afterword caught my attention: “In [the novel's] concern with the project of finding a voice…[it uses] language as an instrument of injury and salvation, of selfhood and empowerment.(187)” This novel is unusually focused on language and communication. In fact, it questions the relevance of oral speech and “testifies to the limitations of voice…” Alice Walker argues that Hurston’s use of “women’s silence can be intentional and useful.” The first page begins the novel with a motif of talk: “It was the time to hear things and talk.” Janey ends the novel with a comment on this talk: “Talking don’t amount to a hill of beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else.” The bulk of the novel itself is composed of Janey’s dialogue. The book addresses the role of language, orality and speaking in society and inner growth. Why the emphasis on language, and it’s opposite, silence? Without the silence in Janey’s earlier years, could she have asked questions? How could she have found questions if there were no years to ask questions?
Language is important to humankind for communication, but beyond that, language serves as the medium for preserving culture. Specifically for African-Americans, storytelling is the form used to preserve their society. Even in times of extreme hardship, storytelling eased the long days and added laughs to weary faces. (Sidenote: when Janey wanted to join in the storytelling about the mule, she was excluded from it. Conclusion drawn: orality is important, but only to the extent where it does not limit personal growth.)
In this sense, orality and storytelling are synonymous. When we lose an oral society and move to a literate (visually communicating) society, we lose the art of storytelling. As an anthropologist, Hurston knows this better than any. Their Eyes is all about language and storytelling.
Why is storytelling so important? Because sound relates to the interiority of human consciousness, the preservation of the individual in its truest self. “Taste and smell are not much help in registering interiority or exteriority. Touch is, but touch partially destroys interiority in the process of perceiving it…Hearing can register interiority without violating it…Sound is thus a unifying sense. (It) enters deeply into human beings’ feel for existence.”
In their essay, “The Consequences of Literacy,” anthropologists Jack Goody and Ian Watts say, “Literate society, merely by having no system of elimination, no “structural amnesia,” prevents the individual from participating fully in the total cultural tradition to anything like the extent possible in non-literate society…the literate individual has in practice so large a field of personal selection from the total cultural repertoire that the odds are strongly against his experiencing the cultural tradition as any sort of a patterned whole.”
They continue on to imply that the effects of oral conversation are intrinsically deeper and more permanent than the effects of visual communications, and that the compartmentalization of knowledge disregards the individual’s social experience and immediate personal context. It restricts the kind of connections which the individual can establish with the natural and social world.
The problems confronted with a disappearing orality is what Hurston is addressing in Their Eyes Were Watching God. By claiming that her work had “no meaning” because it was not political and radical, Wright completely overlooks the very nature of the African-American society–the oral traditions that have connected the black people as a race. In his push for equality and rights, Wright has passed over the thing most important to the people he is attempting to gain equality for–their voice.
Goody and Watts, the anthropologists who wrote the last article referred to above, have done pioneering work on the cultural and psychological implications of literacy. Thus, they are academic contemporaries of Hurston, and reiterate the issues she has addressed in Their Eyes. They believe in the strength of oral culture’s homogeneity. Hurston is not suggesting discarding literacy to preserve the authenticity of the African American culture, she is reminding the other authors of her time not to forget the roots of their culture in their quest to be equal. She is the watchman, crying out to remember the individual in the effort from the whole, to not discard the pieces that make up the unit. Jody’s relationship to Janie represents more than the African-American male/female relationship, it represents all blacks who wanted to be more white, more progressive, more political–at the expense of suppressing their poem-reciting, story-telling, blossom-seeking counterparts. Janie’s statement to the dying Jody–”Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me (82)”–is a direct statement to Wright and the others who were in step with the “more serious trends of the times.”
This passage in the book’s foreword: “By the end of the forties, a decade dominated by Wright and by the stormy fiction of social realism, the quieter voice of a woman searching for self-realization could not, or would not, be heard (viii)” is strangely evocative of a section from pgs. 45-47 of the novel, where the men of Eatonville are talking about Mayor Starks, who has made so much social change. “Us needs him. De town wouldn’t be nothin’ if it weren’t for him…[but] Ah often wonder how dat wife of his makes out with him, ’cause he’s us man dat changes everything, but nothin’ don’t change him…she sho’ don’t talk much.” The relationship between Janie and Jody easily translate to Wright and Hurston’s relationship. Keeping in mind that due to the racial ideologies of her influential black contemporaries, a brilliant author/anthropologist virtually disappeared from readership for three decades–the following words ring with a new meaning: “The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face. No matter what Jody did, she did nothing…she was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels…” continuing on, Janie finally finds the voice to tell Jody, “You could have…[known me and what I represent] but you was so busy…cuffin’ folks around in their minds till you didn’t see a whole heap uh things yuh could have…You ain’t tried to pacify nobody but yo’self. Too busy listening tuh yo’ own big voice.”
Like Janie, Hurston’s voice has been dismissed–as not bitter enough, not depicting the harsher side of black Southern life. She chose to depict the need for individualism, the need to retain that marvelousness of black society known as storytelling- -tantamount to the book. But the Black arts movement had become a grindstone, making the same out of all it touched.
Hurston refused to accept the idea that “racism had reduced black people to mere ciphers…whose culture is ‘deprived’ when different.” She characterized her contemporaries who possessed that ideology in Starks and Nanny Crawford, who have been victimized by the power relations of their society, but seek only to change their status within the prevailing system. Through Janie, Hurston rejects the system’s terms altogether and finds fulfillment in interpreting her own experience.
Hurston implies that such an individual decision can be more important than political protest. Janie was not limited by her race or sex or class, but by the attitudes others sought to make her take towards those conditions. In rejecting those limiting attitudes, Janie remade the meaning of her experience. Hurston asserts her faith in such women and celebrates the Janies of the world–and her own departure from such attitudes–in Their Eyes.