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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is the story of Janie, who flees from her husband to marry Jody, a businessman who does no better for Janie than her first husband but does leave her a wealthy widow at age forty.  Not until she meets Tea Cake does she fall in love.  That relationship ends badly when she must shoot him when he attacks her in a rabies - induced rage. Richard  Wright calls this “folklore at its best,” showing off Hurston’s “gift for poetic phrase, for rare dialect, and folk humor”.  Yet Wright criticizes Hurston for catering to the white audience who can find humor in the dialogue and not need to consider a more serious message. Simmons, however, sees Janie as the result of the male domination that is part of both the black and the white worlds that allows for no direct discourse.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by HurstonHurston has not been readily available to readers, having fallen into obscurity for two main reasons:

  1. Her refusal to be a part of the civil rights elite who dictated that black writing was to be a rebellion against the white authority
  2. An apathy and insensitivity of white critics toward African American fiction for much of this century.

The work is based on how women and men relate to one another, and the realization that most of the time a woman’s life and how it is lived is based on the man to whom she attaches herself.  That the men of the civil rights movement chose to interpret it in another way gives credence to that realization. Zora Neale Hurston was a folklorist, anthropologist, writer, and philosopher who was dedicated to finding information related to African American culture.  In 1928, she was awarded a Guggenheim fellowship with the assistance of famous anthropologist, Franz Boas.  With this award, Hurston collected anything related to traditional beliefs, legends, sayings, and customs of African Americans. Hurston was dedicated to preserving the African American heritage.  She felt it important to show how beautiful and rich the culture was through her literature. Hurston used dialect, oral tradition, African American beliefs and traditions to form her characters and novel themes.

Hurston’s use of setting in the novel is an example of her preservation of culture. Using the town of Eatonville, Florida, her hometown, was way in which Hurston could use characters she was familiar with.  According to Love, Hurston’s many observations of porch storytelling, found its way into many of her novels. 

There are parallels between Janie and Hurston.  In the beginning of the novel, Janie returns to Eatonville, just as Hurston returned to Eatonville on a quest for folklore.  Janie, former mayor’s wife, returns in work overalls; Hurston returns with an Ivy League education.  Both are outsiders in a community that was formerly their own. Janie’s return can be seen as the triumphant return of a heroine or it can be seen as a failure, her inability to survive on her own.  Whatever the view, her return signifies a re-connection to the community.  Janie will tell her tale to Phoeby, who will in turn relate her tale to the community.  This also further solidifies the importance of oral tradition in African American culture.

The theme of body image is notable in Their Eyes Were Watching God.  In viewing various essays about the novel, the theme of body image in the African American culture is rarely mentioned.  This plays a large role in Janie’s existence.  Many women define themselves through their body image and Janie is no exception.  Margaret Marquis argues that it is through her own body image and the body image of others that Janie experiences and undergoes self-actualization

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