WRITINGS  

 

Their Eyes Were Watching God: Evidence of a Postmodern Tendancy

 

…Zora Neale Hurston lacks [any] excuse. The sensory sweep of her novel
carries no theme, no message, no thought. In the main, her novel is not
addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she
knows how to satisfy. She exploits the phase of Negro life which is "quaint," the
phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the "superior" race.
-- from "Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)," a review by Richard Wright

An unfortunate side effect of the postmodern tendancy is often reactions like the above. Zora’s work was not readily accepted in its time. Unlike fellow writers such as Faulkner and Joyce, Hurston’s was not incubated by the academy until theory could catch up to inspiration. Like writers such as Nabokov, however, her postmodernity is subtle and her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is littered with trap doors to plunge the reader into a deeper interpretation of the text. Cynthia Bond picks up on this in her essay, "Language, Speech and Difference in Their Eyes Were Watching God," when she calls it a meta-linguistic project (Bond, 206)." Further evidence of this depth is in the plentitude of critical work to appear since Zora’s rediscovery two decades ago and in the fact that, despite the voluminous attention given to Their Eyes Were Watching God, critics have failed to explore every facet of the novel. Ihab Hassan writes, in "Toward a Concept of Postmodernism," that we can look at writers of the past and realize their postmodernity. His theory fits with the idea that postmodernism is not a movement, but a trait that is exhibited by certain authors pushing the limits of their time. Most of these authors have clued in to what theorists claim are the basic traits of the postmodern condition: the breakdown of a metanarrative and binarial systems, Derrida’s rupturing concepts of difference and decentering, and a notion of power as a fluid force that is constantly changing hands. Zora exhibits these tendancies, which, taken separately, have been expounded upon but not yet fully exhausted, and the time has come to realize her as a postmodern force.

Jean-Francois Lyotard, in his essay, "The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge," defines postmodernism "as incredulity toward metannaratives (Lyotard, 71)." This works out to mean that the overarching metanarrative of the world, which is given to us by the ruling class if one subscribes to class theories, that forms our worldview has failed to fulfill our needs. The world is now seen as intersecting micronarratives; people can relate because their personal explanation of the world connects with another’s explanation, but are recognizably individual because no two worldviews are identical. All micronarratives are equally valid in Lyotard’s theories, and this fits in nicely with postmodernism’s push towards inclusion rather than marginalization. This theory also pushes postmodernism into one of its other major facets, the breakdown of binary systems.

Hassan is the pundit of the anti-binarial division of the postmodern. He details that postmodernism is not anti-modernism; it is not a "reaction to" or successive movement. Indeed, it is different than modernism, but also shares many proponents, and likewise with other literary movements. Basically, the idea is that postmodernism is shades of grey, because the plethora of micronarratives demands more variables than just "A" or "B." We need the whole alphabet and then new letters we haven’t thought of yet.

Hurston’s work would probably be more accessible if we had some words to represent the breadth of her concepts. She premonitions Lyotard and Hassan almost exactly. Her feminist stance is, by definition of "feminist," a micronarrative that upsets the basic cultural metanarrative of the Unites States. The feminist aspects of Their Eyes Were Watching God are at least discussable, but this doesn’t matter since Janie’s story, as an independent (at least at the "present" of the novel) woman is itself a micronarrative of a life that presents a wholistic worldview. It is a story of vast educational and revelational expanse. Janie’s personal explanation of her world is also influenced by many other micronarratives Hurston works into the text. Perhaps one of the most obvious is the town of Eatonville, which is entirely composed of African-Americans. In the novel’s time, this aspect was considered fantastic, and surely to form such a community the white metanarrative of the country had to be overcome.

As if following the theory, Hurston uses these multiple intersecting micronarratives in Their Eyes Were Watching God to explore some of the grey areas of Black culture, male and female relations, liberation, and race relations. These days we have become painfully aware of the ambiguity and delicacy of these relationships, but in Hurston’s time a much more confident attitude prevailed. Janie herself is a breakdown of binarial relationships. She is a woman, but dares to act like a man. She speaks, and hunts, and fishes and generally disgusts the proper folk. But she is more than just a female-as-male character. She recognizes the difference between the two. This is made clear in the opening two paragraphs of the novel. They set up the difference between men and women, which is basically a difference of perspective – men see the world externally and women see the world internally.

Speaking of difference, Derrida was fond of the term. He defines it as the area between what X and Y have in common and what is different about the two. This is the area that Hurston explores. The most prominent example of this awareness of the difference is at the end of the novel, "She pulled in on her horizon like a great fish net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes (Hurston, 184)!" Bond comments that, "The fishnet as an image of integration figurally maintains the ultimate disjunction of sign and referent (Bond, 216)."

Derrida also brings in the idea of this difference causing a rupture in language and communication that has had a decentering effect on us (Derrida, 225). Hurston’s entire body of work had at least a disturbing effect on many of her peers. Bond notes that Zora’s anthropological work vascillates in voice between objective researcher and subjective participant (Bond, 211). It’s no coincidence that Hassan lists "participation" as one of the postmodern traits (Hassan, 280), and he was aware of Derrida. Their Eyes Were Watching God has a definite sense of destabilization. Throughout, Janie is becoming aware of more and more, and learning new things. She discovers a lot about herself, what it means to be a woman, and what it is to live. She refuses the notion of what her culture tells her is appropriate behavior for a woman and this throws her into a tumultuous ride, full of hardship and joy. And she learns one other important thing, what it is to be powerful, and this aspect of the novel may have been the most decentering of all for her contemporary readers.

Michel Foucault, in The History of Sexuality: Volume One: An Introduction, outlines what has become the generally accepted postmodern notion of power and power flow:

Power is everywehre; not because it embraces everything, but because it comes

from everywhere…Power is not an institution…it is the name that one attributes

to a complex strategical situation in a particular society…[it] is exercised from

innumerable points, in the interplay of nenegalitarian and mobile relations…

relations of power are part of economic processes, knowledge relationships,

sexual relations. (Foucault, 334)

Every relationship, every interaction or communication between individuals, is a power struggle. Power has a general tendancy to flow, a concept that makes sense when thought about the nature of power and the powerful, and it cannot be hoarded easily.

Hurston didn’t need Foucault to tell her any of this. Their Eyes Were Watching God is definitely concerned about power and power struggles. It is not overt, but many critics have picked up on this. The basic theory is that the novel is overtly about speech and dialect in form. But the cultural history of speaking in the Black community is integrally tied to a blatant form of power struggle: The Snap! Whether it’s called "playing the dozens," or "signifying," the African-American culture has a long tradition of verbal sparring that has fascinated many linguists, anthropologists, writers, and, among others, Zora Neale Hurston. Throughout the book, she works with the device of speech and the various ways speech is used and what that means or implies. Bond notes one of the more extreme examples of the care that Hurston put into this element in her analysis of speech and its role in the novel. Janie, for the first time speaks out, signifies, to Jody Starks, and says, "When you pull down yo’ britches you look lak de change uh life (Hurston, 75)." Bond pulls a lot out of this scene:

It is significant that she uses [an] image which in its application simultaneously

implies a de-sexing, and an androgyny which is essentially sexless for it is by her

female passage into male linguistic territory that she is able to free herself from

the hierarchical sexual difference perscribed within the roles of her marriage.

(Bond, 211)

This exchange is definitely a power struggle, and it becomes apparent how powerless Janie has rendered Jody in his quick decay and eventual death. Janie also uses silence, abstension from speech, to gain power by not revealing her personal metaphor of the pear tree to anybody else. She keeps this significant part of her personal micronarrative to herself, but these choices are conscious. At the trial, Janie makes us aware of how conscious she is of what she says: She knows that she must "create a fiction" to explain to the jury the circumstances of Tea Cake’s death, and "her narrative is an attempt to communicate the true nature of her relationship with Tea Cake (Bond, 213)." The details go on and on, and the complexity of the issue is done justice in Hurston’s multiplicitous treatment.

Detailed treatments of the simple questions of life are what Hurston excelled at. It’s ironic that these are the things that are severely shaken by diversity and lost by assimilation. Her prophetic writing, mirrored in attitude and dedication in her life, is still mysterious and enticing. Zora Neale Hurston was among that group of writers in the early 20th century that felt themselves pulled towards something else. Her name was not placed in the canon alongside Joyce, Faulkner, Pound, Fitzgerald and others, maybe because the Derridian "rupture" tends to breed a new level of vehemence, but more likely because theories of inclusion and broadened acceptance tend to predate societal progress so markedly.

 

 

 

 

 

Bibliography

Appiah, K.A. and Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. eds. Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives

Past and Present. New York: Amistad Press, Inc., 1993.

Bond, Cynthia. "Language, Sign, and Difference in Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Appiah and Gates 204-17.

Derrida, Jacques. "Structure, Sign, and Play in the Discouse of the Human Sciences."

Hutcheon and Natoli 223-43.

 

Foucault, Michel. "Excerpts from Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late

Capitalism." Hutcheon and Natoli 333-341.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row

Publishers, Inc., 1990.

Hutcheon, Linda, and Natoli, Joseph, eds. A Postmodern Reader. New York: SUNY,

1993.

Lyotard, Jean-Francois. "Excerpts from The Postmodern Condition: A Report on

Knowledge." Hutcheon and Natoli 71-90.

Wright, Richard. "Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)." Appiah and Gates 16.

 

 

 

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