[(essay date 1996) In the following essay, Meisenhelder presents suggestions for reading and teaching Their Eyes Were Watching God in the context of ethnic and gender studies. She lays out the novel’s major themes, outlines potential approaches to teaching it, and provides a bibliography and a list of possible discussion questions.]
A. Analysis of Themes and Forms
In this story of a black woman’s search for identity, the main character, Janie, suffers through two unfulfilling marriages to oppressive, materialistic men, who “squinch” her spirit until she meets Tea Cake, a carefree, funloving bluesman who encourages her independence and self-expression. Janie leaves behind her “respectable,” economically secure life to go with Tea Cake to the Everglades where they enjoy life to the fullest until a hurricane strikes. After this disaster, Janie returns home, comforted by her memories and sustained by the spirit of affirmation with which, despite tragic events, she faces life.
A major theme Hurston develops in the novel (and one characteristic of much of her work) is a celebration of black folklife. In the section of the novel that takes place in the Everglades (on the “Muck”), she depicts a kind of black Eden—a world of equality, exuberance, and vitality drawn in sharp contrast to the materialism and dehumanization many black writers have seen in the dominant, white world. In this respect, the novel is written in the spirit of black cultural affirmation characterizing the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and early 1930s. Like such writers as Langston Hughes and Claude McKay, Hurston was often critical of middle-class blacks (who, she felt, imitated whites) and much more interested in the life of the black person “farthest down.” In the lives of rural, uneducated blacks Hurston found not only a rich cultural tradition of folklore and music, but a set of values opposed to (and in her mind, superior to) those of the dominant culture. Responding to Hurston’s treatment of this theme, Alice Walker has praised the novel for its “racial health; [the] sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings” (85).
While earlier readers of Hurston’s work focused on racial and cultural issues, contemporary critics have investigated the importance of gender in the novel. Janie’s search for identity, in fact, involves struggling with her place as black and female. Hurston highlights the racial component of Janie’s quest, for instance, by detailing the negative effects that growing up in the backyard of whites has had on Janie’s sense of self. She has been given so many names by others that she is finally called Alphabet (9), an indication of her fragmented identity reinforced by the fact that she does not see herself as black and cannot even recognize herself in a photograph. As Janie grows into young womanhood, however, the issue of identity—what it means to be black and a woman—becomes even more complex.
Janie’s grandmother (a more sympathetic character for the reader perhaps than for Janie) offers her one vision of the black female self. Nanny’s belief that “‘de white man is de ruler of everything’” leads her to think of society as a multilayered hierarchy involving both race and sex: “‘… de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule of de world as fur as I can see’” (14). Drawing this model of black female identity from her own experience with the harshest forms of racial and sexual oppression (slavery and rape), Nanny dreams of marriage and economic security for Janie. Fearing that Janie may be a mule or a “spit-cup” for men, she seeks protection for her by marrying her off to a well-to-do older man. As that marriage graphically demonstrates, the price is high, for Janie is forced to sacrifice love. In more complex ways, Janie’s first two marriages highlight the limitations of Nanny’s analysis by revealing the ways in which women can be spit-cups and mules with male protection.
Janie has another vision of female possibility, imaged in her experience under the pear tree (10-11). On one level an obvious metaphor for sexual relationships, the passage is a powerful contrast to Nanny’s spit-cup and mule metaphors with their suggestions of rape and female dehumanization. This metaphor for sexuality, on the contrary, is one free of domination and divisions into active and passive: there is no suggestion of rapacious violence on the part of the (male) bee or of passive victimization on the part of the “sister-calyxes [who] arch to meet the love embrace.” The relationship imaged here, one between active equals, is not only one of delight, but as the metaphor of pollination implies, one of creativity. This passage is a key one in the novel: not only will Janie, in the search for a “bee for her blossom,” measure her relationships against this ideal; but Hurston will associate nearly every black character in the novel with tree imagery to suggest their psychic wholeness or mutilation. Ultimately, the image becomes the novel’s ideal for human interaction (sexual, interpersonal, or more broadly social), a model of relationships without hierarchy or domination.
Joe Starks is clearly no “bee” in his relationship with Janie or with the black community. While his role as oppressor is often obvious, much more subtle is Hurston’s analysis of the source of his identity. Numerous details, from his white house (an imitation plantation one) to his fancy spittoon, suggest that he draws his model from a white world. He interacts with the townspeople like a slaveowner, talking like a “section foreman” (33) with “bow-down command” (44) in his face. Starks recreates power dynamics of the most oppressive sort in the town, a fact recognized by the residents themselves, who, when forced by Starks to dig ditches, “murmured hotly about slavery being over” (44). He sees himself as God (his most frequent exclamation is, in fact, “I god”) and acts the part, even bringing light to the community in a parody of Genesis when he installs the first lightpost.
Despite his superficially solicitous behavior, Starks’s treatment of Janie is equally oppressive. He puts Janie on a pedestal, above other black women in the community but decidedly beneath himself. This marriage graphically demonstrates the limitations of Nanny’s mule metaphor: merely removing white faces from the social hierarchy changes nothing for Janie, for she is still oppressed by the man above her. Ironically, Janie lives a life with Joe that Nanny worked so hard to avoid for her, enduring what Nanny feared despite having attained the economic circumstances she desired. Hurston emphasizes this shortcoming of Nanny’s strategy for black women by having Janie symbolically associated with the situations that Nanny most feared. Race and gender intersect in complex ways, for instance, when Joe demands that Janie bind her hair in a “head-rag” (86), an artifact of the slavery period. Despite her husband’s wealth, Janie becomes a spiritual slave in this marriage, a sexual object owned and controlled by her master.
In terms of both racial and gender identity, Tea Cake is portrayed as Starks’s antithesis. His feminized nickname promises a “sweeter,” gentler kind of masculinity than that suggested by Starks’s name. Unlike Starks, who draws his models from a white world, Tea Cake is emphatically black, a man who not only revels in his own cultural traditions but also rejects the hierarchy and crass materialism characterizing Starks’s whitewashed world. Also rejecting hierarchy based on sex, he becomes “a bee to Janie’s blossom,” encouraging Janie to express herself and to experience life more fully. Janie must step down from her pedestal to enter a relationship with Tea Cake, but she steps into one built on reciprocity rather than hierarchy. In teaching Janie to play checkers, to shoot, and to drive, and in inviting her to work alongside of him, Tea Cake breaks down the rigid gender definitions that Joe sought to impose.
In the section on the Muck, Hurston projects this model of ideal relationships onto a larger plane. With the status differences and white values that Starks sought to reinforce absent on the Muck, artificial hierarchical divisions evaporate: Janie is just another person rather than Mrs. Mayor, and the West Indians, instead of being ostracized, are accepted as equals in the community. The hierarchies of Nanny’s metaphor are also foreign to this community. With no white man present to toss his load to the black man, black men do not toss theirs on to black women. When Janie goes to work in the fields with Tea Cake, it is not because Tea Cake sees her as a mule but because he wants to be with her. Freely chosen, work for Janie becomes an expression of her equality and vitality rather than her oppression. She and Tea Cake “partake with everything,” sharing in both paid labor and domestic work. With Janie and Tea Cake as the Adam and Eve at the center of this garden, the spirit of their relationship is mirrored in the community. The center of this world is not the commercial enterprise of Joe’s store, but Janie and Tea Cake’s house, the cultural heart of the community where everyone enjoys the guitar-playing and storytelling. Janie is not merely an outside observer, as she had been with Joe, but an active participant and speaker (127-28). In this section, Janie develops both a rich ethnic identity and a vigorous female one.
The exception to the racial health in the community (in fact, the serpent in this Eden) is Mrs. Turner, a woman who, as suggested in her name, rejects her own blackness. Like Starks, she wants to “class off” (135), to elevate herself above other blacks. Cut off from the rich cultural life of the community in her desire to be white, she is depicted as racially and sexually insipid, a pale contrast to the vital people around her.
From this point, critics adopt two different interpretations of the novel. For some, Tea Cake’s death is a tragic end to this love story; these critics argue that the last few pages of the novel, filled with Janie’s memories of Tea Cake, confirm him as an ideal. Other critics see important changes in Tea Cake while he and Janie are on the Muck and, often, a quite different significance in his death.
Critical to this latter view of Tea Cake is the beating he gives Janie as a result of his unfounded fear that she will be attracted to Mrs. Turner’s brother. Clearly, it is not the violence of Tea Cake’s act that Hurston pinpoints as problematic, but his motives. Hurston emphasizes this fact in the contrast between Tea Cake’s beating of Janie and their earlier fight over Nunkie. When Janie feels jealous of Nunkie, she is more than ready to tackle Tea Cake in an honest expression of her passion: “Janie never thought at all. She just acted on feelings” (131). Tea Cake’s violence toward Janie has both a very different motivation and a very different effect. His action is not a spontaneous expression of strong feeling, but a premeditated “brainstorm” (140). Fundamentally manipulative and coercive, the beating is calculated to assert domination over Janie, to demonstrate it to Mrs. Turner and to other men. In subtle ways, Tea Cake’s behavior toward Janie changes from this point on, echoing the falsely solicitous actions of Starks. To assert the power of his masculinity by reassuring himself of Janie’s passive femininity, he “would not let her go with him to the field. He wanted her to get her rest” (146). When the storm strikes, he not only ignores Janie’s warnings but expresses a disconcerting acceptance of white superiority and the racial denigration of Indians (148).
Some critics see Tea Cake’s illness as symbolic of changes in his attitude toward Janie. While his behavior is obviously explainable as the result of his disease, careful examination of details shows a sharp contrast to his earlier behavior toward Janie. He begins, for instance, to speak to her as Starks had, even complaining about her housework (166-67). Some critics argue that Tea Cake now poses such a threat to Janie’s new-found female identity (symbolized in his delirious attempt to kill her) that Janie’s act must be viewed as spiritual, as well as physical, self-defense. Alice Walker, who was perhaps the first to see Janie’s shooting of Tea Cake as a blow for her freedom, argues that Tea Cake’s beating of Janie is “the reason Hurston permits Janie to kill Tea Cake” (305). Even critics who see problems with Tea Cake’s character toward the end of the novel split on the question of whether Janie achieves complete liberation: some say yes, viewing Janie’s attitudes at the end of the novel as evidence of a positive identity (whatever Tea Cake’s faults); some offer a more qualified view, suggesting that Janie’s dream of Tea Cake at the end demonstrates a denial of reality, but her own spiritual strength nonetheless; and some say no, analyzing the god and idol imagery running throughout the novel to conclude that Janie has created yet another false idol in her memory of Tea Cake, just as she had with Jody.
B. Teaching the Work
I think it’s important to begin class discussion of this novel with some biographical material on Hurston’s life. Hemenway’s biography and Hurston’s own Dust Tracks on a Road are helpful here. (Even though critics tend to agree that Hurston is, in many ways, an unreliable narrator in her autobiography, it at least provides insight into the persona that Hurston wanted to present to her contemporaries.) Born into the security of an all-black town in Florida as the daughter of a minister father and a spunky mother who urged her to “jump at the sun,” Hurston found herself alone and unsupported when her mother died while Zora was still a child. By her own account, she was only able to continue her education through a combination of sheer willpower and help from assorted (often white) benefactors and patrons. She was able to finish college and to study anthropology under the direction of Franz Boas. Despite the fact that she never earned a Ph.D., Hurston did extensive fieldwork in anthropology, both in the South and in the Caribbean, publishing two book-length studies of black folkways, Mules and Men and Tell My Horse. In addition to Their Eyes Were Watching God, she published several other novels, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Moses, Man of the Mountain, and Seraph on the Suwanee, as well as an autobiography and numerous stories and articles. While she was well known during the Harlem Renaissance period, she was never able to make a decent living from her writing and died in obscurity and poverty in 1960. Alice Walker has been a major force in bringing Hurston back into popularity (see bibliography), and Hurston is now recognized by many contemporary black women writers as an important foremother.
Even though Hurston highlights both race and gender in Their Eyes Were Watching God, students (especially white students, but not exclusively) tend to highlight gender. They will quickly notice, for instance, that Starks is a chauvinist and Tea Cake is not, but they will need more prodding to see the complicated way in which Hurston comments on the racial identity as well as the masculine identity of both men. With the character of Starks, for instance, instructors may need to direct students to Hurston’s many symbolic references to Starks’s “whiteness.” My students also sometimes overlook the way in which Hurston draws parallels between his oppression of Janie and of the town. While students often accept Starks’s view of himself as a “leader” and “developer” of the community, Hurston repeatedly suggests a more sinister motive for his actions, namely a desire to control the town as he has seen white men do elsewhere. For him, the development of the community is not a cultural endeavor, but merely a commercial venture, one from which he will reap the profits. As one resident’s bitter comment—“‘All he got he done made it offa de rest of us’” (46)—suggests, Starks exploits the community as fully as he does Janie.
Another issue that often arises in discussing Starks is the manner in which Janie frees herself from him. After having been humiliated by him, she (in uncharacteristically blunt language) responds: “‘You big-bellies round her and put out a lot of brag, but ’tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big voice. Humph! Talkin’ ‘bout me looking old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life” (75). Some students (and at least one critic) feel that Janie’s emasculating comment here is unnecessarily cruel; in discussing this section, it helps to point out that Joe has humiliated Janie in a similarly sexual and explicit way (74).
The issue of how to evaluate Tea Cake’s character always engenders some of the most animated (and heated) discussions of any book I’ve taught. After reading the novel, some students come to class feeling he’s a total fraud and others that he’s a romantic ideal. Often these reactions stem from students’ beliefs about popular contemporary controversies (“male-bashing” and black women “trashing” black men are, for instance, often alluded to when I begin a discussion by asking students for their reactions to the book). To foster more fruitful discussion grounded in the text, it is helpful to have students meet in small groups with others who view Tea Cake similarly in order to develop a case for their point of view. In addition to having them marshal evidence from the text for their interpretations, I also ask them to develop questions for “the other side” to answer. Asking and answering such questions (“If you believe Tea Cake is so wonderful, then how do you explain his beating of Janie?” or “If you think Tea Cake is so awful, then why does Hurston end the book with such beautiful images to describe him?”) is an important part of this exercise because students will tend to leave out evidence that weakens their case. Even though I’m convinced that Hurston meant to suggest flaws in Tea Cake’s character, the novel is ambiguous and complex enough in its treatment of issues to bear a number of divergent but plausible interpretations. I’ve heard admirers of Tea Cake develop quite respectable explanations for the beating episode: “Perhaps,” some have argued, “Hurston wanted to highlight the power of sexism by making even a nearly perfect character like Tea Cake momentarily succumb to it. Hurston is writing realism, not romantic fairytale. Even Janie has dandruff, after all.”
If students are having difficulty generating specifics, I sometimes turn their attention to particular passages that need to be addressed. I ask students enamored with Tea Cake, for instance, to examine closely the language Hurston uses to describe the beating and its aftermath, especially his statement that “‘Janie is wherever Ah wants tuh be’” (141). I ask students critical of Tea Cake to examine the imagery of the last part of the book: If Tea Cake is a villain, why does Hurston associate him with seed imagery, so suggestive of rebirth and the powerful pear tree scene. If discussion is going well, I sometimes push students to think about the ambiguity of earlier passages, such as the money-stealing episode that occurs in Jacksonville right after Janie and Tea Cake are married. Although, on the one hand, the threat implicit in that event seems diffused (Tea Cake, at least, spends the money in a very unStarksian fashion by throwing a party and only excludes Janie because he fears her disapproval), he does admit to motivations at odds with the characteristics we most value in him: he throws the party not just for fun, but to let people “know who he was” and “to see how it felt to be a millionaire” (117).
One issue that often comes up in this discussion of Tea Cake’s character and his relationship with Janie is the nature of oppression. The reaction of some students—Janie is not oppressed by Tea Cake because she doesn’t feel that she is—has often led to interesting discussions in my class about what constitutes oppression. (For students to at least consider the possibility that oppression does not have to be defined in terms of awareness seems crucial to their understanding of many ethnic and women writers.) Students respond even more energetically to more specific discussion of the treatment of romantic love in the novel. More than one critic has suggested that Janie’s blindness to Tea Cake’s faults is precisely the result of an idealizing love for him. In discussion of this very sensitive issue, Nanny’s comments on love always elicit student reaction: love, she argues, is “de prong all us black women gits hung on. Dis love! Dat’s just whut’s got us uh pullin’ and uh haulin’ and sweatin’ and doin’ from can’t see in de mornin’ till can’t see at night” (22). Hurston’s own account of the major love affair of her life (the one, in fact, that served as the rough model for Their Eyes Were Watching God) also sparks discussion. In the account narrated in Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston not only stresses her adoration of her lover, but the subtle ways in which he became the “master kind” (257) and she “his slave” (258).
One question students nearly always raise about the novel is the function of the “mule talk” section (Chapter 6). Just as critics have, students see it as anomalous, seemingly unrelated to events preceding it and conflicting with the novel’s realism when the buzzards speak to one another after the funeral. Given Hurston’s emphasis on the black woman as “the mule of the world,” however, students can draw some interesting parallels between the mule and Janie. Like the yellow mule who is the superficial focus of the men’s concern, the light-skinned Janie, while seemingly pampered by her husband, is elevated for his own aggrandizement. At the mule’s funeral, he “stands on [its] distended belly … for a platform” (57), just as his status in the community requires him to elevate himself above Janie. Almost as if she senses her affinities with the mule (she is the only person to pity it and speak up for it), Janie soon frees herself from Starks after this episode.
After discussing Their Eyes Were Watching God, students benefit from returning to some discussion of Hurston’s struggles as a writer. I like to end my study of the novel by drawing on Alice Walker’s version (In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens) of Hurston’s life and on her own “discovery” of Hurston’s work (all of it out of print when Walker was in college). Students are invariably moved by her comments on the plight of Hurston and other black women writers and by Walker’s account of her search for Hurston’s unmarked grave.
With its focus on gender, race, and class, Their Eyes Were Watching God works extremely well in the classroom in a unit on how writers of different backgrounds view these issues. Richard Wright’s Uncle Tom’s Children, for instance, with a different conception of blackness, offers interesting contrasts to Hurston’s treatment of race and also fosters good discussion of the role gender plays in ethnic literature. The reviews each author wrote on the other’s book can supplement discussion. In his review, “Between Laughter and Tears,” published in the October 1937 issue of New Masses, Wright had this to say about Their Eyes Were Watching God:
Miss Hurston voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh. Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.His searing comments were matched by Hurston’s equally caustic ones in her review of Uncle Tom’s Children, “Stories of Conflict”, published in Saturday Review, April 2, 1938: “There is lavish killing here, perhaps enough to satisfy all male black readers” (32).
Three novels that foster discussion highlighting race differences in gender identity are Hurston’s Seraph on the Suwanee (which echoes many aspects of Their Eyes Were Watching God in a treatment of white southern life that emphasizes differences in female oppression in black and white communities); Kate Chopin’s The Awakening (which, with its notion of selfhood defined in individualistic terms, contrasts with Hurston’s communal one); and Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio (which offers many possibilities for comparing Maisie and Janie and for analyzing different views of the effect that class has on gender identity).
I have also found several novels by other black women to be fruitful companions to Their Eyes Were Watching God. Gloria Naylor’s Mama Day, a contemporary treatment of a black woman’s identity by a writer clearly indebted to Hurston, can be used as another view of how race and sex interact in the lives of black women. The novel also offers rich possibilities for comparing Janie and Tea Cake with the main protagonists in Naylor’s novel, Cocoa and George. Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, written by one of Hurston’s contemporaries, provides a sharp contrast both in its emphasis on black female identity in the middle class and its seeming pessimism about the possibilities for black women generally. Finally, Nervous Conditions, a novel by a Zimbabwean woman writer, Tsitsi Dangaremgba, also examines the relationship between race and gender through an exploration of the effects of colonialism on black female and male identity.
Questions for Discussion and Writing
- One of the most poetic chapters in the novel is Hurston’s description of Janie’s vision under the pear tree (10-11). What ideals does Hurston convey through this image? How does the vegetative imagery Hurston uses throughout the novel relate to this passage?
- Nanny has a view of black womanhood quite different from Janie’s ideal. What is her view? To what extent is it the result of having grown up as a slave? What are the limitations of her point of view? Does the book, in any way, seem to support any of Nanny’s opinions?
- Starks clearly has a negative effect on Janie’s self-concept. How is his relationship with and effect on the townspeople similar?
- In what ways is the world of the Everglades (the Muck) depicted as a black Garden of Eden? What is Mrs. Turner’s relation to this community? What do you make of the fact that Tea Cake is the character who expresses the most virulent hatred for her?
- Contrast Janie’s sense of identity as Mrs. Mayor Starks and at the end of the novel. Do you see Janie as a fully liberated woman at the end of the book?
- Readers often differ in their final assessment of Tea Cake’s character. Do you think he represents Hurston’s ideal male? If so, how do you account for his beating of Janie (140-41)? What seems to account for his behavior? How do you think Hurston wants us to respond to it? If you feel she portrays him more negatively, why do you suppose she uses such beautiful imagery to describe him at the end of the book?
- What in Hurston’s novel leads Wright to the evaluation he makes in his review of Their Eyes Were Watching God (quoted earlier)? Is it a fair one in your view? Hurston’s review of Wright’s book, Uncle Tom’s Children, was equally uncomplimentary: “There is lavish killing here, perhaps enough to satisfy all male black readers.” On the basis of these quotes and their works, discuss differences you see in the two authors’ treatment of blackness.
- What role does community play in the different fates of the female protagonists in Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Awakening?
- Compare the search for female identity experienced by Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God and Maisie in Yonnondio.
- Nella Larsen, one of Hurston’s contemporaries, seems to suggest a much more pessimistic view of the possibilities for black women in her novel, Quicksand. What in the two novels seems to explain this difference?
1. Related Works
Chopin, Kate. The Awakening. 1899. Reprint, New York: Knopf, 1992. In this novel, published at the turn of the century, Chopin charts the transformation of a conventional well-to-do woman as she awakens to her oppression as a wife, lover, and mother.
Dangarembga, Tsitsi. Nervous Conditions. Seattle: Seal Press, 1988. Set in Zimbabwe before Independence, this is the story of a young black girl and her personal struggle growing up in a society dominated by racism, sexism, and colonialism.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Seraph on the Suwanee. 1948. Reprint, New York: Harper Collins, 1992. In her only work not focused on black life, Hurston writes a novel about southern whites in which she subtly contrasts the values of upwardly mobile whites with those of the poor blacks she created in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Larsen, Nella. Quicksand and Passing. 1928, 1929. Reprint, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1986. In Quicksand, a novel of a black woman’s search for identity, Larsen focuses on the issue of sexual freedom for black women and the dilemma they face (being labeled either a “lady” or a “whore”) in searching for it.
Naylor, Gloria. Mama Day. New York: Vintage, 1988. In Mama Day, Naylor examines issues of racial and gender identity for black Americans in a novel that takes place on an island off the coast of South Carolina, a woman-centered place contrasting in almost every way with the dominant American culture.
Olsen, Tillie. Yonnondio. New York: Delta, 1974. Focusing on the life of a poor white family during the Depression, Olsen examines the lives of men and women imbued with American ideals but thwarted by poverty from achieving them.
Walker, Alice. The Color Purple. New York: Pocket Books, 1982. Cast as a series of letters written by the main character, this is a story about a black woman’s search for an independent sense of identity, a process that involves finding her own sexual and spiritual values.
Wright, Richard. Uncle Tom’s Children. 1940. Reprint, New York: Harper and Row, 1989. A set of related short stories in which Wright chronicles the devastating effects of racism on blacks.
2. Best Criticism
Awkward, Michael. “‘The inaudible voice of it all’: Silences, Voice, and Action in Their Eyes Were Watching God”. In Black Feminist Criticism and Critical Theory, ed. Joe Weixlmann and Houston A. Baker, Jr. Greenwood, Fla.: Penkevill Publishing, 1988. Awkward emphasizes problems in the relationship between Tea Cake and Janie and flaws in Tea Cake’s character. His article also extensively reviews the diversity of opinion on this issue.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” New York: Chelsea House, 1987. This is an excellent collection of articles with the exception of Bloom’s condescending introduction.
Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. Hemenway provides both extensive background material and thoughtful interpretations of Hurston’s work.
Jordan, June. “Feminist Fantasies: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God”. Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 7, no, 1 (Spring 1988): 105-117. Finding problems with Janie’s identity (and assuming that Janie echoes Hurston’s views), Jordan argues that the novel does not meet the demands of black feminism.
Walker, Alice. In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens: Womanist Prose. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983. In “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan Review” (pp. 83-92), Walker celebrates Hurston’s irreverent personality and (until recently) unrecognized genius. In “Looking for Zora” (pp. 93-116), she recounts her own search for Hurston’s unmarked grave.
Wilentz, Gay. “Defeating the False God: Janie’s Self-Determination in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God”. In Faith of a (Woman) Writer, ed. Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien, pp. 286-291. New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. Wilentz discusses ways in which Janie’s search for identity involves rejection of the false “gods” of a white world.
3. Other Sources
Baker, Houston A. Modernism and the Harlem Renaissance. Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1937. Reprint, New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Dust Tracks on a Road. 1942. Reprint, Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1984.
Roses, Lorrain Elena, and Ruth Elizabeth Randolph. Harlem Renaissance and Beyond: Literary Biographies of 100 Women Writers, 1900-1945. Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990.
Schockley, Ann Allen. Afro-American Women Writers, 1746-1933: An Anthology and Criticial Guide. New York: Penguin, 1989.