Academic journal article African American Review

"The Hierarchy Itself": Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Sacrifice of Narrative Authority

Academic journal article African American Review

"The Hierarchy Itself": Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Sacrifice of Narrative Authority

Article excerpt

The authoritarian relation between the one who commands and the one who obeys rests neither on common reason nor on the power of the one who commands; what they have in common is the hierarchy itself, whose rightness and legitimacy both recognize and where both have their predetermined stable place. (Arendt 93)

There was something about Joe Starks that cowed the town. It was not because of physical fear. He was no fist fighter. His bulk was not even imposing as men go. Neither was it because he was more literate than the rest. Something else made men give way before him. He had a bow-down command in his face, and every step he took made the thing more tangible. (Hurston, Their Eyes 44)


As both Hannah Arendt and Zora Neale Hurston recognized, and indeed as most contemporary political scientists and literary critics would agree, authority figures are able to exercise power for reasons that are complex; authority is not a simple matter of physical or intellectual coercion. The social and psychological complexities of power, however, are difficult to articulate. Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God is one extended attempt to articulate these complexities. Even more importantly, Their Eyes offers a critique of more than one model of political authority. Though the novel shows Hurston to be sympathetic to the felt need for African American leadership (about which W. E. B. Du Bois, for example, felt strongly), and even to concede that improved material conditions for African Americans could be bought by adherence to strong leadership, Hurston indicates that the cost of traditional authority is too great. In subscribing to traditional Anglo-American authority patterns, African Americans risk replicating the very means of their oppression, Hurston perceived. Their Eyes, then, represents a troubled search for a "third way," a method for breaking out from the accommodating and replicating patterns of, respectively, Logan Killicks and Joe Starks. (1)

The many recent critics of Their Eyes have frequently read the novel as a celebration of Janie's ability to free herself from the confinement represented by her first two husbands and, after the death of her third husband, Tea Cake Woods, to attain a new form of cultural power, the ability to shape her own story. Henry Louis Gates, for example, claims that Janie discovers her own narrative power when she rhetorically "kills her husband" Joe (192), and that Joe's methods are supplanted by Janie's development of a "communal narration"--one that is inclusive rather than exclusive of the voices within the listening community--which is also Hurston's major innovation in this novel (200, 214). Others who have found in Janie a model of political self-assertion include Alice Walker, Susan Willis, Glynis Carr, Sally Ann Ferguson, Wendy J. McCredie, Jerome E. Thornton, and Robert Hemenway. On the other hand, some critics have found that Hurston illustrates with this novel Janie's highly limited potential for political assertion. Robert Stepto raised this issue at a session at the 1979 MLA convention (Washington, Foreword xi) and does so again in his book From Behind the Veil: "Hurston's curious insistence on having Janie's tale...told by an omniscient third person, rather than by a first-person narrator, implies that Janie has not really won her voice and self after all" (166). Mary Helen Washington concurs in part, agreeing with Stepto that Janie is not empowered but contending that Hurston is intentionally illustrating "women's exclusion from power, particularly from the power of oral speech" ("'I Love'" 98).

Members of both camps--those who regard Janie, in the end, as empowered or defeated--have noticed that Hurston is critiquing the assumptions traditionally held by writers and readers about the uses of narrative prose. One member of the former camp is Sharon Davie. While conceding that Hurston necessarily speaks from "within" the culture she is critiquing, Davie admires Hurston's ability to "create for readers a glimpse of a 'force' excluded from ideologies or languages that assume a binary and hierarchical model of reality," even as this force is "excluded from [Hurston's] ideology and language" (447). …

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