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‘Tuh de Horizon and Back’: The Female Quest in Their Eyes Were Watching God
Black American Literature Forum Vol. 17, Issue 3. (1983): p109-115. Rpt. in
Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism. Ed. Lawrence J. Trudeau. Vol. 285. Detroit, MI: Gale. From Literature Resource Center.
Full Text: COPYRIGHT 2013 Gale, Cengage Learning
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[(essay date 1983) In the following essay, Kubitschek reconsiders the common critical claim that Their Eyes Were Watching God is more invested in personal relationships than political concerns, arguing that Janie emerges as a leader through the power of her storytelling and oratorical skills. By melding the personal quest narrative with the specifically African American “call-and-response” form, Kubitschek asserts, Hurston shows how individual development metamorphoses into community responsibility.]

The common critical portrait of Zora Neale Hurston is that of a romantic elitist separated from the day-to-day life of most of her black contemporaries. In the context of this picture, Their Eyes Were Watching God provides an emblem of Hurston’s withdrawal from political concerns in favor of personal relationships. Originating in Hurston’s abrasive personality and in the first readings of her work, this view has become the premise supporting—and reinforced by—sexist assumptions concerning Janie, her heroine of Their Eyes Were Watching God. These assumptions obscure Janie’s role as the heroine of a successful quest and reinforce the distortion of Hurston’s view of the black artist’s relationship to his or her community. In fact, Janie, always sufficiently knowledgeable of white culture to ensure her survival, discovers her own soul only through the art of storytelling, thus intimating the artist’s responsibility to, and dependence on, the larger community. Their Eyes Were Watching God does not portray the artist as an individual of superior sensitivity who comes equipped with a portable pedestal, but as a middle-aged, blue-jeaned woman talking with neighbors. Concentrating on the individual quest which secures the boon, the novel strongly implies communal enjoyment of, and benefit from, the quester’s prize.

The quest motif structures the entire novel: Janie twice leaves established social positions for a more adventurous life, descends into the underworld of the hurricane, faces a literal trial following Tea Cake’s death, and returns to Eatonville with her hard-won knowledge. Given this structure, the pervasive critical silence on the issue raises important questions concerning the biases conditioning discussion of Their Eyes [Their Eyes Were Watching God]. Of the numerous commentators, only Sherley Anne Williams and Robert Stepto treat Janie as a questing heroine or suggest her journey’s archetypal significance.1

Indeed, only very lately have critics allowed Janie to be the heroine of her own story, much less the successful quester returning with a boon for her community. Attacking the tradition of such limiting criticism as “intellectual lynching,” Mary Helen Washington has led the way in reasserting the centrality of Janie’s search for identity and her connections to her community.2

With these exceptions, the critical consensus condescends to and oversimplifies Hurston’s art and Janie’s experience. Darwin Turner’s portrait of Janie typifies this consensus: “All Janie wants is to love, to be loved, and to share the life of her man. But, like the witch in the Wife of Bath’s tale, she first must find a man wise enough to let her be whatever kind of woman she wants to be.”3 Turner’s statement, with its strong bias concerning the place of romantic love in the heroine’s life, carries on a venerable tradition of oversimplification of women authors. In tone and sensibility it resembles William Makepeace Thackeray’s discussion of Charlotte Brontë’s Villette: “… it amuses me to read the author’s naïve confession of being in love with 2 men at the same time; and her readiness to fall in love at any time. The poor little woman of genius! the fiery little eager brave tremulous home-faced creature! … rather than have fame, rather than any other earthly good or mayhap heavenly one she wants some Tomkins or another to love her and be in love with.”4 Although Turner does not in this passage follow his attack from character to author, the similarity of these two commentaries is striking and profoundly disturbing. Underestimating Hurston’s artistry, Turner addresses only Janie’s narration, overlooking the frame story of her continuing relationship with Eatonville and with Pheoby, which is central to the quest motif. Turner’s perceptions contain kernels of truth: Love does compose an essential element of Janie’s—and Hurston’s—vision. But neither that love nor that vision remains simple. Her guiding image of the pear tree in bloom bespeaks a more profound meaning for love than Turner’s passage implies.5 Sexuality does not simply bind Janie to an individual man. Human life and love develop within the cycle of the seasons, assuming not only domestic and social but also a natural and transcendent meaning. In fact, to attain this transcendence, Janie and Tea Cake must completely reconstruct their domestic roles. Their challenge of the whole social structure renders Turner’s focus on private, romantic love untenable. The novel’s very title, referring to human awe and loss of ego in the face of overwhelming power, directs us to a wider, archetypal focus.

Very few critics, however, recognize in Janie the independence and strength of the archetypal quester. Rather, they diminish her, denying her an independent sphere of action and being. James R. Giles, for example, sees other characters as representatives of contending forces but views Janie only as a passive prize: “The major underlying theme is contained in the contrast between those characters (Nannie [sic] and Jody, especially) who are so white-oriented that they measure time in a rational, materialistic way and those whose blackness is so intact that they view time emotionally and hedonistically (Tea-Cake [sic], primarily). It is for the dominance of Janie’s soul that they struggle; and Tea-Cake [sic], or black purity, wins.”6 Giles’ opposition between black and white systems is clearly accurate; his extension of the issue to time is at least tenable; and his last statement is indefensibly sexist. He reduces Janie to a counter, fought over and finally claimed by external forces. Far from remaining passive, Janie struggles with issues in order to bring her own life into harmony with her original vision of the pear tree. Only a manifestation of natural power, the hurricane, ever dominates Janie. Her soul remains triumphantly her own.

Even critics alert to sexism tend to subordinate Janie. S. Jay Walker’s “Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: Black Novel of Sexism” occasionally slips in ways which have far-reaching implications. Walker notes, for instance, that the novel “is something less than a primer of romanticized love. At one point, Tea Cake, jealous of a suspected rival, beats Janie; at another, Janie, having the same suspicion, beats Tea Cake.”7 By reversing the order of the events, probably unintentionally, Walker implies that Janie’s action is derivative of Tea Cake’s, supporting the tendency to see Tea Cake as a dominating force. Other less perceptive critics reveal the dangers inherent in this tendency when they present Tea Cake as the dominant male lover whom they see as central to Hurston’s vision.8

Perceiving Janie as a derivative personality, these critics remain blind to her courage in exploring uncharted psychic territory and communicating her discoveries to others. Having defined the heroine as incapable of sustaining a quest, they are forced to look to another character for true heroism. Marion Kilson demonstrates this redefinition in its clearest form: “A second recurrent theme in Hurston’s fiction was the purposeful, self-reliant, industrious, and courageous wanderer as an ideal male type. He appeared as Tea Cake in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Moses in Moses [Moses, Man of the Mountain], and Jim Meserve in Seraph on the Suwanee. Theoretically he was complemented by the ideal woman, his strong supportive spouse who could assume an independent and self-reliant role herself if the situation required it.”9 Tea Cake industrious? Janie a complement? Although Moses is named for its protagonist, Their Eyes is not named for Tea Cake, who enters halfway through the novel. Their Eyes Were Watching God focuses on Janie and her community, of which Tea Cake is only one important member. Detailing her quest for self-discovery and self-definition, it celebrates her as an artist who enriches Eatonville by communicating her understanding.

Janie attains this understanding by carrying out a successful quest, such as that defined by Joseph Campbell in The Hero with a Thousand Faces.10 Campbell delineates several components of the quest: answering the call to adventure, crossing the threshold into the unknown, facing various trials, finding the reward (either concrete or symbolic), and returning to the community. Campbell emphasizes the flexibility of this pattern, parts of which may be truncated or even absent to allow greater development of others. The first half of Their Eyes deals with Janie’s initial refusal to answer the call to adventure; the second details her trials; the all-but-overlooked and crucial frame story concerns her return to community and the resultant possiblity for communal as well as personal growth.

The call to adventure comes through Janie’s vision of the pear tree being pollinated by bees. In this vision, a real pear tree in Nanny’s yard acquires transcendent significance. When Janie perceives a bee penetrating a blossom of this tree, she vicariously experiences that sexuality and thinks “so this was a marriage!”11 This identification of marriage with total fulfillment, however, reflects her immature consciousness. Critics limiting their focus to romantic love fail to recognize that the mature Janie reimagines the tree in a way which deepens its resonance. The middle-aged Janie, preparing to tell her story to Pheoby, “saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches” (p. 20). Clearly, the tree symbolizes human life, and the seasonal change in the tree, which is now in leaf rather than in bloom, corresponds to Janie’s time of life. Her initial interpretation of the tree is essentially static, focused on the social institution of marriage. Her later, more sophisticated vision centers on the balance of opposites, “things done and undone” (perhaps even the union of opposites, since the singlar verb “was” indicates a singular subject in “dawn and doom”). Through her quest, Janie attempts to harmonize her daily life with her ideal image derived from the pear tree. When she returns to Eatonville and recounts her adventures to Pheoby, Janie senses no dissonance between her experience and her vision. But to achieve that fulfillment, she must struggle through many years when the image remains tantalizing but seemingly unrealizable.

This divorce of Janie’s life from her vision of fulfillment results from her inital refusal of the call to adventure. Her temporizing stems in part from the pressures exerted by her grandmother, pressures reinforced by her geographic and psychic isolation. Indeed, the responsiblity for her unfulfilling marriage, contracted when she is only sixteen, lies largely with these forces. Aware that Logan Killicks has nothing to do with the pear tree, she is led to believe, particularly by Nanny, that no matter who the marriage partner, a congruence between the image and the reality will develop gradually. Her hope of developing harmony between her marriage and the pear tree evaporates when Logan refuses to accept essential parts of her heritage, personality, and experience. As soon as she discovers that Logan “was accusing her of her mama, her grandmama and her feelings, and she couldn’t do anything about any of it” (p. 54), she jettisons her commitment to him and seeks adventure with Jody Starks.

At this point, however, Janie cannot conceptualize a true quest capable of uniting the quotidian and the transcendent. At the outset, she knows that Jody is not himself a part of the pear tree vision, that “… he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon” (p. 50). A short time later, however, she seeks to realize her vision by disguising the concrete reality which should embody it: “From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom” (p. 54). Janie no longer sees Jody as a vehicle but as the thing-in-itself. When she cannot sustain the fiction, she consciously decides to live in bad faith: “‘Maybe he ain’t nothin’, she cautioned herself, ‘but he is something in my mouth. He’s got tuh be else Ah ain’t got nothin’ tuh live for. Ah’ll lie and say he is. If Ah don’t, life won’t be nothin’ but uh store and uh house’” (pp. 118-19). Janie bears complete responsibility for her own unhappiness in this marriage. Given the natures of Janie and Jody, the marriage could never have succeeded. But Janie here temporizes as she did not when confronted with Logan’s intractability. Her failure of courage and imagination results in an insistence both public and private that the marriage is a success. The price of this bad faith is almost twenty years of spiritual hibernation, complete separation of concrete reality from the vision of the pear tree. She has temporarily refused the call to adventure in favor of a specious security.

As Nanny’s death freed Janie from her first entrapment, so Jody’s death frees her from her second retreat from the quest. Thereafter, Janie becomes an active agent in her own life; her acceptance of existential responsibility makes her truly, as opposed to nominally, free. Hurston underscores Janie’s rebirth by associating her reflections on her marriages with a creation myth:

She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market-place to sell. Been set for still-bait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.(pp. 138-39)
This irreverent, edited, and conflated variation of Paradise Lost and several Egyptian myths emphasizes both the mud and the shine. Previously Janie has been aware only of her shine. She must also accept the mud of the Everglades in order to realize fully her vision of the pear tree.

Before experiencing the community of the Everglades and Tea Cake’s love, Janie must cross the threshold, separating specious safety from the risk necessary to fulfillment. She refuses offers of marriage, recognizing that their offers of “protection” amount to no more than economic exploitation. Her life alone, while it has no connection with the pear tree, has few uncertainties. Accepting Tea Cake’s offer of companionship and love, on the other hand, carries tremendous risk. The community (represented by Hezekiah) warns Janie that Tea Cake will exploit her sexually and financially and then abandon her. Having internalized this concept, Janie nonetheless acts on her feeling with only Tea Cake’s verbal reassurance. She cannot have an advance guarantee of his intentions; only his actions can certify his sincerity.

These actions are not initially encouraging. In Jacksonville, Tea Cake borrows Janie’s money for a gambling stake without first consulting her. Alone for a day and a half with no word, Janie fears the fulfillment of the Eatonville prophecy that she will return home alone and broke. When Tea Cake returns and explains the reasons for his actions, and reaffirms his commitment to her, Janie fully accepts their relationship and its implicit call to adventure. She thus embarks on the quest to unify her life and its ideal image.

As part of this quest, Janie and Tea Cake undergo various trials and redefine their lives outside the usual social constructs. Their relationship rejects ordinary conceptions of dominant and subordinate sex roles. Tea Cake is Janie’s companion on her quest, not her master or mentor. In the Jacksonville incident, for example, she asserts her right to full participation in community activity after Tea Cake has excluded her from his party, fearing that the “refined” Janie will be revolted. Tea Cake’s action recalls Jody’s prohibitions against Janie’s participation in community affairs such as the wake for the mule or the storytelling sessions. Whereas Jody actively imposes a certain gentility on Janie, Tea Cake simply assumes its presence. As part of her determination to “‘utilize mahself all over’” (p. 169), she insists that she be allowed to stand, not on a pedestal, but on the ground. This exploration of new roles continues in the Everglades, where Janie develops traditionally masculine skills such as marksmanship. Clearly, the adjustment involves more than Janie’s expansion into previously male roles: Just as she works beside Tea Cake in the fields, he helps prepare supper. By abandoning traditional limitations, they approach the joyous harmony of Janie’s vision.

Their lives are not, however, simply a continuous celebration. As questing heroine, Janie must face trials with their origins in individuals, society, and natural forces, Janie’s first trial centers on Tea Cake and the possibility of personal betrayal. She insists that Tea Cake admit this possibility when she discovers him wrestling with Nunkie, obviously responding on some level to a sexual invitation. Significantly, Janie is so angry that she strikes Tea Cake, indicating her rejection of her earlier passivity. Previously, Janie has accepted blows from Nanny and Jody without physical reply. Here, rather than accepting an imposed will, she forces a confrontation on her own terms. (Later she will accept Tea Cake’s right to express his anxieties over Mrs. Turner’s brother in the same way.) Following this trial, she accepts Tea Cake’s reaffirmation of his love, and there are no more wrestling matches. Nevertheless, she has learned that any real commitment must risk betrayal.

Janie has more preparation for the social trial represented by Mrs. Turner, a light-skinned black woman who idolizes white culture. Janie very early accepts her blackness (though she at first resists it when she sees a picture of herself with white children) and later rejects Nanny and Jody’s unsatisfying white system. Not personally threatened by Mrs. Turner’s self-hatred and racism, Janie fails at first to understand the depth of that threat to Tea Cake and the rest of the black community. She tolerates Mrs. Turner’s presence even when Mrs. Turner criticizes Tea Cake and offers her light brother as a more socially desirable spouse. Janie limits her reproofs to mild hints and rudenesses which Mrs. Turner can rationalize as the prerogative of Janie’s lighter skin. Still, Janie does not fail this trial, for she accepts Tea Cake’s anger and does not interfere with the community’s violent annihilation of this threat to its integrity.

The hurricane, a trial generated by nature, threatens physical survival just as individual and social betrayals threaten psychic survival. Those caught in the hurricane shed their social roles: “The time was past for asking the white folks what to look for through that door. Six eyes were questioning God” (p. 235). Under these circumstances, attempts to react to or protect another endanger oneself. When Janie tries to secure a shingle to shelter Tea Cake, it acts as a sail, and the hurricane blows her into the water; when Tea Cake sees her drowning, he rescues her at the cost of the fatal dog bite. An elemental and divine force, the hurricane reduces the personality to its essential, forces a confrontation with physical limits. If the celebratory life on the Everglades is the “dawn” in the branches of Janie’s pear-tree vision, then the hurricane is certainly part of the “doom.” Up to this point, Janie has not had to contemplate the death of anyone dear to her, much less her own mortality.

The experience of the hurricane not only creates the physical circumstances leading to Tea Cake’s death, it raises the metaphysical issues involved in humanity’s complex relationships with nature and death. Janie has recognized fate’s power during Jody’s illness, but while she pities him, she has much more emotional investment in Tea Cake, whose madness and death try her strength severely. Janie ultimately accepts memory as a means of transcending death, which she perceives as a part of the natural cycle. At the same time, she expresses an immediate grief and longing which that acceptance cannot obliterate: “No hour is ever eternity, but it has its right to weep” (p. 273). Transcendent vision must expand rather than deny the concrete reality if an individual is to live the integrated life which is the reward of the successful questing heroine.

Janie’s reward is full participation in a process of community expression and construction, a process from which Nanny and Jody had previously isolated her. As Jody’s wife, Janie can participate only in extremely circumscribed ways. She first feels an unpleasant restriction when Jody refuses to let her respond to an invitation to speak on their first night in Eatonville. Jody enforces this denial of Janie’s voice by forbidding her to take part in either the storytelling activities of Eatonville or its “low-life” communal celebrations. Janie disguises her only public rebellion as praise of Jody. Even then, Janie’s remark that “‘You got uh town so you freed uh mule’” (p. 92) passes without notice of its irony.

Her participation in the Everglades community contrasts dynamically with this restricted relationship to Eatonville, just as her partnership with Tea Cake contrasts with her subordination to Jody. Janie listens to lying contests and stories in Belle Glade, just as she did in Eatonville, but she begins to create and tell stories herself and, through practice, becomes good at it. These storytelling sessions are crucial to community unity and self-definition, since they generate and develop communal tradition. Participation in this process is also crucial for the individual’s self-definition, since communal traditions define available roles. Janie’s previous passivity, enforced by Jody and by her own avoidance of a confrontation with him, locks her into a fixed role: Her active participation in the storytelling on the Glades exemplifies Hurston’s vision of the relationship between communal and individual definition.

Robert Hemenway succinctly describes Hurston’s attitude toward this creative process: “Hurston alone, among all the artists of the Harlem Renaissance, understood this principle of folk process. Folk tradition is not just a body of texts, melodies, and beliefs. … Folk tradition involves behavior—performed interpretations of the world which influence action—and it does not easily transfer to a print-oriented tradition. … There is not separation of subject and object, of mind and material in folk tradition. What appears from afar as material for the creative artist is simply behavior for the tale-teller, an activity as natural as thinking; traditional art is perpetuated without self-consciousness.”12 Hurston shows Janie’s artistic temperament, previously limited to private and escapist images of the pear tree, now expressing itself in communal creation, integrating her concrete experience and her transcendent vision.

This integration, because it does not rest on denial of reality, actually encourages concrete changes. Janie and Tea Cake effect a substantial change in the community’s definition of itself: “Since Tea Cake and Janie had friended with the Bahaman workers in the ’Glades, they, the ‘Saws,’ had been gradually drawn into the American crowd. They quit hiding out to hold their dances when they found that their American friends didn’t laugh at them as they feared. Many of the Americans learned to jump and liked it as much as the ‘Saws’” (p. 228). Thus, the original community of Americans expands to include the Bahamans. Rather than demanding assimilation, it accepts and adopts the Bahamans’ characteristic artistic expression.

For Janie, full participation in the life of her community must include observing, experiencing, and expressing violence. Earlier, Janie has been distanced from all but nominal violence. Nanny’s desire to protect Janie from the violence which destroyed her mother motivates her insistence on the marriage to Logan. Later, Janie’s position as Mrs. Mayor Starks insulates her from physical violence—except from Jody’s hand. As an extension of emotional intensity, physical violence is a necessary component of Janie’s desire to experience truly and fully: Nature contains both the pear tree and the hurricane; communities have both celebrations and brawls; individuals have both compassion and more violent feelings. Despite attempts to distance her, violent feelings play a pervasive role in shaping Janie’s experience. Violence twice precipitates a change in her life: Nanny’s slaps help persuade Janie to marry Logan; Jody’s slaps encourage her to separate her internal and external lives in order to survive. Janie reacts to this violence by some manner of accommodation; it does not occur to her to defend herself physically. Significantly, Janie battles Jody according to his own rules, so that her single victory is verbal. Janie’s reaction to the cruel pursuit of the mule is in one sense a reaction to her own plight, for Nanny has identified the black woman as the mule of the world (p. 29), and Janie protectively feels that “people ought to have some regard for helpless things” (p. 90). By the time that she and Tea Cake arrive in the Everglades, Janie no longer wants compassion or protection from violence. Admitting the depth and intensity of her feelings, she is willing to use physical violence to combat the threat of Nunkie. Similarly she accepts Tea Cake’s violent protest over Mrs. Turner’s brother without flinching, for these are not, like the earlier experiences, examples of violence used to enforce an action or behavior, but violence used to make another person aware.

Having experienced and accepted individual violence, Janie learns the potential of communal violence for self-defense. The possibility of violence in Belle Glade forces the police chief to allow the community its own forms of celebration on pay day: “Not enough jail-space for all the drunks so why bother with a few? All he could do to keep down fights and get the white men out of colored town by nine o’clock” (p. 221). This potential violence can become actual if necessary. When her family fails to control Mrs. Turner’s potentially disruptive attitudes, for instance, the community expels them by an organized brawl in the business establishment. The very nature of Mrs. Turner’s prejudices makes her impervious to milder warnings—only violence can protect the community. Janie protects herself in an analogous manner when she kills Tea Cake. Maddened by rabies, Tea Cake attacks Janie, intending to kill her. Since his disease destroys any possible awareness, Janie has no choice other than physical violence. Having experienced the violence in herself, in nature, and in the community, Janie returns to Eatonville to relate her story, fulfilling her function as revelatory artist.

The return of the questing hero to the original community is fraught with difficulties. Indeed, the inability of the hero to reintegrate self and community has been defined as characteristic of the American quest.13 Janie’s attitude toward Eatonville on her return cannot easily be summed up; it says yes and says no in ways that reflect Hurston’s ambivalence toward racial and communal definitions of her identity. On the one hand, Hurston resented her white patron’s attempts to control her work as a folklorist and artist, and she insisted on the value of black art as represented in the folktales and spirituals. On the other hand, she resisted racial definitions of self, which she felt rested on stereotypes of victimized blacks, and thus infuriated those like Arna Bontemps, Richard Wright, and Alain Locke, who felt that her books simply ignored basic facts of Afro-American life. Janie shares both Hurston’s aggressive desire to be free of social categorization and her contempt for the less adventurous; simply identifying Hurston’s views with Janie’s oversimplifies the novel, however. Hurston provides Janie with a suitable lover whom she herself never found, and Janie finds a genuine community (in Belle Glade) which Hurston never experienced, at least as an adult.

Even for the fictional character, full participation in a true community cannot make life idyllic, of course. Nevertheless, Janie values Belle Glade sufficiently to forgive its betrayal of her. When Janie stands trial for killing Tea Cake, the black community judges her guilty of murder, tries to testify against her, and objects to the white jurors’ decision to acquit her.14 But Janie’s grief for Tea Cake crowds out any resentment. In addition, as a real part of the community, Janie is able to fathom its motives and understands that it is acting from grief rather than malice. She forgives the ringleaders, who then participate in the funeral procession. To assure the community that she has forgiven it, she consents to remain in the Everglades for a few more weeks.

Janie is more aloof on her first evening back in Eatonville. Seemingly uninterested in participating fully in the Eatonville community, she expresses her ambivalences clearly to Pheoby:

“Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ’em nothin’, Pheoby. ’Tain’t worth de trouble. You can tell ’em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf.”
“If you so desire Ah’ll tell ’em what you tell me to tell ’em.”
“To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothin’ about.”(p. 17)
Although Janie here denies interest in communicating with the rest of the community, she accepts Pheoby as her mouthpiece. Shortly thereafter, she describes both her potential audience and herself without such bitterness: “‘If they wants to see and know, why don’t they come kiss and be kissed?’” (Later she describes her relationship with Pheoby as one between “kissin’-friends.”) She continues: “‘Ah could then sit down and tell ’em things. Ah been a delegate to de big ’ssociation of life. Yessuh! De Grand Lodge, de big convention of livin’ is just where Ah been dis year and a half y’all ain’t seen me’” (p. 18). Janie’s aloofness on returning to Eatonville reflects her recognition that it, like Belle Glade, must be allowed to judge the unfamiliar before it can hear the truth and revise the judgment. Having experienced adventures beyond the common ken of Eatonville, Janie is eager to speak, “full of that oldest human longing, self-revelation” (p. 18). The town’s earlier willingness to hear Janie speak indicated that she will before long have an audience of more than Pheoby. The immediate effect upon Pheoby is that traditionally desired by returned questers, the expansion of consciousness represented by her statement that “‘Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie. Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo’” (p. 284). Janie cautions against simple-minded attempts to duplicate in detail her own adventures: “… Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there” (p. 285). Having been “‘tuh de horizon and back’” (p. 284), she realizes the personal nature of the quest.

Though Walker and Stepto have commented on Janie’s return to Eatonville no critic has yet explored her return to that particular community and her function as provocative storyteller.15 Why does she return at all, given that, despite her grief for Tea Cake, she has a community in Belle Glade? Why does she not return to the community where she had lived with Nanny and Logan? The answers lie in the relationships between white and black values in these three communities, answers which address Addison Gayle’s political attack on Their Eyes. Gayle writes:

After returning to the town from which her search for freedom began, she [Janie] remains an outsider and yet is not able to continue her rebellion beyond the immediate present. Like Teacake [sic], she, too, is dead to the realities of the world in which she lives. For though the white world remains more symbol than actuality for her, it is in actuality that it is oppressive. Thus, the questioning, restless spirit which led her to rebellion against the tradition that circumscribes her, due to race and sex, must lead her to challenge the equally restrictive patterns that deny physical freedom. This was the task of writers more talented and more angry than Miss Hurston …16
In fact, Janie’s exploration has secured her physical and spiritual freedom, and her subsequent daily life in Eatonville serves as a liberating example.

Each community in the novel—that of Nanny, Eatonville, and Belle Glade—contains a black character or a group of black characters who have internalized white values. Hurston judges these characters in relation to their reasons for allowing themselves to be co-opted and their effects on Janie. Nanny, the most sympathetic, adopts white values to ensure the survival of her granddaughter; her effect on Janie testifies to the lasting effect of slavery. Jody and Mrs. Turner enslave themselves and are judged more harshly. Though she threatens Tea Cake, Mrs. Turner is finally pitiable because her esteem for white skin forces her to reject part of herself. Jody never suffers as the others do, and he refuses to confront the suffering that he causes (even Nanny listens to Janie’s complaints). Two of these representatives of white values attain no noteworthy status: Nanny dies without having achieved outstanding economic or social success, and Mrs. Turner is driven out. The greater power of the analogous character in Eatonville, however, is never directly challenged. Any diminution of Jody’s control stems from Janie’s public insult to his virility, rather than from a refusal of his values. Furthermore, Janie, like Nanny and Mrs. Turner, has promoted white values, albeit more passively. By allowing Jody to control her, to place her on the pedestal without public protest, she has encouraged those like Pheoby to envy and emulate her. Gayle notwithstanding, Janie can and does continue her rebellion beyond the immediate present. She must exorcise her own earlier influence through storytelling and expiating example, through full participation in her community. Leaving in silk and returning in overalls is the first step; telling Pheoby her story, the second; living in her community, the third. Janie will continue to speak and act as a black woman artist in Eatonville, a position which places her in a unique position in regard to the Afro-American literary tradition.

In From Behind the Veil, Robert Stepto calls Their Eyes Were Watching God “quite likely the only truly coherent narrative of both ascent and immersion.”17 Stepto’s term “narrative of ascent” refers to a story in which the hero moves from a symbolic South of slavery to a less constraining symbolic North, attaining a literacy which refers to knowledge of the white-dominated society as well as reading and writing. The hero thus becomes an “articulate survivor” who pays for his/her triumph by becoming isolated from his/her original community. The “narrative of immersion,” on the other hand, focuses on an “articulate kinsman” who moves from a symbolic North to a symbolic South, attaining “tribal literacy” and reintegration with the original community.

Certainly Stepto is right in seeing both types of narrative in Their Eyes. Janie begins articulate; her playmates nickname her “Alphabet,” and growing up in the white folks’ yard assures her literacy. Still, the nickname comes into existence because “‘… so many people had done named me different names’” (p. 21), and Janie doesn’t realize that she’s black until she sees a photograph of herself and her friends. Janie feels the isolation of the articulate survivor when she describes Nanny’s philosophy and her own compliance with it: “‘She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me—don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere’” (p. 172). Her ascent (what Hemenway calls Hurston’s “vertical metaphor”) alienates her from her communal roots and delays her response to the call to adventure. Janie discovers her real self only through immersion in the community of the Everglades, where she completes the patterns of ascent and immersion. By emphasizing the frame story and the pattern of the quest, Hurston extends the narrative pattern to include the effects of the heroine’s ascent and immersion on the community. Janie becomes an articulate kinsman; she influences her first audience (Pheoby) and has reason to anticipate an expanded audience and extended effects for her art.

Their Eyes Were Watching God, then, intimates a third narrative, this time of group ascent.18 Group ascent would involve a community’s growth to literacy and awareness of the modes of expression in surrounding white culture; its result, a literate community, would lessen or abolish the isolation of the individual articulate survivor. Although Jody’s idea of establishing a post office in all-black Eatonville has the potential to aid in a group ascent, he can never successfully lead or join such a movement. Jody establishes a division between himself and the group—hence his emphasis on behavior appropriate for Mrs. Mayor Starks. Almost aspiring to the alienation which plagues Stepto’s articulate survivor, the authoritarian Jody can never join, he can only command. The community accepts his material innovations, but, significantly, his assertion of superiority creates the isolation which makes his death so painful. With his position resting on the imposition of his “progressive” ideas rather than on a consensus reached through many individual contributions, Jody remains a superior rather than a leader among equals.

Amiri Baraka has described the tradition of leadership in the Afro-American community in terms of a call-and-response pattern, analogous to that of work songs composed during slavery.19 In this pattern, a leader’s call invites a popular response, which then alters or becomes the next call so that the leading voice always reflects both individual and community. Jody’s call will never find a response because of his implicit elitism, which the community recognizes immediately on his arrival in Eatonville:


Ain’t got no Mayor! Well, who tells y’all what do do?


Nobody. Everybody’s grown.
(p. 57)

Jody’s patriarchal, child-adult or superior-inferior system finds only limited acceptance because it seeks obedience, not contributions.

Janie’s storytelling experiences in Belle Glade testify to her potential to issue calls worthy of response and to incorporate those responses in her next call. Eatonville’s intuition of her ability results in its invitation to speak during her first evening there (an invitation which Jody quashes); this communal recognition is explicitly established when, in response to her comments on the mule, a bystander comments, “‘Yo’ wife is uh born orator, Starks. Us never knowed dat befo’. She put jus’ de right words tuh our thoughts’” (p. 92, emphasis added). Janie has talent, experience, flexibility, and communal acceptance. Her participation in storytelling belongs to the Afro-American pattern of call-and-response; her narration of her own story functions as a call to adventure for other questers. Through Janie, Hurston merges the quest pattern with the Afro-American call-and-response to form a new experience, a group quest or ascent. Their Eyes Were Watching God intimates an Eatonville with Janie and a whole group of Pheobys growing “ten feet tall,” traveling in company “tuh de horizon and back,” ever constructing and renewing both individual and community.


1. See Sherley Anne Williams, Introduction, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1978); and Robert Stepto, From Behind the Veil (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1979).

2. Mary Helen Washington, Introduction, in I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, ed. Alice Walker (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1979). Washington’s remarks introduce an anthology of Hurston’s works and are thus intended to initiate rather than to develop discussion. Three other articles focusing on Janie’s importance also point out new directions of analysis: Lorraine Bethel’s “‘This Infinity of Conscious Pain’: Zora Neale Hurston and the Black Female Literary Tradition,” in But Some of Us Are Brave, ed. Gloria T. Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith (Old Westbury, NY: Feminist Press, 1982), pp. 176-88, presents Janie as a woman-identified spokesperson for black female experience; Wendy J. McCredie’s “Authority and Authorization in Their Eyes Were Watching God,Black American Literature Forum, 16 (1982), 25-28, examines Janie’s growing independence by focusing on her increasingly articulate and self-expressive voice; and Erlene Stetson’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Woman’s Story,” Regionalism and the Female Imagination,” 4 (1979), 30-36, analyzes Janie as a break with the stereotype of the tragic mulatto.

3. In a Minor Chord (Carbondale: Southern Illinois Univ. Press, 1971), p. 109.

4. “To Lucy Baxter, 11 March 1853,” in The Letters and Private Papers of William Makepeace Thackeray, ed. Gordon Ray, 3 (Cambridge, MA: Harvard Univ. Press, 1946), 232.

5. For an incisive discussion of the significance of Janie’s vision of the pear tree, see Robert Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1977), pp. 233-35. Annis Pratt, with Barbara White, Andrea Loewenstein, and Mary Wyer, in Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction (Bloomington: Indiana Univ. Press, 1981), suggests the frequent identification of women authors’ heroines with a sustaining “green world” of nature. Despite Janie’s terror in the hurricane, which might be seen simply as a deepening of the heroine’s relationship with nature, Janie supplies another excellent example of this connection.

6. “The Significance of Time in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,Negro American Literature Forum, 6 (1972), 60.

7. Modern Fiction Studies, 20 (1974-75), 521.

8. See, for example, Ann L. Rayson, “The Novels of Zora Neale Hurston,” Studies in Black Literature, 5 (Winter 1974), 1-11.

9. The Transformation of Eatonville’s Ethnographer,” Phylon, 33 (1972), 115.

10. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton Univ. Press, 1949).

11. Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1978), p. 24. All further quotations will come from this edition and will be placed in the text.

12. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography, pp. 80-81.

13. See Richard Chase, The American Novel and Its Tradition (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1957); Richard Poirier, A World Elsewhere: The Place of Style in American Literature (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 1966); and Leslie Fiedler, Love and Death in the American Novel (New York: Criterion, 1960).

14. In her examination of this incident as a microcosm of Janie’s relationship with her community, Stetson concludes that Christianity supplies Janie with the comfort which the community has denied her. This view seems to me to overemphasize one episode of a continually developing and dynamic process of self- and communal definition.

15. Marie Tai Wolff’s article “Listening and Living: Reading and Experience in Their Eyes Were Watching God,Black American Literature Forum, 16 (1982), 29-33, indicates an active interplay between audience and storyteller; it concentrates on the interactions between Janie and the reader, however, rather than those between Janie and her Eatonville audience.

16. The Way of the New World (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975), pp. 147-48.

17. Stepto, p. 164.

18. The first suggestion of this category and the terminology for describing it (though not its application to Hurston) came from a 1982 Black Studies class at the University of Mississippi.

19. LeRoi Jones, Blues People: Negro Music in White America (New York: Morrow, 1963). Lorraine Bethel mentions in passing that Janie “reflects the Black female blues aesthetic.”

Source Citation   (MLA 8th Edition)
Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. "‘Tuh de Horizon and Back’: The Female Quest in Their Eyes Were Watching God." Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, edited by Lawrence J. Trudeau, vol. 285, Gale, 2013. Literature Resource Center, Accessed 16 Oct. 2019. Originally published in Black American Literature Forum, vol. 17, no. 3, 1983, pp. 109-115.

Gale Document Number: GALE|H1420115481