Virginia School Isn’t For Lovers
In keeping with Women’s History Month, here is a review of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God. As interesting and enduring as this book is on its own, I find it most fascinating when analyzed alongside another classic piece of feminist literature, Herland. One is a coming of age and into one’s own story about a woman’s life amidst the backdrop of 20th century American race relations. One is a speculative fiction adventure story/political treatise about three male explorers who discover a thriving all-female society isolated from the rest of the world (think Themyscira from Wonder Woman).
Both are written by American women, though of different races. Both are required reading for women’s studies or women’s literature but offer drastically different and irreconcilable views of women’s liberation, what that means, and how to get there. I actually wrote a paper in college contrasting the two called “Unfurling the Rose: on sexuality and independence in Herland and Their Eyes Were Watching God”. Considering my latest post on the diversity of definitions, ideals, and expressions of feminism, I thought this might be an interesting conversation starter. Wherever you lie on the feminist spectrum (if even you are on it at all), I highly recommend both books as they raise interesting questions about love, sexuality, independence, and the place of women in the public sphere.
THE DEFENDANT: Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston
THE VERDICT: Challenged in a Virginia high school after parental objections to the material.
THE CHARGES: The challenge decried the book as sexually explicit and containing offensive language (see above link).
THE REVIEW: Their Eyes Were Watching God is a compelling book about one woman’s journey from inexperienced girl to independent woman as the greater African American community seeks to find a place for itself. Janie’s early life is shaped by many forces seeking to control her: her grandmother, the scars left on her family by the man who raped her mother, her first husband who uses her as a servant, and her second husband who puts her on display as a pretty but unattainable bauble. She and her second husband, Jody, make a life for themselves (and the greater community) by establishing an all-black town. However, in many ways, Janie’s life only really begins when Jody dies and she is free to run it herself.
At first her life does not change much, except that she literally lets her hair down, as her husband had forced her to keep it hidden. However, by burning her hair rags and letting her hair show, Janie is quietly but assuredly reclaiming the sexuality lost to her since she was a naive girl first seeking a sexual awakening beneath the pear tree. Janie takes up with a man named Tea Cake, much to the chagrin of local gossipers. This leads to a love affair and many rewarding experiences working alongside Tea Cake. However, after his tragic death, she returns home. She rejects those spreading rumors about her and goes back to being Janie, a woman who does what she wants and holds her head high, regardless of what others may say.
What is most fascinating here is that, while sex and men are often forces used to control Janie, becoming a sexual being and controlling her own sexuality are not only a hindrance to independence but the path to it. Janie must gain experience (particularly sexual experience) in order to gain agency over her own life and become a woman, rather than a girl under the thumb of others. She goes from having men stare at her to having men cover her up to finally displaying her own sexuality as she sees fit. Her return to running her own home after Tea Cake’s death shows that, though she loved him, she is whole without him. He was a nice addition to her life, but not one she can’t live without. Janie is a sexual being whether or not she is currently sexually active. The point is she can be.
This is in direct conflict with the message of Herland, where sex must be completely removed from the picture in order for women to achieve liberation. Charlotte Perkins Gilman herself decried sex not for the purpose of procreation, viewing sex either as a path to motherhood or a violent aberration, with little wiggle room in between. For more on this, I highly recommend Kathleen Margaret Lant’s “The Rape of the Text: Charlotte Gilman’s Violation of Herland” and Carla Kaplan’s “‘That Oldest Human Longing’: The Erotics of Talk in Their Eyes Were Watching God”.
The text does an excellent job portraying Janie’s liminal status throughout life. As a child she lacks control, but clearly has an effect on others. She is black, but is attractive largely due to her “white” features (lighter, straighter hair and lighter skin). While this is somewhat uncomfortable, it shows a historical tension that Janie can either struggle with or embrace. The town mirrors this tension, as it is an act of independence but imitates the model provided by the status quo, bringing up issues of who defines how we define ourselves. When married to Jody, Janie lives a life of comparative privilege, but is lonely being “classed off” from her neighbors. Similarly, though she seems to outrank the other people in town, she has little to no power over her own life until Jody is out of the picture. It seems that both Their Eyes Were Watching God and Herland agree that men’s influence must be removed on some level for women to come into their own, but Hurston sees no problem with their reintroduction on one’s own terms whereas the tension of men intruding into Herland remains largely destructive and unresolved.
In the end, Their Eyes Were Watching God is at once a love song to sexual longing and discovery, as well as a declaration of independence. Though integrally tied to a specific time, people, and place, readers of any race or gender should be able to find something of themselves in a journey to finding one’s self and one’s place in the world.
THE DEFENSE: This book is sexual. No two ways about it. Even as an innocent, inexperienced girl, Janie’s time by the pear tree is loaded with sexualized language and imagery. As Kaplan states, “Reduced to its basic narrative components, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of a young woman in search of an orgasm.” It is through sexual discovery and liberation that Janie comes into her own and becomes a confident, experienced adult. This is something many people can relate to, but if you don’t want to read about sex, don’t read it.
This book certainly isn’t appropriate to go handing out at an elementary school, but I see no reason why high school students wouldn’t be able to handle it. They may not be able to relate to all the situations (though many may understand them better than their parents), but it certainly doesn’t contain anything that would shock a high school student, even one who has limited or no experience with sex or sexuality firsthand. This is a largely sex positive book; some parents might like that, some might abhor it. However, the message of independence, taking control of one’s own life and choices, and doing things (sexual or otherwise) on one’s own terms is one high schoolers may benefit from.