Trans Internet-Zeitschrift für Kulturwissenschaften 15. Nr. April 2004

5.12. Narration in Literature and Writing History
HerausgeberIn | Editor | Éditeur: Gabriella Hima (Budapest)

Buch: Das Verbindende der Kulturen | Book: The Unifying Aspects of Cultures | Livre: Les points communs des cultures

Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Representation of Multiple Southern Narratives

Dilek Direnç (Ege University, Turkey) [BIO]


It has long been accepted that history deals with absolute truths and objective knowledge, that it is a discipline that produces a single fixed narrative. However, the sway of poststructuralist theories of textuality has been such that "narrative has come to be acknowledged as, above all, a human-made structure - never as 'natural' or given" (Hutcheon 62). Historians claim objectivity for their narratives; however, as their narrations contain structure, they cannot possibly escape textuality. "Viewed simply as verbal artifacts," writes Hayden White in Tropics of Discourse, "histories and novels are indistinguishable from one another (122). In Re-thinking History, Keith Jenkins draws attention to "history's epistemological fragility," which is the cause of having, empirically, "one past" but "many histories" (11). Because "history is a shifting discourse constructed by historians," "the existence of the past" is open to diverse representations: "change the gaze, shift the perspective and new readings appear" (13-14). Hence the "multiplicity of histories," reflecting diverse experiences and outlooks (65).

Similarly, Linda Hutcheon underlines the empirical existence of past events; but "in epistemological terms," she writes, "we can only know them today through texts" (81). If representations of the past are inescapably text-dependent, then all stories are fictions and the processes of history-writing and fiction-writing converge. In this case, the past is visited by historians and fiction writers alike and their narratives can be treated similarly. As this assumption revitalizes history, it contributes to its expansion and democratization.

Using this assumption as a starting point, the purpose of this paper is to examine Zora Neale Hurston's now widely acclaimed novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, first published in 1937, as a black Southern text which contributes to the historical narrative of the American South. Hurston, one of the most important women writers of the Harlem Renaissance, who studied anthropology in New York City in the twenties, was heavily criticized by her fellow African American writers for not being politically motivated after the publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God. This novel is definitely not written in the protest tradition of the fiction of social realism prevalent among the African American writers of the thirties and forties. In Their Eyes Hurston looks back at the rural black South to explore the historical, social, and cultural foundations of the African American experience.

While the novel beautifully captures the life of the black Southern community in the early years of the twentieth century, it also presents divergent ways of living as a black woman in the South at various stages of its protagonist Janie's life. Janie's grandmother, on the other hand, who was born into slavery and led a life of hard work and agony, is clearly a representative of the black Southern past. Hurston's strategy is, first, to provide the inherited text, represented by the grandmother, and then, to construct Janie's own text of post-slavery black womanhood, which rejects the limiting vision of the past and attempts to invent new horizons. While Hurston writes the experience of the rural black South at the beginning of the previous century from a woman's point of view, she contributes to the writing of multivocal, multicultural, multiracial narratives of the American South. Conscious of the exclusion of Southern blacks from Southern culture and history, Hurston works for a more expansive definition of the term 'Southern,' and her novel becomes one representation of what C. Hugh Holman, toward the end of the century, would call "multi-Souths" (xiii), a term developed in opposition to a monolithic and elitist notion of the South.(1)

"In the beginning," writes Ann Allen Shockley in her introduction to Afro-American Women Writers, "the black and women's movements acted as strong catalysts for the reexamination and incorporation of neglected groups into the traditional white male scheme of history" (xxvi). The newly discovered texts of a significant number of white and black women writers helped this process of integration in terms of race, class, gender, and region. In Their Eyes Hurston provides a fictional narrative of the rural black South at the turn of the twentieth century, as she explores the traditional patterns of life, language, and folklore of the black Southern community. "Immersed in the all-black world into which she had been born in Eatonville, Florida," writes Trudier Harris, "Hurston was well prepared for the circumstances that enabled her to introduce black Florida folk and their oral traditions to the larger world" (3).

Among her Harlem Renaissance associates, Hurston was one of the few who had direct experience of the rural South, as she grew up within the traditions, rituals, and folk idiom of this black community. As she gradually recognized the erosion of the distinctive black Southern culture, she increasingly felt the need to record its speech, folkways, and values. Her works, both fiction and non-fiction, are motivated by this need. Rooted in the African-American folk traditions of the South and adept in the use of black Southern vernacular, Hurston's depiction of the black life in the South affirms black Southern culture and traditions and thus helps to develop a more inclusive vision of Southern culture and history.

The narrative strategy Hurston employed in this novel, the frame story in which Janie tells the story of her life to her best friend Pheoby, is important in the sense that in this telling Janie narrativizes her experience of the world and constructs the identity of her people, rural black Southerners, as well as her own identity and personal history, 'the life-story' of a black woman. Elizabeth Meese recognizes the value of "Hurston's artistic method," for it demonstrates "a keen awareness of the performative quality of fiction as it emerges from the tradition of oral narrative" and "a clever consciousness of the storyteller-writer's role in constructing the history of a people through language" (61).


Lorraine Bethel points to "the rich oral legacy of Black female storytelling and myth-making that has its roots in Afro-American culture," which Hurston drew upon in developing her narrative technique (12). As Janie transmits her "hard-won knowledge of the world" to her responsive friend, and through her to the community, the reader, familiar with this tradition, "experiences the novel as an overheard conversation as well as a literary text" (Awkward 54; Bethel 12.(2)

There are indeed two texts in the novel that come into existence in the process of Janie's narration. Nanny's text is transmitted to Janie, apparently to provide guidance as she grows into womanhood. For historically understandable reasons, the image of the black woman that emerges in Nanny's text is much different from the one that eventually emerges in that of Janie. She brings the consciousness of the past into the present, as she transmits her own slave narrative and a vision darkened by the painful memory of slavery and abuse to her granddaughter. Similar to the experiences of the black women of her generation, Nanny was twice enslaved because of her black skin and her female body; she was dehumanized, as she was used "for a work-ox and a brood-sow" (TE 15). Janie's text develops as she rejects her grandmother's bitter vision of black women's lives and constructs her alternatives. Thus, as she recreates and reflects upon the complexity of black women's experience, Hurston's strategy is, first, to provide the "ancestral" text, and then, to construct Janie's text interactively. "No voice is more important than Nanny's" in this novel, writes John F. Callahan. "Hers is a black ancestral text and tale to be absorbed and overcome," and this is what Janie eventually accomplishes (98).

In Their Eyes Hurston presents Janie's life story as "a model of black female development" (Meese 61). She is introduced to the reader in the first chapter as she, a handsome and vigorous woman over forty, returns to town after a long absence and tells "her bosom friend" Pheoby not only what had happened when she was away but the story of her entire life starting with her first conscious memory, her discovery of being "colored" (TE 78; 9). Her next important discovery is the realization at sixteen that her blackness complicates her emerging womanhood. Janie's narrative reveals that the twin concerns of the novel, race and gender, are the inextricable forces shaping her life, as they directly contribute to her education as a black woman living not only in a racial caste society, but also in a sexist black community. Rachel Blau DuPlessis observes that "Janie's matrilineage" reveals a "racially and socially inflected sexual history" (111). Her grandmother bears her white master's child - Janie's mother; then her mother is raped and gives birth to Janie, "the last bastard child in her lineage" (Callahan 99). Hence, Janie's matrilineage does not provide her with a history of empowerment but victimization. In the grandmother's scheme of things, "de white man is the ruler of everything" and "De nigger woman is de mule uh de world" (TE 14).

Her grandmother wants the protection and respectability of a "lawful" marriage for Janie and marries her to the elderly Killicks. "Ah can't die easy thinkin' maybe de menfolk white or black is makin' a spit cup outa you," she tells Janie (TE 19). Susan Edward Meisenhelder writes that Nanny adopts "an ideal that from her experience seems the only alternative, one drawn from a romanticized conception of the lives of white women" (63). It is left to Janie to imagine alternatives to Nanny's ideal of the "colored women sittin' on high" (TE 15). At the age of sixteen, her world extending only "to the front gate" of her grandmother's house (11), Janie has no choice but follow her grandmother's dream. Her first two marriages, however, show the limitations of Nanny's vision. When she realizes that her first husband is determined to put her "behind a plow" in addition to humiliating her, she runs off and marries Jody Starks, who speaks for "change and chance," which unfailingly appeal to Janie trapped in a loveless marriage (28).

An ambitious man with a strong desire to be "a big voice" (TE 27), Jody Starks makes himself, as he intended to, the mayor of the all-black town of Eatonville and a prosperous man as well. The very first time he sees Janie, he places her in his scheme of things; "A pretty doll-baby lak you is made to sit on de front porch and rock and fan yo'self" (28). As Mrs. Mayor Starks, elevated but also isolated, Janie fulfills Jody's dream. Yet, she grows increasingly resentful against Jody; as he tries to mold her into his image of the ideal wife, borrowed from the dominant white ideology, he constantly restrains and silences her.

Judy's death after twenty years of marriage liberates Janie. As a symbol of her liberation, after his funeral she "burn[s] up every one of her head rags" that Jody made her wear to cover her luxuriant hair (TE 85). Looking back upon her past, she sees that Nanny and Jody Starks, who were heavily influenced by the dominant ideology and drew their ideals from the white world, placed tremendous restraint upon her life and identity, almost "enough to choke her" (85). She now hopes to have "the rest of her life to do as she pleased" (85).

As she was "just basking in freedom" (TE 88), Tea Cake Woods enters her life. Whereas Jody Starks, a domineering, materialistic, and acquisitive man, embodied the dominant masculinity, Tea Cake represents an alternative construction of manhood outside the conventional gender definitions. Twelve years her junior, a day worker without property or an established name, he is the reverse image of Starks.(3) After twenty years of keeping to herself under Stark's domination and deprived of voice, what Janie immensely appreciates in her relationship with Tea Cake is her developing ability for self-expression. At the age of forty, Janie reevaluates her past and makes decisions about her future. "Ah done lived Grandma's way, now Ah means tuh live mine," she declares (108). Her third marriage is her own making and she herself defines it: "Dis ain't no business proposition, and no race after property and titles. Dis is uh love game" (108). She leaves the town with Tea Cake for the Florida Everglades.

As most critics have drawn attention, the issues of region, race, class, and gender are intertwined in Hurston's novel. Toni Flores comments that "Hurston has her character Janie reject power relations between men and women" (124). Janie leaves Killicks when she sees that he is determined to transform her into an obedient wife and a work animal. Her image of Jody is shattered when she realizes that he is determined to use her as a symbol of his elevated status and privileged position within the community. Tea Cake, on the other hand, enables Janie to connect with life by encouraging her to participate in the communal life instead of silencing her in the name of protection and respectability. As Meisenhelder observes, "Tea Cake breaks down the rigid gender definitions Joe sought to impose, bringing Janie into the cultural life of the black community and building a relationship with her grounded in reciprocity rather than hierarchy" (68). In contrast with her previous experiences, "the domestic space" she creates with Tea Cake on the muck "is empowering rather than constricting" (Tate 17).

On the muck in the Everglades, in addition to experiencing a fully satisfying relationship, both emotionally and sexually, with Tea Cake, Janie also becomes an active participant in the social and cultural life of the black community. She experiences the work in the bean fields during the day and the social life on the doorstep after work. She is finally immersed in "the communality" and "orality" of her culture and she revels in both (Awkward 51). As she gains her voice and participates in the traditions and rituals of her culture, she reconstructs a vibrant and increasingly confident female self. Missy Dehn Kubitschek rightly observes that Janie's "participation in the Everglades community contrasts dynamically with [her] restricted relationship to Eatonville, just as her partnership with Tea Cake contrasts with her subordination to Jody" (27).

Kubitschek considers "storytelling" essential to "community unity and self-definition" (27). Denied voice, Janie was "lock[ed] into a fixed role" in Eatonville; as she is fully involved in the storytelling on the muck, she is freed from her frozen identity and able to construct a self in a process of dialogic interaction "between communal and individual definition" (27). Transcending Nanny's dehumanization, her mother's victimization, and her own objectification in her previous marriages, Janie is finally able to develop an identity, inescapably in response to the issues of race, region, and class, but not completely limited to and defined by these experiences.

Jan Cooper observes that Hurston's characters live in "a very specific kind of black Southern community" (64). The settlements are "small, relatively newly formed, thus giving its inhabitants a sense of history that is an inspiration, rather than a Faulknerian burden" (64). The members of these agrarian communities have "separate, unique" identities "recognized by the whole community"; yet, they also join and receive identities from the community as they actively take part in its verbal life through storytelling (65). In Eatonville, for example, the stories revolving around the yellow mule do not show "a folklorist indulgence"; while they contribute to "larger ideas" in the novel, the act of telling and listening create a sense of belonging to the community (66-7).(4) Exclusion from the communal life was the source of most of Janie's misery in Eatonville. In the Florida Everglades, however, she experiences "a spiritual kinship" with the other workers through full participation in the verbal life of the community and "this sense of belonging to a community provides her with a sense of cultural and self-identity" (Glasrud and Champion 164).

Janie's dream union with Tea Cake, however, does not last long. The hurricane, which devastates the muck and kills hundreds, causes Tea Cake's death as well. Trying to save Janie from drowning during the storm, he is bitten by a rabid dog; he is infected and eventually Janie is forced to shoot him. She buries him in great sorrow and then returns to Eatonville. The question is why Tea Cake has to die and why through Janie. In the introductory chapter to Invented Lives, which examines "Hurston's ambivalence about Janie's role as 'hero' as opposed to 'heroine,'" Mary Helen Washington writes that "if the rightful end of the romantic heroine is marriage, then Hurston has certainly resisted the script of romance by having Janie kill Tea Cake (249). Tea Cake had to be sacrificed so that Janie could become a "'hero' as opposed to 'heroine.'" Only then "the narrative [would] resolve itself in the repression of romance and the reassertion of quest" (249). Only then, Janie could emerge from the muck after her ritualistic immersion in its "blackness" as an independent and autonomous woman.

Thus, although she cannot imagine a sustained and reciprocal male-female relationship within her socio-cultural context and historical period, Hurston is able to develop a powerful woman character, a survivor of her society's racist and sexist ideology. After Tea Cake's death, with all the experience she had accumulated over her forty-some years and with her newly-acquired voice, Janie returns home as a survivor and assumes the role of "African storyteller, or griot - the repository of communal wisdom and experience" to pass her alternative story of race and gender on to the community (Werner 144). Similarly, Hurston, in Their Eyes, constructs a narrative to pass her alternative Southern story on to her audience. Writing a Southern novel not only about rural black community but also largely in black idiom and black Southern oral narrative tradition, she redefines "Southernness" to include multiple Souths and Southern writings.

As a novelist, while Hurston rejected the forms promoted by the literary establishment of her day, as a black Southern writer she also refused to write about "the Negro problem."(5) When Richard Wright found Their Eyes irrelevant to the problems African Americans had been facing, Hurston's response was that "she had wanted at long last to write a black novel, and 'not a treatise on sociology'" (Gates 190). Questioning the reductive white, male, privileged-class definitions of the American South and rejecting the dichotomy between victimizer and victim in terms of both race and gender, Hurston provides a Southern narrative that is radically different from the conservative Southern narratives. As she challenges the universalizing, totalizing tendency that still persists in the writing of culture and history, she subverts the white male-dominant cultural narratives of the South and writes rural black communities into Southern culture and history.

© Dilek Direnc (Ege University, Turkey)


(1) Thadious Davis claims that "the term southern has been whitened or shorn of its African American connotations" (Yaeger xii). Again, Patricia Yaeger maintains, "when southern becomes an occlusive term that pertains only to white southern culture, black southern writers are often deregionalized as 'black' or 'African-American'" (xii). Reexamining African American writers under the rubric of the region, not only regionalizes these writers but also it is a contribution to and continuation of the vital process of revising history.

(2) The narrative strategy Hurston employed in Their Eyes has been an issue of staying controversy for the last two decades. As Mary Helen Washington remarked, the beginning of the controversy can be traced back to a 1979 MLA panel on Afro-American literature, during which Robert B. Stepto brought up the issue that has become one of the most polemical aspects of the novel. The question he raised was "whether or not Janie is able to achieve her voice in Their Eyes" (Washington "Foreword" xi). Presenting a convincing argument, Stepto claims that "the frame story in which Janie speaks to Pheoby creates only the illusion that Janie has found her voice"; "Hurston's insistence on telling Janie's story in the third person," Stepto insists, "undercuts her power as speaker" (xi). The introduction of this issue launched a new phase in the scholarly examination of Their Eyes; essays concerning the question of voice in the novel have proliferated since then.

In his book Inspiriting Influences Michael Awkward persuasively argues against the contention that Hurston's narrative strategies are faulty. "Rather than viewing the third-person narration to the tale of a culturally achieved, oratorically skilled Janie as evidence of a flaw in Hurston's execution of her narrative," he writes, "one might suggest that the narration of Their Eyes Were Watching God confirms Janie's status as a communally oriented, culturally informed Afro-American woman" (52). Coming close to Awkward's suggestion, Craig Werner maintains that upon her return Janie "assumes the role of blues singer - recounting her own brutal experiences in a voice testifying to her survival - and of African storyteller, or griot - the repository of communal wisdom and experience" (144). Thadious Davis adds, "while Janie is the teller of the tale, Pheoby is the bearer of the tale." Janie's "experimental life" may not enable her "to effect changes beyond what she causes in Pheoby's life"; however, "Pheoby, standing within the traditional role of women, is the one most suited to take the message back to the community" (Washington "Foreword" xii).

(3) "He is the very opposite of the bourgeois virtues of Joe ["positions and possessions" (47)], and if anyone cares to remember him, the rural plod of Killicks," writes DuPlessis (114). Similarly, Meisenhelder maintains that "in every respect, Tea Cake Vergible Woods is portrayed as Starks's antithesis" (68). As "[h]is feminized nickname promise[s] a 'sweeter,' gentler kind of masculinity" and his last name "a healthy black identity," he persistently resists "the hierarchical values Starks imports from the dominant white culture" (68).

(4) "The figure of the mule," according to DuPlessis, "summarizes power relations of class, race, and gender: the porch-sitters to Joe, all blacks to whites, and Janie herself to Joe ..." (112). "The mule is any and all 'underclasses'; deprived, overworked, starved" (112).

(5) Henry Louis Gates Jr. Comments that Hurston "sought in her works to rewrite the 'self' of 'the race,' in its several private and public disguises, . . . not 'the race problem'" (192).


Awkward, Michael. Inspriting Influences. Tradition, Revision, and Afro-American Women's Novels. New York: Columbia UP, 1989.

Bethel, Lorraine. "'This Infinity of Conscious Pain': Zora Neale Hurston and the Black Female Literary Tradition." Bloom 9-17.

Bloom, Harold, ed. Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York & Philadelphia: Chelsia House Publishers, 1987.

Callahan, John F. "'Mah Tongue Is in Mah Friend's Mouff': The Rhetoric of Intimacy and Immensity in Their Eyes Were Watching God." Bloom 87-113.

Cooper, Jan. "Zora Neale Hurston Was Always a Southerner Too." Ed. Carol Manning. The Female Tradition in Southern Literature. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1993. 57-69.

DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. "Power, Judgment, and Narrative in a Work of Zora Neale Hurston: Feminist Cultural Studies." Ed. Michael Awkward. New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God. Cambridge & New York: Cambridge UP, 1990. 95-123.

Flores, Toni. "Claiming and Making: Ethnicity, Gender, and Common Sense in Leslie Marmon Silko's Ceremony and Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God." Contemporary American Women Writers: Gender, Class, Ethnicity. Ed. Lois Parkinson Zamora. London & New York: Longman, 1998. 114-127.

Gates, Henry Louis, Jr. Afterword. Their Eyes Were Watching God. By Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1990. 185-95.

Glasrud, Bruce A. and Laurie Champion. "Zora Neale Hurston." Ed. Laurie Champion. American Women Writers. 1900-1945. London & Westport, Connecticut: Greenwood Press, 2000. 162-72.

Harris, Trudier. The Power of the Porch: The Storyteller's Craft in Zora Neale Hurston, Gloria Naylor, and Randall Kenan. Athens and London: The U of Georgia P, 1996.

Holman, C. Hugh. "No More Monoliths, Please: Continuities in the Multi-Souths." Ed. Castille, Philip and William Osborne. Southern Literature in Transition: Heritage and Promise. Memphis: Memphis State UP, 1983. xiii-xxiv.

Hurston, Zora Neale. (1937) Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1990.

Hutcheon, Linda. (1989) The Politics of Postmodernism. New York and London: Routledge, 1993.

Jenkins, Keith. (1991) Re-thinking History. New York and London: Routledge, 1999.

Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. "'Tuh de Horizon and Back': The Female Quest in Their Eyes Were Watching God." Bloom 19-33.

Meese, Elizabeth. "Orality and Textuality in Their Eyes Were Watching God." Bloom 59-71.

Meisenhelder, Susan Edwards. Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Race and Gender in the work of Zora Neale Hurston. Tuscaloosa & London: The U of Alabama P, 1999.

Shockley, Ann Allen. Introduction. Afro-American Women Writers 1746-1933: An Anthology and Critical Guide. Ed. Ann Allen Shockley. Boston, Mass.: G. K. Hall & Co., 1988. xix-xxviii.

Tate, Linda. A Southern Weave of Women. Fiction of the Contemporary South. Athens & London: The U of Georgia P, 1994.

Washington, Mary Helen. Foreword. Their Eyes Were Watching God. By Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Harper & Row, Publishers, 1990. vii-xiv.

- -. Invented Lives. Narratives of Black Women. 1860-1960. New York & London: Anchor Books Doubleday, 1987.

Werner, Craig. "Zora Neale Hurston." Modern American Women Writers. Ed. Elaine Showalter, Lee Baechler, and A. Walton Litz. New York & Toronto: Collier Books, 1993. 137-147.

White, Hayden. (1978) Tropics of Discourse: Essays in Cultural Criticism. Baltimore and London: The John Hopkins UP, 1992.

Yaeger, Patricia. Dirt and Desire: Reconstructing Southern Women's Writing, 1930-1990. Chicago and London: The U of Chicago P, 2000.

5.12. Narration in Literature and Writing History

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