Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God Term Paper

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Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God" Research Paper

"I am Me, My Eyes Toward God" Mark Evans

Zora Neale Hurston an early twentieth century Afro-American feminist

author, was raised in a predominately black community which gave her an

unique perspective on race relations, evident in her novel, Their Eyes

Were Watching God. Hurston drew on her on experiences as a feminist

Afro-American female to create a story about the magical transformation of

Janie, from a young unconfident girl to a thriving woman. Janie

experiences many things that make her a compelling character who takes

readers along as her companion, on her voyage to discover the mysteries

and rewards life has to offer.

Zora Neale Hurston was, the daughter of a Baptist minister and an educated

scholar who still believed in the genius contained within the common

southern black vernacular(Hook

http://splavc.spjc.cc.fl.us/hooks/Zora.html). She was a woman who found

her place, though unstable, in a typical male profession. Hurston was born

on January 7, 1891 in Eatonville, Florida, the first all-incorporated

black town in America. She found a special thing in this town, where she

said, "… [I] grew like a like a gourd and yelled bass like a gator,"

(Gale, 1). When Hurston was thirteen she was removed from school and sent

to care for her brother's children. She became a member of a traveling

theater at the age of sixteen, and then found herself working as a maid

for a white woman. This woman saw a spark that was waiting for fuel, so

she arranged for Hurston to attend high school in Baltimore. She also

attended Morgan Academy, now called Morgan State University, from which

she graduated in June of 1918. She then enrolled in the Howard Prep

School followed by later enrollment in Howard University. In 1928 Hurston

attended Barnard College where she studied anthropology under Franz Boas.

After she graduated, Zora returned to Eatonville to begin work on

anthropology. Four years after Hurston received her B.A. from Barnard she

enrolled in Columbia University to begin graduate work (Discovering

Authors, 2-4). Hurston's life seemed to be going well but she was soon to

see the other side of reality.

Hurston never stayed at a job for too long, constantly refusing the

advances of male employers, which showed part of her strong feminist

disposition. But Hurston was still seeking true love throughout her

travels and education. At Howard University, Hurston met Herburt Sheen

whom she married on May 19, 1927 in St. Augstine, Florida (DA, 2). They

divorced shortly after they got married because they could not continue

the idealistic dreams they had shared in their youth. Zora Hurston's

second marriage to Albert Price III was also short lived. They were

married in 1939 and divorced in 1943 (DA, 2). By the mid-1940s Hurston's

writing career had began to falter. While living in New York, Hurston was

arrested and charged with committing an immoral act with a ten-year-old

boy. The charges were later dropped when Hurston proved that she was in

another country at the time the incident allegedly took place

(Discovering Authors, 3). Hurston already was witnessing the rejection of

all of her works submitted to her publisher, but the combined effects of

the arrest and the ensuing journalistic attack on her image doomed the

majority of her literary career. She wrote to a friend: "I care nothing

for writing anything any more… My race has seen fit to destroy me without

reason, and with the vilest tools conceived by man so far" (Discovering

Authors, 4). In approximately 1950 Hurston returned to Florida, where she

worked as a cleaning woman in Rivo Alto. She later moved to Belle Glade,

Florida, in hopes of reviving her writing career. She failed and worked

as many jobs including: newspaper journalist, librarian, and substitute

teacher (Baker, http://www.prodigy.com/ pages.html/chronology.htm).

Hurston suffered a stroke in 1959 which demanded her admittance in the

Saint Lucie County Florida Welfare Home. She died a broken, penniless,

invalid in January 1960 (DA, 5).

All of Hurston's trials built the basis for her best work. Therefore,

the work that has denoted her as one of the twentieth century's most

influential authors did not come until after she had graduated from

college. However, the literature she composed in college was by no means

inferior. She was a defiant free-spirit even during her early college

career. While working on an anthropological study for her mentor, Franz

Boas, she was exposed to voo doo, which she quickly embraced. She was

deeply interested in the subtle nuances that voo doo had left scattered

throughout Afro-American culture. She also adopted this religion, which

contrasted completely with her Baptist up-bringing , because it gave her a

new artistic sense. Voo doo freed her from the institutional restraints

that she experienced as a black woman in a white oligarchy (Hinton, 4).

Her belief in voo doo appeared in almost all of her works, including Their

Eyes Are Watching God, where Zora's fictitious Eatonville seems to be

controlled by supernatural forces (Hinton, 5). Hurston used her artistic

talent to incorporate her cultural anthologies into her fiction by

combining many of the traditions and cultural tinges she discovered while

tracing Black culture into the fictional town of Eatonville (Hemenway,


Hurston's most acclaimed work , Their Eyes Were Watching God, has been

read, adored, rejected, reviewed, and badgered by many literary critics

and uneducated readers alike. "In a book rich with imagery and black oral

tradition, Zora Neale Hurston tells us of a woman's journey that gives the

lie to Freud's assertion that 'the difficult development which leads to

femininity seems to exhaust all the possibilities of the individual'"

(Reich, 163). This statement is manifested in Their Eyes… through

Hurston's vivid imagery and uncanny sense of her own needs. The plot

centers around Janie, a character some critics say is mimicked after

Hurston herself, and her journey toward self-discovery. As a victim of

circumstance, Janie becomes a victim of her own position. She is raised

to uphold the standards of her grandmother's generation; she is taught to

be passive and subject to whatever life gives her. But as Janie grows

older she begins to realize that the world may not like it, but she has

got to follow her desires, not suppress them. The story begins in her

childhood, with Janie exalting material possessions and money, two things

she has never had an abundance of. Janie marries twice, the second

marriage being bigamous. She realizes that she must be self-reliant. She

experiences all of these things in a totally Black community, where

society is motivated by the most basic human instincts.

Hurston in-bedded her own life experiences into Their Eyes… with her

clever incorporation of prominent themes in society. While avoiding

social prejudice, Zora seamlessly integrates her own racial-discovery into

her novel. The reader does not feel that she is projecting social

prejudices or personal attacks; but rather imparts a tender, gentle

revelation to Janie that she is Black. Janie is raised with white

children in the home of the family her Grandmother works for. She grows up

playing, laughing, and enjoying the things that the white children do, so

much so, that she is included in a family portrait. When she goes to look

at the picture, she doesn't see herself- but rather a dark girl with long

hair. "Where is me? Ah don't see me," she complains (Their Eyes Were

Watching God, 6). She had not realized till that moment, she was not


To further the story-line, Hurston takes Janie on a journey of

self-discovery with a slightly feminist twist. Throughout the novel Janie

is confronted with the compelling desire by others to make her a "proper"

woman. She is taught to be submissive. She is taught to have no opinion

and no initiative. However, she learns over time, she has the growing

feeling that something is missing, possibly her lack of self-confidence.

She soon becomes her own person, casting her given lot aside, and seeking

a new one on her own path, discovering her dreams and her identify. In

this novel, Hurston expresses many of her opinions on race relations. She

is often criticized for her lack of confrontational forces in Their

Eyes..., however she explained that she has clearly defined her position

on race relations in her books. She has done it in a way that no group

can actually ground a claim that her work is catered to any one audience.

Many Black critics at the time of publication criticized Their Eyes...

for its lack of racial awareness, while White critics, such as Otis

Ferguson, claimed that the book is ".. absolutely free of Uncle Toms..."

(DA, 2). Most contemporary critics feel Hurston's novel is the

culmination of all of Black culture. Hurston was often criticized for her

writings. She was quick to reply:

I am not tragically colored. There is no great sorrow dammed up in my

soul, nor lurking behind my eyes. I do not mind at all. I do not belong

to the sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow has given

them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feeling are all hurt about it.... No,

I do not weep at the world- I am to busy sharpening my oyster knife

(Discovering Authors, 4).

Hurston showed her true opinions on race relations in her autobiography

Dust Tracks on the Road when she declared black artists should celebrate

the positive aspects of black American Negrohood. And that is exactly what

Hurston did through her innovative characters in Their Eyes Were Watching


Janie is raised by her grandmother. Grandmother sets Janie up for her

journey of self-discovery. Janie's grandmother set her goal for Janie's

life by saying, "Ah wanted you to look upon yo' self. Ah don't want yo'

feathers always crumpled by folks throwin' up things in yo' face"

(Hurston, 14). Her grandmother has a desire to see Janie in a 'safe'

place, or in other words, a place where she will never have to want for

anything. Janie loved her grandmother and wanted to please her even

though she was not sure she agreed with all of the plans her grandmother

had made. "Janie had been angry at her grandmother for having 'taken the

biggest thing God ever made, the horizon... and pinched it in to such a

little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her grandmother's neck

tight enough to choke her'" (Reich, 4). Her grandmother accomplishes this

by arranging for Janie to marry Logan Killicks.

Logan Killicks is a farmer who marries Janie shortly after she completes

school. Killicks is the first antagonist that Janie encounters in the

story. He is there for one purpose, to destroy Janie's new sense of

self-awareness. Janie does not love Logan nor does he love her. Janie is

constantly looking for another horizon. She soon finds that horizon in

Joe Starks.

Joe appears in Janie's front yard one day. He says the 'sweet' things

that Janie wants to her. Janie leaves Logan the next day, and therefor

takes another step in her journey. Joe is a man who is concerned with

little except power. He wants it, and he is going to use Janie to get it.

He is cruel to Janie, and stomps out all of her free will. He builds his

town of Eatonville as the newly elected mayor, crushing all in his path,

making many enemies, including Janie, along the way.

Teacake could be Janie's knight in shining armor. He comes to her aid.

He wants her to do the things she desires. "Sing, dance, have fun with

me," seems to be what Teacake is offering her-a new direction. Teacake is

a good ol' boy. He takes Janie to the Everglades. He lets her tell

stories. However, she becomes what she set out to, only when she leaves

Teacake. When she leaves Teacake Janie returns to Eatonville and the book

ends where it began, as Janie finishes or dialogue with her friend Pheoby.

When she walks back in to town, no longer 'Ms. Mayor,' as Joe was fond of

calling her, Janie is truly her own person. She is proud and sure of her

self and her place under the sun. There are so many literary and social

implications contained within Their Eyes Were Watching God, that many

criticisms have been written on particular aspects of Hurston's work.

One of the best criticisms, though not nationally published, demonstrates

some of the true experiences that Hurston incorporated into her work.

Hurston conjures powerful images by giving voice to all her disparate

elements while simultaneously respecting the autonomy of each. She

conjures images from the kitchen, from the rural landscape of Florida, and

from the elemental forces of nature. and tempers her conjuring with the

objectivity of the scholar while freely adorning it with the poetic beauty

of black vernacular (Conjured into Being, 1).

The unknown author of this passage gave an elegant style to the point

that Hurston used strong sensory and oratory descriptions to make her text

come alive. She tried to pull from all the areas of her personality to

develop something on paper, the way she experienced it in life. She

showed her philosophy on how a person should live their and get the most

out of it. In her autobiography she wrote:

I had stifled longing. I used to climb to the top of one of the huge

chinaberry trees which guarded our front gate, and look out over the

world. The most interesting thing that I saw was the horizon... It grew

upon me that I ought to walk out to the horizon and see what the end of

the world was like. (Dust Tracks on the Road, 36), (Conjured into Being,


Like Hurston, Janie longs for the horizon. She finds that she must

struggle to overcome the many obstacles society throws in her path.

Hurston's frequent use of emotional metaphors is part of the power

contained in her fiction. She uses nature to convey her emotions.

The sun is a major image in the texts of Hurston, and the passage above

illustrates her fascination with light. Ever since her mother told her to

'jump at de sun' when she was a young girl, Hurston self-confidently

refused any feelings of victimization She like her character Janie, was

not 'tragically colored.' In her early short story, "Drenched in Light," a

wealthy white woman comments on Isis, the happy child of Hurston's your:

'I would like just a little of her sunshine to soak into my soul{spunk,

18}'(Conjured into Being, 4)."

This is one of many examples of Hurston's emphasis on emotional

identification in her fiction. She also believed strongly in the elements

of the earth and how they showed a symbol for each emotion. "The elements

of sun and fire cleanse and renew her. The wind, another elemental image,

is first heard 'picking at the pine trees.' Pine trees, which Janie

associates with young black men, like TeaCake, who are often seen

'picking' guitars" (Conjured into Being, 16).

The wind is commonly associated with love, the soul, and femininity. She

expresses her feminist philosophy with the description of women not as

weak creatures needing to be cared for, but as strong capable peers.

Bryan D. Bourn, with help of Dr. Laura Zlogar of the Wisconsin-River

Falls University discusses the role of Afro-American women in Their Eyes

Were Watching God. He explores the role of African-American women in

early 1900's society by examining Hurston's writing.

Historically, the job of women in society is to care for the husband, the

home, and the children. As a homemaker, it has been up to the woman to

support the husband and care for the house; as a mother, the role was to

care for the children and pass along cultural traditions and values to the

children. These roles are no different in the African-American community,

except for the fact that they are magnified to even larger proportions.

The image of the mother in African-American culture is on of guidance,

love, and wisdom... Understanding the role of women in the

African-American community starts by examining the roles... in

Afro-American literature. (Bourn, 1).

Bourn goes on to state that the role of the mother-daughter relationship

is expressed vividly in Their Eyes... by the relationship that develops

between Janie and her Grandmother. "The strong relationship between

mother and child is important... the conflict between Janie's idyllic view

of marriage and her [grandmother's] wish for her to marry into

stability... show how deep the respect and trust runs" (Bourn, 1). This

excerpt tries to show the way that Janie, by marrying Logan, does what her

grandmother wants out of respect. This is just one of the idealistic ways

that Hurston expresses her opinions on society and life, not to exclude

racial situations.

"Does Hurston 'owe' her race anything" (Hinton, 2)? As previously

discussed, many of Hurston's contemporaries criticized her lack of racial

issues in her work. A good question to ask is "does Hurston's fiction

further racial equality?" (Hinton). Kip Hinton discusses Hurston's

approach to race relations in comparision to the common school of thought

during her time. Alain Locke crticized Hurston for avoiding racial

confrontations (Hinton, 2). All of Hurston's critics said that she gave

in to the stereotype of a typical African-American. This in turn furthered

the sense of inequality present in society. The critics who held this

view, according to Hinton, subscribed this style of confrontation: "They

believed only by preaching to the white reader about how wonderful blacks

really were and how horrible discrimination was, could equality be

achieved" (Hinton, 2). This argument is really a feeble one. Hinton

claims that this argument lacks reason because "telling a racist he's a

racist won't make him change" (Hinton, 2). If the reader can not read

Hurston's work and see that she cared deeply about equality, dealing with

it in her special way, then they will never change.

The most important thing to keep in mind when you think of Zora Neale

Hurston is that she was a literary genius. She may have been a woman, and

an African-American, that is why someone wrote, "Zora would have been Zora

even if she'd been an Eskimo" (Hinton, 3). That is why she was so clear

on her definition of race relations. She believed that equality was

achieved by showing the oppressor the wonderful things in life, not

constantly pointing out the bad. Hurston put it best when she cried out,

"at certain times I have no race, I AM ME."

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