Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 756
Although Their Eyes Were Watching God is a work of fiction, it is autobiographical as well. Hurston reveals her personality through the narrative events and through the interplay of the author’s, narrator’s, and protagonist’s voices. This novel not only tells the reader about Hurston’s emotional life but also “signifies” upon (revises) feminine images in nineteenth century narratives written by African American women. Therefore, it provides an important link between those earlier narratives and novels written by African American women in the last quarter of twentieth century. Unlike literary foremothers such as Jessie Fauset, Frances E. W. Harper, and Pauline Hopkins, Hurston refused either to stereotype her protagonist or to conform to earlier plot lines established by white predecessors. Hurston moved Janie far beyond the boundaries that restrained the “true woman” of the nineteenth century, and in doing so, she provided the model of a heroic African American woman that was to profoundly influence twentieth century writers such as Alice Walker.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is the first self-conscious effort by an American ethnic writer both to subvert patriarchal discourse and to give voice to women of color. Hurston’s protagonist moves from object to subject, from a passive woman with no voice who is dominated by her husband to a woman who can think and act for herself. Janie’s change in status begins when she realizes that she is as important and knowledgeable as her husband. Soon after this realization Janie begins to find her voice. The casual conversation of the men on the porch of Joe Starks’s store reveals the extent of their sexism. The favorite topics of these men are the stupidity or meanness of mules and women, and the heroics of folk heroes such as Big John de Conquer. On the day that Janie “thrust” herself into the conversation, the men are all in agreement that if the nagging Mrs. Tony were married to any of them, they would kill her. Janie suddenly realizes that female obedience and chatteldom are in themselves a metaphorical death, that they place woman in the position of “the mule.” Janie informs the men that they do not know half as much about women as they think they do, that God speaks to women as well as to men, and that men have no idea how much women know about them.
Hurston’s use of language is an important and somewhat revolutionary aspect of her narrative. Her characters use African American dialect, a form of speech that is also often adopted by the narrator. The use of dialect with free indirect discourse (dialogue without quotes or direct indication of speaker) serves to move the narrative voice toward convergence with a given character’s speech. Hurston uses free indirect discourse most often and most empathetically when Janie speaks.
The use of language is presented in terms of power throughout the narrative. Joe Starks uses his “big voice” to silence Janie. Janie, in turn, uses her voice to rob Joe Starks of his illusion of irresistible maleness and to some extent destroys the authority that Joe has established in the town of Eatonville. The use of language in Janie’s discourse with Teacake Woods is quite different. Janie tells her friend Pheoby that Teacake taught her a new language, with new thoughts and new words. Hurston’s sentence structure demonstrates the equality that exists in the early phase of Janie and Teacake’s’ relationship. Hurston uses compound subjects with single active verbs to describe the two lovers at play, two lovers who together are thinking new thoughts and creating a new language that could possibly bridge the communicative chasm that separates male from female.
Unfortunately, Janie and Teacake are unable to complete the creation of their new language. Janie’s relationship with Teacake does not survive the challenges posed by society and nature. Hurston was undoubtedly describing her emotional relationship with Albert Price as she wrote about Jane and Teacake. Although Janie returns to Eatonville alone, she returns as a strong, self-actualized woman; in a sense, she is a new woman. Hurston’s narrative advocates both freedom from sexist and racist oppression, and the rejection of community and cultural values that enforce such oppression. Hurston also presents an imaginative consciousness that speaks of wandering and independence in a time when women were somewhat restricted. Ultimately, Janie, like Hurston and many African American women of the twentieth century, becomes a woman who can think and act for herself, who can make her own world.
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