The Death of Janie Crawford: Tragedy and the American Dream in 'Their Eyes Were Watching God.' (Special Issue: Varieties of Ethnic Criticism)

By Hattenhauer, Darryl | MELUS, Spring 1994 | Go to article overview
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The Death of Janie Crawford: Tragedy and the American Dream in 'Their Eyes Were Watching God.' (Special Issue: Varieties of Ethnic Criticism)


Hattenhauer, Darryl, MELUS


In her tribute to Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker acknowledges that Hurston could sometimes be paradoxical. For example, her feminism and her ethnic pride seem not to correspond with her conservative politics. Not surprisingly, then, Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, has long been recognized as sometimes contradictory and often evasive. Robert E. Hemenway notes that "style in Dusf Tracks becomes a kind of camouflage, an escape from articulating the paradoxes of her personality" (xxxviii). But it is not just her life and her narrative about it that are contradictory. Of her prose in general, Henry Louis Gates says that "hers is a rhetoric of division" (1990, 296). And of Their Eyes Were Watching God in particular, he characterizes the narration as "a divided voice, a double voice unreconciled" (294).

Similarly, recent scholarship on Their Eyes finds that this complex narrative is underlain by a subtext that subverts the surface text. Susan Willis argues that despite the text's apparent affirmation of black life, Hurston overlooks the realities of class:

She chooses not to depict the northern migration of black people,

which brought Hurston herself to New York and a college degree and

brought thousands of other rural blacks to the metropolis and wage

labor. In this, Hurston sets a precedent in black women's writing that

will leave unexplored the possibility of a black working-class culture

in this country. (48)

More specifically, Willis finds that Hurston's treatment of farm labor minimizes the effects of exploitation:

Janie and Tea Cake are really not inscribed within the economics of the

"muck." If they plant and harvest beans, they do so because they enjoy

fieldwork and because it allows them to live in the heart of southern

black cultural production. They are not, like many of the other migrant

workers, bowed down by debts and kids.... Janie, with a large inheritance

in the bank, need not work at all and Tea Cake, whose forte is

gambling, need never accept a job unless he wants it. (49)

Similarly, Jennifer Jordan argues that Janie, who is married to Eatonville's mayor and chief property owner, is a privileged bourgeois. For some, Janie even bears comparison with the canonical characters of the dominant culture's literary tradition, those Adamic isolatoes who leave home and venture into space. Michael Awkward, for example, notes that Janie "envisions herself as Adam--a signal creation without a mate" and outside of history (19). And James Krasner finds that "Janie's life story is built on the male model," (117). It seems fitting, then, that in her autobiography Hurston takes pride in her patrimony: "The village of Eatonville is still governed by the laws formulated by my father" (13). To these new departures in Hurston criticism, I will add that Janie is dying in the end, that she denies her impending death, that she is an eternal adolescent, that it is Janie more than Nanny who affirms the values of the dominant culture, and that Hurston has written a complex and ironic study of the psychology of denial.

As the literally rabid Tea Cake dies, he bites Janie on the arm. And he does it so severely that she has to pry his teeth out of her flesh. Yet there is no explicit statement to indicate whether or not Janie gets anti-rabies shots.(1) Either Hurston was so lacking in narrative ability that she suggested her protagonist's infection with rabies and then failed to resolve the situation, or Hurston made the resolution implicit. Several foreshadowings suggest the latter. The announcement of Tea Cake's death in the beginning (the first chapter in this flashback plot includes some events from the end of the story) imparts the fated quality of tragedy. In the beginning, Janie is returning from Tea Cake's death, and she conceives of her life as "a great tree in leaf with the things suffered" (20).

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