Jonah's Gourd Vine, Zora Neale Hurston's first novel (1934), begins with the violent struggle between a Black man and wife:
The pain and anger killed the cry within her. She wheeled to fight. The raw hide again. This time across her head. She charged in with a stick of wood and the fight was on. This had happened many times before. Amy's strength was almost as great as Ned's and she had youth and agility with her. Forced back to the wall by her tigress onslaught, Ned saw that victory for him was possible only by choking Amy. He thrust his knee into her abdomen and exerted a merciless pressure on her throat. (1)
Amy survives the wife-beating through the intervention of John, her son. Later, quarrels occur between John and his wife, Lucy. What defeats John is not his wife's "tigress onslaught" but her sharp tongue: "Jes 'cause women folks ain't got no big muscled arm and fistes lak jugs, folks claims they's weak vessels, but dass uh lie. Dat piece uh red flannel she got hung 'tween her jaws is equal tuh all de fistes God ever made and man ever seen." (2)
Critic Addison Gayle sees in Jonah's Gourd Vine a very early treatment of the conflict between Black men and Black women in Hurston's writing. (3)
Indeed, this conflict runs through her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road (J. B. Lippincott, 1942), her collection of "insults" in Mules and Men (1935), her novels and short fiction, particularly the story "Sweat" (1926). This struggle for autonomy, so often resulting in the defeat of the Black male, culminates in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), a novel now emerging from obscurity because of its remarkable portrayal of a strong Black woman.
Their Eyes Were Watching God centers on Janie Crawford, who as an adolescent yearns for marriage and sexual fruition.
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. (4)
Unfortunately, the love embrace and shivering ecstasy are denied her, and Janie is bartered off into marriage with an aging farmer, Logan Killicks. The sixty-acre farm is "a lonesome place like a stump in the middle of the woods where nobody had ever been" (p. 22), the antithesis of the blossoming pear. When "citified" Jody Starks walks down the road the following springtime, Janie goes with him.
As Mrs. Jody Starks, the wife of the mayor of an all-Black town in Florida, Janie experiences economic security and social prominence. The mayor, however, places limitations on his wife's activities. She must dress fashionably and keep her head covered. She must tend store but not mingle with the customers. She must not participate in store porch speeches or other local events which Jody Starks considers below her dignity. Early in the marriage Jody announces: "Mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin'. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home" (p. 39). (5)
Starks's tyranny, his unwillingness to permit Janie to blossom, shatters her dream of the pear tree. They quarrel constantly over the years, and when Janie defiantly ridicules her husband's manhood in front of some male customers, Jody beats her and moves out of the bedroom. The final battle occurs on Jody's deathbed; he is defeated in death by Janie's tongue-lashing as she tells him how he had squeezed out her mind and made her bow down. This passage, which has been criticized for its insensitivity, is Janie's show of strength, other forms of release having been denied her throughout the marriage.
After Jody's death Janie remains in Eatonville, burns her head rags and runs the store. Soon the middle-aged widow meets a younger man, Tea Cake, and perceives in him the fulfillment of her dream:
He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to the blossom--a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung upon him. He was a glance from God (p. 90).
Janie leaves the respectability of Eatonville, marries Tea Cake, and journeys to the Everglades, where they pick beans and live in a worker's camp. Janie, so long isolated from the physical world, learns to work, to love, to shoot a rifle, to be free, to tell stories, and to strike Tea Cake in their quarreling. The adventure ends, however, when a hurricane floods Lake Okechobee. Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog. Two weeks later he goes mad and Janie shoots him in self-defense. Again alone, she returns to Eatonville to tell about her disaster and her survival.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel of life, power and survival. June Jordan calls it "the prototypical Black novel of affirmation; it is the most successful, convincing, and exemplary novel of Blacklove that we have. Period." (6) Mary Helen Washington finds Janie to be "one of the few--and certainly the earliest--heroic black women in the Afro-American literary tradition," defining Janie's heroism in terms of her autonomy, her trials, her search for self-definition. (7) It is difficult to discover, either in Afro-American tradition or in any other literary tradition, the kind of adventuresome, defiant, and triumphant womanhood achieved by Janie Crawford. There are strong women in the fiction of George Eliot, Henry James, Kate Chopin and many other writers; but no woman in fiction exhibits so strongly as Janie those strengths associated with the Homeric epic hero--bravery, the completion of a voyage, the endurance of trials, mastery in battle, acceptance in the community, self-definition, survival. (8)
Like The Odyssey, Their Eyes Were Watching God is patterned on the journey and on the tensions created between the call to adventure and the return to the homeland. As the novel opens Janie has come back to Eatonville (her Ithaca) to tell her adventures to a listener. Janie is "full of that oldest human longing--self-revelation," (p. 10), a longing which, one will recall, the Mayor denied her. As Odysseus reveals his past to Alcinous, so Janie relates hers to her friend Pheoby Watson. The Greek hero struggles against the Cyclops, Trojan warriors, the Lotus Eaters. He survives. Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods survives three marriages, a flood, a rabid lover. Both for Hurston and for Homer, survival is the major concern.
As a novel Their Eyes Were Watching God operates on two interwoven levels. First, it is a record of Black language and Black talking, phenomena which Hurston had observed and which function superbly in a structure whose basis is, like epic poetry, oral narrative. Lorraine Bethel relates the narrative method of Their Eyes Were Watching God to the traditional culture of Black women in America. "In presenting Janie's story as a narrative related by herself to her best Black woman friend, Phoebe, Hurston is able to draw upon the rich oral legacy of Black female storytelling and mythmaking that has its roots in Afro-American culture. The reader who is conscious of this tradition will experience the novel as an overheard conversation as well as a literary text." (9) Second, it is a symbolic work, a novel rich in myth and metaphor. It is through her central character that Hurston yokes the two strands. Janie is both speaker and dreamer, a three-time wife whose vision of herself and of the world breaks through the barriers ordinarily placed on women's lives.
Janie's battle against being conditioned into the typical female roles has been discussed by June Jordan, Robert Hemenway, and others. (10) S. J. Walker relates Janie's struggle against male domination to the symbolism of the novel. The first marriage to Killicks, the "'kitchen' era," is represented by the apron; the second, to Jody Starks, is symbolized by the headrag ("the `porch' era"); the third relationship, with Tea Cake, is represented by physical freedom and dungarees. Like most critics, Walker views Their Eyes Were Watching God as a love story. When Janie meets Tea Cake, claims Walker, they reject the traditional male/female roles. Janie works in the field; Tea Cake cooks. The result is a "blurring of sex-role stereotypes within an intensely sexual relationship." (11)
While I agree with much of S. J. Walker's critique, I would have to question any interpretation which fails to consider the violent ending of the intensely physical union. In concluding the novel the way she does, Hurston presents a resolution not commonly encountered in fiction. Literary love affairs seem to end in abandonment (the man abandoning the woman, as in Madame Bovary or Anna Karenina) or in death (as in The Awakening, Love Story, A Farewell to Arms, etc.) In Their Eyes Were Watching God, however, the unheard of happens. Rather than sacrificing herself at the altar of love, Janie shoots the rabid Tea Cake to save her own life--instinctively, without premeditation.
Hurston critics tend either to ignore the disturbing fact of the shooting or to glide over it in summary, as if to shoot one's dreamed-for lover were some minor chord in an otherwise romantic symphony. Robert Bone, for example, explains Janie's shooting of Tea Cake as "the price which Janie pays for her brief months of happiness." (12) Addison Gayle states that the "separation of Janie and Tea Cake is required" so that she can return to Eatonville to "become a symbol of rebellion." (13) While Gayle's analysis is thematically appropriate, it does not come to terms with the extreme violence of that separation. Of the critics I have read, only Lloyd Brown deals with the ambiguities of Tea Cake's personality; Tea Cake is the pollen-bearing bee, but he is also the mad dog. (14) That Hurston planned such ambiguity is apparent from the language of the passage quoted earlier in which Janie first realizes Tea Cake's powers to arouse her. Janie describes him as a bee and as a bearer of scent. On the other hand this Dionysian god of springtime has a violent nature: he came "crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took" (p. 90). Twice in the passage Hurston uses the word crushing, as clear an indication of Tea Cake's destructive nature as other more specific negative traits--fist-fighting, getting slashed with a knife after a gambling win, hitting Janie, hostility toward her greater economic power, taking Janie's two-hundred dollars without permission and not inviting her to the party he throws with it, and so forth. As in all of Hurston's fiction, male and female are, despite a mutual sexual attraction, still in conflict.
Nowhere is this conflict so sharply delineated as in the short story "Sweat," published eleven years before Their Eyes Were Watching God and sharing with it a comparable resolution. "Sweat" involves the desolate marriage between a hard-working washer woman, Delia, and her abusive, unfaithful husband, Sykes. Having come to hate his skinny, industrious wife, Sykes brings home a rattlesnake to scare her. Infuriated by her defiance, he puts the snake in Delia's wash basket. Instinctively Delia runs to the hay loft and Sykes, returning home from a night out, is poisoned by the snake. In the last scene Delia lies in the grass, a witness to the accident but unable to assist her husband, her body willed immobile by the force of her hatred. "She could scarcely reach the Chinaberry tree, where she waited in the growing heat while inside she knew the cold river was creeping up and up to extinguish that eye which must know by now that she knew." (15)
Both "Sweat" and Their Eyes Were Watching God use similar devices in severing the husband-wife relationship. In "Sweat" a snake intervenes to bring on Sykes's death; in the novel the male is destroyed through the bite of a dog. The wife in both cases not only survives the husband but in effect contributes to his death, passively in Delia's situation and quite actively in Janie's. In both works Hurston describes her characters as acting instinctively ["Sykes' ability to think had been flattened down to primitive instinct," (p. 207)], behavior which she emphasizes through the use of animal imagery. Sykes cries out, when bitten, like a "maddened chimpanzee, a stricken gorilla" (p. 207). The death-by-drowning reference in the last line ("the cold river was creeping up and up") foreshadows the flood of Their Eyes Were Watching God, as does the line in "Sweat" describing the August heat: "Grass withered, leaves browned, snakes went blind in shedding and men and dogs went mad" (p. 202).
Like Jonah's Gourd Vine, "Sweat" catalogues the bitterness between husband and wife. "Sweat," however, reads more like a parable of good woman/bad man than like an analysis of human behavior, so weighted is it against the evil man. In tone the story resembles both Black folklore and the Biblical Genesis, both forms being frequently combined in Afro-American fiction, most notably by Langston Hughes in the Semple stories. "Sweat" is an Adam and Eve in reverse, a very unblissful bower which is made peaceful when the snake [called "ol' Satan," p. 205)], bites the man. Hurston describes the snake in Luciferian terms: the snake was "pouring his awful beauty from the basket upon the bed" (p. 206). The last line of the story, quoted earlier, shares in this imagery. Delia (Eve) stops at the Chinaberry tree and gains knowledge, the verb know being present, in one of its forms, three times in that single sentence. Similar themes, techniques, images appear also in Their Eyes Were Watching God but in more complex configurations and woven into an eroticism so compelling that the violence of the ending is overlooked.
Before examining the implications of Tea Cake's death it is necessary to look at the amazing episode in which he is bitten. Lake Okechobee has flooded. Tea Cake is exhausted. As Janie reaches, protectively, for a piece of tar paper to cover him, the wind rises and she falls into the water. Tea Cake calls from the bank, telling her to grab onto the tail of a cow.
Janie achieved the tail of the cow and lifted her head up along the cow's rump, as far as she could above water. The cow sunk a little with the added load and thrashed a moment in terror. Thought she was being pulled down by a gator. Then she continued on. The dog stood up and growled like a lion, stiff-standing hackles, stiff muscles, teeth uncovered as he lashed up his fury for the charge. Tea Cake split the water like an otter, opening his knife as he dived. The dog raced down the back-bone of the cow to the attack and Janie screamed and slipped far back on the tail of the cow, just out of reach of the dog's angry jaws. He wanted to plunge in after her but dreaded the water, somehow. Tea Cake rose out of the water at the cow's rump and seized the dog by the neck. But he was a powerful dog and Tea Cake was over-tired. So he didn't kill the dog with one stroke as he had intended. But the dog couldn't free himself either. They fought and somehow he managed to bite Tea Cake high up on his cheek-bone once. Then Tea Cake finished him and sent him to the bottom to stay there. The cow relieved of a great weight was landing on the fill with Janie before Tea Cake stroked in and crawled weakly upon the fill again. (p. 136)
This single, ungainly, climactic paragraph is a menagerie of struggling beasts. The gator, the lion, and the otter are used metaphorically, their suggested presence heightening the feeling that the fight for survival is operating on an instinctual level. Of the four creatures actually in the water, two are female (cow, woman) and two are male (dog, man). The words cow or cow's appear seven times; the words dog or dog's appear seven times. The active, physical verbs tumble one after another, for example--lifted, sunk, growled, lashed, raced, seized, fought, crawled. The nouns, too, are primarily physical or bestial--rump, hackles, back-bone, neck, muscles, jaws, teeth. If viewed from the perspective of American realism, the passage is improbable. If, however, one sees in this flood sequence Hurston's efforts to create a parable of female survival, then the simplicity and repetition of the language reinforce the myth.
The flood can be interpreted on at least two symbolic levels, one Biblical and the other scientific. Hurston, whose interest in the literary possibilities of the Old Testament is evident in the story "Sweat" and would be fully developed in the 1939 novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, seems here to be suggesting a parallel with the Deluge of Genesis. (16) The numerous references to submerged animals, so many and so varied, help create this impression. Janie, the New Noah, rises from the flood on the tail of a cow, a makeshift ark but adequate transport to land and to survival. Tea Cake knifes the rabid dog but is infected in the process. In this flood only the woman and the cow live on.
The flooded lake, the struggling animals, the instinctual behavior call to mind another theory, one which Hurston must surely have investigated in her anthropological studies at Barnard and Columbia. I am referring to the Darwinian concept of evolution, suggestions of which are evoked in the flood passage. Hurston describes the fill as a tangled mass of debris, a chaotic assortment of people and corpses and "wild animals and snakes" (p. 135). As Charles Darwin in The Origin of Species contemplated "a tangled bank" and saw in its elaborate diversity the "war of nature" and the "Struggle for Life," so here Hurston the anthropologist-novelist contemplates a microscropic struggle for survival in a setting which she had keenly observed over the years. (17)
When he dives into the water to save Janie, Tea Cake is behaving not in the artificially chivalrous, "citified" fashion that so irritated Janie in her second husband, Jody Starks, but rather on an instinctual level deeply rooted in the male's need to protect the female of the species. This protective urge results in the male's death and in the survival of the female. In the violently conceived conclusion of Their Eyes Were Watching God Hurston brings forth an idea about the Survival of the Fittest that post-Darwinian feminists, most notably Elisabeth Mann Borgese, have constructed into Utopian visions of female ascendency. In Ascent of Woman Borgese predicts that the female of the species will at one point be dominant as evolutionary development moves from individualism to collectivism. At an even later stage male/female role differences will vanish and conflict will disappear--all in the service of collective co-operation. (18)
Women novelists like Monique Wittig and Charlotte Perkins Gilman are among the many writers of this century to explore in fiction a future world reached through evolution and female collectivity. No such cosmic prophecy is present in Their Eyes Were Watching God. But by giving us a female character highly adaptable to change, who adjusts to collective labor, and who is able actively to assure her own survival, Hurston is giving us a "New Woman," a woman whose actions are larger, even, than heroic.
At first glance, of course, one anticipates a romantic ending, with both male and female emerging from the slime of Lake Okechobee. But Janie starts to notice a strangeness in Tea Cake--choking, snarling, hiding his pistol, watching her every move. After the fourth week he fires his pistol at her. "Instinctively Janie's hand flew behind her on the rifle and brought it around" (p. 151). Now a mad dog, Tea Cake aims and fires. Janie's aim is better. As Janie rushes forward to caress her stricken lover, he bites her arm. This moment, the final resolution of the male/female conflict in the novel, contains a number of ironic reversals. The instinctively protective male of the flood is now, in his rabidity, the destroyer. The human is now the animal. The woman, traditionally unskilled with weapons, defends herself against the man-turned-beast and kills him with his own instrument, thus becoming both warrior and victor. There has been a scramble within this two-person unit which at least suggests some larger cultural and biological upheaval.
In The Tangled Bank Stanley Edgar Hyman studies the scientific writings of Darwin, Marx, Freud, and Frazer for their imaginative features. Some of his remarks on Darwin are helpful in connecting the two myths, Biblical and scientific, that I have been exploring in this discussion. Hyman contends that "scriptural form is at the heart of The Origin of Species," and that the search for origins is "like the ritual enactment of the mythic first creation." (19) According to Hyman, Darwin's concept of Natural Selection (only the Fittest survive) is also Biblical, having to do with the origins of death. Hyman's analogy in the latter instance is to the Fall of Man in Genesis. The Noah legend, however, with its selecting out of certain animals, pairs capable of procreation, is concerned with both death and survival. As Delia, the washer woman in "Sweat" is the one to survive the serpent in the garden, so Janie is the one to survive the flood.
At the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God Janie, the Fittest, returns to Eatonville with neither mate nor offspring, an enormous irony for a novel that in its early chapters is so eloquently sexual, so rich in bees and blossoms. Hurston has taken her woman through many stages in the life cycle--from dreaming adolescent to wife to widow. The youthful girl gazing at the pear tree has come to menopause, her own body never bearing fruit. Janie's return to the homeland coincides with the end of her fertility.
Hurston skillfully integrates the younger Janie's pear tree metaphor with the seed imagery of the last chapter. After Janie buries Tea Cake she finds a packet of seeds which she brings back to Eatonville and decides "to plant them for remembrance" (p. 158). In sharp contrast to the shivering pear (life in full growth), the seeds represent both maturity and potential. As the young Janie is Springtime, full of expectation and yet to be entered, so the mature Janie is Autumn; like Demeter and other fertility symbols, she remains committed to the earth and to the continuation of the life processes against the approaching cold. Through her discovery of the seeds on the day of Tea Cake's funeral, Janie once again encounters, as she did during the flood, the fusion of origins and endings, survival and death.
The seed-bearing woman whose narrative we overhear is the antithesis of Arvay Meserve, the menopausal wife of Hurston's last novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948). Arvay is white, dependent, terrified--everything that Janie is not. "Her job was mothering. What more could any woman want and need? No matter how much money they had or learning, or high family, they couldn't do a bit more mothering and hovering than she could." (20) Thus Arvay justifies her existence. Unlike Arvay, Janie judges herself as a member of the community rather than in the private sphere of being a homemaker and mother. Janie faces the autumn of her womb with confidence rather than with self-hatred.
In discussing the fact that only women among the primates have evolved the menopause, anthropologist Elaine Morgan states that only women "had acquired a method of further species survival that had nothing to do with their wombs. They could remember; they could think; and they could communicate their memories and their thoughts." (21) I find Morgan's comment of particular relevance to Janie Crawford, who is accepted by the community of women not for her wealth (she is wearing dungarees) but for her ability to communicate her experiences. In sharing her own story of selfhood and survival, she plants the seeds of remembrance in those who listen. Through her mythmaking Janie evolves to a higher stage of human possibility than had been previously attainable by women, either in the community of Eatonville or in the heroic tradition.
(1) Zora Neale Hurston, Jonah's Gourd Vine (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1934), p. 22.
(2) Hurston, Jonah's Gourd Vine, p. 157. Similar references to the strength of a woman's tongue are found in Mules and Men (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1935). For example, George Thomas says: "Don't you know you can't git de best of no woman in de talkin' game? Her tongue is all de weapon a woman got," p. 49. Jim Allen says: "When Bertha starts her jawin' Ah can't stay on de place. Her tongue is hung in de middle and works both ways," p. 127.
(3) Addison Gayle, The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America (Garden City: Anchor Press, 1975), pp. 142, 144.
(4) Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: Fawcett, 1969; orig. publ. J. B. Lippincott, 1937), p. 13. All subsequent references are in the text and refer to the Fawcett edition.
(5) Speechmaking in the Eatonville community is no idle pastime but a socially acceptable outlet for "insults," the venting of antagonism in a public forum, what in Mules and Men is called "de talkin' game." Because of her status, Janie is permitted no such release. I owe this observation to Marilyn Phillips of the University of Pennsylvania.
(6) June Jordan, "On Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston: Notes Toward a Balancing of Love and Hatred," Black World, 23, No. 10 (August, 1974), p. 6.
(7) Mary Helen Washington, "Introduction," I Love Myself When I Am Laughing ... (Old Westbury, New York: The Feminist Press, 1979), p. 16.
(8) There is no adequate terminology for discussing the heroic female in literature, no counterpart for the simple male term, hero. The word heroine has too many implications of weakness, the one sought after rather than seeking or questing. Some feminist critics have been using the term shero to identify the woman on a journey; this term, however, has been found offensive. For further discussion of this problem see my unpublished paper "Mary Tighe's Psyche: The Business of the Shero," presented at the Annual Convention of the Modern Language Association, 1977.
(9) Lorraine Bethel, "`This Infinity of Conscious Pain': Zora Neale Hurston and the Black Female Literary Tradition," in All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men: But Some of Us Are Brave, eds. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith (Old Westbury, New York: The Feminist Press, 1982), p. 180.
(10) See in particular Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana, Illinois: University of Illinois Press, 1977), pp. 236-40.
(11) S. Jay Walker, "Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God: Black Novel of Sexism," Modern Fiction Studies, 20 (Winter, 1974-75), pp. 523-26, 527.
(12) Robert Bone, "Zora Neale Hurston," in The Black Novelist, ed. Robert E. Hemenway (Columbus, Ohio: Charles E. Merrill Publishing Company, 1970), p. 61.
(13) Gayle, p. 146.
(14) Lloyd Brown, "Zora Neale Hurston and the Nature of Female Perception," Obsidian, 4:3 (1978), p. 45.
(15) Hurston, "Sweat," in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing ..., pp. 197-207. The above reference is on p. 207; all other citations are in the text.
(16) Hurston's Moses: Man of the Mountain (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1939), deals with the oppression of the Hebrews by the Egyptians. While there are some verbal conflicts between men and women (Moses and Miriam, Amram and Jochebed), this is a secondary theme in the novel, which is concerned primarily with the liberation of Blacks from slavery. Moses is about the survival of a race rather than about the survival of the female.
(17) Charles Darwin, Chapter XV., The Origin of Species, in Darwin: A Norton Critical Edition, ed. Philip Appleman (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 1970), p. 199.
(18) Elisabeth Mann Borgese, Ascent of Woman (New York: George Braziller, 1963).
(19) Stanley Edgar Hyman, The Tangled Bank (New York: Atheneum, 1962), pp. 34, 35.
(20) Hurston, Seraph on the Suwanee (New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1948), p. 310. Most critics agree that Arvay is Hurston's weakest woman character.
(21) Elaine Morgan, The Descent of Woman (New York: Stein and Day, 1972), p. 235.