Analysis of Zora Neale Hurston’s Novels

For much of her career, Zora Neale Hurston (1891 –1960) was dedicated to the presentation of black folk culture. She introduced readers to hoodoo, folktales, lying contests, spirituals, the blues, sermons, children’s games, riddles, playing the dozens, and, in general, a highly metaphoric folk idiom. Although she represented black folk culture in several genres, Hurston was drawn to the novel form because it could convey folklore as communal behavior. Hurston knew that much of the unconscious artistry of folklore appears in the gestures and tones in which it is expressed and that it gains much of its meaning in performance. Even Mules and Men, the folklore collection she completed just before embarking on her first novel (although it was published after Jonah’s Gourd Vine), “novelizes” what could have been an anthology of disconnected folk materials. By inventing a narrator who witnesses, even participates in, the performance of folk traditions, she combated the inevitable distortion of an oral culture by its textual documentation.

Zora-Neale-Hurston-96801589a1-56aa21c93df78cf772ac84bcHurston’s motives for presenting black folklore were, in part, political. She wanted to refute contemporary claims that African Americans lacked a distinct culture of their own. Her novels depict the unconscious creativity of the African American proletariat or folk. They represent community members participating in a highly expressive communication system that taught them to survive racial oppression and, moreover, to respect themselves and their community. At the beginning of Hurston’s second novel, for example, the community’s members are sitting on porches. “Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins” all day, but now it is night, work is over, and they can talk and feel “powerful and human” again: “They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.” By showing the richness and the healthy influence of black folk culture, Hurston hoped not only to defeat racist attitudes but also to encourage racial pride among black people. Why should African Americans wish to imitate a white bourgeoisie? The “Negro lowest down” had a richer culture.

Hurston also had a psychological motive for presenting black folk culture. She drew the folk materials for her novels from the rural, southern black life she knew as a child and subsequently recorded in folklore-collecting trips during the late 1920’s and 1930’s. She had fond memories of her childhood in the all-black town of Eatonville, where she did not experience poverty or racism. In her autobiographical writings, she suggests that she did not even know that she was “black” until she left Eatonville. Finally, in Eatonville, she had a close relationship with and a strong advocate in her mother. In representing the rich culture of black rural southerners, she was also evoking a happier personal past.

Although the novel’s witnessing narrator provided Hurston with the means to dramatize folklore, she also needed meaningful fictional contexts for its presentation. Her novels are a series of attempts to develop such contexts. Initially, she maintained the southern rural setting for black folk traditions. In her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, she re-created Eatonville and neighboring Florida towns. Hurston also loosely re-created her parents’ lives with the central characters, John and Lucy Pearson. Though Hurston claimed that an unhappy love affair she had had with a man she met in New York was the catalyst for her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, the feeling rather than the details of that affair appear in the novel. The work takes the reader back to Eatonville again and to the porch-sitting storytellers Hurston knew as a child.

Moses, Man of the Mountain
With her third novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, however, Hurston turned in a new direction, leaving the Eatonville milieu behind. The novel retells the biblical story of Moses via the folk idiom and traditions of black rural southerners. Hurston leaves much of the plot of the biblical story intact—Moses does lead the Hebrews out of Egypt—but, for example, she shows Moses to be a great hoodoo doctor as well as a leader and lawgiver. In effect, Hurston simulated the creative processes of folk culture, transforming the story of Moses for modern African Americans just as slaves had adapted biblical stories in spirituals. Hurston may have re-enacted an oral and communal process as a solitary writer, but she gave an imaginative rendering of the cultural process all the same.

Seraph on the Suwanee
Seraph on the Suwanee, Hurston’s last novel, marks another dramatic shift in her writing. With this novel, however, she did not create a new context for the representation of folk culture. Rather, she turned away from the effort to present black folklore. Seraph on the Suwanee is set in the rural South, but its central characters are white. Hurston apparently wanted to prove that she could write about white people as well as black people, a desire that surfaced, no doubt, in response to the criticism and disinterest her work increasingly faced during the 1940’s. Yet, even when writing of upwardly mobile southern “crackers,” Hurston could not entirely leave her previous mission behind. Her white characters, perhaps unintentionally, often use the black folk idiom.

Although Hurston’s novels, with the exception of the last, create contexts or develop other strategies for the presentation of folklore, they are not simply showcases for folk traditions; black folk culture defines the novels’ themes. The most interesting of these thematic renderings appear in Hurston’s first two novels. Hurston knew that black folk culture was composed of brilliant adaptations of African culture to American life. She admired the ingenuity of these adaptations but worried about their preservation. Would a sterile, materialistic white world ultimately absorb African Americans, destroying the folk culture they had developed? Her first two novels demonstrate the disturbing influence of white America on black folkways.

Jonah’s Gourd Vine
Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Hurston’s first novel, portrays the tragic experience of a black preacher caught between black cultural values and the values imposed by his white-influenced church. The novel charts the life of John Pearson, laborer, foreman, and carpenter, who discovers that he has an extraordinary talent for preaching. With his linguistic skills and his wife Lucy’s wise counsel, he becomes pastor of the large church Zion Hope and ultimately moderator of a Florida Baptist convention. His sexual promiscuity, however, eventually destroys his marriage and his career.

Though his verbal skills make him a success while his promiscuity ruins him, the novel shows that both his linguistic gifts and his sexual vitality are part of the same cultural heritage. His sexual conduct is pagan, and so is his preaching. In praying, according to the narrator, it was as if he “rolled his African drum up to the altar, and called his Congo Gods by Christian names.” Both aspects of his cultural heritage speak through him. Indeed, they speak through all members of the African American community, if most intensely through John. A key moment early in the novel, when John crosses over Big Creek, marks the symbolic beginning of his life and shows the double cultural heritage he brings to it. John heads down to the Creek, “singing a new song and stomping the beats.” He makes up “some words to go with the drums of the Creek,” with the animal noises in the woods, and with the hound dog’s cry. He begins to think about the girls living on the other side of Big Creek: “John almost trumpeted exultantly at the new sun. He breathed lustily. He stripped and carried his clothes across, then recrossed and plunged into the swift water and breasted strongly over.”

To understand why two expressions of the same heritage have such different effects on John’s life, one has to turn to the community to which he belongs. Members of his congregation subscribe to differing views of the spiritual life. The view most often endorsed by the novel emerges from the folk culture. As Larry Neal, one of Hurston’s best critics, explains in his introduction to the 1971 reprint of the novel, that view belongs to “a formerly enslaved communal society, non-Christian in background,” which does not strictly dichotomize body and soul. The other view comes out of a white culture. It is “more rigid, being a blend of Puritan concepts and the fire-and-brimstone imagery of the white evangelical tradition.” That view insists that John, as a preacher, exercise self-restraint. The cultural conflict over spirituality pervades his congregation. Although the deacons, whom Hurston often portrays satirically, pressure him to stop preaching, he still has some loyal supporters among his parishioners.

White America’s cultural styles and perceptions invade Pearson’s community in other ways as well. By means of a kind of preaching competition, the deacons attempt to replace Pearson with the pompous Reverend Felton Cozy, whose preaching style is white. Cozy’s style, however, fails to captivate most members of the congregation. Pearson is a great preacher in the folk tradition, moving his congregation to a frenzy with “barbaric thunder-poems.” By contrast, Cozy, as one of the parishioners complains, does not give a sermon; he lectures. In an essay Hurston wrote on “The Sanctified Church,” she explains this reaction: “The real, singing Negro derides the Negro who adopts the white man’s religious ways. . . . They say of that type of preacher, ‘Why he don’t preach at all. He just lectures.’”

If Pearson triumphs over Cozy, he nevertheless ultimately falls. His sexual conduct destroys his marriage and leads to an unhappy remarriage with one of his mistresses, Hattie Tyson. He is finally forced to stop preaching at Zion Hope. Divorced from Hattie, he moves to another town, where he meets and marries Sally Lovelace, a woman much like Lucy. With her support, he returns to preaching. On a visit to a friend, however, he is tempted by a young prostitute and, to his dismay, succumbs. Although he has wanted to be faithful to his new wife, he will always be a pagan preacher, spirit and flesh. Fleeing back to Sally, he is killed when a train strikes his car.

In its presentation of folklore and its complex representation of cultural conflict, Jonah’s Gourd Vine is a brilliant first novel, although Hurston does not always make her argument sufficiently clear. The novel lacks a consistent point of view. Though she endorses Pearson’s African heritage and ridicules representatives of white cultural views, she also creates an admirable and very sympathetic character in Lucy Pearson, who is ruined by her husband’s pagan behavior. Hurston did not seem to know how to resolve the cultural conflict she portrayed—hence, the deus ex machine ending. It was not until she wrote her next novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, that Hurston learned to control point of view and presented a solution to the problem of white influences on black culture.

Their Eyes Were Watching God
The life of Janie Crawford, the heroine of Their Eyes Were Watching God, is shaped by bourgeois values—white in origin. She finds love and self-identity only by rejecting that life and becoming a wholehearted participant in black folk culture. Her grandmother directs Janie’s entrance into adulthood. Born into slavery, the older woman hopes to find protection and materialistic comforts for Janie in a marriage to the property-owning Logan Killicks. Janie, who has grown up in a different generation, does not share her grandmother’s values. When she finds she cannot love her husband, she runs off with Jody Stark, who is on his way to Eatonville, where he hopes to become a “big voice,” an appropriate phrase for life in a community that highly values verbal ability. Jody becomes that “big voice” as mayor of the town, owner of the general store, and head of the post office. He lives both a bourgeois and a folk life in Eatonville. He constructs a big house—the kind white people have—but he wanders out to the porch of the general store whenever he wants to enjoy the perpetual storytelling that takes place there. Even though Janie has demonstrated a talent for oratory, however, he will not let her join these sessions or participate in the mock funeral for a mule that has become a popular character in the townspeople’s stories. “He didn’t,” the narrator suggests, “want her talking after such trashy people.” As Janie tells a friend years later, Jody “classed me off.” He does so by silencing her.

For several years, Janie has no voice in the community or in her private life. Her life begins to seem unreal: “She sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending store and prostrating itself before Jody.” One day, after Stark insults her in front of customers in the store, however, she speaks out and, playing the dozens, insults his manhood. The insult causes an irreconcilable break between them.

After Jody’s death, Janie is courted by Tea CakeWoods, a laborer with little money. Though many of her neighbors disapprove of the match, Janie marries him. “Dis ain’t no business proposition,” she tells her friend Pheoby, “and no race after property and titles. Dis is uh love game. Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah mens tuh live mine.” Marriage to Tea Cake lowers her social status but frees her from her submissive female role, from her shadow existence. Refusing to use her money, Tea Cake takes her down to the Everglades, where they become migrant workers. She picks beans with him in the fields, and he helps her prepare their dinners. With Tea Cake, she also enters into the folk culture of the Everglades, and that more than anything else enables her to shed her former submissive identity. Workers show up at their house every night to sing, dance, gamble, and, above all, to talk, like the folks in Eatonville on the front porch of the general store. Janie learns how to tell “big stories” from listening to the others, and she is encouraged to do so.

This happy phase of Janie’s life ends tragically as she and Tea Cake attempt to escape a hurricane and the ensuing flood. Tea Cake saves Janie from drowning but, in the process, is bitten by a rabid dog. Sick and crazed, he tries to shoot Janie. She is forced to kill him in self-defense. Not everything she has gained during her relationship with Tea Cake, however, dies with him. The strong self-identity she has achieved while living in the Everglades enables her to withstand the unjust resentment of their black friends as well as her trial for murder in a white court. Most important, she is able to endure her own loss and returns to Eatonville, self-reliant and wise. Tea Cake, she knows, will live on in her thoughts and feelings—and in her words. She tells her story to her friend Pheoby—that storytelling event frames the novel—and allows Pheoby to bring it to the other members of the community. As the story enters the community’s oral culture, it will influence it. Indeed, as the novel closes, Janie’s story has already affected Pheoby. “Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you,” she tells Janie. “Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo’.”

In her novels, Hurston did not represent the oppression of black people because she refused to view African American life as impoverished. If she would not focus on white racism, however, her novels do oppose white culture. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie does not find happiness until she gives up a life governed by white values and enters into the verbal ceremonies of black folk culture. Loving celebrations of a separate black folk life were Hurston’s effective political weapon; racial pride was one of her great gifts to American literature. “Sometimes, I feel discriminated against,” she once told her readers, “but it does not make me angry. It merely astonishes me. How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It’s beyond me.”

Major works
Long fiction: Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1934; Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937; Moses, Man of the Mountain, 1939; Seraph on the Suwanee, 1948.
Short fiction: Spunk: The Selected Short Stories of Zora Neale Hurston, 1985; The Complete Stories, 1995.
Plays: Color Struck, pb. 1926; The First One, pb. 1927; Mule Bone, pb. 1931 (with Langston Hughes); Polk County, pb. 1944, pr. 2002.\
Nonfiction: Mules and Men, 1935; Tell My Horse, 1938; Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942; The Sanctified Church, 1981; Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, 1995; Go Gator and Muddy theWater: Writings, 1999 (Pamela Bordelon, editor); Every Tongue Got to Confess: Negro Folk-tales from the Gulf States, 2001; Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters, 2002 (Carla Kaplan, editor).
Miscellaneous: I Love Myself When I Am Laughing . . . and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader, 1979.

Source: Notable American Novelists Revised Edition Volume 1 James Agee — Ernest J. Gaines Edited by Carl Rollyson Salem Press, Inc 2008.

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Categories: African Literature, American Literature, Literary Criticism, Literary Theory, Literature

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