- "The Kiss of Memory": The Problem of Love in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God
It is well known that there must be a body of waived matter, let us say, things accepted and taken for granted by all in a community before there can be that commonality of feeling. The usual phrase is having things in common. Until this is thoroughly established in respect to Negroes in America, as well as of other minorities, it will remain impossible for the majority to conceive of a Negro experiencing a deep and abiding love and not just the passion of sex. . . . [T]hey can and do experience discovery of the numerous subtle faces as a foundation for a great and selfless love, and the diverse nuances that go to destroy that love. . . .—Zora Neale Hurston, "What White Publishers Won't Print"
Zora Neale Hurston's 1950 essay on the lack of published representations of African American love speaks to the concerns of her best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, published thirteen years earlier. Hurston's piece suggests that despite her skepticism about protest fiction, she was deeply engaged with the political landscape of the early to mid-twentieth century in America as an author and intellectual. As Joel Pfister notes in an article designed to highlight Hurston's political efficacy, her racial politics were relational, not deterministic: "She depicted [African American] life and culture in relation to but not as decisively scripted by racially and economically motivated oppression." "What White Publishers Won't Print" confirms Hurston's interest in the connection between racist assumptions about black people and fictional representations of African American love. She argues that publishing complex and subtle stories about heterosexual relationships between black people promotes interracial "commonality of feeling." Crucially, Hurston specifies that such stories should also include how and why love relationships are destroyed. This essay proposes to investigate Their Eyes Were Watching God on these terms. What "diverse nuances . . . go to destroy" the "great and selfless love" between Janie Crawford and Tea Cake Woods (621)?
It is difficult to talk about Their Eyes without talking about Janie and Tea Cake's relationship. Though Hurston's heroine, Janie Crawford, is fully realized, masterfully characterized, and deliciously complicated, the plot and the problem of the novel revolve around her finding, losing, and eulogizing this great love of her life. Critics who read the novel as a narrative about Janie's quest for selfhood or her progressive acquisition of voice tend to cast Tea Cake as a utopian alternative to the paradigm of masculinist domination identified by Janie's grandmother and typified by her second husband, Joe Starks. 1 Scholars responding to this characterization of Tea Cake tend to overcorrect these optimistic readings and attack the efficacy and authenticity of the relationship as a whole, arguing that Tea Cake is slightly more palatable, but largely of a piece with the other imperfect men in the novel. 2 What both of these readings often downplay, though, is the novel's deliberate and profound ambivalence towards Janie's chances, in her time and place, for finding a husband equipped to consistently encourage her self-actualization or listen to her voice.
The novel contains both a profound idealization of Tea Cake's character and a skeptical critique of some of his behavior towards Janie. Whereas Janie's personal development can be read as a progressive journey or successful quest, her romantic relationships seem to echo each other in pervasive and disturbing ways. Pfister comments that "For all its occasional romantic and pastoral cuteness and atmospheric [End Page 311] hopefulness, Hurston chose not to insulate her love story from destructive social forces and contradictions" (622). Tea Cake's jealousy and violence is the novel's most intense and disturbing representation of the pervasiveness of domination because he is so unlike Logan and Joe, yet sporadically performs the same dominative masculinity that they do. The story arc of Janie and Tea Cake's courtship and marriage suggests that Tea Cake is both Janie's "great and selfless love" and susceptible to the "diverse nuances" that "destroy" romantic relationships between African Americans. This ambivalence is represented through...