“‘The woman as she was made’: Narrative Representation of Black Females in Zora Neale Hurston’s Fiction”

Zora Neale Hurston is celebrated as one of the most important writers of both the Harlem Renaissance and the Modernist movement. Perhaps the most important female black writer of the early twentieth century, she perfected the depiction of the southern black middle-class, the proletarians on whose backs the elites of the Harlem Renaissance would gain success. Ever critical of her part in this, she described the duty of literature to “hold up the mirror to nature” (Jones 68). This meant, for Hurston, “to render a more accurate and sophisticated depiction of African-American life and culture” (ibid. 69). A master of using dialect in her fiction as well, her writing therefore problematizes normative notions of ‘sophistication,’ particularly due to its primary focus on the depiction uneducated black females. As Sharon L. Jones notes in Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West, “Hurston has been misread as a writer who failed to address the social, political, and economic issues of her time…Hurston criticizes injustice in a subtler way through her handling of the domestic arena” (ibid. 88). This essay, adjacent to Jones’ work on protest in Hurston’s work, discusses the representation of the black female experience in Hurston’s short and long fiction with emphasis placed on the representation of the working black woman and her struggles both within a fixed social economy and a fluid social economy.

According to Jones, Hurston’s stories “Spunk” and “Sweat” “reveal Hurston’s deft incorporation of folklore, dialect, and power relations within heterosexual relationships” and contain characters that “anticipate protagonists in her novels” (Jones 81). In “Spunk,” the titular character is an intimidating man with larger-than-life personality that allows the protagonist Lena “who desires adventure and excitement as a relief from her humdrum existence” when they develop a relationship with one another. However, this comes at a cost: her husband’s life. If “the moral of the story is that consequences arise for one’s actions, at least for the male characters…[while] Lena lives on, possibly to perpetuate the cycle of men sacrificing their lives for her,” as Jones’ says it is, then the function of the black female character is as object in a “cycle of men” (ibid. 82-83). The story’s emphasis on the “abuse and misuse of power” results in the same consequence: Spunk and Lena’s husband dead, leaving her free to find more meaningful love (ibid. 82). The moral here may be something else still: men must be sacrificed for female autonomy. What remains true is the depiction of Lena as an ordinary woman within the domestic sphere. She must rely on a man for survival, which even the townspeople note after Spunk’s death. Yet, might this depiction jeopardize any true autonomy? While this may remain implicit, with “Spunk” Hurston is questioning whether a black woman can truly realize autonomy. This is to say that while Lena never explicitly desires autonomy from men or even necessarily separation from her husband, as proven by her guilt when he is killed by Spunk, Lena functions to shed light on the question of black female autonomy itself in that she is an article of speculation for the townspeople, quite literally a piece in a fated narrative. The need of the townspeople to consume her story or to speculate on its trajectory questions Lena’s own autonomy in choosing her destiny on her own.

Hurston’s 1926 story “Sweat” on the other hand takes up a more explicit representation of the working class black woman. Delia, the story’s protagonist, is a washwoman and principal breadwinner for her family. Jones, in quoting Angela Davis, notes that “African American women performed the majority of domestic work in their own homes as well as the homes of white bourgeois women” (Jones 83). Delia’s work and “sweat remains unappreciated by the ones she labors for–her husband and the whites in her community” (ibid. 83-84). She endures abuse at the hands of her employers and most at the hands of her husband. This depiction of Delia is a fixed one: triple oppression. The classism, racism, and sexism Delia endures is a part of the expansion of the black female representation that Hurston desires, the so-called “more accurate and sophisticated” portrayal (ibid. 69).

Hurston’s most celebrated work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, depicts a more fluid social economy through which a black female may operate. The protagonist Janie goes through three marriages, the first because her Nanny wants to ensure a better economic stance than she had as a former slave, the second because of the Spunk-like swagger and illusory freedom offered by Jody, and the third because of true love. The socio-economic fluidity of each of these is captured by Jones’ essay when she says “Hurston represents the contrast between the folk and bourgeois aesthetics through Janie’s account” (ibid. 90). Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband, offers a better economic position than older generations in her family, namely that of Nanny, who is a former slave. Jody, in becoming the mayor, allows Janie to become the bourgeois of the town, untouchable by the ordinary townspeople. With her third marriage to Tea Cake, she returns to folk status. The novel is understood from the beginning, as a framed story, as the story of progression “from object to subject” for Janie (McGowan 86). This liberation can only be realized because of this social mobility. The project of black female autonomy that exists in questions for “Sweat” and “Spunk” has come into its realization. For her recapitulation of the story, Jane is telling the story of “the woman as she was made” by herself. The novel begins with Janie’s entrance into the town she left after Jody’s death wearing folk garments, different from those worn during her time as the bourgeois wife of the mayor. The townspeople use this to speak about her descent in social standing. However, at this moment when the townspeople are defaming the woman they once were required to look up to, she tells her best friend Phoeby Watson the story of her life, a story she tells herself and therefore owns. This performance of storytelling is read by Carla Kaplan as a revelation of her sexuality, the novel ending with an orgasm and peace (Kaplan 99). Nonetheless, the depiction of her social mobility allows this to take place.

In the domesticity of black female characters of Hurston’s writing, she questions the autonomous ability of these women. She questions whether lack of ownership over one’s own narrative can deflate one’s own autonomy or socio-political mobility. Further, in portraying holistically the sexuality, dialect, and maturation of different black female characters, Hurston accomplishes a more sophisticated representation of African American life and culture.

Works Cited

  • Jones, Sharon L. “‘How It Feels to Be Colored Me’: Social Protest in the Fiction of Zora Neale Hurston.” Rereading the Harlem Renaissance: Race, Class, and Gender in the Fiction of Jessie Fauset, Zora Neale Hurston, and Dorothy West. Westport: Greenwood Press, 2002, pp. 67-116.
  • Kaplan, Carla. “‘That Oldest Human Longing’ The Erotics of Talk in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The Erotics of Talk: Women’s Writing and Feminist Paradigms, Oxford UP, 1996, pp. 99-122.
  • McGowan, Todd. “Liberation and Domination: Their Eyes Were Watching God and the evolution of capitalism.” The Feminine ‘No!’ : Psychoanalysis and the New Canon. State University of New York Press, 2001, pp. 85-100.

Faulkner’s Stream of Consciousness

Here, I am pulling a passage from “Pantaloon in Black” from Faulkner’s Go Down, Moses (1942). The lower paragraph is more an experimental flash-fiction piece than a response, though I encourage you to read it both ways.

 

“…the hearth and stove and bed, were all a part of the memory of somebody else, so that he stopped in the half-open gate and said aloud, as though, he had gone to sleep in one place and then waked suddenly to find himself in another: “Whut’s Ah doin hyar?” before he went on. Then he saw the dog. He had forgotten it. He remembered neither seeing nor hearing it since it began to howl just before dawn yesterday–a big dog, a hound with a strain of mastiff from somewhere (he told Mannie a month after they married: “Ah needs a big dawg. You’s de onliest least thing whut ever kep up wid me one day, leff alone fo weeks.”) coming out from beneath the gallery and approaching, not running but seeming rather to drift across the dusk until it stood lightly against his eg, its head raised until the tips of his fingers just touched it, facing the house and making no sound; whereupon, as if the animal controlled it, had lain guardian before it during his absence and only this instant relinquished, the shell of planks and shingles facing him solidified, filled, and for the moment he believed that he could not possibly enter it. “But Ah needs to eat,” he said. “Us bofe needs to eat,” he said, moving on though the dog did not follow until he turned and cursed it. “Come on hyar!” he said. “Whut you skeered of? She lacked you too, same as me,” and they mounted the steps and crossed the porch and entered the house–the dusk-filled single room where all those six months were now crammed and crowded into one instant of time until there was no place left for air to breathe, crammed and crowded about the hearth where the fire which was to have lasted to the end of them, before which in the days before he was able to buy the stove he would enter after his four-mile walk from the mill and find her, the shape of her narrow back and haunches squatting, one narrow spread hand shielding her face from the blaze over which the other hand held the skillet, had already fallen to a dry, light soilure of dead ashes when the sun rose yesterday–and himself standing there while the last of light died about the strong and indomitable beating of his heart and the dep steady arch and collapse of his chest which walking fast over the rough going of woods and fields had not increased and standing still in the quiet and fading room had not slowed down. Then the dog left him.”

 

I’m writing this post on anti-histimines, which is perhaps only the rightest way one may write on Faulkner’s prose. I’m so aware of the taxation of thought that with every blink, not only does (as the cliché goes) each of my eyelids get heavier and heavier, but so too does it seem I am closer to acquiescing to the epic treachery and volatility — not malicious treachery or volatility, just to be clear — that my mind has become on this drug, something that feels closer to sleep than un-sleep, something which is by its very nature sirenic (that is, calling to me to give in or release or blink longer until blinks are longer and longer are blinks so that instead of blipping by the blinks and blight of sleep, slipping down sanctuary). The ceilings in the library, have you ever noticed?, they are each so prismatically shaped. Triangular prisms, some with ventilation vents, some without (and those without still have lights, are as dusty, if not dustier, than those with ventilation vents). And I wonder, too, perhaps you have also wondered this, whether the change in carpet design is intentional to keep one awake (though, I must also add, not only is one not always looking at the floor–or even if he were, he is not always noticing the patterns of the carpet, unless subconsciously–were one to be looking at the floor and becoming drowsy, it may not prevent–perhaps it even may encourage–sleep). The magazines in the contemporary section are all labeled with neon green stickers, which is intriguing, yet what I remember most about the magazines is Camille (the librarian) telling my class last semester in the classroom on the second floor with computers that were the library not to have something we want, we need only tell her to buy it and she will. Why I connect this to the magazines is odd, though, because Camille was not alluding to magazines; she was alluding to books on scholarship. I just realized, after looking down at my watch–it is a nice watch I bought for myself (from Amazon) that was very cheap, yet has lasted much longer than other, cheaper watches I bought–that I have over and hour and a half before my class today and I don’t think, unless I either take a nap or have some breakfast, that I will make it. I am, as it were, a zombie.

On Pound’s “A Pact”

Image rendered from https://media.poetryfoundation.org/m/image/957/ezra-pound.jpg?w=448&h=&fit=max.

Pound begins the poem by presenting opposites, wanting to form a pact with Walt Whitman despite having detested him and then again with the image of a “grown child” in line 3. The image of the pig-headed father is also somewhat of an opposite in that pig-headed means obstinate or stubborn (OED) and yet the speaker of the poem is abstaining from his/her typical stubborn behavior of detesting Walt Whitman by now making a pact with him. This is all presuming, of course, that making a pact is only something someone does with someone they do not detest (though one might make the argument that may not necessarily be the case). Nonetheless, the image of the “grown child” seems to be setting up some sort of opposition.

The speaker also seems to be calling attention to time’s construction. The verb tenses shift from present (I make) to past participle (I have detested) back to present (I come) back to past participle again (Who has had) to present again (I am old) then simple past (It was you that broke) to present (Now is). Beyond the tense shifts, the speaker says “I am old enough now” (5) as if within the “now”-ness of the present tense, there is also an “old.” In other words, recognizing old-ness also recognizes that time passes—that something, here “I,” goes from young to old over a period of time. But that word “old” is smushed in between present tense “am” and a reference to the present, “now” (5), rendering time in the fifth line inconsistent in that there is both a set, stationary present in the “now”-ness and a passage or movement of time in the word “old.” Further down in the poem, the speaker even says “now is a time” — using the unspecific article “a” over “the,” implying there are several times, one of which is “now” (7).

The notion of carving Walt Whitman’s “new wood” in conjunction with Pound’s words in “RE VERS LIBRE” (1913) seems to refer to taking a wider free verse, long Whitman line and chiseling it down to something more structured and succinct (6). Pound has done just that. Each of these lines are purposefully broken, all but one by punctuation, and the poem itself is presented in no set meter or form, giving it a “commerce” shared between Whitman and Pound (9).

The OED defines commerce as “Exchange between men of the products of nature or art,” giving credence to the idea of a shared sap and root between the speaker and Whitman in line 8; however, my understanding of commerce is in the mercantile or economic sense– that there is monetary value about an object that becomes traded and in that sense, there is a commercial relationship between the traders of that object. Were poetry to be this object, as I understand wood to be functioning that way in this poem, then both uses of commerce seem to fit to Pound’s use. However, I don’t want to stop at “well, it works,” either– why use commerce? Wood is a natural good, so perhaps the metaphor extends into choosing that word “commerce.” What do you think?