Feminism Theory In Their Eyes Were Watching God.
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ZORA NEALE HURSTON
Their Eyes Were
With a Foreword by Edwidge Danticat
To Henry Allen Moe
Janie’s Great Journey: A Reading Group Guide
Foreword by Edwidge Danticat
Foreword by Mary Helen Washington
1 Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.
2 Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf…
3 There are years that ask questions and years that answer.
4 Long before the year was up, Janie noticed that her…
5 On the train the next day, Joe didn’t make many…
6 Every morning the world flung it- self over and exposed the…
7 The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face.
8 After that night Jody moved his things and slept in…
9 Joe’s funeral was the finest thing Orange County had ever…
10 One day Hezekiah asked off from work to go off…
11 Janie wanted to ask Hezekiah about Tea Cake, but she…
12 It was after the picnic that the town began to…
13 Jacksonville. Tea Cake’s letter had said Jacksonville. He had worked…
14 To Janie’s strange eyes, everything in the Everglades was big…
15 Janie learned what it felt like to be jealous. A…
16 The season closed and people went away like they had…
17 A great deal of the old crowd were back. But…
18 Since Tea Cake and Janie had friended with the Bahaman…
19 And then again Him-with-the- square-toes had gone…
20 Because they really loved Janie just a little less than…
Afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
About the Author
Books by Zora Neale Hurston
About the Publisher
Janie’s Great Journey:
A Reading Group Guide
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
In her award-winning autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road(1942), Zora Neale Hurston claimed to have been born in Eatonville, Florida, in 1901. She was, in fact, born in Notasulga, Alabama, on January 7, 1891, the fifth child of John Hurston (farmer, carpenter, and Baptist preacher) and Lucy Ann Potts (school teacher). The author of numer- ous books, including Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Mules and Men, and Moses, Man of the Mountain, Hurston had achieved fame and sparked controversy as a novelist, anthropologist, outspoken essayist, lecturer, and theatrical producer during her sixty- nine years. Hurston’s finest work of fiction appeared at a time when artistic and political statements—whether single sentences or book- length fictions—were peculiarly conflated. Many works of fiction were informed by purely political motives; political pronouncements
frequently appeared in polished literary prose. And Hurston’s own political statements, relating to racial issues or addressing national politics, did not ingratiate her with her black male contemporaries. The end result was that Their Eyes Were Watching God went out of print not long after its first appearance and remained out of print for nearly thirty years. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has been one among many to ask: “How could the recipient of two Guggenheims and the author of four novels, a dozen short stories, two musicals, two books on black mythology, dozens of essays, and a prizewinning autobiography virtu- ally ‘disappear’ from her readership for three full decades?”
That question remains unanswered. The fact remains that every one of Hurston’s books went quickly out of print; and it was only through the determined efforts, in the 1970s, of Alice Walker, Robert Hemenway (Hurston’s biographer), Toni Cade Bambara, and other writers and scholars that all of her books are now back in print and that she has taken her rightful place in the pantheon of American authors.
In 1973, Walker, distressed that Hurston’s writings had been all but forgotten, found Hurston’s grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest and installed a gravemarker. “After loving and teaching her work for a number of years,” Walker later reported, “I could not bear that she did not have a known grave.” The gravemarker now bears the words that Walker had inscribed there:
ZORA NEALE HURSTON
GENIUS OF THE SOUTH
NOVELIST FOLKLORIST ANTHROPOLOGIST
Questions for Discussion
1. What kind of God are the eyes of Hurston’s characters watching? What is the nature of that God and of their watching? Do any of them question God?
2. What is the importance of the concept of horizon? How do Janie and each of her men widen her horizons? What is the significance of the novel’s final sentences in this regard?
3. How does Janie’s journey—from West Florida, to Eatonville, to the Everglades—represent her, and the novel’s increasing immersion in black culture and traditions? What elements of individual action and communal life characterize that immersion?
4. To what extent does Janie acquire her own voice and the ability to shape her own life? How are the two related? Does Janie’s telling her story to Pheoby in flashback undermine her ability to tell her story directly in her own voice?
5. What are the differences between the language of the men and that of Janie and the other women? How do the differences in language reflect the two groups’ approaches to life, power, relationships, and self-realization? How do the novel’s first two paragraphs point to these differences?
6. In what ways does Janie conform to or diverge from the assump- tions that underlie the men’s attitudes toward women? How would you explain Hurston’s depiction of violence toward women? Does the novel substantiate Janie’s statement that “Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business”?
7. What is the importance in the novel of the “signifyin’” and “playin’ de dozens” on the front porch of Joe’s store and elsewhere? What
purpose do these stories, traded insults, exaggerations, and boasts have in the lives of these people? How does Janie counter them with her conjuring?
8. Why is adherence to received tradition so important to nearly all the people in Janie’s world? How does the community deal with those who are “different”?
9. After Joe Starks’s funeral, Janie realizes that “She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her.” Why is this important “to all the world”? In what ways does Janie’s self-awareness depend on her increased awareness of others?
10. How important is Hurston’s use of vernacular dialect to our un- derstanding of Janie and the other characters and their way of life? What do speech patterns reveal about the quality of these lives and the nature of these communities? In what ways are “their tongues cocked and loaded, the only real weapon” of these people?
The Estate of Zora Neale Hurston would like to thank those people who have worked so hard over the years in introducing new genera- tions of readers to the work of Zora Neale Hurston. We are indebted to Robert Hemenway, Alice Walker, and all the Modern Language Asso- ciation folks who helped usher in Zora’s rediscovery. We are also deeply appreciative of the hard work and support of our publisher, Cathy Hemming; our editor, Julia Serebrinsky; and our agent, Victoria Sanders, without whom this reissue would not have been possible.
BY EDWIDGE DANTICAT
I “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” So begins Zora Neale Hurston’s brilliant novel about a woman’s search for her authentic self and for real love. At first it might seem contradictory that a work whose central character is the remarkably resolute and re- silient Janie Crawford should start with a dictum about “the life of men.” However, that is one of the many shrewd manifestations of Zora Neale Hurston’s enormous talents: her ability to render a world com- plete with its codes and disciplines within a few sentences, and then placing in that world her vision of how her people—the women and men of her own creation, her characters—function, triumph, and sur- vive. So off that metaphorically distant ship comes our heroine Janie Crawford, and suddenly we realize that she had been on her own sin- gular journey all along, her dreams “mocked to death by Time,” but never totally defeated. And since women “remember everything they don’t want to forget,” Janie Crawford recalls all the crucial moments of her life, from the time she first discovers that she is a “colored” little girl by searching for her face in a group photograph, to the moment she returns to Eatonville, Florida, from the Everglades, not swindled and deceived, as had been expected, but heartbroken, yet boldly defi- ant, after having toiled in the bean fields, survived a hurricane, and lost the man she loved.
Janie Crawford is able to retrace her steps, disembark from her own ship, come home, and remember, because she has been close to death but has lived a very full life. So in spite of the judgmental voices that greet her upon her return, in spite of the “mass cruelty” invoked by her prodigal status, Janie has earned the right to be the griot of her own tale, the heroine of her own quest, the “member” of her own remembering.
In the loose call-and-response structure that frames the nov- el—Janie’s friend Pheoby asks her to tell her where she has been, and Janie responds with the story that constitutes the book—Janie’s is an intimate audience of one. She entrusts her adventures to Pheoby to re- tell to others only if Pheoby chooses. (“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.”) Janie is recounting her story as much to Pheoby as to herself. Her response to Pheoby’s call is at the same time an echo, much like the nymph Echo who retains only her voice after having lit- erally been torn apart. Hurston herself also becomes Janie’s echo by picking up the narrative thread in intervals, places where in real life, or in real time, Janie might have simply grown tired of talking. Much like the porch sitters at the beginning of the book who are the first to see Janie arrive, Janie, Pheoby, and Zora Neale Hurston form their own storytelling chain, and it is through their linking of voices that we are taken on this intimate yet communal journey that is Their Eyes Were Watching God.
II I have always been extremely proud to remind all who would listen that Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written, by her own account, in seven weeks, in my home- land, Haiti. I once made a complete fool of myself in front of a group of young women writers who had just created a book club and had
gracefully invited me to their first meeting. Soon after the book club’s newly elected president announced that the first book they’d be read- ing would be Their Eyes Were Watching God, I intervened to declare, “Did you know that Zora wrote it in seven weeks in Haiti?”
I was hastily rebuffed by a curt “So?” from one of the members.
“So?” I replied, embarrassed. “Could you write a book like that in seven weeks?”
Of course Hurston’s own account of how long it took to compose the novel has been debated and contested. However, I am awed by her ability to have found the time during her anthropological travels and constant research in Haiti to produce a novel—at all. As a writer, I am amazed by the way she often managed to use the places and circum- stances she found herself in to create a room, a world, of her own. Even with the menace of pennilessness always looming, she somehow unearthed the solace, or perhaps the desperation, to write.
Many of my contemporaries, including myself, often com- plain—sometimes with book contracts in tow—about not having enough time, money, and space to write. Yet Zora battled to write and she did, knowing, as Janie Crawford must have also known, that “there is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.” Thus, no matter how many times I have read this book, when Janie begins telling that untold story inside her, I am always doubly elated, both with the story itself and with the way in which it came to be. And so when I blurt out my favorite piece of Hurston trivia, I do it partially out of pride for her association with Haiti, but I also do it heeding Alice Walker’s extremely wise advice in her foreword to Robert E. He- menway’s literary biography of Hurston: “We are a People.” (And I in- clude all the international peoples of the African diaspora in this cat- egory.) “A People do not throw their geniuses away.”
Fortunately, over the years, I have met very few active readers of my generation (born after 1960), writers and nonwriters alike, who would even consider throwing Zora away. Many of us can remember vividly our first encounter with her work, particularly Their Eyes Were Watching God. Because of the efforts of Ms. Walker and others, who valiantly reclaimed Zora for themselves and for all of us, we read Zora either in high school or in college classes, where her work is enthusi- astically taught by men and women—most of whom were much older than we were when they first read her—and still had the exuberance of a recent discovery, much as in the early days of a love affair, or a re- union with a friend long thought dead.
I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God in an elective black his- tory class at Clara Barton High School in Brooklyn, New York. The class was taught by a young teacher who conducted it during his lunch hour. There was not much reading for young adults about Zora and her work, so we struggled with the plot and the language with a lot of coaching from our teacher. Most of us were new immigrants to the United States and read Janie, Pheoby, and Tea Cake’s dialogue out loud with our heavy Creole accents, and managed to come away with only a glimmer of the brilliance of what we had read.
At times, feeling as if my lack of English had robbed me of precious narrative information, I would raise questions that went beyond the scope of the novel, and my teacher would become very excited, ap- plauding the fact that I was stretching my imagination way beyond the words in front of me, which is what all good readers are supposed to do. “Where was Tea Cake’s family?” I would ask. “And what did Janie’s friend Pheoby do while Janie was gone?”
I would later explore more purposefully deliberate questions about the book in a freshman English class at Barnard College, where Zora had also been a student in the 1920s. Hers were among the books in a
glass case in the Barnard library that also highlighted other famous alumnae authors, including the poet, playwright, and novelist Ntozake Shange. Each time I walked by that glass case, I felt my dream of be- coming an author growing more and more attainable, partly because Zora and Ntozake were black women, like me.
“Zora has lived in my country,” I happily told one of my class- mates, “and now I am living in hers.” I liked to think that Zora was drawn to Haiti partly because of the many similarities between Haitian and Southern African-American culture. Zora was from an all-black town, run and governed by black people, and I was from a black re- public, where Frederick Douglass had resided and where Katherine Dunham had studied and danced. In Tell My Horse, Zora finds an equivalent for the cunning Brer Rabbit of the Uncle Remus stories in Haiti’s sly Ti Malis of popular lore. And in the rural belief that our dead will one day return to Ginen, Africa, she uncovered echoes of the strong convictions of many of those who were forced on board slave ships for points of no return.
There were so many things that I found familiar in Their Eyes Were Watching God: the dead-on orality in both the narration and dialogue; the communal gatherings on open porches at dusk; the in- timate storytelling (krik? krak!); the communal tall-tale sessions, both about real people who have erred (zen) and fictional folks who have hilariously blundered (blag). Her description of the elaborate burial of Janie’s pet mule reminded me of an incident that she detailed in Tell My Horse, in which Haitian president Antoine Simon ordered an elab- orate Catholic funeral at the national cathedral for his pet goat Simalo, something many Haitians would laugh about for years.
In class at Barnard, we gladly raised structural questions about Their Eyes Were Watching God. Was it a love story or an adventure story? We decided it could be both, as many other complex novels are.
Besides, don’t adventures often include romance? And aren’t all excit- ing romances adventures?
We brought up issues that concerned us as young feminists and womanists. Was Janie Crawford a good female role model or was she solely defined by the men in her life? Many of us argued that Janie did not have to be a role model at all. She simply had to be a fully realized and complex character, which she was. She certainly manifested a will of her own in spite of the efforts of her grandmother and her two first husbands to dominate her, leaving her first husband when life with him grew unbearable, and taking off with Tea Cake against public opinion after the second husband died.
Why did Janie allow Tea Cake to beat her? Some of us thought that Hurston tried to envision characters who are neither too holy nor too evil. Her men and women are extremely nuanced, reflecting human strengths as well as frailties. If Tea Cake were too cruel, then Janie would not love him at all. If he were too uniformly pious, then rather than being her equal, as he was at work in the fields, he would be wor- shipped by her, and “all gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reasons…half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.” In the end, Janie receives from Tea Cake the equivalent of all three—wine, flowers, and blood—and she becomes like a treasured relative whose love affair we could never wholeheartedly condone, but the source of which we could certainly understand. Tea Cake gives his life for Janie, and this, if nothing else, serves as some atonement for many of his sins.
In spite of Janie’s choices concerning Tea Cake, or perhaps because of them, she experiences more freedom than most women (certainly most poor women) of her time. And as much as she loves Tea Cake, she ultimately chooses to live and not to die with him, and her final act is not to follow him to the grave, but to bury him and return alone to a
community that will not embrace and welcome her without first being given an explanation as to where she has been and what she has been through.
III For many decades and, hopefully, centuries to come, Their Eyes Were Watching God will probably be at the center of Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy as a novelist. Perhaps because it was written in such a short and, reportedly, emotionally charged period, this is a novel with an overpowering sense of exigency and urgency in its layered plot, swift pace, intricate narration, and in the raw anguish evoked by the con- flicting paths laid out for Janie Crawford as she attempts to survive her grandmother’s restricted vision of a black woman’s life and realize her own self-conceived liberation. Like all individual thinkers, Janie Crawford pays the price of exclusion for nonconformity, much like Hurston herself, who was accused of stereotyping the people she loved when she perhaps simply listened to them much more closely than others, and sought to reclaim and reclassify their voices.
The novel not only offers a penetrating view of Janie’s evolving thinking process, but we are also given plenty of insight into the mind- sets of those who would wish to condemn her. Janie, however, is never overly critical of her neighbors’ faultfinding reactions to her. She either ignores them entirely or pities them for never having left the safety of their town and never having lived and loved as deeply as she has.
Having survived all she has, Janie now has a deeper understanding of her own actions as well as a greater comprehension of human beha- vior in general.
“It’s uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there,” she explains to her friend. “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves…They got tuh go tuh God and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
Along with the classic conflict between an individual’s wishes and a community’s censure, there are many contemporary motifs in this novel, events that could have been easily plucked out of early-twenty- first-century headlines: loveless marriages; verbal and physical abuse; mercy killing, or a killing in self-defense, depending on how you inter- pret it; forbidden love; a public and passionate affair between a young- er man and an older woman from different stations in life. Many of the minor characters in the novel are vibrantly multicultural, from African Americans to Native Americans to the Caribbeans who live and work in the Everglades. (To this day, migrant labor and hurricanes remain very concrete elements of life in Florida.)
The influence of Zora’s work, particularly Their Eyes Were Watch- ing God, will continue to be felt for years in the works of many genera- tions of writers. For example, Janie Crawford shares a literary kinship with Celie of Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, whose eyes not only watch God, but whose words and letters, whose voice, speak directly to God.
Part of the reason Janie’s grandmother Nanny pushes her into a loveless marriage to Logan Killicks, her first husband, is that Nanny was born in slavery and had little choice over her own destiny. Nanny has craved small comforts, like sitting idly on a porch, and wants her granddaughter to have them, along with money and status, no matter what the emotional cost. What Nanny may not have considered is that Janie would have her own ideas of freedom. However, Nanny is also pained by a deferred dream of her own.
Nanny confesses to young Janie, “Ah wanted to preach a great ser- mon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me.”
In Toni Morrison’s Beloved, Beloved’s grandmother Baby Suggs preaches the sermon Nanny never got to preach. Baby Suggs “became an unchurched preacher, one who visited pulpits.” However, her most- used pulpit was one that Baby Suggs created for herself, outdoors, in a clearing: “After situating herself on a huge flat-sided rock, Baby Suggs bowed her head and prayed silently…. Finally she called the women to her. ‘Cry,’ she told them. ‘For the living and for the dead. Just cry.’ And without covering their eyes the women let loose.”
What a difference it might have made to young Janie to have heard her grandmother preach that sermon, to have heard her Nanny say, as Baby Suggs did, “More than your life-holding womb and your life-giv- ing private parts…love your heart. For this is the prize.”
IV In the circular narration of Their Eyes Were Watching God, at the end of the book, a whole new life lies ahead, uncharted for a still relatively young Janie Crawford. She has told her story and has satisfied “that oldest human longing—self-revelation.” And now she must go on.
We know that Janie will never forget Tea Cake. Not only did she love him very deeply, but her life and travels with him have opened up her world and her heart in irreversible ways. However, we get hints that Janie will continue to live on her own uncompromising terms, for even as she has lost her beloved, she has also discovered many deeper layers of herself.