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Zora Neale Hurstons novel Their Eyes Were Watching God has come a long way to public recognition. Published in 1937, it was poorly received and it took forty years and efforts of many people to bring back into mass culture the book that is now known as the defining work in African-American literature. Much like her novel, Hurston herself needed the recognition that she deserved. Unfortunately, the fame came too her very late, even her grave was found only 13 years after her death. Alice Walker, one of those who fought for Hurston being rediscovered by the literary circles, found it and installed a grave marker that reads, Zora Neale Hurston / Genius of the South / Novelist Folklorist Anthropologist. The recent success of her works shows that Hurstons literary legacy was worth fighting for. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a diamond in Hurstons crown, proclaimed the finest black novel of its time and one of the finest of all time by Doris Grumbach of Saturday Review (Washington). The novel has the loose call-and-response structure, and in it, Janie, the main heroine, recounts her story to her friend Pheoby (and, in some way, to herself) with Hurston picking up the narrative from time to time. Their voices echo one another and form the storytelling chain that takes us on a journey through Janies past. Hurstons many narrative techniques the fusion of narrators Standard Written English and characters Southern black vernacular speech, figurative language, Biblical references, circular plot structure and others not only help the reader enter into the authentic spirit of the story, but also highlight Janies struggle to find her own voice throughout the book.
It should be noted that, although Their Eyes Were Watching God is Hurstons most well-known novel, one could observe the evolution of her narrative techniques through her earlier works. Those who studied Hurstons literary legacy may draw attention to how she successfully creates narrative voices that steadily approach and eventually indentify themselves with the language of the folk. The author herself is committed to the folk roots when choosing the structure, language and themes of her works. Hurston celebrates Afro-American written tradition by acknowledging its foundation the folkloric oral tradition. There were a lot of debates among Afro-American writers as of how to represent the Black voice. The beginning of the twentieth century saw the new attitude of Afro-American writers as they re-evaluated their roots and rediscovered the treasures of black folklore and black language. As those writers prepared to fight existing stereotypes, they drew their inspiration from the folklore (Fraile 1). Ralph Ellison said back then:
What we have achieved in folklore has seldom been achieved in the novel, the short story or poetry. In the folklore we tell what Negro experience really is. We back away from the chaos of experience and from ourselves, and we depict the humor as well as the horror of our living. We project Negro life in a metaphysical perspective and we have seen it with a complexity of visi?n that seldom gets into our writing. (Ellison 115)
Zora Neale Hurston was one of those people who drew inspiration from the folklore. Her first literary works were written in the form of short stories; even back then she strived for the text excellence, in order for it to be equal in quality to folklore. She was one of the first few who experimented with a black narrative voice. Obviously, she faced a lot of challenges along the way, because the black dialect was discredited in literature as it was used primarily for comic and disparaging effects (Fraile 2). Hurston did not like that. She expressed her discomfort in her essay Characteristics of Negro Expression, in which she criticized the wrongful interpretation of the black speech by the majority of writers of Negro dialect and the burnt-cork artists (75). She stressed that there is no need to believe them, as one could go directly to the Negro (75) and let him have his say. She argued that Afro-Americans do not have to speak for the Negro, as Negroes. Hurston recorded the folklore and then used its voice in her works. Moreover, Hurston also took a firm stand against writing on the single subject of Race and Its sufferings, as many of Afro-American writers did. Hurston saw folklore as a powerful alternative to protest and propaganda. She could not stand writing the same lines for the same goal over and over again, trying to show injustice and complaining about the current state of affairs. It was not her kind of protest because she preferred celebrating Afro-American culture, life of ordinary people. She wrote, I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature has given them a dirty deal and whose feelings are all hurt about it (qtd. in Afterword to Their eyes were watching god 190). As we will see later, she was heavily criticized for it but it didnt stop her from following her own way. Moreover, later she identified the narrative voice with the folk voice. This allowed her to blur the line between Standard English and Black English and make the latter as a literary language. In her works, Black English is not just a language of orality; it is much more than that (Fraile 13).
In many ways, Their Eyes Were Watching God is Hurstons best work and her biggest achievement. One could argue that the evolution of Hurstons narrative style culminated in this novel. Though this would be only partly true, as Hurston kept improving her style in her later works, Their Eyes Were Watching God is definitely a novel that played the greatest part in the affirmation of the black culture in which Janie tells the story of how she made her voice heard; similarly, Hurston makes the voice of folklore heard. As she revised the canons, Black English took its rightful place in the newly redefined literary world (Danticat).
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston used a variety of techniques: Black English, figurative language, heard speech, personification and Biblical references (Exploring Zora Neale Hurston's Style 1). Obviously, the most important of them is use of Black English. It is not just the Black English itself, but also the rhythm and choice of the words that impress the reader. The following dialog between Janie and Nanny illustrates this perfectly:
Lawd have mercy! It was a long time on de way but Ah reckon it had to come. Oh Jesus! Do, Jesus! Ah done de best Ah could.
Finally, they both grew calm.
Janie, how long you been lowin Johnny Taylor to kiss you?
Only dis one time, Nanny. Ah dont love him at all. Whut made me do it is oh, Ah dont know.
Thank yuh, Massa Jesus.
Ah aint gointuh do it no mo, Nanny. Please dont make me marry Mr. Killicks.
Taint Logan Killicks Ah wants you to have, baby, its protection. Ah aint gittin ole, honey. Ahm done ole. One mornin soon, now, de angel wid de sword is gointuh stop by here. De day and de hour is hid from me, but it wont be long. Ah ast de Lawd when you was uh infant in mah arms to let me stay here till you got grown. He done spared me to see de day. Mah daily prayer now is tuh let dese golden moments rolls on a few days longer till Ah see you safe in life.
Lemme wait, Nanny, please, jus a lil bit mo.
It should be noted that Hurston picks up the right moments to rotate Black English and Standard English. Edwidge Danticat wrote that, Hurston herself also becomes Janies 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 (Danticat 7). Hurston also uses phrases like everyone bore down on the last word of the line to control rhythm. She indicates where the emphasis should fall in order to sustain authenticity of the spoken language. Hurstons use of orality is created by, and itself creates a community around music, language, story, and sound (Frever 2).
Reader surely notices the colorful and figurative language that Hurston uses. The metaphors and the imagery best manifest themselves in the following excerpt:
It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.
Here Hurston describes a garden of God, where the world breathes and the bloom calls Janie to gaze on a mystery of life. This is where Janies journey begins, as she tries for the first time to find answers within herself and in the outside world. With the world breathing and the pear tree blooming, Janie sees clearly the beauty of life that lies in expressing herself to the world. Later, she is going to find out that this allows one to realize oneself, and realizing herself is where her quest ends. Even the phrase their eyes were watching God implies the new form of society, where former slaves are not slaves anymore and can realize themselves in life.
Hurston also uses personification. For example, in Chapter 18 a very thorough description of the storm can be found:
It woke up old Okechobee and the monster began to roll in his bed. Began to roll and complain like a peevish world on a grumble... A big burst of thunder and lightning that trampled over the roof of the house. So Tea Cake and Motor stopped playing. Motor looked up in his angel-looking way and said, Big Massa draw him chair upstairs...
Through the screaming wind they heard things crashing and things hurtling and dashing with unbelievable velocity. A baby rabbit, terror ridden, squirmed through a hole in the floor and squatted off there in the shadows against the wall, seeming to know that nobody wanted its flesh at such a time. And the lake got madder and madder with only its dikes between them and him...
The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.
As soon as Tea Cake went out pushing wind in front of him, he saw that the wind and water had given life to lots of things that folks think of as dead and given death to so much that had been living things.
Dolan Hubbard argues that the storm symbolizes the struggle the corporate black community has to come to terms with in the oppressor's negation of its image and, by imagining this beginning, it has to seek a new one in the future (qtd. in Curren 17). However, Eric D. Curren disagrees with him. He thinks that overall, Hurston tries to demonstrate the communitys dependence on the principle of authority and master-slave dialectic. In particular, the phrase their eyes were watching God proves Hurstons ambivalence towards a truly autonomous African American life (Curren 17-18).
Hurstons Biblical references throughout the book ("old as Methusalem", "Virgin Mary" image) deserve a special mention. The novel is full of Biblical allusions. For example, the aforementioned pear tree excerpt is an allusion to the Garden of Eden. When Hurston mentions the people who all saw her come because it was sundown, she says that they passed nations through their mouths and they sat in judgment. She refers to the Judgment Day and clearly disapproves of peoples arrogance and their efforts to pass judgments like they are God himself.
Recurring to the subject of language, we can observe how skillfully Hurston operates it by comparing the differences in the language used to describe Janies relationships. Male voices and Janies voice evolve concurrently. As her relationships improve, so does her own voice. Hurston creates speakerly text by fusing a profoundly lyrical, densely metaphorical, quasi-musical, privileged black poetic diction with a received but not yet fully appropriated standard English literary tradition(The signifying monkey: a theory of African-American literary criticism 174). We meet four men. Every one of them played an important part in Jenies life. The voice and the silence of each of them show us the quality of their relationships with Jenie. Each of those men represents either control or passion. Although Johnny Taylor represents passion (he kissed her), he does not have a voice, by means of there is no mention of him protesting Janies marriage. Killicks and Janie talk, but there is no passion in their cold conversations. No real love, no real hatred. They are too different to communicate properly, but they do communicate a little bit. Consequently, Jenies voice starts to manifest itself (Racine 1-3). A lot of dialogs and thoughts with Jody are retold by Hurston. She rarely allows those two speak freely in Black English. Instead, we follow the narrators voice. In fact, their biggest dialogue is the fight they had, and it was crucial for Hurston to use Black English in that scene for two reasons. First of all, in that way she could convey the intensity of the moment. Second of all, and more important, it allowed her to highlight Janies struggle to find her own voice which is the main theme of the novel. Therefore, we can regard this scene as one of the most important scenes in the book: as Janie stands up for herself, Hurston puts Black English into her mouth. Janie and Joe communicate better than Jenie and Killiks. However, for the most part narration is done by Hurston. It is quite the opposite with Janie and Tea Cake. Corresponding chapters come with long dialogues in Black English:
Dem wuznt no high muckty mucks. Dem wuz railroad hands and dey womenfolks. You aint usetuh folks lak dat and Ah wuz skeered you might git all mad and quit me for takin you mongst em. But Ah wanted yuh wid me jus de same. Befo us got married Ah made up mah mind not tuh let you see no commonness in me. When Ah git mad habits on, Ahd go off and keep it out yo sight. Taint mah notion tuh drag you down wid me.
Looka heah, Tea Cake, if you ever go off from me and have a good time lak dat and then come back heah tellin me how nice Ah is, Ah specks tuh kill yuh dead. You heah me?
So you aims tuh partake wid everything, hunh?
Yeah, Tea Cake, dont keer what it is.
Dats all Ah wants tuh know. From now on youse mah wife and mah woman and everything else in de world Ah needs.
Ah hope so.
It is as if Janie finally finds her voice with Tea Cake, because of their mutual respect and feelings that they have for each other.
In order to make the novel even more authentic, Hurston uses multiple dialog patterns to represent different characters. Patterns are mottled and twisted to emulate realistic speech. Moreover, Hurston frequently uses analogies and colloquialisms (Wyatt).
Hurston pays great attention to her characters. There are no pure good or pure evil ones. Her characters are complicated human beings, each with strengths and frailties of his or her own. Unlike characters from novels written by other Afro-American writers, Hurston characters do not fight the slavery or for their race. In the end Janie finds her independence, but she is not a typical heroine of the books of that time. Hurston was severely criticized for that. Critics, especially black males, expected her to write fiction in the protest tradition. Sterling Brown said that one of her books was not bitter enough and that it did not reflect on the worse side of black life, being all easygoing and carefree. Richard Wright, the most influential black writer of his time, compared the novels contribution to the literature to the minstrels contribution to the theater. [It] carries no theme, no message, no thought, Wright wrote, it just makes white folks laugh. Like other characters in the novel, Janie was a complex person that searched for self-realization. Unfortunately, it was the era of social realism and fiction, and Hurstons work was not appreciated the way it should have been. It took some time for people to reevaluate their opinion of the novel. Andrea Rushing, an instructor in the Afro-American Studies Department at Harvard, once said:
I loved the language of this book, but mostly I loved it because it was about a woman who wasnt pathetic, wasnt a tragic mulatto, who defied everything that was expected of her, who went off with a man without bothering to divorce the one she left and wasnt broken, crushed, and run down (Washington 16).
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One final feature of the novel that should be mentioned is its unique structure. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a frame-story. Janies story begins with Janie and Pheoby sitting on the perch of her house and it ends the same way. Three different entities exist within this frame: the author, the characters, and the narrator. All of them help us to follow Janies in her quest, as she tries to find her own voice. It would not have been possible, if Hurston had used only a third person narrative. First person narrative helps her to illustrate that Janie found what she has been looking for (Structure of Their Eyes Were Watching God). Janie finds the answer to her quest of self-realization through the act of telling her own story to Phoeby, who is smart and educable person. Initially, the narrators voice and Janies voice are two separate voices. The former tells us the story; the latter indicates Janies progress. At the end, though, we can hardly distinguish them as by that point those voices have merged (Liu 10).
Their Eyes Were Watching God is the defining work in African-American literature. Although, initially this novel was severely criticized, today readers and critics alike celebrate Hurston ideas and narrative style. In this novel we follow Janie, a black woman, recounting her past. As the story progresses, Janie finds her own voice. Some people say that Janie is not the role model they are looking for. But Hurston never intended her to be. She wanted to show her as a complex character, who realizes herself through the struggles of her life. And as Janie does that, readers understand that the prize was worth the fight. In order to capture readers attention and make them understand the key points of her novel, Hurston used many narrative techniques: the fusion of narrators Standard Written English and characters Southern black vernacular speech, figurative language, heard speech, personification, Biblical references, and circular plot structure. As a result, the novel fascinates the reader and gives him enough food for thought. More importantly, by virtue of Hurstons narrative techniques, the novel takes its shape from de shore it meets... different with every shore. As it comes, this beautiful phrase is a great example of many of those techniques.
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