The Southern Literary Journal 37.1 (2004) 74-95
[Access article in PDF]
"Some Other Way to Try":
From Defiance to Creative Submission in Their Eyes Were Watching God
Shawn E. Miller
Since 1979, by which time Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) had established itself as "the most privileged text in the African-American literary canon" (Washington xii), some Hurston critics have been of two minds about her best-known book.1 Citing various unresolved textual problems, some cautious skeptics have asked whether the novel's preeminence, won through nearly universal praise from Alice Walker and other first-generation advocates, is premature, and perhaps even unwarranted.2 In the early days of the Hurston revival, one might have expected enthusiasts to regard such questions as hostile, and to respond in the mode of spirited defense; they were, after all, engaged in a delicate operation to recuperate a mostly forgotten writer who did not exactly fit the extraliterary profile of Herman Melville and other previously successful candidates. When the question was whether Hurston would be remembered at all, one can hardly blame her advocates for their wagon-circling against rigorous interrogation by critics of uncertain loyalties. But now, with the revival an accomplished fact, Their Eyes Were Watching God not only competes with, but even overshadows and threatens to eclipse, most other modern novels. Not surprisingly, questions about its worth have become more frequent and insistent, even from some of the book's early admirers. Such questions now [End Page 74] are not so much measures of the book's precarious status, as they are of its ubiquity.
Understanding this latter-day reception history may help us get to the bottom of more recent questions (and answers) about the book's purported inconsistency; indeed, reception politics may even explain why they have been raised to begin with. When Hurston's position in the canon seemed uncertain, little deviation from the fundamental feminist interpretation was possible without hazarding the success of the recovery effort. Gradually, this initial interpretation became standard, then assumed, even after the book had become a fixture in high school and undergraduate curricula across the country. Few now seriously ask whether the interpretation advanced by first-generation critics is valid; even the novel's detractors simply assume that it is, then point out all the ways the book contradicts it. When William M. Ramsey charges that Their Eyes Were Watching God is "not a fully finished or conceptually realized text" (36), he means that substantial textual evidence does not accord with, and at times contradicts, the widely-assumed feminist interpretation of the novel. He concludes that perhaps Their Eyes Were Watching God is not as good as we had thought, but an alternate conclusion is of course possible: perhaps the conventional interpretation of Their Eyes Were Watching God is not as right as we had thought. Rather than acknowledge the necessity of either conclusion, Hurston advocates have often addressed the concerns of readers like Ramsey with ever more fanciful explanations of why the standard interpretation is nevertheless still adequate to its task, an activity which Joseph R. Urgo laments "only emphasizes the assumption of textual weakness" (42). The reader who craves unity of effect is left with the notion that something is still awry.
A more helpful strategy for assessing the book might lie in reconsidering our allegiance to certain assumptions that undergird the traditional feminist interpretation, especially now that Hurston and her work are widely known and respected. In brief, this interpretation posits Janie Crawford as an internally static feminist hero seeking liberation from masculine oppression as a necessary prerequisite to self-actualization. Her first two marriages fail because Logan Killicks and Joe Starks insist too severely on Janie's obedience to them and to conventional sex-role and class-role stereotypes. Janie heroically defies the roles imposed upon her, and eventually finds the love she had first envisioned under the pear tree when she marries Tea Cake Woods. Their marriage, unlike her first two, is egalitarian and liberating. She thus completes...