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Genesis, Revelation, and Literary Fiction

October 7, 2010

I’m writing about Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for my local library’s incarnation of the Big Read program. I thought I might as well cross-post here. Do chime in if you’re game. This is a quick four-week read of a very short book, and my first post follows.

In an essay entitled “What Does Soulful Mean?,” Zadie Smith writes about how, as a young reader, she read Their Eyes Were Watching God reluctantly, going on the assumption that her mother had given it to her because it was a book by a black woman, with whom Smith might have identified. But read it she did, and she loved it. Still, Smith writes that she felt uneasy about why exactly she loved the book. Was it because it was good literature — a standard to which the prodigy would like to have held any work she admired — or was it simply because she identified with Hurston and her characters as sisters?

I come to Hurston’s book from rather a different angle. A white man, I can claim kinship of neither gender nor race with Hurston and her characters. If the books’s merit lies in the ability to identify with the characters based on race or gender, I stand to fare poorly. Of course, seeing the view from inside somebody else’s head is a big part of what reading is about, I think, so I was glad to be given a nudge that sent me outside my usual perspective. This is one of those books I’ve always meant to read but might never have gotten around to if not for The Big Read.

Chapter one of the book is very much a chapter of the body. Hurston writes of the sun’s footprints in the sky and characterizes the people sitting on Pheoby’s porch as “tongueless, earless, eyeless” and refers to them as simply “skins.” She writes of girls so young they have no hairs yet and of Janie’s “firm buttocks.” She writes of “mouths hanging open and ears full of hope,” of men “saving with the mind what they lost with the eye.” Pheoby finds Janie scrubbing her feet (something Janie’s first husband declines to do to his own in this week’s reading). Janie says that the gossiping women “got me up in they mouth now” and goes on to say “An envious heart makes a treacherous ear.” We find a few more references to mouths, tongues, and skins in this chapter as well.

From this chapter laden with body parts, we move to chapter two, in which sensuality emerges as a sort of spirituality when Janie finds herself under a pear tree amid the pollen and the bees and the breeze of the fecund Spring. The “inaudible voice of it all” calls out to her, and she feels “summoned to behold a revelation.” We learned near the end of chapter one that it is such self-revelation that Janie so yearns for. Her self-revelation in the Edenic second chapter results in what amounts to her banishment from the bower and what must seem to her a sort of punishment. The vision of her crusty old future husband desecrates the pear tree at which her sensual awakening is both physically and metaphorically rooted. Hurston describes the home Logan takes Janie to as a stump, a Freudian visual that hardly needs elaborating on. It’s hard not to think of the Persephone myth and its concern with temptation and punishment, plenty and scarcity, as I read this chapter. Imagining Janie as a sort of Eve is inescapable as well.

Is it possible, I wonder, if her use of the particular word “revelation” in a chapter that calls to mind the book of Genesis, was intentional and loaded?

Although chapters three and four begin to propel the plot forward a bit, I don’t have much to say about them other than to bring up Hurston’s use of dialect. It makes me think back to reading Huck Finn in the ninth grade. My class read parts of the book aloud, with each student reading a few paragraphs at a time. Trying to read that dialect aloud was just terrible. As a grown-up, I’m more open to it, though I’m also not having to read it aloud to a bunch of my snickering friends. I suspect a lot of people aren’t fans of dialect.  Maybe it’s a little harder to read. Maybe it’s distracting. But try for a moment to imagine the book if Hurston had written all the dialogue in standard English. So much of the texture of the book would be missing. When I have to slow down a bit to process and pronounce the dialect, I think a little more carefully about the characters who are saying the words, and I work a little harder to distinguish one character’s speech patterns from those of the others. It makes them more real to me. (It turns out that Sara and I are on more or less the same page; she says more and better things about Hurston’s use of dialect here.)

Now, back to Zadie Smith’s problem. Is this book a work of literature or is it merely a nice piece of identity fiction? Having read about a quarter of the book now, I find myself thinking that it does stand up as literary fiction. Of course, it’s hard to pin down exactly what characteristics cause a work to be classified as literary fiction. Ask any two people and their definitions of the genre will differ. The signs that are flashing brightly to me are Hurston’s use of figurative, often downright poetic language, her concern with universal themes such as self-revelation and the search for love and happiness, and an awareness of and pleasing reference to the literature of the past. However we decide to pigeonhole the book (if it must be pigeonholed at all), I think it’s off to a great start. It’s hard not to read ahead.

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