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  • Legacy of Dysfunction:Family Systems in Zora Neale Hurston's Jonah's Gourd Vine
  • John F. Kanthak

In her 2003 study of domestic violence in the work of Zora Neale Hurston, Diana Miles observed that, while race can be "socially constructed" to foster the violence that causes traumatic experiences, "the psychic processing of trauma is a human process," not a racial one (7). Miles's project—a psychological analysis of the works of "a black, female artist whose worldviews have been previously explained within the contexts of race, gender, and/or sociology" (6)—is uniquely appropriate to Hurston's work and merits further critical contributions. Raised in an all-black, self-governing town, Hurston often looks in her fiction beyond black/white binaries to study the common denominators of human psychodynamics—a fact obscured by ethnocentric criticism of her work. Her portrayal of the troubled Crittendon, Potts, and Pearson marriages in Jonah's Gourd Vine is a case in point. Critics reasonably have suggested that Hurston highlights "the relationship between racial insecurity and sexual oppression in the lives of black people" (Meisenhelder 43), but they have overlooked the novel's further value as a literary exploration non pareil of the multi-generational nature of marital dysfunction itself, which is culturally shaped only in its origins and expressions, not in its intrapsychic mechanisms.

Hurston infused her fiction with her own, hard-earned insights into marital dysfunction. She was nine years old when her father re-married a few months after her mother's death. In Hurston's published version of the events, her new stepmother (upon whom she modeled the selfish, gold-digging Hattie Tyson) saw her stepchildren as competition for her husband's affections (Hurston, Dust 73). She ordered Hurston's older sister out of the house and sent her husband to beat his first-born daughter with a buggy whip "for commenting [End Page 113] on the marriage happening so soon after Mama's death." A later encounter between Hurston and her stepmother ended in a bloody fistfight as Hurston's father stood by helplessly watching and weeping. In Jonah, a widowed and remarried father similarly draws a knife against his eldest child at his second wife's instigation (138). As the novel makes clear, the chronic family conflicts and imbalances that lead to such crises are not idiosyncratic, but rather owe their existence to the inheritance and promulgation of pathological behavioral and interpretive family systems. Their study in Hurston's fiction leads us, as Trudier Harris observes, "beyond limitations of race [and] class and into more universalized psychological encounters with readers at the points where all human experience intersects" (qtd. in Miles, frontispiece).

Throughout the corpus of extant Jonah criticism, one interpretation of the Pearson marriage runs as assertively (and nearly as unchallenged) as the "fire-lunged" locomotive that cuts across the green countryside near Notasulga. To wit: the Rev. John Pearson exploits and neglects his doormat of a wife, tiny Lucy, who merits either the reader's pity or scorn. In her foreword, Rita Dove calls Lucy "almost a parody of the faithful, betrayed wife: she subordinates her dreams to his ambitions, she is rebuked and dies" (Hurston, Jonah xiv). Susan Meisenhelder is more charitable, describing Lucy's "struggles for a relationship with her husband grounded in emotional reciprocity and mutual support," but concluding that Lucy is "blinded by adoration of a man who gives nothing in return for her selflessness" (52). Reframing the Pearson marriage within the principles of contemporary family systems theory shows that, although this victimizer/victim duality contains grains of truth, ultimately it is reductionist and dismissive of the Pearsons' shared motives as together they negotiate a marital dynamic that seamlessly combines the worst elements of their parents' two dysfunctional marriages. This awareness, in turn, opens the door to new and more complex conclusions about balances of power and assignments of culpability within the novel.1

In the real world, no woman or man enters marriage as a tabula rasa. Each imports domestic values and preconceptions about the roles each spouse can expect to play in the marital relationship, all of which are acquired within the family of origin. Both families in toto...


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pp. 113-129
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