Second Hurston Lecture

I began by reminding everyone that the second essay is due 2 weeks from today SEE THIS PAGE ).
Then, without meaning to, went on to give a great example of what not to do in your essay by talking in generalizations about Their Eyes Were Watching God as a great change of pace from the pattern we've been following through the semester. Pheoby tells Janie that she's "done growed ten feet higher from jus' listenin'" to her story (p. 192). We began the semester with Whitman and literary Romanticism, with that kosmic "Me Myself" he celebrates, then moved on to literary Realism and the attempt to depict a more "life-sized" self, then got to literary Naturalism, which defines the individual as infinitely smaller than and (almost? entirely?) at the mercy of circumstances, which is the essential concept of character literary Modernists like Hemingway and Faulkner also deploy. By the end of Janie's story, on the other hand, her self has been fulfilled, found what it was looking for, come home from exile, &c. &c.
There's more than one way to understand how she achieves that. We looked at how contemporary African American writers like Alice Walker and Helen Washington see her story as a kind of slave narrative, about Janie's quest for freedom or, as Washington puts it in the preface to our edition, "autonomy, self-realization and independence" (p. xvi). In this account, she triumphs over, specifically, her bad marriages to Logan and Joe. But to me the novel is not making any kind of feminist case against marriage. That word first comes up while Janie is under the pear tree, and associated with natural fulfillment: "So this was a marriage!" she thinks, when the bee "sink[s] into the sanctum of a bloom" (p. 11).
I read the story as essentially a love story, about the way with Tea Cake, Janie finally finds "a bee for her bloom" (pages 32, 106). It's almost paradoxical that, with all this imagery of bees and flowers, Janie never has a child, but Pheoby tells her "you looks like youse yo' own daughter" (p. 4): it is through love/being loved that Janie gives birth to her self, the self that she has to kill Tea Cake to preserve at the end. Love and freedom are almost antonyms, but I tried to show through a series of passages how the novel connects the achievement of a sense of self up with being loved. As Tea Cake says, Janie has "got de keys to de kingdom" (p. 109), but as "de Apostle Paul tuh de Gentiles" (p. 104) his role is to show her her own value (cf. her "transfiguation," for example -- p. 105). In this respect Hurston's story revises Romanticism's claims for the self: for example, on the muck Janie acquires a voice too, and can tell stories (vs. the way Joe silenced her on the porch of the store), but acquires that voice "from listening to the rest" (p. 134). I.e. we watch her self develop reciprocally, through her relationships with others.
At the end I asked about the scene that has been so problematic for many of the novel's contemporary commentators, the scene where Tea Cake beats Janie (pp. 147-48). I pointed out how in our time we're likely to italicize this episode, and wonder at the apparent acceptance with which the narrator describes it. I asked how many had noticed that just two chapters earlier, Janie beats Tea Cake, and for exactly the same reason -- jealousy (cf. pp. 137-38). I was hoping to get more of a conversation started, but at least suggested two things: the way the depiction of these events, vs. the way it depicts the scene in which Joe hits Janie (p. 71), suggests that for the novel, love makes all the difference -- and the way the novel represents the black folk culture Tea Cake and Janie share as violent, physical, sensuous, in ways that might not sit comfortably with our contemporary "politically correct" beliefs, but might nonetheless give us another way to consider Richard Wright's objections to the novel in its time. . . .
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