Tag Archives: Zora Neale Hurston

Roles of Race and Gender in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

In “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston explores the effects of race and gender on developing one’s identity. There is often a discrepancy between personal identity and the identity formed exogenously by members of society, which makes it difficult to develop a true understanding of oneself. In Hurston’s novel, Janie is able to move past the opinions others have of her and become the woman she wants to be, but not before she is subjected to the limitations placed on her as a result of being a black woman. Hurston’s symbolic use of the mule, a pear tree in blossom, and Janie’s hair illustrate the development of Janie’s womanhood and independence, as well as her ultimate triumph over her domineering husbands and the constrained society in which she lives.

Normally, when one thinks of race and discrimination, the focus is on one race putting another down. However, in some cases, members of the same race can be just as discriminatory and unsupportive of one another. Hurston explores this idea of inner-race discrimination in her fictional depiction of Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville serves as a way for black people to escape from the racism present in the rest of the United States (Patterson 34). However, this enclave of racial separateness is not lacking in discrimination. Upon the arrival of Joe Starks and Janie to the town, several members of the all-black community question Joe’s aspirations. One such member, Amos Hicks, voices his doubts by saying that “us colored folks is too envious of one ‘nother,” and that’s why any sort of progress is unlikely (“Their Eyes” 48). Furthermore, he says that though the common belief is that the white man keeps the black race from progressing, it is really the entire black community that keeps any one of its members from moving forward (“Their Eyes” 48). It is either the belief that the proverbial white man would not allow the black man to progress or it is being stuck in their oppressive past that keeps the black race from accepting any attempts by one of their members to advance in society.

In actuality, white people are rarely present in the novel. Much of Janie’s tale takes place in Eatonville, which is by its nature an all-black community (“Their Eyes” 35). The white people who are present tend to fade into the background, such as the women who make up “the white part of the room” during Janie’s trial (“Their Eyes” 223). The minute role of white people in the story parallels the inferiority of blacks in the rest of society during a time when racial discrimination was prevalent in the United States. During the early 1900’s, which is when this story takes place, slavery was nonexistent, but racial discrimination was running rampant throughout the country. Jim Crow laws were instituted in the South to make life difficult for black people.

Though white people are uncommon in the story, it is not unusual for the black characters to imitate typical white behavior. For example, Nanny wishes for Janie to act out the role of the white woman by marrying a respectable man (“Their Eyes” 20). Nanny felt the effects of the constraining view toward black women – she took care of a white woman’s children, a job that was typical for a black woman – and hopes that Janie will have a life free from burden. Nanny believes the black woman to be the mule of the world (“Their Eyes” 20). The mule motif factors heavily into the entire story and is used to demonstrate the burden that society puts on members of the black minority.

Not only is Janie black, but she is also a woman. Going back to Nanny’s metaphor, the white man orders the black man around, but the black man transfers his burden to “his womenfolks” (“Their Eyes” 19). This first mention of the mule sets the tone for the rest of the story; Janie is a mule in the sense that she must carry the burden her husbands place on her, but she is also beat down by the expectations placed on her by society. Nanny expects her to live an unburdened life, but each of Janie’s husbands in not content with maintaining this ideal (Meisenhelder 63). This is not just a story about racial discrimination; it also describes the plight of femininity, particular that of the black woman. The mule comes to represent female identity, in the sense that both mules and women must be controlled by their owners and husbands (Dilbeck 103). Matt Bonner, a member of the Eatonville community, is criticized for not being able to control his mule and ends up selling it to Joe (“Their Eyes” 70). Janie empathizes with the mule, because both she and it were subjected to a controlling master. Once Joe dies and Janie is free from that control, the mule motif does not reappear in the story, because Janie has been freed from her burden (Dilbeck 103).

Because Eatonville is an all-black community, Janie’s gender plays a greater role in how she is viewed by society. She, and often women in general, has the misfortune of being known only in reference to her husband. Rather than “Janie Starks,” she is called “Mrs. Mayor” (“Their Eyes” 56). Joe Starks is another character who mimics typical white behavior due to the absence of white people within the story. After working for “white folks all [his] life,” he’s ready to “be a big voice” (“Their Eyes” 35). Hurston paints Joe as a “false model of black manhood” by emphasizing his unhappiness to stay within his predetermined role (Meisenhelder 65). Tired of being ordered about, Joe adopts the persona of a white man, subjecting the black members of the community to his command. With a “bow-down command in his face,” Joe fosters economic growth in Eatonville, but mostly for his own benefit (“Their Eyes” 57). Rather than strive to improve the lives of his fellow black men, Joe continues the tradition of seeing black men as inferior, though from an economic standpoint. Because of this sort of oppression, the people of Eatonville debate over whether or not Joe should be able to boss them around; after all, slavery has ended and they have as much of a right to power as he does (“Their Eyes” 58). Still, it’s hard to rise above Joe’s control. The people of Eatonville are offset from the rest of white-dominated America, but they still experience economic inferiority.

Though Joe is himself a black man, he instead exhibits the traits of a white man; everyone else in society is beneath him, especially Janie. When in his presence, Janie compartmentalizes herself to better suit Joe’s expectations of her. She is forced to wear her long hair in a head-rag, because Joe tells her that it isn’t “sensible” to let it hang loose, when really he is jealous of the way other people admire it (“Their Eyes” 66). Janie’s hair becomes a symbol of her womanhood and individuality; it’s what makes her “stand out as independent and powerful” (Dilbeck 103). Her hair is a popular conversation topic, as demonstrated by Janie’s return to Eatonville at the beginning of the novel; the townsfolk talk about “the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume” (“Their Eyes” 4). Janie experiences a discrepancy between her public self and the woman blossoming within her. There is the carefree, independent Janie who lets her hair down, but there is also the Janie who ties her hair back in submission of her husband.

Hurston uses a blossoming pear tree to symbolize Janie’s transition from budding sexuality to womanhood. Before Janie became a wife to anybody, she was just a young girl who spent any moment she could lying beneath “a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard” (“Their Eyes” 15). As Janie explores her sexuality, such as by kissing Johnny Taylor and observing the pollination of pear blossoms, she develops a yearning for love and affection. Before Janie can hope to be loved by another person, however, she must learn to love herself. With Janie’s first husband, Logan Killicks, comes an image of “desecrating the pear tree,” so Janie knows that there is no love between them (“Their Eyes” 19). The pear tree metaphor is later used when Hurston describes Janie’s marriage to Joe Starks; Janie realizes that a husband must love and respect his wife, as a bee respects the blossom it pollinates (Dilbeck 102). It is only after Janie truly embraces her womanhood and individual spirit that she can let love – via Tea Cake, who appreciates every aspect of Janie’s character – into her life.

During Janie’s time with Joe, he puts her high up on a pedestal so that she is inaccessible to the other men who are pining after her (“Their Eyes” 66). When Janie is forced to conceal one of the greatest aspects of herself – her hair – she has no hope of flourishing under Joe’s domineering hand. After Joe dies, Janie goes to the mirror, sees the woman she has become, and tears the “kerchief from her head and [lets] down her plentiful hair” (“Their Eyes” 106). She takes in the image of her true self – wildly independent – but ultimately ties her hair back up again. This time, however, it is her decision to do so. With Joe’s death also comes the death of Janie’s submission to men. Janie “sent her face to Joe’s funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world,” because the burden given to her by Joe has been lifted from her shoulders (“Their Eyes” 108). From this point on, Janie decides to live for herself and embrace the power that lies within.

Just as Janie struggles to establish her true identity in the face of societal expectations, Hurston also feels, in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” that she is in possession of two selves. Hurston describes the difference between her colored self, which is how other people define her, and how she views herself. Hurston grew up in the all-black community of Eatonville, but she ventured out in order to attend college (“Colored Me” 940). In the outside world, she feels defined by her outward appearance, specifically the color of her skin. There are times when Hurston feels that she has no race; rather, she is just herself and is comfortable in her own skin (“Colored Me” 942). It is that version of Zora which Hurston wishes the world could see, and not the one that is defined by the labels placed on her by white society. Skin color has come to be used more as an indication of identity than as a simply physical observation, and there are times when Hurston does “feel discriminated against” (“Colored Me” 943). She goes on to say, however, that she does not let herself get angry; rather, she feels sorry for the people who do not try to get to know her for who she really is.

Hurston’s writing outlines racial issues – such as discrimination, its effect on gender roles, and the duality of self – in a way that highlights the conflicts present within a single race. She does not simply pit whites against blacks, as would be customary of the time period in which the story takes place. Hurston’s stance on inner-race discrimination and its effect on developing personal identity is refreshing in that it dispels the idea that discrimination only originates from people of other racial backgrounds. Though Hurston herself has felt discriminated against, she, like Janie, rose above the constrained views of the people around her and embraced the woman she knew herself to truly be. As Hurston describes it, the black woman is the mule of the world, but she also contains the power to throw down the burden placed on her by society and gain control over her life.


Works Cited

Hurston, Zora N. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Philadelphia: Lippincott Company, 1937. Print.

Meisenhelder, Susan E. Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1999. Print.

Patterson, Tiffany R. Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005. Print.

Hurston, Zora N. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013. 940-943. Print.

Dilbeck, Keiko. “Symbolic Representation of Identity in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The Explicator 66.2 (2010): 102-104. Web. 29 April 2014.

Final Paper: Janie’s Quest for her Horizon 

Tommy West

Professor Rettberg

ENLT 2514

May 4, 2014

Janie’s Quest for her Horizon

“She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net” (Hurston 193). These words come from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God when the protagonist, Janie, has at last achieved the harmony with nature and peace within herself she has sought from the beginning of the novel. Like any bildungsroman, Their Eyes Were Watching God showcases a pivotal moment in the moral development of the life of the protagonist. For Janie this moment is undoubtedly the time she spent underneath the pear tree as a young teenage girl. From this moment on, Janie searches for the perfect union of harmony she witnesses here in nature for her own life. In the end, though, Janie demonstrates her journey is an independent one,-focused on finding her own voice and is not dependent on any outside source. Janie’s moral development, and her search for her ‘horizon’ following this moment in nature can be traced by her use of language. Janie’s search for her own voice parallels Hurston’s use of language. By the end of the novel, Janie has developed a strong sense of self, in which she has come to not only find her own voice, but also learns the power of silence. By remaining silent in conspicuous places in her story, Janie shows the reader that having found her voice, she has the ability to control it as well.

In chapter 2, the moment Janie spends under the pear tree clearly marks the beginning of her spiritual awakening. Others, however, may find disagreement with this claim. In an unsigned publisher’s foreword, the author writes, “Janie’s conscious life had begun at Grandma’s gate. When Nanny had spied Janie letting Johnny Taylor kiss her over the gatepost she had called Janie to come inside the house. That had been the end of her childhood” (Hurston Reviews). This scene however, seems to only be a reaction Janie has immediately following her sexual awakening beneath the pear tree. This view in the foreword overlooks the importance of Janie’s newfound standard of sexual and emotional fulfillment. Indeed, underneath the pear tree, Janie witnesses a perfect union of harmony in nature. Janie sees “the thousand sister calyxes arch to meet the love embrace” of the male bee. Nellie McKay calls this moment Janie’s “awakening beneath the pear tree” that begins her conscious journey (McKay 58). In light of this, it’s easy to see how Janie is overcome with emotion and after witnessing this erotic scene, runs over to kiss Johnny Taylor. The erotic language found in this passage, such as Janie’s description “frothing with delight”, is suggestive of the naturalistic romanticism writing style we saw in Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself.” The image of the embrace between the bee and the flower imprints itself in Janie’s mind and throughout the book she is reminded of this moment. Janie views this as an idealized vision of love- one in which there is reciprocity between the two partners. This moment must be the defining moment in Janie’s life because for the rest of her journey she is reminded of this scene and strives to find a relationship with reciprocal love.

We can now analyze how this moment in Janie’s life affects her development and her search for her horizon throughout the rest of the novel. After witnessing her ideal vision of a relationship, Janie begins her quest to find a partner who will give her the strength to find her voice. Unfortunately, Janie’s first two marriages only serve as roadblocks to her ultimate goal. With Logan, Janie finds neither the physical nor the emotional connection she is looking for. Therefore, when Jody Starks comes into town, Janie is dazzled by his ambition and power, which seem to radiate possibility and freedom. However, after twenty years with Jody, this marriage becomes equally, if not more, confining than the last. Janie’s quest to find her voice is stifled under her marriage to Jody as he tries to dominate everything around him. This can be seen in multiple ways; first with his insistence that Janie keep her hair tied up in a rag. Janie’s hair is a symbol of power- it represents her strength and individuality. Throughout the book, everyone is drawn to her straight, long, beautiful hair. However, Jody sees her hair as a threat to his power. In order to control Janie, and his fear that her hair could inspire lust in other men, he orders her to tie her hair in a rag. Another time we see Jody stifle Janie is during the ceremony when he becomes Mayor. When Janie is asked to give a short speech for the occasion, Jody immediately steps in, preventing her from doing so, and says wives shouldn’t make speeches. During this scene we see Jody literally being a hindrance to Janie’s own voice. Throughout this marriage, Jody tries to shape Janie into the type of woman he wants rather than the type of woman Janie wants to become. The mutuality in a relationship Janie wants is completely absent. During these chapters, Janie is constantly thinking back to her moment under the pear tree and realizes this relationship is an unfulfilling one that is not helping her progress toward her goal.

Henry Louis Junior Gates says Their Eyes Were Watching God is concerned “with the project of finding a voice, with language as an instrument” (Gates 197). Indeed, this statement is clearly demonstrated by the development of Janie throughout the novel. The narrative shifts from a third person narrator to a bias toward first person- signifying the awareness of self in Janie. For example, near the beginning of the book, when Janie meets Jody, their conversation is extremely limited. Jody is able to charm her by doing all the talking. This brevity foreshadows the problems to come in which Jody exerts his influence over her without leaving Janie any opportunity to grow. This is in stark contrast to Janie’s first meeting with Tea Cake. Here, several pages are dedicated to dialogue, showing the increased confidence Janie has in her own voice. A narrator is no longer needed as Tea Cake is finally allowing Janie to express herself. During their first meeting, he teaches her to play chess. Both of these activities, conversing and playing chess, grant the two partners equal status and Tea Cake is able to put himself on equal footing as her-something Jody was never willing to do. At last, Janie is able to experience the reciprocity in a relationship she has been looking for since experiencing it in nature underneath the pear tree.

There is much debate in the literary world as to whether Tea Cake is a vital component of Janie’s emergence as a strong, self-identified woman. However, upon reviewing Janie’s actions directly before, and after her relationship with Tea Cake, it’s evident that Janie could have found her voice with or without the help of Tea Cake. Critics like Nelly McKay argue, “That he was instrumental in showing her the possibilities of a life” and was necessary for “the subsequent full emergence of Janie’s voice and self” (McKay 61). Yet, as important as Tea Cake is to Janie’s development, he is not an indispensable part of her life. One great example of this is Janie’s reaction to Jody’s death. Lying on his deathbed, Janie knows that this might be one of the last times she will be able to speak to her husband. Having been stifled for twenty years, Janie finally has the courage to confront him- confessing her feelings and accusing him of tyranny. This outburst highlights the importance of language, as Janie appears powerful with her speech. During this scene the reader can see that Janie has already begun to find her voice on her own after realizing her perfect vision of love from under the pear tree was not being fulfilled from this relationship. Another example of how Janie is well on her way to finding her voice before Tea Cake comes from her long conversation with her friend Phoebe following Jody’s death. Here, Janie is able to powerfully converse without the interruption of the narrator and declares that she no longer needs the approval of others. Whereas in earlier chapters, the opinion of the town mattered a great deal to Janie, she has now gained the self-confidence to dismiss the gossip of the ‘porches.’ Lastly, the fact that Tea Cake is not a necessary component of Janie’s life is evidenced by the sad truth when Janie is forced to shoot him near the end of the novel. Janie’s decision to save herself rather than give in to the crazy, rabid, Tea Cake, who she once loved, highlights her newfound confidence and sense of self.

As Janie comes closer and closer to pulling in her horizon, and finding her voice, she is able to show the reader that she has completely mastered her voice. This mastery is shown when Janie remains silent. Critics argue however, that this silence on Janie’s part reflects weakness and that in the end, she truly never finds her voice. Critic, Robert Stepto argues, “Hurston creates the essential illusion that Janie has achieved her voice… but the tale undercuts much of this…because of its narration” (Awkward 19). Critics who agree with Stepto point to the times where Janie’s voice is curiously left out during crucial points such as during her trial. Stepto says that the use of the omniscient narrator “implies that Janie has not really won her voice and self after all” (Awkward 19). By the novels close however, this view is clearly mistaken. During Janie’s trial after the death of Tea Cake, Janie’s testimony is filled with almost entirely narration. Janie’s silence places emphasis on her ability to control her language. Earlier, her silence was a reflection of domination under Jody but now it reflects her ability to choose when and when not to speak. “Michael Awkward argues, against Stepto, that part of the point of the novel is Janie’s learning to dislike talk for talk’s sake” (Duplessis 107). This directly relates to a quote from Janie when she says “talkin’ don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh cant do nothin’ else” (Hurston 192). This shows that Janie understands the power of her speech. Clearly, Janie has at last found her voice and is now showing the reader that silence can also be a source of empowerment.

The moment that Janie experiences underneath the pear tree defines her ideal vision of love that she searches for throughout the rest of the novel. The marriages with Logan and Jody stifle Janie on her quest for her voice. Still, she is able to develop a strong sense of self by the time she meets Tea Cake who functions as a catalyst that pushes Janie to her goal. By the end of the novel, however, it’s evident that Janie has become her own woman with her own voice. Strong, and independent, at long last, Janie has found her horizon.

Works Cited

Awkward, Michael. “Introduction.” New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God (1990): 1-21. Literature Online. Web. 1 May 2014.

DuPlessis, Rachel B. “Power, Judgment, and Narrative in a Work of Zora Neale Hurston: Feminist Cultural Studies.” New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God (1990): 95-119. Literature Online. Web. 1 May 2014.

“Hurston Reviews.” People.Virginia.edu. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1937. Web. 1 May 2014.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990. Print.

McKay, Nellie. “”Crayon Enlargements of Life”: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God as Autobiography.” New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God (1990): 51-69. Literature Online. Web. 1 May 2014.




Appearances in Hurston’s “The Gilded Six-Bits”

“The Gilded Six-Bits” features the relationship between Missie May and Joe, a seemingly ideal couple whose flawed relationship becomes apparent when Joe catches Missie May in the act of adultery.  The contrast between the ideal appearance of their relationship and the painful reality of it raises questions about the authenticity of what humans view as happiness.  In “The Gilded Six-Bits,” Zora Neale Hurston utilizes the failures of deceptive coatings in the relationship between Missie May and Joe to suggest that the human conception of happiness is often simply a series of sustained deceptions.

Hurston first and most apparently establishes the idea of deceptive coatings through the gilded coin.  The fact that Slemmons’s supposed gold piece is actually simply a “gilded half dollar” immediately discredits Slemmons, but the coin’s role in the disruption of Missie May and Joe’s relationship begins to question the authenticity of their relationship as well.  They each desire a relationship as rich as gold, but it becomes apparent that beneath the veneer of mock-fights and laughs, the couple’s happiness is flawed.  The idea of a coating concealing the true nature of something is not simply isolated to the gilded coin.  In the opening of the story, Missy Mae is soaking in a “galvanized washtub” and as she soaks in this tub, her breasts are described as “lacquered in black” (943).  The tub has been coated in the galvanization process in order to prevent corrosion, and one of the most physical aspects of Missie’s sexuality is also described as coated, which suggests that the appearance of the relationship is not representative of the reality of it beneath the coatings.  Missie May is enveloped in a coated vessel physically, just as she is enveloped in her coated marriage.  Hurston establishes the connection between these coatings and the status of the relationship immediately after Joe finds Missie with Slemmons.  The couple now has “rusty ankles,” which suggests that the seal placed around the marriage has failed, so it is now vulnerable to rust and weakening (948).  Missie is only able to touch Joe’s body after this incident when she “rub[s] him down with liniment” (949).  The liniment oil acts as yet another barrier between the feelings actually present in the relationship and the appearance of the relationship.  When Joe is coated with the oil, he and Missie May can act as if their relationship is still intact when beneath the oil, it has crumbled.

Next, Hurston also uses laughter as a type of veneer in “The Gilded Six-Bits.”  When Joe catches Missie in her infidelity, he “just opened his mouth and laughed” (948).  At the moment when he is feeling pain, Joe reacts with what is generally seen as an expression of joy and “stands there laughing like a chessy cat” (948).  In this way, laughter is acting as another form of coating on a harsher and less ideal reality than initially presented.  By presenting a reaction that is most often thought of an expression of joy at a time of intense pain, Hurston questions the authenticity of what humans think of as happiness.  The “shouting, laughing, twisting, turning, tickling each other in the ribs” that Missie and Joe partook in earlier is no longer evidence of an authentic relationship, because laughter does not necessarily translate to genuine contentment for them (944).  The idea that people’s association of laughter with happiness is misguided is reinforced when the store owner says that he wishes he “could be like these darkies.  Laughin’ all the time.  Nothin’ worries em” (951).  Hurston uses the store owner’s thought to finalize the absurdity of the assumption that laughter means simplicity and happiness.  Laughter merely functions as another veneer shrouding the fact that true happiness and what humans perceive as such are not always compatible.

Hurston also uses the sun as a cover that conceals the true state of things and the pain of the night.  Hurston depicts the night as a time of desire and emotion, which is evident when Joe returns from work and becomes “[c]reation obsessed” (947) upon viewing the moon and when he “kept on feeling so much and not knowing what to do with his feelings” after finding Missie and Slemmons in the dead of the night (950).  Once Hurston establishes the night as a time of passion, she then demonstrates that in the movement from night to day, Missie May and Joe remove the emotion from their relationship and replace it with the outside show of happiness.

The transition from night to day, when [r]ed light turned to yellow, then white,” parallels the transition from expression to repression (948).  Red is a strong, passionate color, and it serves as the beginning color in this sequence.  As the sun rises and bids in the day, the passionate red hue lightens, first to yellow, then eventually to white, which is devoid of color.  As the sun bathes Missie May and Joe’s world with white light, it tempers the passion of the previous night with a coat of colorless and emotionless whiteness.  The idea of a white coating also appears in the description of their home as “whitewashed” with steps that are “scrubbed white” (943).  Hurston also shows the transition from night to day by saying that “the sun’s tide crept upon the shore of night and drowned all its hours” (948).  The inclusion of “drowned” establishes the idea of pushing the passionate emotions of night back under the surface until the tide recedes again.  The sun is the “hero of every day” because it suppresses the truth and emotion within Missie May and Joe’s relationship with blinding white light.

Finally, Hurston questions the authenticity of Missie May and Joe’s relationship by emphasizing the changes in their rituals before and after the affair.  First, Joe buys “fifty cents worth of dem candy kisses” rather than the small sack of them that he bought before the affair (951).  He also throws silver dollars in the doorway “fifteen times,” (951) rather than the “nine times” he does in the first description of the game (944).  These two changes emphasize that the outer appearance of the ritual has had to change in order to produce the same end appearance of happiness and playfulness.  Another change that has occurred is that Joe has become more like Slemmons, which can be seen when he tells the store clerk that he has been around in “spots and places,” which is exactly the same phrase used to describe Slemmons’s origins (950).  Slemmons embodies the idea of a false appearance, so by mirroring Slemmons’s description, Joe is essentially adopting the quality of false appearances as well.  Hurston utilizes the changes in Missie May and Joe’s relationship to emphasize that they must put an even thicker coating in place around their relationship in order to salvage the appearance of it.

In conclusion, Hurston’s process of showing the flaws in a relationship that initially appears to be ideal reveals that the couple’s happiness may have always consisted of a series of stitched together facades covering a flawed reality.  Missie feels that “[i]f she had not the substance of marriage she had the outside show” (950).  The two decide to continue the show, which pushes the reader to reconsider the authenticity of the conventional conception of happiness.

Comparing Ellison’s “Battle Royal” to Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”

“All my life I had been looking for something, and everywhere I turned someone tried to tell me what it was … I was looking for myself and asking everyone except myself questions which I, and only I, could answer” (Ellison 1211).

“At certain times I have no race, I am me” (Hurston 941).

The struggle for identity permeated the African-American community throughout the twentieth century. An American society still rife with racism and intolerance persisted long after the abolition of slavery; and in such an environment, creative forces sought to define their role within and apart from the whole. Two black writers of this era included Ralph Ellison and Zora Neale Hurston, whose writings embody this societal complexity. Ellison’s 1952 “Battle Royal,” excerpted from Invisible Man, and Hurston’s “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” each approach the conflict with different styles. Ellison, who allegedly “insisted on being a writer rather than a spokesman for a cause or a representative figure,” creates a narrative form that utilizes strong simile and seems to possess allegorical notes (1209). By contrast, Hurston’s 1928 essay, while employing vivid metaphorical language, conveys a distinctly individualistic attitude that radiates a definitively present, if somewhat circumspect, optimism.

Hurston declares, “Slavery is sixty years in the past. The operation was successful and the patient is doing well, thank you” (941). Indeed, Hurston seems to indicate that mentality is the primary blockade preventing full understanding. She demonstrates this at the end of her essay, where she devises the metaphor of the colored paper bags filled with a mélange of contents – ostensibly establishing that we are all intrinsically similar yet unique beings (943). Misunderstanding is the only real difficulty to be surmounted. Yet Ellison highlights the ongoing subjugation through his portrayal of white men treating the black fighters and the white woman as objects of entertainment by cruel, animalistic means. The “leading white citizens” superficially assert their claims of domination by teasing the fighters with brass “gold” coins and relishing the spectacle of the struggle (1217, 1220).

Ellison’s style is personal and appropriately bias; yet what is perhaps most perturbing is the stoicism that the narrator displays. Ellison, through the grandfather’s dying words and the narrator’s speech, suggests that humility and understanding are essential to the wellbeing of society (1212). Yet even after witnessing and being victim of the atrocities, the narrator displays little suggestion of resentment or anger, as he would be entirely justified to feel; his stoicism borders upon indifference, almost acceptance. He still desires, even after the fight, even after the electrified rug incident, the chance to give his speech. Alas, as he speaks he must “[gulp] it down, blood, saliva and all,” showing no pain as the men in the audience heckle him and laugh (1219). The conclusion to “Battle Royal” contains the ultimate irony, as the narrator receives his refined briefcase and scholarship with great appreciation in spite of the disgusting nature of the men bestowing it upon him. This enthusiasm is only checked by the disillusioning dream involving the grandfather, who mocks the narrator’s lack of vengeful strength (1221).

Indeed, for Hurston, the search for identity as an African-American appears to be a primarily internal conflict, one to be handled with the attitude of adjustment. For Ellison, it is one of external conflict, suggesting that the path towards harmony necessitates an entire upheaval of behavior, a re-establishment and equal application of humane values.

“No I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.” (941)

Zora Neale Hurston tells her story “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” in the first person. She also starts most of her sentences with “I” or “The.” While this practice would be extremely bothersome in an essay handed in by a college student, Hurston’s first person, simple dialect parallels the story she tells of her childhood. She doesn’t use large confuscating words like “confusticating,” which may or may not even be an actual word; I’m not quite sure. She uses language that can be understood by all. She does not shorten her vocabulary to dumb down the work per se, but to show that she will always be true to herself. She is clever and her position on struggles of race is unambiguous as is the form her writing takes.

The quote I chose demonstrates this unambiguity in both her writing and her beliefs. Hurston is not sad that discrimination is rampant. She is not prone to dwell on the slave histories of the past and her descent from such misery. She does not see a reason to “weep.” The alliteration “weep at the world” is somewhat “sing-songy” or musical as in the poetry of Langston Hughes, which spoke more of the blues and less of the future. The dash shows that Hurston will break away from this mournful tradition. She tells us instead that she is “sharpening” her knife. While this could be misconstrued as violent terminology, associated with radical activist movements against racism and discrimination, her optimistic writing style points to other conclusions. Hurston acknowledges that divisions in color still exist, but she seems to long for a future of collectivism rather than anything “separate but equal.” The significance of the “oyster knife” could be that an oyster itself has a hard shell, something someone could see from the outside and disfavor, but inside may present a pearl. Similarly, she talks about brown paper bags at the end of her story that spill out contents alike. White, black, yellow, or red, inside a person may be a pearl of a personality and inside two or more people may be common ground. Hurston’s writing style and form embrace a future progress of integration.

“But in the main, I feel like a brown bag of miscellany propped against a wall” (943).

Zora Neale Hurston powerfully drives her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” with profuse, vivid imagery and throbbing emotion that comes alive throughout the piece. Hurston utilizes numerous techniques of form to accomplish a unique impression. One of the most prominent manners through which Hurston effects this is through her distinct style of sentence structure. The words flow together comprehensively; and yet they exhibit a certain free style, one that invokes a conversational tone directly addressing the reader through inquiries and pointed statements. She alternates long winded and semicoloned phrases with single words and simple sentences. Yet perhaps one of her most daring choices is to begin several paragraphs with sentences commencing with “But,” such as “But changes came in the family …,” “But I am not tragically colored,” and here, “But in the main…” (941, 943). In each circumstance, this allows for a distinct transition in tone to take place, to allow for Hurston to acknowledge the negative forces while asserting her strength (in spite of adversity and naysayers) and resolving to define herself by her own individualistic terms, as opposed to those of society at large.

The authoress here utilizes a thorough simile to convey a sense of her frustration with the artificiality of social constructs and assumptions. The use of prepositions within the sentence is noteworthy. “OF miscellany” implies that the brown bag is the surface, a container or carrier of sorts, but that her true being, her self, consists OF that miscellany. There are other bags of different colors present, but they too are all filled with a similar sort of “jumble of small things priceless and worthless” (943). Hurston proceeds to directly list the items, each item rendered useless by its brokenness, or by the fact that it has already been used and has nothing more to offer its owner. Hurston offers a merely cursory insight into the nature of the objects and gives detail with sparse, short adjectives. The descriptors and their nouns tumble out upon the page as the objects themselves would tumble upon the floor; each may hold some minimal significance, but it is their similarity in existence that is most crucial, for it indicates a shared human spirit. Further, “against a wall” suggests a lack of movement, a forced state imposed by hegemonic principles that offers limited directional movement.  The passivity of “propped” suggests that she did not prop herself there; another force, beyond her control, has resulted in this state. Hurston effectively postulates that the contents of each bag, no matter the color of the bag, are essentially similar; the world must learn to view each person as partaking in the common human essence while maintaining a unique individuality.

“In my heart as well as in the mirror, I became a fast brown—warranted not to rub nor run” (941).

In this sentence, Zora is declaring that she became permanently aware of her status as a “colored girl,” but the style of the sentence seems to suggest another layer to this idea (941).  Zora says that when she moved, her black identity became “a fast brown,” both in the surface color of her skin and within her personal identity.  The sentence initially implies that Zora sees her identity as static and colorfast, and even if she wanted to, she could not make it “rub nor run” (941).  This language almost makes it seem as if she sees her identity as a stain that cannot be removed.  She follows this sentence, however, with the declaration that she does not see herself as “tragically colored” in any sense, which force the reader to reconsider the previous sentence.

Hurston’s choice to end the sentence with a series of short words quickens the pace of the reading.  The dash acts as the start of a race, then “warranted” allows Zora to build up speed until she sprints through the phrase “not to run nor run”.  The structure of the sentence prompts a reading of the words “fast” and “run” as relating to speed, rather than purely the colorfastness of her skin and identity.  Hurston utilizes the racing idea later in “How It Feel s to Be Colored Me” when she says that Zora is “off to a flying start” (941).  The content of the sentence denotes that Zora’s racial identity is firmly set when she goes to school in Jacksonville, but the structure of the sentence suggests that this identity is not a restrictive burden that slows her down. She is still able to sprint, progress, and grow.

“Wails of weeping without words” (948)

The sentence “Wails of weeping without words” occurs immediately after Joe has caught Missie May in her infidelity and has physically beaten Otis Slemmons out of the house. With only five words, Hurston manages to characterize a heartbreaking mistake, the nauseating anticipation of a negative future, and the long-lasting detrimental effects of infidelity. Missie May’s sadness is the most literal interpretation of the sentence. The use of the words “wail” and “weeping” evoke gut-wrenching images of deeply rooted emotional and physical pain. These are not tears that stream silently down cheeks, so often depicted in popular melodramas; they are prolonged and animalistic manifestations of sorrow that take total control over Missie May’s body. Her emotion is so strong it has rendered her unable to express herself in a civilized way. Rather, she is “without words”, helpless and lost in her grief without even the possibility of a respectable explanation. A second prominent factor of the passage is the alliteration of the letter ‘w’. The repetition of the soft consonant lulls the reader into a melancholy that trembles in the same manner as one’s voice does before and after they have been crying. The woe that she feels is inescapable, and has taken hold of every word of significance in the sentence. The sentence’s fragmentation mirrors the impending emotional separation between Joe and Missie May. The selected sentence is stylistically loaded with alliteration, diction and fragmentation. The combination of these elements reveals the great depth of Missie May’s grief in realizing her life-altering infidelity and the tragic nature of her submission to the temptation of material wealth in exchange for the truly priceless and unconditional love of her husband.

Introduction to Zora Neale Hurston

Born in Notasulga, Alabama in 1891, Zora Neale Hurston and her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-black communities in the United States, when Hurston was just three years old. Her early childhood experiences in Eatonville were the inspiration for Hurston’s essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”. Hurston’s life in Eatonville was relatively pleasant; though her Baptist preacher father was mentally removed from the family’s affairs, Hurston’s mother Lucy Ann Hurston valiantly strove to support her eight children. Hurston developed a full appreciation for life in Eatonville when her mother passed away in 1904 and her father and his new wife sent her away to school in Jacksonville, Florida. In Jacksonville, Hurston experienced overt racism for the first time. Throughout her life, Hurston would glorify Eatonville as a place that African Americans could live in peace, independent of white society. Hurston even went as far as to call Eatonville her birth town, perhaps due to the fact that her introduction to literature occurred during this time in her life.

Hurston was eventually expelled from high school due to her parents’ neglect of unpaid dues. She worked menial jobs until gaining admittance at Morgan College, a preparatory high school, where she successfully enrolled by lying about her date of birth in order to qualify for free education. Beginning in 1901, Hurston studied at Howard University, the premier all-black university of the time. During this period, Hurston met and studied under Alain Locke, a man often called the “philosophical architect” of the Harlem Renaissance. Locke’s philosophical idea of “The New Negro” influenced and encouraged Hurston.

In 1925, Hurston began study on scholarship at Barnard College, part of Columbia University. While in New York, Hurston lived near other influential figures of the Harlem Renaissance, including Langston Hughes. At Barnard, Hurston was the sole black student. Her famous line “I feel most colored when I am thrown against a sharp white background”, from her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me”, relates to her feelings of isolation while at school. She studied anthropology with famed anthropologist Franz Boaz, a man deeply interested in folklore as a discipline. Hurston’s experiences in the Caribbean, American South, Jamaica, Haiti and Honduras. provided inspiration for many of her works, particularly her famous novel “Their Eyes were Watching God”. Through her anthropological studies, Hurston developed her famous, though controversial, style that focused on the use of the vernacular, as seen in “The Gilded Six-Bits”, and the incorporation of folklore.