Academic journal article African American Review

Voice and Interiority in Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God.' (Black Women's Culture Issue)

Academic journal article African American Review

Voice and Interiority in Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God.' (Black Women's Culture Issue)

Article excerpt

Consistent critical attention focuses on Janie's voice because, as Michael Awkward has stated, "Perhaps the dominant image in the recent creative and critical writing of Afro-American women [is] the struggle to make articulate a heretofore repressed and silenced black female's story and voice" (Inspiriting 1). For women, silence has crossed every racial and cultural boundary; and silence characterizes Hurston's Janie, who spends the first forty years of her life learning to achieve her voice against the opposition of men and, sometimes, against the opposition of other women. But in the end, she succeeds where many have failed. In her essay "What Do Feminist Critics Want?" Sandra Gilbert says, "Like Wagner's master singers, ...men had the power of speech, [but]...women, like Emily Dickinson, knew that they had, or were supposed to have, the graceful obligation of silence" (34). It is important to question the internal consciousness of each character in Their Eyes, including the purpose behind the male voices, and to examine the ways in which the male voices affect Janie's.

The term interiority refers to an author's relatively full and non-judgmental rendering of the internal consciousness of a character. Hurston, as an informing narrative consciousness, uses interiority in Their Eyes to characterize those who are silent and lack their own voices, as well as to add dimension to those with voices. Throughout the course of the novel, the evolution of the male voices seems to parallel the evolution of Janie's: Increasingly, Janie's men have voices, and her voice develops as her relationships improve. It also seems that Janie's consciousness and the narrator's consciousness fuse into one, which may explain the reason that the reader does not hear Janie's speech at a crucial moment near the end of the novel, during her trial for murder. If the narrator's voice and Janie's voice have melded throughout the novel, then perhaps there is no need for Janie to speak to the reader; her voice is evident through the narrator's (Du Plessis 107-08). Hurston creates this "speakerly text" by fusing "black poetic diction" with "a received but not yet fully appropriated standard English literary tradition" (Gates 174).

Furthermore, passion and control directly correspond to voice and silence as expressed by the four influential men in Janie's Life, three of whom are her husbands. Hurston effectively integrates the men and women of Their Eyes, paralleling Janie's personal growth and achievement to these men, of whom Killicks and Starks represent control and Tea Cake Woods and Johnny Taylor represent passion (Marks 152). John Callahan adds,

In form and theme, Their Eyes pursues the evolving possibilities of intimacy and autonomy. The novel presents Janie's experience and perspective as realities perhaps not yet realized but aspired to on some submerged level of feeling, thought, and speech by black women, women generally, and--such is Hurston's imaginative power--by men as well. (126-27)

To the reader's knowledge, Johnny Taylor says nothing to assist Janie in protesting her marriage to Logan Killicks. He is a teenager Like Janie, and he kisses her (Their Eyes 10). With some qualities similar to Tea Cake's, Taylor symbolizes playfulness, youth, love, innocence, and passion. And when Janie's grandmother spies the young couple kissing, Janie finds herself betrothed to Logan Killicks. Although the kiss ends Taylor's overt role in the novel, and although Janie is unaware of it at the time, Taylor has become a catalyst in her life: "She thought awhile and decided that her conscious life had commenced at Nanny's gate" (Their Eyes 10). It seems unlikely that an elderly, feeble grandmother could have forced a willful granddaughter into marriage--at least not one with a voice of her own. But both Janie and Taylor are truly voiceless; they live without substantive control over their actions and destinies. Taylor is a minor character, and thus a lesser defined mirror of Janie, whereas Logan Killicks, by virtue of his labor, is a propertied man who has achieved material success and can provide his young bride "protection" and financial security. …

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