Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston Essay - Hurston, Zora Neale (Feminism in Literature)

Hurston, Zora Neale (Feminism in Literature)

Introduction

Hurston is widely considered one of the foremost writers of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of great achievement in African American art and literature during the 1920s and 1930s. Her fiction, which depicts relationships among black residents in her native southern Florida, was largely unconcerned with racial injustices. While not well known during her lifetime, Hurston's works have undergone a substantial critical reevaluation, particularly since the advent of the black protest novel and the elevation in literary status of authors Richard Wright, Ralph Ellison, and James Baldwin during the post-World War II era. Hurston's present reputation and popularity are evidenced by the reprinting of several of her works in the late 1980s, including Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). This book has been read as a feminist manifesto for its unconventional female protagonist, Janie Crawford, who is considered by many as a representation of the author herself. Hurston's novel has become a staple in women's studies programs and has inspired many female authors to create nonstereotypical black female characters.

BIOGRAPHICAL INFORMATION

Hurston was born January 15, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, to John, a Baptist preacher, and Lula (called Lucy), a seamstress. When she was still a young child her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black township in the United States and the setting for most of her fiction. In 1904 her mother died, which devastated Hurston. Her father married a much younger woman with whom Hurston did not get along, and Hurston was sent to school in Jacksonville and then to live with relatives. At the age of fourteen, Hurston left home to work as a maid with a traveling Gilbert and Sullivan theatrical troupe.

For a short time in 1917 Hurston studied at Morgan State University in Baltimore, and in 1918 she entered Howard University in Washington, D.C. While at Howard, Hurston published short stories in Stylus, the university literary magazine, and attracted the attention of noted sociologist Charles S. Johnson. With Johnson's encouragement, Hurston moved to New York City in 1925 and subsequently secured a scholarship to Barnard College with the assistance of Annie Nathan Meyer, a white philanthropist and well-known supporter of Harlem Renaissance artists. While at Barnard, Hurston studied anthropology under Franz Boas, one of the most renowned anthropologists of the era. After her graduation in 1928, she continued her work with Boas as a graduate student at Columbia University.

With the aid of fellowships and a private grant from Charlotte Osgood Mason, a New York socialite interested in "primitive Negro art," Hurston returned to the South to collect folklore. She traveled to Alabama, Louisiana, and Florida, living among sharecroppers and workers lodged in labor camps whose primary form of entertainment consisted of telling tall tales, or "lies." In 1935 Hurston compiled Mules and Men (1935), a collection of African American folktales that expanded upon her academic studies and anthropological field work. Through the next decade Hurston continued to travel for her anthropological research and continued to write fiction.

In 1945 Hurston was accused of sexual corruption of a minor. The charges were dismissed, but the controversy damaged Hurston's reputation. She continued to write but did not find much interest from publishers. After trying to support herself with odd jobs, Hurston became ill and moved into the county welfare home in Fort Pierce, Florida, where she died in 1960.

MAJOR WORKS

In addition to tales and descriptions of voodoo practices and beliefs, Mules and Men includes work songs, legends, rhymes, and lies, all of which contained hidden social and philosophical messages considered essential to survival in a racist society. African American folklore forms a basis for all of Hurston's writing, including what critics refer to as her greatest novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Thought to be essentially autobiographical, Their Eyes Were Watching God focuses on a woman's search for self-definition in the sexist society of the early 1900s. Janie Crawford is a beautiful, light-skinned African American woman unable to discover her true self until she begins to take charge of her life. The oral narrative employed to relate Janie's quest implies that her strength and identity grow as she becomes more attuned to her black heritage; the telling of tales is as integral a part of black culture as the tales themselves. Similarly, Janie's account is a story within a story, told in a flashback to her good friend Pheoby Watson.

Hurston's autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) reveals more about Hurston's writing style and her opinions on many of the issues of the day than about her early life. Hurston discusses very little about her birth, her early family life, relationships, and her involvement in the Harlem Renaissance. In Seraph on the Suwanee (1948) Hurston used white protagonists for the first time in her work. Arvay Henson comes from a poor, white "cracker" family and believes she has found her salvation in Jim Meserve, a man who raped her and whom she subsequently married. However, Arvay finds herself stifled by her sexist husband and consistently feels inadequate in meeting his expectations.

CRITICAL RECEPTION

Critics have generally praised Hurston's narrative recreation of southern black rural dialect; however, several critics have reacted negatively to Hurston's use of the same dialect with her white characters in Seraph on the Suwanee. From the initial publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God, critics have debated Hurston's ostensible disregard of the issue of racism. Many of Hurston's black contemporaries considered her an opportunist who catered to white benefactors, and early reviewers believed her book to be an attempt at escapism. However, other commentators have noted that Janie's dilemmas are not centered on issues of racism, but sexism, a concern for all women during the 1920s. Most contemporary critics have argued that Hurston concentrates on strength and affirmation within the black community, and not the denial and anger racism often evokes.

There has also been disagreement among critics regarding Hurston's relationship to feminism. Some commentators have asserted that Hurston's life and work make her a model feminist: as a woman who refused to conform to other's expectations and who did not rely on a man for support, she practiced several feminist traits. Some reviewers have viewed Janie Crawford as a feminist icon, but others have been troubled by the way she relies upon a man to help her and by how long it takes for her to find her voice. Another issue of intense feminist debate amongst scholars concerning Their Eyes Were Watching God, is the death of Tea Cake—Janie's companion after her husband's death. Most commentators have agreed it is essential to Janie's quest that she return to Eatonville alone, but many question whether it is necessary for Tea Cake to be sacrificed for Janie to obtain her sense of identity. The novel's ironic ending is generally considered representative of Hurston's beliefs regarding her writing and her life—in both she challenged conventional norms.

Principal Works

Color Struck (play) 1926

The First One: A Play, in Ebony and Topaz (play) 1927

The Great Day (play) 1932

The Gilded Six-Bits (folklore) 1933

Jonah's Gourd Vine (novel) 1934

Mules and Men (folklore) 1935

Their Eyes Were Watching God (novel) 1937

Tell My Horse (folklore) 1938; also published as Voodoo Gods: An Inquiry into Native Myths and Magic in Jamaica and Haiti 1939

Moses, Man of the Mountain (novel) 1939; also published as The Man of the Mountain 1941

Dust Tracks on a Road (autobiography) 1942

Polk County: A Comedy of Negro Life on a Sawmill Camp [with Dorothy Waring] (play) 1944

Seraph on the Suwanee (novel) 1948

I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zore Neale Hurston Reader (fiction and nonfiction) 1979

The Sanctified Church (novel) 1981

Spunk: The Selected Stories of Zora Neale Hurston (short stories) 1985

The Complete Stories (short stories) 1994

Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings (nonfiction) 1995

Novels and Stories (novels and short stories) 1995...

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Primary Sources

SOURCE : Hurston, Zora Neale. “Chapter 12.” In Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937. Reprint, pp. 105-10. New York: Harper and Row, Perennial Library, 1990.

In the following excerpt from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston relates the consternation of the townspeople with the growing relationship between Tea Cake and Mrs. Janie Starks. Janie’s husband, Joe Starks, has recently died.

It was after the picnic that the town began to notice things and got mad. Tea Cake and Mrs. Mayor Starks! All the men that she could get, and fooling with somebody like Tea Cake! Another thing, Joe Starks hadn’t been dead but nine months and here she goes sashaying off to a picnic in pink linen. Done quit attending church, like she used to. Gone off to Sanford in a car with Tea Cake and her all dressed in blue! It was a shame. Done took to high heel slippers and a ten dollar hat! Looking like some young girl, always in blue because Tea Cake told her to wear it. Poor Joe Starks. Bet he turns over in his grave every day. Tea Cake and Janie gone hunting. Tea Cake and Janie gone fishing. Tea Cake and Janie gone to Orlando to the movies. Tea Cake and Janie gone to a dance. Tea Cake making flower beds in Janie’s yard and seeding the garden for her. Chopping down that tree she never did like by the dining room window. All those signs of possession. Tea Cake in a borrowed car teaching Janie to drive. Tea Cake and Janie playing checkers; playing coon-can; playing Florida flip on the store porch all afternoon as if nobody else was there. Day after day and week after week.

“Pheoby,” Sam Watson said one night as he got in the bed, “Ah b’lieve yo’ buddy is all tied up with dat Tea Cake shonough. Didn’t b’lieve it at first.”

“Aw she don’t mean nothin’ by it. Ah think she’s sort of stuck on dat undertaker up at Sanford.”

“It’s somebody ’cause she looks might good dese days. New dresses and her hair combed a different way nearly every day. You got to have something to comb hair over. When you see uh woman doin’ so much rakin’ in her head, she’s combin’ at some man or ’nother.”

“‘Course she kin do as she please, but dat’s uh good chance she got up at Sanford. De man’s wife died and he got uh lovely place tuh take her to— already furnished. Better’n her house Joe left her.”

“You better sense her intuh things then ’cause Tea Cake can’t do nothin’ but help her spend whut she got. Ah reckon dat’s whut he’s after. Throwin’ away whut Joe Starks worked hard tuh git tuhgether.”

“Dat’s de way it looks. Still and all, she’s her own woman. She oughta know by now whut she wants tuh do.”

“De men wuz talkin’ ’bout it in de grove tuhday and givin’ her and Tea Cake both de devil. Dey figger he’s spendin’ on her now in order tuh make her spend on him later.”

“Umph! Umph! Umph!”

“Oh dey got it all figgered out. Maybe it ain’t as bad as they say, but they talk it and make it sound real bad on her part.”

“Dat’s jealousy and malice. Some uh dem very mens wants tuh do whut dey claim deys skeered Tea Cake is doin’.”

“De Pastor claim Tea Cake don’t ’low her tuh come tuh church only once in awhile ’cause he want dat change tuh buy gas wid. Just draggin’ de woman away from church. But any-how, she’s yo’ bosom friend, so you better go see ’bout her. Drop uh lil hint here and dere and if Tea Cake is tryin’ tuh rob her she kin see and know. Ah laks de woman and Ah sho would hate tuh see her come up lak Mis’ Tyler.”

“Aw mah God, naw! Reckon Ah better step over dere tomorrow and have some chat wid Janie. She jus’ ain’t thinkin’ whut she doin’ dat’s all.”

The next morning Pheoby picked her way over to Janie’s house like a hen to a neighbor’s garden. Stopped and talked a little with everyone she met, turned aside momentarily to pause at a porch or two—going straight by walking crooked. So her firm intention looked like an accident and she didn’t have to give her opinion to folks along the way.

Janie acted glad to see her and after a while Pheoby broached her with, “Janie, everybody’s talkin’ ‘bout how dat Tea Cake is draggin’ you round tuh places you ain’t used tuh. Baseball games and huntin’ and fishin’. He don’t know you’se useter uh more high time crowd than dat. You always did class off.”...

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General Commentary

SOURCE: Pierpont, Claudia Roth. "A Society of One: Zora Neale Hurston, American Contrarian." New Yorker 73, no. 1 (17 February 1997): 80-91.

In the following essay, Pierpont provides an overview of Hurston's career and the public's response to it, and asserts that it is impossible to categorize Hurston's writing.

In the spring of 1938, Zora Neale Hurston informed readers of the Saturday Review of Literature that Mr. Richard Wright's first published book, Uncle Tom's Children, was made up of four novel-las set in a Dismal Swamp of race hatred, in which not a single act of...

(The entire section is 7531 words.)

Title Commentary

Their Eyes Were Watching God

SUSAN MEISENHELDER (ESSAY DATE 1996)

SOURCE: Meisenhelder, Susan. “Ethnic and Gender Identity in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” In Teaching American Ethnic Literatures: Nineteen Essays, pp. 105-17. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1996.

In the following essay, Meisenhelder addresses how Janie, the protagonist of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, struggles with her identity as a black woman.

A. Analysis of Themes and Forms

In [Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God , the] story of a...

(The entire section is 14028 words.)

Seraph on the Suwanee

CAROL P. MARSH-LOCKETT (ESSAY DATE 1999)

SOURCE: Marsh-Lockett, Carol P. “What Ever Happened to Jochebed? Motherhood as Marginality in Zora Neale Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee. ” In Southern Mothers: Facts and Fictions in Southern Women’s Writing, edited by Nagueyalti Warren and Sally Wolff, pp. 100-10. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1999.

In the following essay, Marsh-Lockett explores Hurston’s portrayal of motherhood in Seraph on the Suwanee.

So, what ever happened to Jochebed? I raise this question in the context of Zora Neale Hurston’s fiction not as an...

(The entire section is 4672 words.)