March 19, 1998
From: Bob Wolff
To: The Members of the Major Works Seminar
Subject: Their Eyes Were Watching God
I would like to make some preliminary and elementary observations that are designed to deepen your reading of the novel and make your understanding of it more complicated.
First of all, a warning: Don't make the mistake of supposing that this book, because it is a novel, and not a theoretical treatise, is simply an unreflective story. Their Eyes, because it is a direct, powerful, affecting story, is liable to fool you. To this must be added the fact that critics have tended not to accord to female authors in the African‑American literary tradition the same level of self‑conscious artistry that they impute to male authors in that tradition, and that they automatically impute to all white authors in the main, or canonical, tradition of western literature. It would never occur to a sophisticated literary critic to suppose that Pamela, or Bleak House, or Pride and Prejudice, or The Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man is simply a good story, told naively and directly by an author with no self‑conscious conception of literary form or technique. And yet, critics have, oddly enough, been ready to see Hurston in the same tradition that way. So ‑ be warned!
Now, some absolutely elementary ideas which you should keep with you at all times.
1. The author of a novel is not the narrator. The narrator [or, of course, the narrators] exists in the fictional world of the novel; the author exists in the same real world we inhabit. Zora Neale Hurston is not Janie. At every step, on every page, you must ask yourself what literary intention the author has in putting such words as she, or he, does in the mouth of the narrator. The power of a narrative voice may be so great that it seizes you, overwhelms you, compels you. Assuming that the author is skillful, that effect on you is intentional. Ask yourself why the author has chosen to create that effect.
2. Which brings us to the subject of voice. A novel calls a fictional world into existence by the use of words ["In the Beginning Was the Word, and the Word was God, and the Word was with God" ‑ think of Aslan in the Narnia tales roaring the world into existence ‑ as long as there have been novels, novelists have been playing with the connection between authorship and creation.] Some of those words are the words of the narrator, who may, or may not, be a character in the fictional world [in David Copperfield and Great Expectations, for example, the narrator is the principal character. In Jane Austen's novels, on the other hand, the narrator is not ‑ but, nevertheless, the narrator is someone whose values, social presuppositions, etc. are clearly historically and socially locatable.] Some of the words are those of characters in the novel. Leaving aside picture books, the entire fictional world is conjured up, constituted, created by those words.
Thus, an absolutely central factor in the constitution of the fictional world of the novel is the character of the voices in which the narrator and other characters speak. By voice, I mean, in the first instance, the words the characters speak [there is, strictly speaking, nothing else]. But then, by extension, I mean the tone, the choice of locutions [i.e., the diction], etc. In Their Eyes, for example, Hurston makes an effort to reproduce the sounds, the cadences, the turns of phrase, the grammar, of the colloquial speech of certain segments of African‑American society. This is, itself, a deliberate and literarily problematic choice for the authors ‑ one that was first faced in the English literary tradition by Sir Walter Scott [who sought to reproduce Scottish dialect.]
One of your central tasks, as a reader, is to become conscious of the voices in a novel, as voices, and to make yourself aware of the literary techniques by which the author is creating and sustaining those voices. You must, at all times, be asking yourself why the author has made those choices, what the purpose of them is, and what their effects are.
3. Novelists are readers of novels, just as poets are readers of poetry and composers are listeners to music. Novelists self‑consciously write against, or with, or to, or about, or in relation to, previous novelists. This is true of all novelists, of course, but is especially important with regard to Hurston, for one of the central issues that concerns her is the existence of a tradition of African‑American literature and its place in, or relation to, the established tradition of western novels by white authors.
4. Novelists are also, quite often, self‑reflective about the nature of art, and about what it is to be an artist. Frequently, this translates into a concern, in the novel, with voice. You will find, as you start to read Their Eyes, that it is, in one sense, about voice. You should try to locate the precise phrases, sentences, passages in which the subject of voice comes up [this is not hard ‑ it runs throughout the novel]. Whose voice? What is the relationship between the voices of the characters in the novel and the author's voice? Once again, let me emphasize that voice is important in a novel precisely because, in a novel but not in the real world, voice creates the world. In life, one can act decisively without ever finding one's voice. But in a novel, action exists only as voiced by someone [either a character or a narrator].
5. Finally, with all this in mind, how should you read a novel? It would appear that anyone who takes all of this advice to heart will become utterly immobilized by it! Pen in hand, endlessly hunting for evidences of voice, of inner and outer references, alert to self‑referential turns of phrase, you will end up reading novels as though they were chemistry texts. Right?
Wrong! The best way I can think of to describe how you should read a novel is to draw an analogy with the way a psychoanalyst has to work. The analyst listens to the patient, and allows herself to react directly and emotionally to the patient. The analyst may find that one day she is fascinated by what the patient has to say, and the next day is utterly bored, wishing the hour would end and the patient would leave. One day the analyst may be sexually aroused by the patient, the next day repelled. The analyst may find that the presence of the patient is triggering a series of fantasies in her own mind. And so forth. To function in a therapeutically effective fashion, the analyst must allow herself to feel all of these feelings, and must at the same time use them as evidences of concealed or subliminal communications from the patient, reflecting on them with all of the theoretical understanding at her disposal. If she tries to distance herself emotionally from her own reactions, deprecating them as unprofessional; or, alternatively, if she simply reacts, without using the reactions as the raw material for reflection ‑ in either case, she will not be an effective therapist.
In analogous fashion, you, as the reader of a novel, must allow yourself to be caught up in the novel, to be moved by it, to react as a naive reader for whom there is no distance between self and fictional world. You must allow yourself to feel, immediately, whatever it is that the words on the page evoke in you. BUT: You must, at the same time, reflect on your reactions, use them as the raw material for your interpretation, achieve an ironic distance from the novel while also becoming engaged with it and moved by it. Only then can you become an effective and insightful reader.
The analyst assumes, as a methodological presupposition of the therapy, that there are repressed wishes, fantasies, memories in the patient's unconscious that will erupt into the patient's discourse and self‑presentation in ways that will allow for therapeutic intervention. What is more, of course, the analyst encounters only persons who choose to become patients, presumably because they are suffering some sort of pain or unhappiness that they seek to alleviate. You, as a reader of novels, must start with the methodological presupposition that the book you are reading is written by an author sufficiently in control of voice and diction, with a sufficiently interesting literary purpose, to make the reading of the novel worthwhile. Frequently, of course, that turns out to be false, and you either stop reading, or else plow on to the end and toss the novel aside as not worth reflecting on. All I ask with regard to this novel [and all novels of course] is that you give them, at least initially, the benefit of the doubt, and that you combine an emotional openness to them as compelling stories with an intelligent, reflective awareness of them as artfully constructed literary works.
Let us now take a look at Their Eyes.
Hurston was born in 1891 and died in 1960. She was brought up in Eatonville, Florida, the town in which the novel is set. It was, as she represents it in the novel, an all‑Black town. The novel takes place in October 1928. How do I know this? Because the hurricane that occupies the last segment of the novel was an actual event, pretty much just as it is represented in the novel.
Hurston was, among other things, a skilled folklorist and ethnographer who studied at Barnard College under the great anthropologist Franz Boas. Between 1927 and 1932, she made a number of trips to the South, beginning with Eatonville, to collect folk tales; she traveled as well to New Orleans where she gathered material on Voodoo. All of this made its appearance first in Mules and Men, published in 1935. In 1937, she wrote Their Eyes in seven weeks [!!], incorporating a good deal of the material of Mules and Men as background. [For example, in Mules and Men, she describes the store in Eatonville, with its front porch, where the men sat and swapped tales. The store's owner was Joe Clark(!)]
The novel is constructed economically and with great care. There are a relatively small number of verbal themes and echoes that hold the narrative together, for which you should be on the lookout. For example, the second sentence introduces us to the image of the horizon. That image recurs on pages 28, 85, and 182, and is then reinvoked in the last lines of the novel to pull it together and bring it to a close. A less significant but still suggestive theme is Janie's hair ‑ See pages 2, 47, 51, and 83, for example. Again, the image of a "high, ruling chair" in which one can sit, surveying the surrounding society ‑ pages 31, 58, 109. Or, yet again, the very important series of images of trees, branches, and roots ‑ pages 8, 12, 15, 73 and elsewhere, almost certainly Hurston's way of talking about the existence or lack of existence of an Afro‑American tradition. And, of course, the extraordinarily beautiful set of images of the bee in the pear bloom ‑ pages 10, 31, 67, 101 and elsewhere, perhaps the emotionally dominant image in the book.
The trick in reading a novel like this is, at one and the same time, to give yourself up to it emotionally and yet also remain aware of these literary devices and structural features, which the author uses to carry much of her meaning.
A word about the narrative structure of the novel. It is, of course, a frame structure, though of a rather odd sort. The novel begins as Janie returns to Eatonville after an eighteen month absence. She puts her feet in a pan of water to soothe them, and begins to tell her friend, Phoeby, where she has been and what she has done. 174 pages later, she takes her feet out of the water, and the novel comes to an end. This is a familiar narrative device, but it is here used somewhat oddly ‑ Janie tells Phoeby a great deal about her life before she came to Eatonville ‑ things you would suppose she had already told Phoeby during their twenty‑year friendship ‑ and a great deal about what happened to her in Eatonville, which Phoeby must know, because she was there. Notice the effect of the frame device ‑ it creates an elegaic effect. All during the tumultuous events of the Hurricane, for example, we, the readers, know that she has survived, because she is narrating this to Phoeby. This has the effect of putting distance between us and the narrative, and enhances the rather dreamy quality of the narrative, already set up for us by the pear bloom passage.
What is the novel about? Well, at the most immediate, accessible level, it is about voice, about Janie's finding a voice and thereby coming into her own as an emotionally and sexually complete person, as an authoritative, active, effective person. The theme of voice appears almost on every page, beginning with the fourth paragraph of the first page, when she reenters Eatonville and encounters the bander log on the store porch. ["Bander log," or "bandar log," as it is usually spelled, is a term from Kipling's Jungle Book. "Bandar" is a Hindu term meaning "people," and the bander log are the log people ‑ i.e., the monkeys, who sit on logs chattering and gossiping. The dictionary glosses it as "any body of irresponsible chatterers," which is just about a perfect description of the people on the porch. They are, in Henry Louis Gates' term, signifying monkeys.] As the inner narrative progresses, Janie moves from being silent [with her grandmother] to being silenced [by Joe Starks] to finding a voice, and finally to signifying or playing the dozens on Joe [in the great passage on page 75], who has been swaggering about as a big voice, playing God. And yet ‑ this, of course, is perhaps the central thematic point made by a number of commentators ‑ Janie does not, like Joe, arrogate voice to herself, and make the achievement of her voice the occasion for setting herself above and against those around her. Instead, in that very important passage on page 6 [echoed in her grandmother's statement on page 15], she says to Phoeby, "You can tell 'em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat's just de same as me 'cause mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf."
The pivotal passage in the book, in my judgment [which, needless to say, on matters like this may not be worth the paper it is xeroxed on], is to be found on pages 67‑68, in the paragraph that begins "Janie stood where he left her ..." It seems clear that Hurston is here echoing du Bois' notion of double consciousness, but with a crucial difference [or revision, as the literary critics like to say.]
Hurston's revision, it seems to me, is that for du Bois, it is the experience of being a Negro in a white world that makes for the double consciousness, whereas for Janie, it is the experience of being a woman in a man's world that produces this effect. Notice, by the way, that by setting her novel in Eatonville, which is an all‑black town, she brackets the very doubling to which du Bois is referring. Janie's only encounters with whites, in the sequences during and after the hurricane at the very end of the novel, are managed in such a fashion that they do not really alter the central thematic development.
Now some questions about the novel, to which we might address ourselves.
First, what is the meaning of the title? The title phrase is from the hurricane sequence, of course, page 151, "They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God." The novel is filled with religious metaphors and language, and Joe Starks' quest for a Big Voice, a High Chair, his favorite expression, "I God," and the manner in which he is described by others as authoritative and God‑like, and of course the fact that he is hollow, a false god, lead one to think that this religious theme must have some central significance. But I must confess I am not sure what it is.
Second, how shall we understand the theme of loneliness that runs through the novel? Janie is repeatedly described as lonely. At the end, however, although she is alone, she is no longer lonely. This needs some explicating.
Third, what are we to make of what is for me the most puzzling passage in the novel, Tea Cake's beating up of Janie? What is puzzling is not the fact that the incident occurs, but the way it is treated by Hurston. It is introduced more or less gratuitously, in a way that doesn't really advance the plot, and it seems not at all to have colored or qualified Janie's positive memories of Tea Cake at the end of the novel. Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the incident is accurate, in the sense that the sorts of people Hurston represents in her novel would in fact have responded to such an event in that fashion ‑ both the men and the women. I am very hesitant simply to embrace an ideologically simple‑minded "feminist" reading of the incident, and construe Hurston as saying in the novel that an independent woman who finds her voice can have no place in her life for a man, because that seems to me incompatible with the tone and language of the final pages. [See page 184, "Then Tea Cake came prancing around her etc etc."] So, it is a puzzle.
Finally, a minor matter. What on earth is the whole Mrs. Turner episode doing in the novel [around pages 130 ff]? This dispute about Negroes trying to look white, etc, though true to life, no doubt, doesn't seem to have anything to do with the rest of the novel. Is this obtuseness on my part, authorial clumsiness on Hurston's part, or what?
'Dumpster'??!! More like a treasure chest. You must not be so self-depreciating.
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