Monday, January 23, 2017
How Zora Neale Hurston engages builds the character of Janie and earns our empathy
Reading further in Zora Neale Hurston's great novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and it's obvious why this was a forerunner of a raft of other feminist novels from The Golden Notebook to The Color Purple to The Handmaid's Tale and beyond - yet compared with its descendants it's funnier, more complex in emotional range, and more cinematic (has it ever been filmed or dramatized? I would hope so.) ZNH does a great job establishing the complex character of her protagonist, Janie, who is always yearning for something more from life but can't, at least for the first half of the novel, exactly describe, explain, or even understand what it is she's seeking. Early in life she has her first flush of sexual arousal - ZNH conveys this very well their an epiphany scene in which Janie looks into flowering trees in the summer and is overcome with a feeling of unity with nature and desire for reproduction. Her grandmother, fearing where these desires may lead the teenage Janie, forces her into a dreadful marriage with an older, dour man - the kind of marriage thousands, millions of women must settle into as a life - but Janie abandons, running off with Joe (Jody), a powerful, ambitious man - and they settle in a small, fledgling black community where Joe becomes the mayor and leading figure. Again, this is the kind of marriage millions of women settle into - wealthy, prestigious (at least within the microcosm of this world) - but Janie cannot abide her oppression: Joe keeps putting her down, won't let her do anything but "mind the store," won't be crossed or contradicted. She cannot live in his shadow. ZNH is subtle and thoughtful about this; she doesn't preach or explicitly make Janie the symbol of her gender, her race, or her time - but we feel for her and her plight, we empathize (and we empathize with Joe and his needs as well - ZNH avoids making him devilish or unduly cruel - he's just obtuse and needy, in his fashion). After Joe dies the novel takes a new turn as a much younger, sexy black man enters Janie's life - Tea Cake: TC will be a central, and tragic, figure throughout the rest of the novel (as we were told in the first chapter); I find his introduction to be too closer to a Lifetime movie/Bridges of Madison County fantasy of a middle-aged woman and a younger man, but we'll see how ZNH manages to tell the difficult story of their life together.