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LEGAL NARRATIVES OF SELF-DEFENSE AND SELF-EFFACEMENT IN THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD Laura H. Korobkin Boston University Surprisingly little close attention has been paid to the legal nuances of the climactic scenes in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which Janie Woods crosses shots with her rabid husband, Tea Cake, killing him, then is tried and acquitted of murder later the same day. If we turn a legallyinformed critical lens on Hurston's handling of the killing and trial, the novel's central concerns with the problematics of selfhood and the relation of narrative construction to individual identity come into view in a new way. Though not a legal expert, Hurston brilliantly orchestrates the scene of crossed shots to demonstrate how acts ofintentional, lethal violence, from which one would ordinarily infer subjective hostility and for which individuals would ordinarily be held responsible, can be performed without legal culpability by actors whose deepest feelings for each other are unconditional love. She then uses the law's insistence on transforming antecedent events into morally-inflected, responsibility-assigning narratives to show how Janie's role in the death scene is serially reinvented. The narrator's initial description of her as an assertive, fully agentic woman who preserves her life in an act of self-defense, is, in rapid succession, reformulated first by the black community which casts Janie as a treacherous, cold-blooded killer, then by both Janie herself and the judge as a self-effacing wife who commits a mercy killing out ofcompassion for her husband's suffering, and finally by the jury, whose verdict that the killing was "entirely accidental" erases Janie's agency completely and renders her shot no more her own rationally-chosen act than was Tea Cake's. Taken together, these scenes and ideas require us to rethink the novel's handling of selfhood, love, violence, and narrative. Of those critics who have looked at the killing and trial scenes in Their Eyes Were Watching God, most have focused on such questions as whether Tea Cake's death is symbolic revenge for his earlier beating ofJanie, whether the decision to render Janie's testimony through a summary description by the third-person narrator impairs her achievement of selfhood by depriving her 4 Laura H. Korobkin of voice, or how the trial demonstrates white legal authority's enforcement of power over black men. 1 Or, filling in for themselves what the text aggressively refuses to delineate, critics have applauded Janie's triumphant eloquence in proving her need for self-defense, declared the trial to be a "conversion experience " for whites, who are "forced to acknowledge the sexualrelational feelings (the 'humanity') of their social, and racial 'inferiors,'" or concluded that it illustrates "the depth of Janie's discovery of self," the degree to which she has become "a complete woman ... at home with the cycles ofbirth and death, love and loss, knowledge and selfhood."2 By focusing on voice, race, and the fact that Janie's testimony is followed by her acquittal, critics have not only overlooked Janie's utter self-effacement and the absence of any mention of self-defense at her trial, but, more generally, have failed to attend to the novel's extraordinary dissection of agency and its relation to narrative. The scene of crossed shots renders the very idea of coherent selfhood problematic, especially the assumption that behavior expresses self in any simple way. Act and mental state may be consistent, or they may not. What seems to be mental may really be physical; what seems to be purposeful may really be a diseased body's miming of intentionality. Indeed , the gap between mind and act is so extreme in the shooting scene that it forces us to question the easy confidence with which we make inferences about personality, character, or motivation from evidence of an individual's behavior. Shifting the grounds of analysis in this way transforms the troubling question of Janie's ultimate achievement of independence and autonomy into a more general question about the purposes and circumstances under which we create narratives of autonomy or dependence that define our own identities. For Hurston, violence may be a...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2158-5806
Print ISSN
0091-8083
Pages
pp. 3-28
Launched on MUSE
2014-10-01
Open Access
No
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