"The Erotics of Talk: 'That Oldest Human Longing' in Their Eyes Were Watching God" , by Carla Kaplan
Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Casebook. Cheryl Wall, ed. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2000, pgs. 137-163.


Reviewed by Elizabeth Thompson


In her article, "The Erotics of Talk," Carla Kaplan constructs a persuasive argument that shapes the way readers may "listen to" a text. Instead of reading Their Eyes Were Watching God and Janie's story as a quest for identity and voice, Kaplan argues that "The number of times when Janie is violently silenced by others testifies to the power, both potential and real, of her voice" (Kaplan, 140). In actuality, what Janie searches for is "the 'bee' to Janie's 'blossom'...the act of story telling and self-narration [that] satisfy 'that oldest human longing--self- revelation'" (138).
Kaplan quickly notes, however, that neither marriage nor sex will ultimately fulfill Janie. Instead, she needs a competent listener with whom to share her story: "When Janie pines for a 'kissing bee' what she is really longing for is that elusive but necessary listener" (Kaplan, 140). Kaplan further describes the kiss trope that Hurston uses so frequently, saying that the trope signifies an intimacy between the storyteller and the listener, which is "necessary for a successful, discursive 'self-revelation'" (142). From this intimacy needed for successful discourse, Kaplan proceeds to the most interesting theme of the article: the duty and competency of the listener. Kaplan relates that "this novel sees something shameful in telling a story to hostile or incompetent audiences," and that Janie's belief "that narrative and self-revelation 'tain't worth de trouble'" is a critique of the African American use of writing to promote change during the Harlem Renaissance (143, 145).
Moreover, Kaplan notes that Janie "consistently chooses not to fight back with her voice... because 'it didn't do her any good'" (Kaplan, 147-148). In other words, Janie usually will not waste her time with a hopeless audience, whether it is Joe Starks or "Mouth Almighty". This concept draws us back to the futility of "talking" when the audience is inept. Ultimately, Kaplan questions whether we as readers are worthy of reading Hurston's novel. It seems doubtful, as "the only ideal audience [is] a virtual mirror of Janie herself" and Kaplan finally relates, "The problem is that Janie's community doesn't change and that Janie (and perhaps Hurston) believes that hearing her story won't help" (152, 157). In fact, this quote makes me wonder what hope Hurston has that African Americans will change society. If Hurston rejects the Harlem Renaissance mode of effecting change through literature because audiences are incompetent, how does she suppose that change will ever occur? Is this novel just about the hopeless struggle that women and African Americans have to undergo in finding an audience? On the other hand, the novel seems to end with hope for the future and for peace: "Here was peace" (Hurston, 184). Even in thinking about Tea Cake, whom Kaplan believes never became an adequate listener, Hurston uses the kiss trope. It is possible that Janie is able to feel so at peace because she has finally told her story to an intimate listener, but examining the ending that includes the kiss trope might suggest that Janie had found satisfaction in her and Tea Cake's love as well.
However, though the ending depicts Janie's satisfaction, I agree with Kaplan that Janie sought fulfillment though story telling; she told her story and found her "bee" for her "blossom." Moreover, if it is true that all discourse is futile unless it is held with a listener who has the authority to listen, then we should reexamine many of the texts that we have read over the past semester. Whitman, for example, wrote to change his audience, Chesnutt wrote in a style that could reach his audience, Gilman wrote to open her audience's eyes. But, if Kaplan is right in her interpretation, and Hurston "could not imagine communicability across differences" or "she could not imagine (or locate) the nurturant, sympathetic community in which such communication might be possible," it is also possible that our semester texts may have been futile attempts at communication as well (Kaplan, 155). Even Janie says, "they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves," implying that nothing will affect an audience except experience itself (Hurston, 183).
Finally, this question of hopelessness leads to the question of God within the novel. Janie tells Pheoby, "[People] got tuh go to God" (Hurston, 183). As with the title of Their Eyes Were Watching God, it seems that all people's faith rests on God, but there are also times in the novel that Janie questions God:
Was He noticing what was going on around here? He must be because he knew everything. Did he mean to do this thing to Tea Cake and her? It wasn't anything she could fight. She could only ache and wait...Her arms went up in a desperate supplication for a minute. It wasn't exactly pleading, it was asking questions. (Hurston, 169, my italics)
The presence of God in this novel may in fact be one of the reasons Janie feels it is no use to talk to incompetent audiences. In this passage, she feels "it wasn't anything she could fight," which mirrors many of the reasons why she so often chose to stay silent rather than speaking up. Perhaps in this novel, God may not be dead, but as the past creates Jake and Brett in The Sun Also Rises, God and Fate create characters resigned to destiny in Their Eyes Were Watching God. After all, since the beginning Janie has been waiting for something, waiting for someone to provide her with her bee. By the end, Janie seems satisfied, but we, as readers, should examine whether we had open minds and ears enough to even be worthy of hearing her story.

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