Zora Neal Hursto as an author
Published 01 Nov 2017
If one ponders the basic constructs of human civilization, it becomes apparent that society was set up to compete with the rest of Nature for food, power, and control. This creates a state in which the human animal feels alienated from the natural world. However, the continual separation of humanity from Nature is just nothing more than an illusion, as humanity can never be separated from their natural environment.
This is an oft-forgotten fact of life, and one that scientists, philosophers, and artists have persisted in communicating through their work. And, in varying degrees of obviousness, many great authors of modernity infused their examinations of modern society with messages of natural unity, which can all too easily be lost amidst noise of everyday human existence. In a tumultuous period that experienced a Great Depression and two world wars, Zora Neal Hurston proved her value as an author, displaying the intricacies of human society and how it is tied intrinsically to Nature. Hurston’s work illustrated themes of Nature through the symbiotic hierarchy of the natural world, the undeniable power of the instincts that drive the reproductive process, and the observable but hardly comprehensible cyclical nature of existence, all relayed through natural imagery and metaphors and making her inclusion in the American literary cannon not only warranted, but essential.
By the dawn of Modernity, the natural themes of the Romantics and transcendentalists were pushed aside for futurism, urbanism, and technology. Society, industry, class-these were the topics of interest to not only the writers of the late nineteenth century, but also the readers. Not until the tragedies of the twentieth century did people begin to clearly understand the violent hierarchy of human society and the natural world, through worldwide famine and disease, technologically precise mass murder, and an ever-increasing system of communication that allowed for the speedy acquisition of knowledge.
Capitalism turned everything into a commodity and the world had no intentions of slowing down. The unique work of Zora Neal Hurston seemed to fly in the face of all of this and struck a blow at the true nature of modernity. In her masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God, through her simple pastoral wisdom and rejection of modern materialistic ideals, Hurston reminds the reader of the oppositional relation between some modernisms and their sometime Other, the cultural commodity (Trombold 85). In her work, the constructs of the human world are contrasted with the natural hierarchy and displayed through Janie and her ongoing quest to define herself in a world of social class, expectations, and her designated role as a black woman in the rural South.
From the beginning of the novel, natural imagery and metaphors abound. Hurston uses natural imagery, including elements of the earth to symbolize emotions in her characters, especially Janie: “The elements of sun and fire cleanse and renew her. The wind, another elemental image, is first heard ‘picking at the pine trees.’ Pine trees, which Janie associates with young black men, like TeaCake, who are often seen ‘picking’ guitars” (Hooks 16). Janie is protected by her loving grandmother, Nanny, who almost takes on an earth mother role to the young girl, nurturing and raising her to be strong. Nanny’s simple wisdom and desire to see Janie safe and happy seem to contradict the ideals of modernity, which sought progress and speed over all else, and call to mind a more pastoral mentality. However, Janie’s quest for self-awareness and her desire for the unknown are more similar to the beliefs of modern women, and despite her grandmother’s best interests for her, Janie wishes for something different, possibly representing the dichotomy between the old ways and the new. Janie’s quest for the great-unknown possibilities is made with an analogy of Nature, in the form of the most expansive thing known in the natural world: the horizon. Allusions to the horizon are made early and often in the novel.
The theme appears on the very first page: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men” (Hurston 175). To Janie, the natural horizon, endless and always out of reach, is for what she must constantly strive. Even dreams flow on the tide, sometimes coming in and sometimes getting lost at sea.
As a young girl, Janie’s natural growth from a girl to a woman is echoed in the natural surroundings: “Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery” (186). Like a flower, Janie is blossoming into adulthood, into a new consciousness where the truths of childhood seemed to fade into adult confusion and desire to know her place. “From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears” (186). Janie hears the natural world calling to her, and though she fails to fully understand it, Hurston’s descriptions make her connected to it instead of separate. At a time when the world of modernity moved at a breakneck speed, Janie and her world were completely removed and distant, though more connected to the natural beauty of existence.
“The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness” (186). From the very beginning, it becomes apparent that the story of Janie is not a simple story of a modern girl, but instead a complex story of the many conflicts between modern thought and natural truth. Her desire for independence and freedom is contrasted with her overwhelming natural desires and the unseen force that seems to be calling to her and pushing her.
The theme of nature also seems to have greater significance as a contrast to civilization and possibly, modernity itself. As a resident of Eatonville, Janie experiences the life Nanny always wished for her, with her status as the mayor’s wife and her position at the town store. She has responsibility, comfort, yet she is repressed and lives a life that negates everything she desires. She is a success in civilized society, yet the role she is assigned is one she cares not to have. Contrasted with her life in Eatonville is her life in the Everglades, referred to as “the muck.” While it has none of the creature comforts of Eatonville, no big, white house or manicured lawns, but a wild, untamed freedom that allows Janie to fully blossom and love life. But, the power of Nature and the fragility of life eventually show in the eventual death of Tea Cake, which though perpetrated by Janie, was really caused by the attack of a wild beast, but most importantly the force of the hurricane that allows Janie to see the face of God in Nature.
Janie finally realizes that God’s power and the natural world are one in the same. The hurricane represents the destructive fury of Nature, in direct contrast to the pear tree and the bees, which suggest harmony and peace. But, the impersonal nature of the hurricane and its sheer force make Janie, Tea Cake, and the others who bare witness to its power question just what it is they see. As they huddled in their shanty, “their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God” (305).
This force of Nature is the force of God, and Janie finally begins to realize her connection to the natural world. Writer Dolan Hubbard argues that being suspended between life and death just before the storm represents Janie’s finest hour, “a religious response born of her having to come to terms with the impenetrable majesty of the divine” (Curren 21). With the advantage of experience, observation, and time, Janie finally finds God in Nature and with it peace, as “she pulled in her horizon like a great fish net” (Hurston 333). Through the framed recollection of her personal evolution, “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches” (181). Hurston continuously reiterates the cyclical nature of life, the natural balance, and the naturalistic acceptance of powers beyond the grasp of humanity; Janie finally becomes one with Nature, and her final connection with the natural world is further appreciated when viewed against Hurston’s use of magical realism while depicting Nature.
From the contribution of her masterwork, Zora Neal Hurston not only transcended the simple description as an African American author, but she also transcended the conventions of modernity by offering a unique view of American life. Though it may be difficult for modern humans to see their connection to the natural world, it is simply from a lack of understanding, and Hurston’s work made this connection to all things apparent. With the growing alienation brought with modernity, Hurston showed that humans can never be separate, no matter what walls they build, philosophies they adopt, or institutions they create. With a modern human world absorbed almost completely in societal values and constructs, Nature can often seem like more of an intrusion than an ally. But, Hurston shows that Nature is omnipresent, and like Janie, humans can see it with open eyes and open minds. The laws of the natural world are set, and it is up to humans to discover them. Hurston deserves entry into the literary cannon if only for creating work showing that humans will continue to fail in the quest to understand existence if they continue to separate themselves from Nature, and refuse to accept that human society is nothing but a part of a larger natural system.
- Curren, Erik D. “Should Their Eyes Have Been Watching God?: Hurston’s Use of Religious. Experience and Gothic Horror.” African American Review. Vol. 29, No. 1 (Spring, 1995), pp. 17-25.
- Hooks, Rita Daly. “Conjured into Being: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their eyes were watching God.” Florida Heritage Collection. 19 November 1990. 10 April 2008. http://fulltext10.fcla.edu/cgi/t/text/text-idx?c=fhp&idno=SF00000012&format=pdf .
- Hurston, Zora Neale. “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Novels & Stories. Ed. Cheryl A. Wall. New York: Literary Classics of the United States, Inc, 1995. 173-333.
- Trombold, John. “The Minstrel Show Goes to the Great War: Zora Neale Hurston’s Mass Cultural Other.” MELUS. Vol. 24, No. 1, African American Literature (Spring, 1999), pp. 85-107.