Sunday, March 2, 2008

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston: Introduction

Brooklyn Public Library is honored to host Zora Neale Hurston's masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God. This book has also been selected for The Big Read campaign -- an initiative of the National Endowment for the Arts, with the intent of revitalizing the role of literary reading in American popular culture. The initiative's purpose is to bring people together to read one great American classic at the same time, to better understand through discussion how its themes are still alive and relevant today. Throughout the month of March, book talks and movie screenings will be held in branch libraries all across Brooklyn.

Here, we welcome and invite you to the online discussion of Their Eyes. Together we will explore the novel through various critical, creative and literary perspectives and discover its many complex, latent and manifest meanings.

We begin with the biographical perspective and will look at some of the salient aspects of author's life such as class, race, birthplace, ethnicity, education, sex, gender, language, family history, spiritual values and political persuasions--and discern how they illuminate our reading and interpretation of the work.

Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7, 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama, the fifth of eight children. Her mother died in 1904 when Hurston was thirteen, causing dramatic and unexpected changes in her life. She recalls the events surrounding her mother’s death: “That hour began my wanderings. Not so much in geography, but in time. Then not so much in time as in spirit.” Her father quickly remarried, and Hurston discovered an "adversary" in his new wife. Because of the conflict with her stepmother, Hurston left home at the age of fourteen. She moved to her brother’s house and took care for his children, and was able to continue her education, thanks to her brother's financial aid.

Hurston arrived in New York City in 1925, and played an active role in the Harlem Renaissance along with her friend Langston Hughes. Soon after her arrival in New York City, she received a scholarship to attend Barnard College where she studied Cultural Anthropology under the famous anthropologist Franz Boas, who later influenced much of her anthropological research. Boas is also renowned for arguing that the notions of race are culturally constructed and politically sustained, and that skin color does not suggest innate differences. Boas not only inspired Hurston’s work in anthropology but also supported her trip back to Eatonville to conduct formal folklore research. While studying at Barnard, Hurston worked as a secretary for Fannie Hurst who later wrote Imitation of Life, a story of a black woman passing as white.

Some critics have claimed that in Their Eyes, Hurston embodies much of her own chaotic and creative emotional life in the character of her protagonist--the passionate, restless and rebellious, Janie Crawford. Both Hurston and Janie, left their hometowns and what was left of their families. And both became wanderers. Hurston explains it through Janie: “…sittin’ still worries me. Ah wants tuh utilize mahself all over.”

In the words of critic Yvonne Johnson, Their Eyes is “the first self-conscious effort by an American ethnic writer to simultaneously subvert patriarchal discourse and to give voice to women of color.” But Hurston’s life has been surrounded by questions and controversy as she was not without "ambivalence." Hurston continued throughout her life to make, what another critic Mary Helen Washington called "unorthodox and paradoxical assertions on racial issues." It is not without some reason that Maya Angelou once wrote : “It is difficult, if not impossible, to find and touch the real Zora Neale Hurston.”

In her last years, Hurston moved back to Eatonville, Florida where she worked as a newspaper journalist, substitute teacher and finally as a domestic servant. Her several books were out of print and she was beset by an incapacitating poverty. She continued to write, published three short stories in the early 1950s and worked on a final novel, The Life of Herod the Great. She never completed her final novel, as she sank into a major depression. She suffered a stroke in 1959, and died in a nursing home on January 28, 1960 and was buried in an unmarked grave.

In August, 1973, Alice Walker, who described Hurston as her literary "foremother," traveled to Florida to locate Hurston’s unmarked grave. She had a marker placed on the spot that was most likely Huston’s grave, and then dedicated herself to calling attention to Hurston’s genius. Through Walker’s efforts, Hurston’s work received the critical acclaim that it deserves.

Hurston’s creative and complex life story is contained in her three major works: her “official” autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road; her famous anthropological work, Mules and Men; and her acknowledged masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her books are now back in print, and being taught in university literature courses. Also, Eatonville, Florida is now home to the annual Zora Neale Hurston festival. As Palahniuk said so well, "We all die. The goal is not to live forever, the goal is to create something that will." Zora Neale Hurston certainly did.

Following are some questions from various literary perspectives that will lead us deeper into the text and its context. We hope to explore them here in the course of our month long discussion of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Biographical Questions:

1. Are facts about the writer's life relevant to your understanding of the work?
2. Are characters and incidents in the work versions of writer's own experiences? Are they treated factually or imaginatively?
3. How do you think the writer's values are reflected in the work?

Formalist Questions:

1. How do various elements of the work--plot, character, point of view, setting, tone, diction, images, metaphors, symbols, and so on--reinforce its meanings?
2. How are the elements related to the whole?
3. What issues does the work raise?

Psychological Questions:

1. How does the work reflect the author's personal psychology?
2. What do the characters’ emotions and behavior reveal about their psychological states? What types of personalities are they?
3. Are psychological matters such as repressions and desires presented consciously or unconsciously by the author?

Historical Questions:

1. How does the work reflect the period in which it is written?
2. What literary or historical influences helped to shape the form and content of the work?
3. How important is the historical context to interpreting the work?

Socio-economic Questions:

1. How are the class differences presented in the work? Are the characters aware or unaware of the economic and social forces that affect their lives?
2. How do economic conditions determine the characters' lives? Does the work challenge or affirm the social order it describes?
3. What ideological values are explicit or implicit in the work?

New Historicist Questions:

1. What kind of documents outside the work seem especially relevant for shedding light on the work?
2. How are social values contemporary to the work reflected or refuted in the work?
3. How does your historical moment affect your reading of the work and its historical reconstruction?

Cultural Studies Questions:

1. What does the work reveal about the cultural behavior contemporary to it?
2. How does popular culture contemporary to the work reflect or challenge the values implicit or explicit in the work?
3. What kind of cultural documents contemporary to the work add to your reading of it?
4. How do your own cultural assumptions affect your reading of the work and the culture contemporary to it?

Gender Studies Questions:

1. How are the lives of men and women portrayed in the work? Do the men and women in the work accept or reject these roles?
2. Is the form and content of the work influenced by the author's gender?
3. What attitudes are explicit or implicit in 'unconventional' relationships? Are these relationships sources of conflict? Do they provide resolution to conflicts?

Mythological/Archetypal Questions:

1. How does the story use symbols?
2. Are archetypes presented, such as quests, initiations, scapegoats, withdrawals or returns?
3. Do the characters undergo any kind of transformation such as a movement from innocence to experience that seems archetypal?
4. Do any specific allusions to myths shed light on the text?

Deconstructionist Questions:

1. How are contradictory or opposing meanings expressed in the work?
2. How does meaning breakdown or deconstruct itself in the language of the text?
3. Would you say that ultimate definitive meanings are impossible to determine and establish in the text? Why? How does that affect your interpretation?
4. How are implicit ideological values revealed in the work?

Reader-Response Questions:

1. How do you respond to the work emotionally?
2. Do you respond in the same way to the work after more than one reading?
3. What is the work's original or intended audience? To what extent are you similar to or different from that audience?


Anonymous said...

Janie Crawford has returned to town after a long absence from a trip of some sort. She's a full figured woman with big breasts, firm buttocks and long hair. Men looked at her with desire. The town is unnamed, but because of the dialect that is used, the reader can tell that the town is situated in the South.

People are sitting on their porches
and talk about everyone else's business. They are especially interested in Janie's business.

They can not wait to hear all about
her life while she has been away.

Do you think that the sitters are jobless? If they're not, where do you think they find time to meld in people affairs?

Anonymous said...

Janie has a friend whose name Pheoby Watson. She also can't wait to talk to Janie. She leaves the porch sitters to go and give Janie some of the mulatto rice that she cooked. The porch sitters want phoeby to find out the information about Janie, and then come back and tell them everything.

Janie is tired and worn out from her long trip home and her feet ache. Phoeby gives her the rice, and Janie is grateful for it. In exchange, Janie says that she will tell Phoeby all about her life and what happened to her and specifically, why she has returned to the town.

Will Phoeby tell the porch sitters what Janie says she can tell them?

Nomi said...

Ficton, as Eudora Welty reminds us in her celebrated work Place in Fiction, requires the creation of a sense of place that renders a drama real enough to gain the reader's complicity. Welty's observation could be aptly applied to the works of Zora Neale Hurston.

The way Hurston wrote in 1937, also had much to do with politics of publishing as it played a major role in the production, circulation, and consumption of African American fiction during the Harlem Renaissance. Some of the relevant questions were: How much reality will do and for whom? Which reality should be used to entice the reader? How should this reality be conveyed? When race, economics and politics matter so gravely, gaining the reader's complicity involves more than the writer's art.

Those were chaotic times in American history. Richard Wright, one of the contemporaries of Hurston, rightly challenged black writer’s to address “the color problem” in a wider historical and philosophical context. Hurston's writings therefore blend several motivations, sometimes contradictory, to bring to life the black culture and society of Eatonville of the early 20th century. Moreover, she was not only a literary artist but also an anthropologist. Her novels, folklore research, and ethnographic fieldwork are unique sources for bringing to light everyday life as it was really lived in segregated and economically impoversihed black towns in the American South. As an expert witness, she studied populations marginal to the centers of power--those who were “unable to answer back.”

We, therefore, get a profound glimpse of politics of race, color, gender, class, and sexuality as they were socially articulated within the African communities of Hurston's time and place.

She writes in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, about the life on the porches of Eatonville: “There was open kindness, anger, hate, love, envy and its kinfolks, but all emotions were naked, and nakedly arrived at. You got what your strengths would bring you.”

Cultural reality is determined by multiple forces. Seen in the light of the historic context, the behavior of black folks sitting on their porches makes far more sense.