I can only liken the first few pages of this novel to a Cubist painting. I was baffled at first. Everything seemed out of place. Body parts were not where they belonged. The perspective was all distorted. More specifically, the porch-full of women to whom we are introduced did not seem like women at all, but rather collages of women. The way they “chew[…] up the back parts of their minds” with envy; the way one woman “drawl[s] through her nose”; the way they all fill “their ears full of hope”: everything is muddled.
That’s how it seemed to this White British millennial, anyway. Back in 1937, when Their Eyes Were Watching God was first published, such phrases would have been everyday idiom for African Americans like Zora Neale Hurston, whose taste for street talk extends to writing dialogue phonetically. This can be discombobulating, too. For instance:
‘Lawd,’ Pearl agreed, ‘Ah done scorched-up dat lil meat and bread too long to talk about. Ah kin stay ‘way from home long as Ah please. Mah husband ain’t fussy.’
But, as with Shakespeare, you quickly adjust and you find the rhythm of the thing and, before long, comprehension is no longer an issue.
What might remain an issue is the prevalence of this idiom. Lesson One of Creative Writing Class tells us to avoid cliché and aphorism like the plague (oops!), to find new ways of saying things, and yet Hurston does exactly the opposite. Open to a random page in the book and you are sure to find at least a few of these false quantities. This extract has one in every sentence:
He had seen Death coming and had stood his ground and fought it like a natural man. He had fought it to the last breath. Naturally he didn’t have time to straighten himself out. Death had to take him like it found him.
Even when the idioms are new to the reader, it is still obvious that that is what they are and their novelty does not stop them clunking. So how does Hurston get away with it?
Because she’s not trying to get away with it. The institutionalised racism and misogyny of America, Hurston realises, are codified within the very language of the place, and her use of a straitened lexicon reflects and effects that. Observe how her style changes as main character Janie Crawford does. Having grown up on equal terms with white children, Janie does not initially identify as black and the freedom this affords her is apparent in the prose:
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation.
This is extraordinary. The way it seems to both zoom in and out at the same time, holding both the microscopic and the macroscopic in mind simultaneously: it’s like a Whitman poem.
Shortly after this “marriage,” however, Janie is married for real – to ugly Logan Killicks – and her vision is never so intense again. After a brief honeymoon period, Logan “stop[s] talking in rhymes” to his new wife and his language becomes dull, literal and idiomatic: “You done been spoilt rotten,” Logan complains when Janie refuses to chop wood. So Janie walks out on him and elopes with friendly passer-by Joe Starks to Hurston’s hometown of Eatonville, Florida. Ambitious and enterprising, ‘Jody’ is determined to make something of this all-black settlement and his success at doing so wins him the town’s mayorship, making Janie ‘The Mayor’s Wife.’ But this is not a blessing. With their rise to power, Jody becomes jealous of Janie, forbidding her to mix with the other townsfolk and forcing her to hide her famous locks beneath a shawl. Perhaps even more inevitably, he builds an enormous house and paints it “a gloaty, sparkly white,” making “The rest of the town look[…] like servant’s quarters.” Sound familiar?
Janie’s only coping mechanism are those stock phrases:
‘Maybe [Jody] ain’t nothin’,’ she cautioned herself, ‘but he is something in my mouth. He’s got tuh be else Ah ain’t go nothin’ tuh live for. Ah’ll lie and say he is. If Ah don’t, life won’t be nothin’ but uh store and uh house.’
Janie “[doesn’t] read books,” we’re told in the next paragraph, and so, with no new words coming in to challenge those old clichés, she begins to be convinced by them. As a result, this happens: “She wasn’t petal-open anymore with him. She was twenty-four and seven years married when she knew.” Not so many pages ago, a whole sentence was devoted to the flight of a bee; now, between one sentence and the next, twenty-four years have passed. Maybe if Janie had had a richer vocabulary, she’d have noticed.
Fortunately, after Jody’s death, Janie does find a decent man – Vergible ‘Tea Cake’ Woods. Twelve years younger than Janie, Tea Cake still has access to his inner child and that helps to unlock Janie’s again:
He could be a bee to a blossom – a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crunching aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.
I love this: how crushing and crunching become productive activities; how every sense is exercised; how dazzlingly original it all is. There are no tired sayings here. But there are, still, in the mouths of others. Towards the end of the novel, an all-white jury uses that most hackneyed of phrases – “He worked like a dog” – to describe Tea Cake, for dogs are what come to mind when they think of black people, and it reminds you all over again that the language that slaves were forced to learn upon arrival in America was always rigged against them. Doesn’t that resonate?
Their Eyes Were Watching God is published by Virago Press and is available here.