Should Their Eyes Have Been Watching God? Hurston's Use of Religious Experience and Gothic Horror

By Curren, Erik D. | African American Review, Spring 1995 | Go to article overview

Should Their Eyes Have Been Watching God? Hurston's Use of Religious Experience and Gothic Horror


Curren, Erik D., African American Review


The title of a literary work may be leading or misleading, but it is often a good place to start an analysis. When title words or phrases are repeated inside the text, connecting them to the specific place where they appear seems to offer the promise of a key for decoding the meaning of the whole work. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a suggestive but perplexing title for Hurston's Bildungsroman of a woman's self-discovery through a quest for meaningful community. Dolan Hubbard attempts to illuminate the title by relating it to the place where its words appear in the body of Hurston's text, and analyzing it within the context of sermons and religious language. It is placed in the text just when Janie and the other folk bean pickers are beginning to realize the awesome power of the storm on the Everglades, and how weak they are when faced with God's power. Hubbard finds that the title words signal a religious transcendence of white oppression:

The storm in this, Janie's last movement toward the horizon, symbolizes the struggle the corporate black community has to come to terms with in the oppressor's negation of its image. Out of this negation, the mythic consciousness seeks a new beginning in the future by imagining an original beginning. The social implications of this religious experience enable the oppressed community to dehistoricize the oppressor's hegemonic dominance. Metaphorically, the phrase their eyes were watching God means the creation of a new form of humanity - one that is no longer based on the master-slave dialectic. (176)

I would argue, however, just the opposite: that the title phrase, placed in the text at this particular point, demonstrates just how dependent on the master-slave dialectic and the principle of authority the Everglades folk community really is for Hurston. The title provides a clue to the complexity of her narrative and her ambivalence concerning the possibility of truly autonomous African American folk life.

Hubbard's interpretation accords with much Hurston criticism that Their Eyes is an "affirmative" text, an optimistic portrayal of a vital and creative black folk world completely separate from the hierarchy-conscious Jim Crow South. To take a well-known example, Alice Walker cites Hurston as an example of black "racial health" for her refusal to dwell on the depredations of racism and white prejudice, and for focusing instead on vital and creative African American folk life. For Walker, Hurston's work presents "a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings, a sense that is lacking in so much black writing and literature" (xii-xiii). It is certainly true that, in contrast to many "protest" novels, most notably Wright's Native Son, Their Eyes creates a space for rural black folk culture, both in Hurston's own native town of Eatonville, and in the folk community of the Florida Everglades.(1) In the first parts of the novel, these isolated black communities serve as the backdrop for the optimistic story of Janie's quest for self-discovery.

On the other hand, there is much in Their Eyes that is not optimistic and uplifting, but tragic and frightening, especially in the last quarter of the story, beginning with the storm on the Everglades: the "monstropolous" and menacing Lake Ocheechobee, grotesque encounters with the bodies of those caught in the storm, the mad dog that bites Tea Cake and gives him rabies, the body-burying detail in Palm Beach, and, perhaps most frightening of all, the evil transformation from loving angel to homicidal devil that rabies works on Tea Cake. All these horrors accord ill with the positive tone of Janie's life before the storm and signal, I would argue, an intentional genre change on Hurston's part, a switch from optimistic quest to gothic horror. While Their Eyes is certainly about the creativity and vitality of the black folk community, the book is far more than a propagandistic exercise in racial "uplift. …

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