As a native of Eatonville, Florida; and an anthropologist-folklorist, Zora Neale Hurston had an intimate, profound understanding of the South Florida locale of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Using her vast knowledge of the cultural expectations, practices and customs of the black community of the region, Hurston was able to create a vividly lifelike atmosphere in this novel- a rich environment steeped in folk traditions and superstitions; known as the local color of the area. This background was crucial to the development of both plot and cast, namely the protagonist, Janie.
The various communities Janie resides in are quite essential to her growth as a character. Throughout the novella, she sought to find her own voice: for the majority of the novella, however, she identified herself by what others thought of her, especially her husbands. For example, when faced with a death sentence at Tea Cake’s murder trial, “…She was in the courthouse fighting something, and it wasn’t death. It was worse than that. It was lying thoughts” (Hurston 187). Janie fears not death, but misunderstanding- she would rather perish than have her peers misjudge her. By the end of the opus, per contra, she became far more autonomous, minding not what others thought; but what she felt in her soul to be true and just. She complains of the town gossips, the “porch-sitters”, “Dem meatskins is got tuh rattle tuh make sure they’s alive” (Hurston 192).
The societal norms of her ambient surroundings likewise influence Janie’s metamorphosis. In her birthplace of West Florida, she grew up in a relatively egalitarian environment- she discovered her black heritage by seeing herself in a photograph; not by a discord with racial prejudice or stereotyping. This sparked a lifelong identity crisis, a lifelong search for a place to belong. Her orthodox grandmother, Nanny, could not further Janie in this quest, either. In fact, the marriage she arranged for Janie to the elderly Logan Killicks retarded Janie’s maturation into autonomy- stifled and unsure, Janie endured for some time, all along searching for an ever-elusive ideal, ultimately settling for much less in the stolid Joe Starks. Both marriages demanded the sacrifice of her identity, her autonomy, her utmost surrender- a price that she would not pay.
In the early 20th century South, black women had a very slim chance for education and enlightenment. Janie searches for knowledge of herself throughout the novella, the knowledge of one’s own voice that is the birthright of nearly all Americans today. “She didn’t read books, so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop” (Hurston 76). She had never had to opportunity to learn, to read, to know: so she had no concept of her own self-worth- so she had to search for it.
Likewise, Hurston’s understanding of the Southern Florida African-American culture allowed her to incorporate its distinctive variations on Christianity into her writing. “God” is not the Judeo-Christian God so familiar to us; it is rather a force of nature, a sweeping omniscience, equally benevolent and malevolent capabilities- a grand macrocosm to mankind’s own soul. Janie searches for a love like the luscious rapture of a pear tree in full spring regalia- a quest that is the major conflict of the opus. Reciprocally, her soul mate Tea Cake was killed by an act of nature, an act of this “God”; he perished from the bite of a rabid dog.
Additionally, Hurston uses the horizon to represent the end of the world, the realm of dreams and ecstasy- a nuance very nearly ubiquitous in the folk-religion of the time. Janie seeks to reach the horizon, for “Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon… and pinched it in a little bit of a thing that she could tie about her granddaughter’s neck and choke her with” (Hurston 89). For Janie, the horizon symbolizes autonomy and voice- what she longed for most of all in her life. Once she had found these, she “…pulled in her horizon like a great fish net. Pulled it in from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see” (Hurston 193). Once Janie had achieved her dream of self-actualization, she drew in her horizon, and was at peace.
The local color of this novella is absolutely crucial to Janie’s development into a mature, autonomous woman- alternately a catalyst and hindrance to this growth, it is always there, always propelling her toward the horizon she sought so valiantly for. Both the community and folk-religion of the vicinage were of paramount importance, intertwined entirely with Janie’s augmentation; this indispensable local color is the distinguishing feature of the work and of Janie’s evolution itself.
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