Their Eyes Were Watching God is generally considered Zora Neale Hurston's most important piece of fiction. Hurston, a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, also published anthropological texts, including Tell My Horse, and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Their Eyes Were Watching God was first published in 1937, and was quite popular, although some critics argued that she should have written a more aggressive protest similar to Richard Wright's Native Son. Although Their Eyes Were Watching God went out of print for several years, it came back into print during the late 1970s and has since remained a central text in many high school and college courses. In this novel, Hurston explores social and personal relations within black families and communities, while also examining issues of gender and class. One theme through which these issues of gender, race, and class are examined is voice. At several points in the text, Janie Starks, the protagonist, is prohibited from speaking, while at other points she chooses not to speak. Silence, then, is sometimes used as a tool of oppression and at other times as a tool of power.
During the course of the novel, Janie is married three times. The men differ from each other in significant ways, and each marriage helps Janie define her own desires and goals in life. Her first husband, Brother Logan Killicks, is chosen for her by her grandmother, Nanny, who recognizes that Janie is beginning to feel adult sexual desires, although Janie herself might not articulate her new longings this way. Because she has observed "shiftless Johnny Taylor" kissing Janie, Nanny believes Janie will soon act more dramatically on these desires and therefore urges her to marry a responsible and conventional man. Although Janie responds that Logan Killicks "look like some ole skullhead in de grave yard," Nanny arranges the marriage because she worries about Janie's future. Realizing she is probably close to death, Nanny reminds Janie that she "ain't got nobody but me. And mah head is ole and tilted towards de grave. Neither can you stand alone by yo'self. De thought uh you bein' kicked around from pillar tuh post is uh hurtin' thing."
Janie's first marriage occurs, then, despite her resistance. Because of her youth and the lack of options available to her as a young and comparatively poor woman, Janie cannot act on her own desires; she marries Logan Killicks because she seems to have no other choice. Although she hopes love will follow marriage, Janie is soon disappointed, for Logan grows more rather than less distasteful to her. He refuses to bathe regularly and soon suggests that Janie should help him with the plowing. He leaves to buy another mule, one that would be "all gentled up so even uh woman kin handle 'im." This scene is reminiscent of a statement Nanny had made to Janie earlier, that "woman is de mule uh de world." Janie, however, decides that she will not be treated as a mule even if she has to reject the values her grandmother has taught her.
Janie meets Joe Starks, who invites her to accompany him to a town made "all outa colored folks." Because Logan begins to insult Janie's family history, she decides to leave him for Joe, who initially seems more considerate and companionable. Soon, however, Janie realizes that Joe perceives her simply as his trophy. He will be mayor of the new town, and she will be nothing more or less than the mayor's wife. Although the townspeople congregate on the porch of Joe's store, where Janie often works...
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as a clerk, Joe forbids her to participate in their jokes or storytelling. Those conversations, Joe suggests, are not appropriate for a woman of her class. Because Janie is once again deprived of her voice, she can never be fully a member of this community and instead must live in emotional isolation.
During her marriage to Joe, the mule again appears as a symbol. A man in their town, Matt Bonner, owns a yellow mule which he seems to be working to death. When Joe overhears Janie quietly protesting, he forces Matt to sell the mule to him for $5.00, impressing his companions with his ability to satisfy his financial whims. Joe permits the mule to live the rest of his days in comparative ease, but when the mule dies, he forbids Janie to participate in the mock funeral the others hold. Similarly, although Joe doesn't want to work Janie like a mule in the manner of Logan Killicks, he has metaphorically "bought" her as a demonstration of his own power.
Once again, Janie must choose either to accept what seems to be her fate or to actively oppose it. When Joe attempts to humiliate her publicly, "Janie took the middle of the floor to talk right into Jody's [Joe's] face, and that was something that hadn't been done before." She insults his masculinity, shaming him before the other men. After this, although Janie and Joe continue to live together, they live emotionally separate lives until Joe dies.
Janie's third husband's given name is Vergible Woods, although his nickname is Tea Cake. Most people cannot understand Janie's attraction to Tea Cake because he is neither conventional like Logan Killicks nor a middle-class businessman like Joe Starks. Rather, Tea Cake makes much of his money through gambling, and when he isn't gambling, he's often playing the guitar and planning a party. In addition, his complexion is very dark, at a time when some people (represented in this novel by the character of Mrs. Turner) believed that lighter skin was more attractive. Simultaneously, Tea Cake is several years younger than Janie, so some people suspect his motives. Yet Janie enjoys herself with Tea Cake more than she has with any other man. Tea Cake does not limit her to a particular role; he enjoys life and invites Janie to be simply herself. He invites her to play checkers on the porch as Joe never had, "and she found herself glowing inside. Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play." Perhaps most significantly, "Look how she had been able to talk with him right off!"
The shift in Janie's character is demonstrated through several small changes. Although her luxurious hair is one of her most attractive characteristics, Joe had insisted she wear it bound up because he was jealous that other men might enjoy it. After Joe dies, she begins to wear her hair in a long braid. When she marries Tea Cake, she begins to dress in overalls rather than in middle-class dresses because she finds the pants more comfortable and convenient. She also begins to work in the fields after she and Tea Cake move to the Everglades, not because Tea Cake decides to treat her like a mule as Logan Killicks had or because Tea Cake fails to support her as a more "proper" husband would, but because she enjoys Tea Cake's company and the social interaction that occurs among the other workers. Janie hence achieves her greatest sense of fulfillment when she disregards conventional values and aspirations.
But the novel doesn't conclude with Janie and Tea Cake living happily ever after. During a hurricane, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog while attempting to rescue Janie from drowning, and he himself contracts rabies. As his illness progresses, he becomes increasingly paranoid and begins to distrust Janie's faithfulness. When he threatens to shoot her, Janie kills him in self-defense, though she had hoped he would die peacefully. Yet, even as Tea Cake dies, Janie desires to comfort him: "A minute before she was just a scared human being fighting for its life. Now she was her sacrificing self with Tea Cake's head in her lap. She had wanted him to live so much and he was dead. No hour is ever eternity, but it has its right to weep. Janie held his head tightly to her breast and wept and thanked him wordlessly for giving her the chance for loving service. She had to hug him tight for soon he would be gone, and she had to tell him for the last time." This hour is like eternity for Janie, however, because its effects will be permanent for her.
Janie is tried for Tea Cake's murder. Although many of her black acquaintances are angry that Tea Cake is dead, the all-white jury acquits her. Critics have debated the significance of the trial scene, for Janie's testimony is summarized rather than dramatized. While some critics have suggested that this scene indicates that Janie has once again lost (or been deprived of) her ability to speak, others suggest that she now can choose when and how to speak. During the trial, Janie is deprived of a community, since the black male and female witnesses oppose her, while the people who compose the jury and support her are all white men. Perhaps her voice is silent here not because she is unable to speak but because communication necessitates a receptive audience.
Readers must not forget, however, that the entire novel is in fact spoken in Janie's voice. The novel is framed by two chapters in which Janie is speaking to her best friend, Pheoby, and the action or plot of the novel is the story she tells Pheoby. So although the point of view frequently shifts in the novel, from one character's perspective to another's, Their Eyes Were Watching God is, finally, Janie's story.
Source: Lynn Domina, in an essay for Novels for Students, Gale, 1998
Recent years have seen a renewal of interest in the work of Zora Neale Hurston marked by the publication of Robert Hemenway's 1977 biography and the anthology I Love Myself When I Am Laughing. Articles by Lloyd W. Brown, S. Jay Walker, and Mary Helen Washington discuss Hurston's best novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, in terms of its themes of feminism and black self-determination. An area that remains virtually untapped in Hurston criticism is the intimate connection between these themes and the folkloric themes and motifs which Hurston has embedded in her novel. Critics have largely neglected or misunderstood Hurston's conscious use of traditional or "folk" materials in the novel. Further, most readers find the ending of the novel dissonant and see it as weakening the work and, while a recognition of the uses Hurston intended for traditional materials will not thoroughly justify her authorial decisions, it can help to explain the apparent weakness of the ending and to show that the novel presents a rhetoric of authenticity—an implicit assertion that it represents "real" black life—introduced initially by the storytelling frame and reinforced by various techniques throughout the novel.
It may be useful to delineate four aspects of the transformation of folk material into the body of the tale of Janie Crawford's journey through three marriages to a final position of self-realization. They are: Hurston's use of the storytelling "frame" of the story as well as of other conventions from oral tradition; her use of the language, metaphor, and symbol of a specific rural community; her incorporation of certain kinds of gaming and other performances as incidents within the narrative; and her attempt to situate the narrative voice in a collective folk consciousness toward the end of the book. Folklore is, in fact, so thoroughly integrated into the fabric of the novel as to be inextricably bound to the themes of feminism and black self-determination which Hurston is exploring. The value of the folk experience is itself as strong an assertion of the novel as the need of blacks for self-determination and the right of women to be autonomous.
Hurston presents Janie's story within a storytelling frame, but equally significant, as a story that is designed to be repeated. In folkloristic terms, Janie's story is a memorate or true experience narrative placed within a fictional framework but nonetheless privileging itself and asserting its own authenticity. The form of a folktale is in part determined by its replicability; it must be developed through a series of events that can be recalled and reconstructed by various tellers.
Within the storytelling frame, Janie's life is depicted as a spiritual journey and, in Janie's words, a journey to the horizon and back as "'a delegate to de big 'ssociation of life ... De Grand Lodge, de big convention of livin.'" Janie follows a pattern familiar to folklorists of a young person's journey from home to face adventure and various dangers, followed by a triumphant homecoming. Like the hero of a folktale, Janie Crawford leaves home behind her, meets strangers who become either allies or enemies, expresses the transformations she undergoes through costumes and disguises which are invested with special significance, experiences reversals in her perceptions of individual people and events, and returns cleansed, enlightened and alone. The folktale's repetition of events in a series of three is duplicated in Janie's three marriages, as well as by her movement out of the rural community of Nanny, her grandmother, and her first husband, to the town where she keeps a store with Joe Starks, and finally to the "muck" of the Everglades where she experiences joy and bereavement through Tea Cake, her third husband.
The three marriages and the three communities in which Janie moves represent increasingly wide circles of experience and opportunities for expression of personal choice. Nanny, Janie's grandmother, had in fact been a slave and had borne a child to her master. The marriage Nanny forces upon Janie represents a practical arrangement which brings with it another kind of servitude. Feminist themes fuse with themes of black self-determination as Janie discards her apron, historically the badge of the slave woman as well as of the docile wife, and goes off with Joe Starks. Hurston justifies Janie's abandonment of her first marriage, not on the grounds that Janie feels no love for Killicks, who "look like some ole skullhead in de graveyard," but because Killicks decides to buy a mule for Janie to work the fields with—since she has borne him no heir. Janie needs freedom and an expansion of her horizons more than she needs love—a theme which will surface again, particularly when the novel's ending deflates the romanticism of the relationship with Tea Cake and excises the romantic hero from the heroine's life yet leaves her stronger rather than weaker. Here Hurston consciously rejects the happy ending of the traditional novel.
The second marriage to a man of higher ambitions puts Janie in touch with a larger world, that of the all-black town which Joe founds, but leaves her stifled and controlled by Joe's white-inspired values. Like Killicks, Joe dictates Janie's work and prevents her from being a full participant in the social life of the town. Only after Joe's death does Janie find the freedom and spontaneity which she values and seeks, in her marriage to Tea Cake. Tea Cake expands Janie's horizons literally and figuratively by transplanting her to the Everglades to mingle with other itinerant workers as well as by simply encouraging her to determine her own work and to take part in the "play"—the music, dancing and gaming-—of the workers in the "muck."
In recent years critics have been unanimous in praising the vitality of Hurston's language; Hurston is a master at transforming the language of a folk group, in this case the West Florida blacks of the town in which she herself grew up, into convincing dialogue. The authenticity of the language, although documented, is much less important as a "slice of life" than as an implicit claim of authority about black life. The success of Hurston's novel depends upon the melding of folkloric and fictional elements in such a way as to create characters whose speech is both reflective of the language of the folk and highly individualized. Hurston's novel asserts itself as a statement that goes beyond the limitations of the local color story because her characters and their speech are plausible, individualized, and enduringly interesting.
Both the unselfconscious use of metaphoric language and the more performance-oriented forms of expression found in the novel represent men's and women's use of imagination to enliven and elaborate upon the events of their lives. The very limitation and deprivation of life in rural areas and among poor people can produce, as Hurston knew from her work as a folklorist and anthropologist, a flowering of highly imaginative modes of thought and expression. If Hurston had sought simply to preserve the oral culture of this region of West Florida through her novel, she would not have produced a successful novel, but rather an ethnography. However, she instead has transformed folk materials into fiction. Specific performances in the novel symbolize for Janie the kind of active participation in life which has been denied to blacks, women, and the poor by society and circumstance. The mock funeral of Matt Bonner's mule is linked in the reader's mind with Nanny's notion of woman as "de mule of the world," who carries the burdens laid on her by whites and by black males. The political statements implicit in the courting rituals enacted in front of Joe Starks' store suggest the sexual politics operative in Janie's marriage to Joe, as well as in her earlier marriage to Logan Killicks. In each of the instances, the woman is seen as valuable only as long as she hesitates; once she is won over and possessed in some way, she ceases to arouse interest or be perceived as valuable. The mule becomes a motif linked to Nanny, Killicks, and Starks. It was, in fact, Killicks' decision to put Janie to work behind a mule which set the stage for her elopement with Starks... Hurston's use of a narrative voice that parallels and reinforces Janie's expanding view of the world makes it clear that folklore is integrated into all levels of the text. In fact, the narrative voice, always close to but not identical with Janie's consciousness, becomes more prominent toward the end of the book, as if to suggest that the folkloric material is directly relevant to Janie's final achievement of harmony and peace. Folklore is a thematic element, as well as a component of the themes of Janie's search for identity and self-determination as a black and as a woman.
If folklore is simply one way for men and women to order and interpret their lives and environments, then the title, whose relevance to the book as a whole is not transparent, becomes more accessible. The eyes of the folk watch God and the elements for signs of safety and indications of where and how each one fits into society and the world. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a book about a woman's journey of self-discovery, but also about a woman's exploration of the physical and social worlds available to her. If it were a simple tale of romantic love ... Janie's loss of Tea Cake at the end would be a tragedy, depriving her life of the meaning she had finally found. But this is not the case; Tea Cake represents something more to Janie than the presence of a single man. He is represented as a wanderer who shows Janie who she is and can be and who magically remains present to her even after his death.
Tea Cake combines a sense of his own identity as a black and a concomitant ability to set his own standards for himself with a natural acceptance of and faith in Janie, which enables her to define her own standards for herself. The heart of the life that Janie so much enjoys in the Florida "muck" is folk expression in the form of playing and gaming in the fields or singing and tale-telling in the cabin and "jook."
The flood and Tea Cake's death toward the end of the novel are problematic from a traditional critical point of view. Janie's shooting of Tea Cake after he has been maddened by a bite from a rabid dog during the flood seems implausible. A traditional female protagonist would be happily placed in an appropriate marriage at the end of the book, or else would experience the loss of her man as a tragedy. Again Hurston challenges conventional norms by integrating the expectations of a folktale with the form of the novel, for Janie returns from her adventure into the big world with Tea Cake much as a young male character in a folktale returns home both richer and wiser than he left. Further, she has struggled with the giant—that is, with storms and death—and returned victorious. In the folk tale, the magical teacher is dispensed with as the hero triumphs, and so is Tea Cake left behind on Janie's journey. The flood serves to remove the characters from the life of social interaction in Eatonville and later in the Everglades and puts them into the elemental struggle of natural disaster. Here the narrative voice becomes strong and increasingly suggestive of a sort of collective, choric voice. Storm, flood and death are personified. The effect of this shift is an emphasis on the universal nature of Janie's experience.
When the narrator says of Janie, Tea Cake and their friends as they wait out the storm, "They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God," Hurston is speaking of the universal human situation as well as of the specific plights of these characters. Aspects of performance and folk culture are portrayed by Hurston as an expression of courage and creativity in the face of everyday realities such as poverty and deprivation, as well as catastrophe and imminent death. The book's title suggests that men and women, confronting "dark" unknowns such as loss and death, create or recognize a force behind reality that makes sense out of it.
The apparent weakness of the ending of the novel is perhaps explained by the possibility that Hurston, as a feminist, did not want Janie to find fulfillment in a man, but rather in her new-found self, and thus tried to re-orient the form towards the traditional story of the young male. There is a suggestion of the literary theme of the birth of the artist, as well as of the folk theme of the triumphant young male.
Source: Claire Crabtree, "The Confluence of Folklore, Feminism, and Black Self-Determmation in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God," in Southern Literacy Journal, Spring, 1985, pp. 54—66
I'd like to begin with a memory that came to my mind as I was re-reading the two books we're to discuss this morning. Two years ago, when I was teaching at SUNY/Old Westbury, my car broke down on my way to class. I found myself in one of those high-class, desolate neighborhoods. You know. Plush desolation. No stores. Beautifully manicured streets but not a soul in sight. Hundred thousand dollar houses surrounded by fences and exquisitely tended shrubbery. A woman let me in at one of these houses. She looked to be in her late fifties. It was noon, but she was still dressed in a robe. She let me use her phone. And then she begged me to have coffee with her. She told me her father had just died and that she was in mourning. She told me about her husband, a corporation lawyer who was away most of the time. And she told me about her children. "I've lived for them," she said.
The room we were sitting in was elegant. "The softest rugs and carpets covered the floors. Rich and tasteful draperies hung at doors and windows There were paintings selected with judgment and discrimination, upon the walls." That description is lifted from The Awakening. It occurs when Edna and Leonce Pontellier have returned to their house in New Orleans from the vacation on Grand Isle that takes up the first half of the book. The description might just as well have been of the house in Long Island, or the houses in an upper-middle-class neighborhood I grew up in in Philadelphia. I knew women like the Long Island woman while I was growing up. One was a teacher married to a neurosurgeon. Mrs. Stevens was the aunt of a friend of mine. What always struck me as odd was that while she had her own profession she said her real life was her husband and children-- much as Adele Ratignolle, Edna's friend in The Awakening, says her life revolves around her husband and children. In her fifties Mrs. Stevens tried to commit suicide. Later she became ill. Now, she's bedridden.
Women like Mrs. Stevens were sustained in their lives by black women's labor. Black women reared such white women's children--fed them, sang to them, nurtured them. It is a black woman-- a licensed practical nurse who made it to that job from being a domestic for many years-- who now nurses Mrs. Stevens. Mrs. Burden's life has been different from her employer's. While Mrs. Stevens tragedy is rooted in the dependency on her family, and the lack of self-confidence that's bound up with such dependency, Mrs. Burden's life problems have to do with continuous toil and with two unhappy marriages to men who might have been like Janie's first two husbands in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Now, the reason I began with these sketches from my own experience is to point out that history has a long reach into our present lives, and to point out that the lives of white women and black women are intimately intertwined.
But let me come back to that and for the moment I'll turn to The Awakening. The reason I flashed on that morning in Long Island was because The Awakening, for all that it portrays Creole society and a round of group swims, parties, musicales, is a very solitary sort of book. It is about Edna's isolation, her imprisonment. She's imprisoned in her marriage. She's imprisoned in the house I described earlier. She's imprisoned as a possession, a display of her husband's wealth. But if The Awakening is about imprisonment, it's also about the possibilities of freedom. The foil for all the images of luxurious dalliance in the summer of Grand Isle, for all the images of household luxury, is one Chopin gives us at the beginning of the book. Edna describes a walk she took in her childhood in Kentucky through a meadow. "It seemed as big as an ocean to the very little girl walking through the grass, which was higher than her waist... My sun-bonnet obstructed the view. I could see only the stretch of green before me, and I felt as if I must walk on forever, without coming to the end of it." Edna can see only straight ahead, neither to right nor left. The sunbonnet obstructs breadth of vision. The stretch of green goes on forever. There are no landmarks in such undifferentiated loveliness, no certain goal. Which reminds us that clear visions of liberation even forty or fifty years after Seneca Falls were very difficult if not impossible for most white middle- and upper-class women. There were those female fetters-- fetters not just of clothing but of ideology-- which foreclosed a world in which men like Leonce Pontellier and Robert Lebrun were free to come and go as they pleased...
The lack of productive work is historically significant. By 1899, when The Awakening was published, remunerated labor was not readily available to white women of Edna's class. Before the Civil War, the home was still a center of production, and upper-class white women really did have a role in that productivity. But by Edna's time the factory had taken over such production. Men like Leonce Pontellier were out in the world of industrial production, and captains of it. Women like Edna were the ornaments that proved a man's success in business and the professions. It's out of such history that the white women's movement of the late sixties and early seventies put such a stress on the phrase "meaningful work."
But let's think about that phrase. Meaningful work. For black women like Mrs. Burden, work has been meaningful historically, but the meaning is very different from what I've been talking about. While Edna was being shut up in the parlor, the great grandmother of Mrs. Burden, Mrs. Stevens' nurse, and Janie' s grandmother in Their Eyes Were Watching God, were on the auction block. The black woman was colonized. The black woman had labor imposed on her. She was used for manual labor and house service. And there was that other kind of labor: she was "a breeder woman." And she was sexually exploited by the white men whose own wives were up there on the pedestal.
This is the background for what Janie's grandmother tells her at the beginning of the novel. She's caught Janie, in the midst of Janie's own sexual awakening, kissing Johnny Taylor over the fence. She slaps her, then she sits with Janie in her lap, and half-weeping tells Janie why she wants her to get married, in a decent marriage, quickly. "De nigger woman is de mule of de world ... Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn't for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do ... Ah didn't want to be used for a work-ox and a brood sow and ah didn't want mah daughter used dat way neither... Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin on high but they wasn't no pulpit for me. Ah can't die easy thinkin maybe de men folks white or black is makin a spit cup outa you."
So Janie's nanny marries her off to the elderly Logan Killicks, who disgusts Janie sexually but who has a pedestal for her to stand on. To be precise, sixty acres of land and a nice house. When Joe Starks comes along down the road one day, Janie's attracted to his exuberance, his sweet talk, and a power she sees in him. So she goes off with him and marries him and for a while she lives vicariously off that power. But Joe, like Logan before him, considers Janie a possession. Like Logan, he wants her to work for, not with, him. He loves what he calls her plentiful hair, but he makes her bind it up in a headrag while she minds his store. He's your complete male supremacist. At one point Janie says to him, "You sho loves to tell me whut to do, but Ah can't tell you nothin Ah see." "Dat's cause you need tellin," says Jody, "Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows ... they sho don't think none theirselves."
This marriage is ready for the dust bin. Like Edna, Janie's an accessory to her husband's position and work. But there are deep differences. For one thing, Janie works in Jody's general store where she finds black folk who tell the tall tales, the "lies" Hurston loved and wrote about to reclaim the roots of a people. Janie gets sustenance from that company and that culture just as Hurston did in the Eatonville where she grew up, and in her travels collecting material for her book on black folklore, for her novels, and for her books on voodoo. It's in Jody's store, not in solitary confinement, in that society among those black folk, that Janie makes her break with Jody. Someone's said she hasn't cut a plug of tobacco right. Jody says, "I god amight! A woman stay around uh store till she get as old as Methusalem and still can't cut a little thing like a plug of tobacco! Dont stand dere rollin yo pop eyes at me wid yo rump hangin nearly to yo knees!" "Then, too," Hurston's narrator continues, "Janie took the middle of the floor ... 'Stop mixin up man doins wid mah looks, Jody. When you git through tellin me how tuh cut uh plug uh tobacco, then you kin tell me whether mah behind is on straight or not ... Ah aint no young gal no mo but den Ah aint no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But ahm a woman every inch of me and ah know it. Dats a whole lot more'n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but taint nothin to it but yo big voice. Humph! Talkin bout me lookin old! When you pull down you britches you look lak de change uh life.' 'Great God from Zion!' gasps a bystander, 'Y'll really playin the dozens tonight.'"
The dozens. A verbal artillery Edna doesn't have at her disposal. And there are other resources Edna doesn't have, which I'll return to in a moment. But for the minute I'll just say that between the two awakenings we're talking about today, I prefer Janie's. It's a lot better than suicide. Janie awakens to what the meaning of a white, upper-class style of marriage is, and she rejects it. She tells her friend Pheoby, "[My grandma] was borned in slavery ... sittin on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat's whut she wanted for me ... Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn't have time to think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin. De object wuz tuh get dere. So ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby. Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere. Ah felt like de world wuz cryin' extry and Ah aint read de common news yet."
Janie comes down off the pedestal when she stands up to Jody. And finally she's her own woman, on her own, after he dies. She meets Tea Cake, and with him she finds both companionship and sexual fulfillment. He's a gambler, a guitar player, and Whites would call him shiftless. Hurston reclaims him, turns the stereotype against its creator. He should be a revelation to white readers. And so should Tea Cake and Janie's love, as opposed to all the stereotypes of black sexuality and marriage the Daniel Patrick Moynihans of this country have laid on us.
But if there's one thing that mars Janie and Tea Cake's relationship, it's Tea Cake's sometimes lingering feelings that he should be the boss. At one point he beats Janie. A friend says, "Lawd! wouldn't Ah love tuh whip uh tender woman lak Janie! Ah bet she don't even holler. She just cries, eh Tea Cake' ... mah woman would spread her lungs all over Palm Beach County, let alone knock out my jaw teeth ... git her good and mad, she'll wade through solid rock up to her hip pockets."
But Janie has that sort of strength, too. She fights Jody physically when she disovers he's playing around with Nunkie. Now I think Janie's psychological and physical strength come, ironically, out of precisely the experience her nanny wants to forget. It was W. E. B. Du Bois who captured the contradiction of black women's forced labor when he said: "Our women in black had freedom thrust contemptuously upon them. With that freedom they are buying an untrammeled independence and dear as is the price they pay for it, it will in the end be worth every taunt and groan." At one point Hurston describes Janie and Tea Cake working side by side on the muck, picking beans: "All day long the romping and playing they carried on behind the boss's back made Janie popular right away. It got the whole field to playing off and on. Then Tea Cake would help get supper afterwards."
I don't think it's accidental that the work, the sexuality, and the housework get all mixed together by Hurston here. It's a glimpse of real equality between a man and a woman in marriage. It's the kind of marriage that's impossible for Edna. And it's a glimpse on the meshing of work and marriage so much of the contemporary white women's movement has stressed. The deep partnership so many of us yearn for. It's a good possibility. Their Eyes, in part autobiography, was wish-fulfillment. For Hurston herself, a woman on her own at home in the world, in Eatonville, in New Orleans, in Haiti, amongst the intelligentsia of Harlem, had deep conflicts between her life and her career.
There is another contradiction in what I've been saying this morning. Something else that nags at me. It's that in the comparison I've been making, Edna comes off the weaker of the two women. To contemplate Janie-- her resourcefulness, her fulfillment in marriage, the power of language at her disposal-- to contemplate all this, and her sexuality, is to have a vicarious experience of real strength. This poses difficulties, since finally my roots aren't in the tradition Hurston is writing out of... For counterparts to Janie in white literature I must, then, turn perhaps not to Chopin's The Awakening, but to Colette's The Vagabond, or to Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook.
Which is to raise a final question. What am I, a white feminist journalist and critic, doing talking about Hurston's work at all? Because she gives me not just vicarious strength, but also understanding. Never, for example, can I see women like Mrs. Stevens' nurse without thinking of women like Janie. Never can I speak with black women, working or middle-class, without considenng what I've learned of black life through writing like Hurston's.
Source: Ellen Cantarow, "Sex, Race, and Criticism: Thoughts of a White Feminist on Kate Chopin and Zora Neale Hurston," in Radical Teacher, September, 1978, pp. 30-33