Thursday, January 19, 2017
Their Eyes Were Watchking God reverses a standard narrative trope
En route to Florida have been reading Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), which I hadn't read in many years, and am delighted to come back to it and think not only is it as fine as I remembered it but I'm wondering if I really understood or appreciated this novel when I first read it. Back then it was perceived, or at least I perceived it as, a feminist tract: the protagonist, Janie, is a strong woman who seems (at least in first third of the novel) to be continually subjugated to men - the cold and unattractive farmer to whom she's first linked against her will and against all her instincts, then to the domineering, dashing man for Georgia who sets off to become the mayor in a newly incorporated Florida town that's exclusively inhabited by black families (this would be in the late 19th century). Her husband is a leader, an entrepreneur, a man of destiny - but he believes his wife should be silent and in the background, a "helpmeet." Coming at the novel now I see all this but so much more: the plaintive, sorrowful condition of all black people in the South in the wake of the Civil War, women especially but the men don't have it so great either. Also the humor is fantastic - the conversations among the women in the first chapter wondering about what brought Janie back, alone, to her previous dwelling; the men grousing about uppity blacks and talking in wonderment about the Janie's beauty - completely our of their reach. You could almost pick a page at random and find a great turn of phrase or a hilarious patch of dialog and discourse, just about anywhere. Hurston's ear for dialogue and her memory of odd phrasings and observations - as well as her own off-beat observations about the landscape, about Janie's dawning sexual awareness - all very powerful; and set this against the account of Janie's mother's escape from slavery just before the end of the war, pretty much as harrowing as any slave narrative - all make for a fine novel that is entertaining, meaningful, and broad in scope. I also note that ZNH reverses a standard narrative trope: It's been said that there are two basic narrative plots: A stranger comes to town, and a person takes a journey. Oddly, TEWWG begins with a familiar figure (Janie) returning to town, raising the question: Where has she been, what brought her back, what went wrong? The townsfolk seem to relish in her failure - the mighty have fallen - but Janie begins telling her story to her one loyal friend, and thus it begins.