Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston)

Posted: April 29, 2015 in fiction
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From Charlotte Brontë’s Villette:

‘Do other people see him with my eyes? Do you admire him?’

‘I’ll tell you what I do, Paulina,’ was once my answer to her many questions. ‘I never see him. I looked at him twice or thrice about a year ago, before he recognized me, and then I shut my eyes; and if he were to cross their balls twelve times between each day’s sunset and sunrise, except from memory, I should hardly know what shape had gone by.’

‘Lucy, what do you mean?’

‘I mean that I value vision, and dread being struck stone blind.’

This is how I felt about Hurston’s novel this time around. I’ve read it so many times that I don’t really see it any more. Maybe I felt this way because I was reading it to teach it, and we approach texts differently in such circumstances. Chapter 1, we discuss in medias res and foreshadowing; Chapter 2 we have the vision at the pear tree and the mule of the world, the symbols that represent the two conflicting ideologies for the rest of the book; Chapter 6 we have a lot of the anthropological information that Hurston collected for the WPA (Mrs Tony Robbins was a real person, though the name may have been changed); Chapter 19 we finally see the way white people treated black people back then, as well as the courtroom scene where a woman who spends almost two hundred pages discovering her voice suddenly loses it; we also talk about rabies, hurricanes, domestic violence, power relations, and speech acts, among other things.

What interested me the most about the novel this time is the student I’ve been reading it with. I’m teaching at a small language school, and in one of the more advanced levels the students have to respond to a novel. My student is working on her hopefully-eight-page essay this week, and she’s discussing the violence in the book. She’s from Saudi Arabia, and she identifies strongly with Janie. She enjoyed the book thoroughly; I don’t want to go into details, but I guess patriarchy is patriarchy, no matter where it is located or which religion is used to justify it.

Reading through drafts of her essay, she’s got me thinking about moral relativism. She mentioned it twice. The first time, in conjunction with the schoolteacher who rapes Leafy ca. 1882; do we cut Marse Robert some slack because as a slave owner he’s been conditioned to see slaves as property? Is the rapist worse because he lives after Emancipation, or because he’s given a position of trust over children? Hurston seems to use both men as examples of white men having absolute power over black women’s bodies, so is it useful to draw a distinction between them? I mean, Robert seems to have an affectionate relationship with Nanny, and the teacher/rapist comes back to marry Leafy, so maybe these arbitrary power relations are inherently morally ambiguous. If a white man loved a black woman in the United States in the mid- to late nineteenth century, what options did he have? The rapist seems so powerless; I picture him as a puny little man with spindly limbs, underdeveloped and possible a little effete. Then suddenly he rebels against his social training and lack of physical prowess to perform his life’s one act of violence, against his society’s ultimate victim. I can’t imagine the social pressures that lead to such an excessive display of force. I disagree with the people who see this as an example of social permissiveness – it’s not like people congratulate him, he’s hunted by bloodhounds – I see it as more the desperate act of a man who feels disenfranchised, so he exerts power over the only object he can find. It’s evil, of course, but it’s not a fallen-angel/operatic sort of evil; there’s no greatness in it; it’s a pathetic evil perpetrated by a little man who sees no other way to counter his own insignificance. And he immediately lapses back into the nothing he briefly emerged from.

The second place is when Tea Cake hits Janie. Janie didn’t have to deal with that with her previous husbands; Logan threatens once to kill her, and she immediately leaves him. Joe slaps her in the store once and she retreats inside herself and doesn’t come back out for a long time. Tea Cake, though, beats her until her face is bruised.

No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.

All of which strikes me as fucked up. This is a different flavor of fucked up than the barely-existent schoolteacher; he’s an aberration, expelled from the community and the novel for his offensive behavior. Tea Cake’s beating is an aberration in their relationship to each other, but the rest of the folks on the muck see it as glorious. That beating reaffirms his masculine ownership and her feminine passivity. It confirms gender roles, and the two participants in it become heroes.

Now. Do I have problems with this because I live eighty years ahead of them in a society with different expectations, or do I have problems with this because domestic violence is intrinsically wrong? Is there something wrong with me because I see a similarity among these three characters? Tea Cake is coded in the novel as good, yet he perpetuates the myth that women are property. I don’t see a huge difference between him and Marse Robert, and though his personality is very different than the one I imagine for Leafy’s rapist, they both use violence against women to assuage their own insecurity and sense of powerlessness. Or, is there something wrong with a society that encourages men to use women in this way? I think there are some things that are intrinsically morally wrong, and intimate violence is pretty high on that list.

This may be because of my experience with it. The first guy I was with started choking me mid-lay, and when I tried to get his hands off my neck he said, “Don’t you trust me?” Of course I don’t trust you; I just met you four hours ago, and now it feels like you’re trying to kill me. The second guy told me I was the tenderest lover he had ever had, and ten seconds later he was backhanding me (hard) and calling me a bitch and a slut. Sex is not just a matter of physical intimacy; there’s a great deal of emotional vulnerability that goes along with it. Responding to that vulnerability with violence evinces a brutality that is inherently bad. Indifference is sufficiently harsh without actively punishing the person. Forcibly asserting that kind of control over another human being is wrong, regardless of time and place. Perhaps my viewpoint is culturally determined, but it’s still mine, and since this is my response and my blog, I will argue for my own viewpoint.

To sum up. Beautiful book, but with domestic violence triggers. Deserves its status as a classic of American literature, but with some problematic bits. Worth reading carefully, again and again, until you don’t see it at all.

  1. That violence is a real problem with the novel, for readers, I mean. As a reader, you have to do something with it, respond to it–decide whether it invalidates the love Janie experiences with Tea Cake or not, whether cultural relativism applies here, whether it’s an aberration from the rest of Teak Cake’s personality or totally congruous with it, all that. My latter-day reading of it, though, is that it is a key part of Tea Cake–his tragic flaw, if you will, one that we also see when he refuses to take his cue from the Indians and flee the hurricane, choosing to emulate his white former-masters instead. And, like so many tragic flaws (including the ones derived from centuries of abuse and slavery, which isn’t fair but sure is logical) it’s also the death of him. Thematically, it’s why Janie has to kill Tea Cake, and finally find herself alone, despite relationship being the vehicle for feminine coming of age throughout nine-tenths of the book. It’s why he can’t live, or why, in vodoun terms, he can’t go with her into her final initiation as a priestess of Erzulie, despite his aspects as a “horse” of Legba. He opens the door for Janie, but he can’t go through.

    I co-authored an article, with a guy who’d actually done some voodoo priesting, on voodoo motifs in this novel, which I can send you if you want it. A major AfAm journal accepted it, and then rescinded the acceptance when, three years later, I had the temerity to insist that its editor tell me when or whether the damn thing was coming out (acted too much like Janie, I guess…) Since then, no one’s taken it, and I’ve about given up trying…but I believe in its reading. This isn’t a novel that Christian doctrine can help us read in the way that some other doctrines can, and, of course, it comes after Hurston’s trip to Haiti.

    So, short version: love doesn’t mean we have to let people choke us, and I don’t think Hurston thinks so, either. People who do that to the unconsenting have more than a little of the mad dog in them, as we see with Tea Cake. But sometimes we have to shoot them to get loose; we can count ourselves lucky if we don’t.

    • theoccasionalman says:

      Yes, I’d be very interested in reading the article. When I lived in Brazil, I’d assume that the differences between Brazilian and United-Statesian Christianity were due to vodoun influence, but I never learned enough about it to analyze a text using that belief system. It’s not as obvious as that moment in Sula where they look up the dream in the catalog.

      I have problems with the concept of the “Tragic Flaw.” I find it hard to believe, even in fiction, that there’s one overriding character trait that leads a person to death and destruction. I think it was in the Bedford Companion to Shakespeare where I read the idea that the original Greek phrase that we translate as tragic flaw actually referred to an action, and in Shakespeare’s tragedies it is more often an action (in Act III) that leads to the tragic heroes defeat — Romeo kills Tybault, Hamlet kills Polonius, Macbeth has Banquo killed, Malvolio puts on yellow stockings, etc. This fits with your reading of Tea Cake, in that Tea Cake’s choice to stay on the muck instead of leaving with the Bahamans leads to his contracting rabies. The difference with Tea Cake is that, even though he dies, Janie doesn’t actually lose him. At the end of the novel, he’s still with her. Death purges his “mortal grossness,” like removing Bottom’s ass-head; Tea Cake may be an incorporeal vision that she sees dancing on the ceiling, but he’s there. The important parts of him have become part of her, so she’s not really alone.

      I do count myself lucky that I haven’t had to shoot anyone yet. Yet.

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