Academic journal article African American Review

Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' and the Influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen's 'Marie Grubbe.'

Academic journal article African American Review

Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' and the Influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen's 'Marie Grubbe.'

Article excerpt

Despite a great deal of recent interest in the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, her work is still not well understood. For instance, Hurston's autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road bas been described by various critics as being problematic, enigmatic, and paradoxical. In the same vein, the publication of Mule Bone in the form of a casebook presents for the first time the controversy between Hurston and Langston Hughes over the authorship of the play. Henry Louis Gates has indicated that, while" . . . we can recreate the strange series of events!' surrounding the "extremely ugly affair," we "cannot explain Hurston's motivation for denying Hughes's collaboration, which caused the dispute and the ending of their friendship" (11, 14). Yet, with all of the paradoxes and mysteries that surround her, Hurston is widely acclaimed as an innovative and influential novelist of the Harlem Renaissance period, a pioneering anthropologist, a resourceful folklorist, an uncompromising feminist, a flamboyant raconteur, and a charismatic, though eccentric, personality.

Much of Hurston's appeal has emanated from her close identification with Eatonville, Florida, the small black town in which she was born and raised. Because she collected and published folktales from her home town, and based much of her fiction on characters that she had known, it is generally assumed that the sources for much of Hurston's work are to be found in African American folklore. For instance, in the preface to the 1978 edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Sherley Anne Williams mentions "the use of dialect and folklore materials" in that 1937 novel.(1) However, the specific tale which may have inspired the novel has not been identified. One unvoiced assumption has been that Hurston's experience as a collector may have at some point brought her into contact with a folktale in which a womman successively marries three times.

While the reiterative simplicity of the story of a woman who marries three times is a narrative structure that seems indicative of a folkloric origin, it can also be mm as potentially complex enough to serve the formal requirements of a modern novel. Since the plot is accented by the number three, traditionauy a component of magic spells and other folkloric forms, Their Eyes Were Watching God would seem to possess some of the qualities of an authentic folktale. Another theory about the origin of the plot is that the novel was based on Hurston's own life, and M. K. Wainwright has gone so far as to speculate that, like her protagonist Janie, Hurston may have been married to a much older man when she was quite young.

In this essay I would like to explore the proposition that Hurston's novel may have been influenced from a previously unsuspected direction. My speculation is that, early in the process of writing "one of the lesserknown masterpieces of American fiction" (Hemenway, "Soul" xvi), Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston encountered what is today an obscure but brilliant novel by a European male. It is likely that Hurston took violent opposition to the novel which she found offensive because of the portrayal of its female protagonist. According to my reading Hurston chose to respond to the book by creating her own novel, in which she tried to create a more suitable female heroine. In doing so, Hurston, while retaining the general outline of the European text, seems to have discarded many of its elements and rearranged others of its components to suit her own milieu, that of an African American town in central Florida. Hurston not only brought her own thoughts and feelings to the task of creating a new type of fictional portrayal of the life of women, but she also endowed her text with a rich admixture of African American folkways.

She had published Mules and Men, her collection of Florida folklore, just prior to writing Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the Florida setting, the African American vernacular, and the small-town folkways that she had been immersed in while asesmbling that collection constitute important components of Their Eyes. …

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