African American Art Is Not Equal to Social Commentary
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In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, first published in 1937, the author entangles many themes in a complex and skillful manner. Many contemporary literary critics of hers, however, dismiss the work because she does not explicitly provide social commentary on the oppression of African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century. While racial oppression is undeniably an inextricable part of the African American experience, it is a grave mistake to solely focus on that aspect of the characters’ lives when judging the artistic merit of Hurston’s work. In no way does its relative lack of explicit social commentary diminish the masterful talent Hurston displayed in her novel to portray the main character Jane Crawford’s lifelong search for an equal reciprocal loving romantic relationship based on mutual respect and honest open communication.
Many scholars and literary critics accuse Hurston of having written a work with no literary merit because she did not explicitly address the issue of racial oppression in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Richard Wright, a black critic of Hurston’s time, accused the novel of being addressed in a disparaging way “to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy” (Hathaway 174) by portraying her characters “eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears” (Hathaway 174). Wright seems to be asking Hurston to conform to a certain agenda, namely, that of rebelling against white oppression, and not that of pandering to, in his opinion, extremely distorted tastes. Critic Alain Locke takes an even more explicit stance on the matter by asking Hurston in his review “When will the Negro novelist of maturity…come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction?” (Hathaway 174). They both take issue with the fact that, as a writer who is also a woman of colour, Hurston ought to address racial oppression in her novel and see the absence of this theme as an affront to her own responsibility towards her African American identity. However, Hurston herself had an ideological position that is opposite to that of Richard Wright and didn’t directly address those issues in her novel (Dubek 112). In fact, she can be said to have simply composed a piece of “written oral art” (Garrigues 23). Therefore, it would be entirely unjust to dismiss her work because it lacked overt social commentary and disregard the significant artistic mastery that she displays.
This mastery is extremely evident when she uses imagery relating to vegetation to narrate the scene that would change Janie’s life. In the opening pages, as Janie lies on the ground in the progressing spring, the reader is poignantly confronted to the lasting impression watching nature this closely would leave on her. Hurston uses a beautiful metaphor of “pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze” (Hurston 11) to describe the vision that would inspire Janie’s lifelong search for a loving, reciprocal relationship. The use of the words “soaking” (Hurston 11) and “panting breath” (Hurston 11) to characterize the phenomenons of nature hint at sexual undertones and further emphasizes that Janie’s search for love is carnal, intimately organic and entirely self-motivated. This small passage shows how much nuance Hurston’s writing can pack into a single sentence about a benign sprint nature scene and is a testament to her extremely well-developed artistic skills. She demonstrates them again a little further in that passage by making the sexual metaphors in nature more explicit to portray Janie’s frame of mind at that moment by writing that “she saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom, the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight” (Hurston 11). This sentence displays Hurston’s craft by serving simultaneously as a tool of characterization and a perfect illustration of Janie’s psyche. First, the reader is informed that Janie is an extremely perceptive and observant person because she notices the minutiae of a bee sinking into a flower. Secondly, by using words such as “sanctum” (Hurston 11), “sister-calyxes” (Hurston 11), “ecstatic shiver” (Hurston 11), “creaming” (Hurston 11) and “frothing with delight” (Hurston 11), Hurston masterfully informs the reader that this experience full of sexual undercurrents has the proportions of life-altering religious revelation for Janie. Janie’s subsequent elation and intense desire for a carnal love that is based in reciprocity and respect is portrayed with the enthusiastic words “so this was a marriage !” followed by “oh to be a pear tree - any tree in bloom !” (Hurston 11). Her simultaneous dissatisfaction with her current circumstances is described eloquently as “she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her” (Hurston 11), followed by the more pressing “where were the singing bees for her ?” (Hurston 11), two sentences that expertly mimic Janie’s train of thought. All of this manipulation of imagery with nature and vegetation is clearly a sign that Hurston, far from being an irrelevant writer because she doesn’t address racial concerns explicitly, is an extremely talented author whose mastery of the nuances of the human psyche deserves to be justly recognized.
Hurston pushes her use of nature imagery further when she uses them to mark the evolution of Janie’s relationships. The author’s use of that imagery to portray the main character’s romantic progression is an extremely effective tool of characterization because it makes the reader see how all of it stems from the woman’s initial reaction to the previously discussed scene in nature, a defining part of her personality. For instance, Logan Killicks, the first husband she was forced to marry out of convenience, is described as a “vision” (Hurston 14) that “was desecrating the pear tree” (Hurston 14). This powerful imagery represents how Killicks destroyed Janie’s first dream of an ideal relationship by tying it to the strong epiphany she had in the beginning of the story. After having explained that situation that is quite unique to Janie’s mind, Hurston goes on to narrate her thoughts on the subject by writing “husbands and wives always loved each other, and that [is] what marriage meant” (Hurston 21). When Janie slowly realizes the falseness of her belief, “she began to cry” (Hurston 24) and says to her grandmother tearfully, “Ah wants things sweet wid mah marriage lak when you sit under a pear tree and think” (Hurston 24). By making a reference to the pear tree again here, Hurston demonstrate the full extent to which that initial scene with the birds and the bloom affected Janie. And sure enough, as her despair gets more pronounced, Janie “often spoke to falling seeds” (Hurston 25), another reference to nature that cements the profound way in which that experience affected her and her unusually strong desire to live the relationship of her dreams.
Hurston uses the same imagery to map out the ups and down of Janie’s subsequent two relationships. When her relationship with Joe seems to be going well, Janie’s love thoughts are tinged with metaphors of nature. She muses that “from now on until death she [is] going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything” (Hurston 32) and that Joe is “a bee for her bloom” (Hurston 32), a direct reference to that initial sight of “a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom” (Hurston 11). Hurston’s use of all those allusions to the initial scene of Janie’s epiphany makes the reader aware that, despite everything her grandmother taught her, Janie is a resilient woman and has not given up on her dream. Joe’s domineering manner of carrying himself, which leads to her gradual disillusion with him, is also described as something “that [takes] the bloom off of things” (Hurston 43). As her relationship with Joe deteriorates, Hurston describes Janie’s bed as “no longer a daisy-field for her and Joe to play in” (Hurston 71) and Janie herself as having “no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be” (Hurston 72). Hurston’s use of nature metaphors to describe those dark times in Janie’s life makes the reader realize that she is suffering because she still has not given up on that initial dream of hers, which is a testament to its sheer power. The strength of the dream is fully demonstrated when, many years after the scene that initiated Janie’s desire for an ideal relationship, she muses that Tea Cake, “could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring” (Hurston 126), a metaphor that alludes to her unusually strong will to realize her dream that years have not diminished. Much later, when he answers her with flower metaphors on his deathbed, Hurston makes it clear to the reader that, at long last, Janie’s lifelong dream has finally been realized. In fact, Tea Cake compliments her by telling her, “Ah see uh patch uh roses uh somethin’ over sportin’ they selves makin’ out they pretty, Ah tell ’em ‘Ah want yuh tuh see mah Janie sometime.’ You must let de flowers see yuh sometimes, heah, Janie?” (Hurston 181). The author’s use of nature metaphors to chart the different moments in Janie’s romantic history until it reaches the heights of her teenage dreams is extremely artistically skillful in itself and does not deserve to be dismissed in any way.
Hurston’s artistic mastery is not simply limited to her use of nature metaphors to describe Janie’s quest for the love of her dreams. The author also expresses the full extent of those desires by writing, right after Joe beat her, that “something fell off the shelf inside her” (Hurston 71), which is later revealed to be “her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered” (Hurston 71). This extremely powerful way of describing Janie’s disenchantment can only be achieved by someone who has considerable artistic mastery. Hurston unveils to the reader even more layers of complexity by writing “but looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams […] just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over” (Hurston 71). In this sentence, Hurston simultaneously reveals Joe’s true nature and Janie’s psyche, which is undeniably the mark of a great writer.
To conclude, Hurston’s choice to not focus her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God does not make it disposable or any less of a literary masterpiece. Her skillful use of nature metaphors to chart the course of Janie’s romantic history and its different nuances is the work of an extremely gifted author that should be appreciated to its just value. Not every work of art featuring minorities needs to address their oppression explicitly to be worthy of consideration and it is a mistake to make artists, whose main role is to remain true to their creative vision, constrained by that criteria.
Dubek, Laura. “[J]us' listenin' tuh you": Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Gospel Impulse” The Southern Literary Journal 41 (2008): 109-130. JSTOR. Web. 19 April 2016
Guarrigues, Lisa. “Porch Talk: Reading Their Eyes Were Watching God” English Journal 93 (2003): 21-28. JSTOR. Web. 19 April 2016
Hathaway, Rosemary V. “The Unbearable Weight of Authenticity: Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” an a Theory of “Touristic Reading” “The Journal of American Folklore 117 (2004): 168-190. JSTOR. Web. 19 April 2016
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006. Print.