"The world in a jug and the stopper in (her) hand": 'Their Eyes' as blues performance.
The blues operate on many levels in Their Eyes. The novel's focus on love and relationship, Janie's pursuit of sexual satisfaction and self-fulfillment, and Hurston's celebration of female sexuality are themes, in particular, of vaudeville blues. The novel's sequence of three marriages provides a blues structure and presents the many-sidedness of love and relationship in much the same way that a series of blues stanzas does in performance. Janie's three marriages suggest the tripartite aa'b stanzaic structure of the standard blues piece, in which the second line (a') is a variation of the first, while the third line (b) marks some sort of resolution or contrast. Janie's relationship with Tea Cake, himself a blues singer/guitarist, is itself the love of many blues, with its pain and pleasure, jealousy and passion, short life and sudden end.(2)
In Their Eyes, Janie's marriage relationships become a structural vehicle through which Hurston explores a wide range of issues and experiences of struggle. Like the blues singer, Hurston "personifies" struggle by projecting Janie's journey to selfhood vis-a-vis relationship dynamics. By voicing Janie's responses to the oppressive conditions of each subsequent marriage, Hurston exposes underlying conflicts between prescribed beliefs and what she knows to be true from her own experience. Like the blues performer, Hurston uses contrast and oppositional structures in conjunction with repetition and variation to highlight paradoxical elements and to heighten dramatic intensity.
Hurston presents Janie's journey to selfhood as a process of sorting out her own feelings and values, freeing herself from the oppressive attitudes of others, and embracing those aspects of the culture that empower her and resonate her own voice. Through the use of blues imagery, metaphorical and rhetorical constructs, and linguistic devices, Hurston articulates an opposition between Janie's beliefs and those imposed from outside. The conflicts between inside and outside, appearance and reality, individual and community, and people and things are some of the core oppositions Hurston evokes in the language of the novel. While "inside" is the internal, personal, female, individual, and self-defined realm of Janie's feelings and sexuality associated with her path to identity and voice, "outside" is associated with external, familial, community, societal, white, and male-defined images and values, with materialism, and with the appearance of things. Core images such as the bee, Tea Cake, and the moon are connected with Janie's self-identity, whereas others like the mule are associated with external definitions. At the same time, many of the core images of the novel - such as the bee, the mule, the horizon and laughter - along with linguistic devices including personification, hyperbole, and inversion, themselves embody multiplicity and the oppositions of the novel. By repeating core means and materials - images, themes, linguistic devices, oppositions - and articulating them in various guises, Hurston the blues performer brings her readers to a deeper sense of their significance and of the novel's meaning.
Their Eyes is a multi-voiced, multilayered story-within-a-story which follows an oral-performance model. Hurston uses traditional vehicles of oral self-expression, including blues singing, signifying, and storytelling, to mark important steps in Janie's process of finding her own voice. Janie's oral telling of the story frames the novel, giving Their Eyes an overall shape which transcends the repetitions at its core. Pheoby is essential to the story, for she is Janie's witness, the audience necessary to complete the performative act of singing and telling. The Janie-Pheoby bond signifies the importance of Janie's connection to herself and her own womanness, as well as to other women. Hurston's use of Pheoby as witness/audience is similar to the female address employed by vaudeville blues singers like Bessie Smith in "Preaching the Blues," in which she sings: "Let me tell you girls, if your man ain't treatin' you right . . . I will learn you something if you listen to this song. . . ." Like the blues woman's song, Their Eyes carries a special message and significance for women. While the female-male relationship is the repeated situation and core syntactic unit, the implied female-female bond between performer/audience and writer/reader provides an overall structural and thematic framework.
Hurston draws upon what Stephen Henderson has called mascon imagery - words or phrases that contain "a massive concentration of Black experiential energy . . . [and] cut across areas of experience usually thought of as separate, but . . . [whose] meanings overlap and wash into each other on some undifferentiated level of common experience" (44).(3) A key ingredient in the poetry of the blues, mascon words and phrases, with their multiple meanings, are used to evoke a whole network of associations and relationships.
Hurston uses several mascon images to describe Janie's third husband - including "the bee," "lil' boy rooster," and "the Son of Evening Sun" - which identify him as a blues man. The name Tea Cake is itself a blues name which conveys in blues language the depth and intensity of the singer's passion. The name suggests a sweet food delicacy in the same way that the common terms jellyroll and sugar do in the blues. Janie discovers that, as a lover, Tea Cake is as "sweet as all dat" (149) and that "he turns into pure sugar just thinking about her" (174). Like the jellyroll image in the blues, the name Tea Cake simultaneously connotes sexual pleasure and affectionately signifies a lover, while evoking the multi-sensory experience of good food. Giving her character the name Tea Cake allows Hurston to signify his role in Janie's process of self-discovery and sexual fulfillment.
The bee image, connected with Tea Cake and with Janie's sexuality in general, is an oppositional image found in many blues but most often associated with the work of Memphis Minnie, who recorded several versions of bumble bee blues. Like Zora Neale Hurston in the fields of folklore and literature, Memphis Minnie stands out in the history of the blues as a strong player and singer in a field dominated by men, in which women playing the guitar in public was especially taboo (Garon). While the recording careers of most early blues singers - vaudeville and down-home, women and men - was short-lived, Memphis Minnie composed, performed, and recorded consistently and prolifically in the country blues vein for over three decades. In her bee blues, Minnie articulates the multiplicity - both the pain (the sting) and the pleasure (the honey) - which the bee as lover image suggests:
I got a bumble bee, don't sting nobody but me [2x] And I tell the world he got all the stinger I need And he makes better honey, any bumble bee I ever seen [2x] And when he makes it, Lawd how he make me scream He get to flyin' and buzzin', stingin' everybody he meet [2x] Lawd, I wonder why my bumble bee want to mistreat me Hmmmm, where that bumble bee gone Hmmmm, wonder where my bumble bee gone I been lookin' for him, my bumble bee so long, so long My bumble bee got ways just like a natchal man [2x] He stingin' somebody everywhere he lay ("New Bumble Bee")
In the first two stanzas of "New Bumble Bee," first the bee's sting then its honey is associated with the singer's 'sexual pleasure.(4) By contrast, the bee's sting is, in verses three through five, associated with the pain of infidelity and abandonment. In verse five the connection between bee and the "mistreatin' "man is made explicit. The bee image is but one of many forms in which the opposing sides - the pain/pleasure - of love appear in the blues.
Hurston's bee image also involves these opposing sides. In Their Eyes the bee symbolizes Janie's sexual fulfillment in union with another: Throughout the novel she searches for a bee for her bloom and eventually finds it in the person of Tea Cake. Like the relationship portrayed in "New Bumble Bee," Janie's relationship with Tea Cake involves much pain as well as pleasure - doubt, hurt, and jealousy, as well as joy. Several times in the first weeks of their relationship Tea Cake leaves Janie and does not return right away (163-64, 177-80, 188-89). Several times later in the Everglades, a third party comes between them. In these situations, jealousy leads to impassioned physical confrontations, which lead to even more impassioned reconciliations. The pain/pleasure dynamic is clearly revealed in one such situation, in which a heated physical fight ends in passionate lovemaking (205). Ultimately, the pain/pleasure paradox of their relationship is most clearly illustrated by the circumstances of Tea Cake's death. Tea Cake risks (and ultimately gives) his life to save (and then try to take) Janie's life, whereas Janie kills him to give him peace and to save herself.
Like the image of the bee, the mule image, found primarily in men's blues, embodies opposition and multiplicity. The image suggests the unequal power relationships between (1) work animal and human worker, (2) Black worker and white bossman, and (3) woman and man. The blues man at once identifies with the mule, recognizing the mule's plight as his own, and in turn relegates woman to this subservient position. In "Gettin' Late in the Evenin,' "for example, Otis Webster uses personification to draw an analogy between the relationship of man to mule and white boss to Black worker.
He bought me a mule buster, it was loaded with steel The mule drove four feet, an' the poor thing ask me how I feel I begin to look at my harness, it's always fittin' tight They say I can't do no damage, cause this ole collar ain't fit me right Oh captain, see what's I'm gonna do Yeah my mule done give out, an' I'm just about gone too. (Oster 157)
When the boss provides the worker inhumane equipment with which to work the mule, the abused animal (in an ironic reversal) asks the worker how he (the worker) feels. In another Otis Webster piece, the mule is identified with both the male persona and with the female lover:
When my baby left the station she left me a mule to ride [2x] When the train pull off my mule lie down and died. (Oster 85-86)
In the first line the mule is metonymically associated with the woman - she leaves it in place of herself, and it takes her place as his "rider" (or sexual partner). At the same time it is metaphorically associated with the man - she leaves the man, she leaves the mule. The mule's death in the second line is both a metaphor for the singer's response to the loss of his lover (mule dies = man suffers) and a metaphor for that loss (mule dies - woman leaves).
The multiple identifications of the mule in the blues are also seen in Their Eyes. An identification of the mule with Janie and with women is witnessed both in the treatment of Janie by her first two husbands and in the treatment of a flesh-and-blood mule by its two owners. The treatment of the mule, reflected in the stories told on the store porch, is a metaphor for the treatment of Janie. In storytelling, there is also an identification of the mule with men, both the workers (Matt) and those in power (Jody), for, as in the blues, the mule is a reflection of the man who owns it. These multiple identifications are reflected in a speech Janie makes to her husband and the community after he buys the mule from Matt, its original owner, in order to free it from abuse:
"Freein' dat mule makes uh mighty big man outa you. Something like George Washington and Lincoln. Abraham Lincoln, he had de whole United States tub rule so he freed de Negroes. You got uh town so you freed uh mule." (92)
The added irony which Hurston exposes in this passage is that, like his marrying Janie, Joe's gesture in buying and freeing the mule rings false. Like Lincoln freeing the slaves, Jody's moves are the calculated political gestures of one in power appealing to the appearance of things; in reality everyone knows that both Janie and the community, women and men, are controlled by and worked like mules under Jody. As Oscar Scott expresses it, "'You can feel a switch in his hand when he's talkin' to yuh'" (78).
In Their Eyes Hurston plays variations on the mule image of the blues. Janie's grandmother first articulates the social hierarchy which the mule image in the blues suggests:
"So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. . . . He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see." (29)
From relationship to relationship, Hurston repeats and responds to various aspects of this image. Janie, in her relationships both with Logan and with Jody, is married to escape muledom, and yet ironically soon finds herself treated like a mule. In both relationships, this is symbolized by her husband's purchase of a flesh-and-blood mule. In Janie's relationship with Tea Cake, however, as Sherley Anne Williams notes, Hurston turns the mule image of the blues around (Hurston, Their Eyes xv). Signifying on the tradition, Hurston replaces the mule relationship - an unequal, oppressive power relationship that keeps women in the "one-down" position-with a relationship in which Janie and Tea Cake work side by side as equals in the Everglades.
In Their Eyes, the mule image is associated both with oppressive white and male definitions of Black women, which Janie struggles to shed, and with the creativity of blues singers and storytellers - and hence with Janie's acquisition of voice. In Their Eyes, Hurston critiques the mule image of the blues, showing how white male definitions stifle the creativity of African American women. In Janie's relationship with Jody, the mule image embodies a double standard: Jody can participate in the storytelling concerning the mule; Janie cannot. But, while Janie is not allowed to "talk the mule," laugh at the mule-talk, or attend the mule's funeral within the story itself, when she tells her life-story to Pheoby, Janie not only talks the mule and "witnesses" the mule's funeral, she also creates a new mule story of a second funeral presided over by the buzzards (96-97). Janie's "performance" of the buzzards' mule funeral utilizes blues techniques including personification, hyperbole, and a repeated call-and-response structure to signify on Joe's mule funeral and to expose the reality behind the appearance of Joe's life. We see in Joe's presiding over the first mule funeral, as in the lamp lighting ceremony, that the mule, like the lamp, is a symbol of Joe's material power and control. In the first mule funeral, Joe and the town metaphorically laud the owner of the mule (Joe) and his material strength, while in the second, Janie and the buzzards expose his physical weakness. In the second funeral, when the presiding buzzard asks, "What killed this man?" and the chorus answers, "Bare bare fat," Janie alludes to and anticipates in the telling of her story the circumstances of Joe's death. Thus, the buzzard story becomes a posthumous signifyin(g) gesture on Jody.(5) Ultimately, then, by telling her own story, including her own variations on the mule's funeral, Janie does participate in the mule-talk, just as Hurston, by telling Janie's story, participates in the male-controlled and dominated tradition of written literature.
As in the recounting of the buzzard's mule funeral, Hurston uses the techniques of the blues performer when she describes Daisy Blunt approaching the store porch. In this passage, which connects episodes of porch talk in the novel, Hurston and Janie display their own skill at creating "big pictures." Using the blues idiom, teller and author capture the powerful image which Daisy herself projects, and articulate a Black female standard of beauty. Hurston describes Daisy's beauty in terms of the ways in which the white of the moon and the white in her features and clothes highlight her blackness. This image stands in stark contrast to the standard literary image of the mulatta, which highlights whiteness (Christian 22-23). Through her blues use of contrast, Hurston critiques and revises the mulatta stereotype:
. . . Daisy Blunt comes walking down the street in the moonlight. Daisy is walking a drum tune. You can almost hear it by looking at the way she walks. She is black and she knows that white clothes look good on her, so she wears them for dress up. She's got those big black eyes with plenty shiny white in them that makes them shine like brand new money and she knows what God gave women eyelashes for, too. Her hair is not what you might call straight. It's negro hair, but it's got a kind of white flavor. Like the piece of string out of a ham. It's not ham at all, but it's been around ham and got the flavor. It was spread down thick and heavy over her shoulders and looked just right under a big white hat. (105-06)
Hurston celebrates Daisy's sensuality and sex appeal using blues imagery which stimulates all the senses. Her juxtaposition of contrasting sensory realms - sight, sound, touch, and taste - serves to reinforce the black-white contrasts she describes and to heighten the intensity of the "performance" which is simultaneously Daisy's, Janie's, and Hurston's. As Daisy's movement suggests music, Hurston's word picture evokes the sounds, tastes, and textures behind the visual image she projects. Describing Daisy's hair, Hurston uses a very sensual and sexually suggestive food metaphor which is reminiscent of the jelly roll image found in blues like the following:
Jellyroll, jellyroll, ain't so hard to find Ain't a baker shop in town bake 'em brown like mine I got a sweet jelly, a loving sweet jelly roll If you taste my jelly it'll satisfy your worried soul. (Peg Leg Howell, "New Jelly Roll Blues" , qtd. in Oliver 109)
In Their Eyes, Hurston utilizes linguistic devices such as objectification,(6) personification, hyperbole, and inversion like the blues singer - to embody opposition and contrast. By externalizing emotions, objectification, personification, and related processes articulate an opposition between an inner world of feelings and an outer world of objects. This is literally illustrated in Their Eyes when Nanny's "voice began snagging on the prongs of her feelings" (27). By externalizing Nanny's feelings and objectifying her voice, Hurston "paints" the conflict between Nanny's advice to Janie and her true feelings. Similarly, in "Empty Bed Blues," Bessie Smith externalizes, objectifies, and embodies feelings of loneliness and abandonment in the image of an empty bed:
When my bed get empty makes me feel awful mean and blue [2x] My springs are getting rusty sleepin' single like I do.
Through personification, musical personae and literary characters come face-to-face with their feelings. Compare the following examples from Bessie Smith's "Jailhouse Blues" and Hurston's text:
Good mornin' blues, blues how do you do (how do you do)? Good mornin' blues, blues how do you do? Said I jus' came here to have a few words with you. (Smith) The big house . . . creaked and cried all night under the weight of lonesomeness. Then she'd lie awake in bed asking lonesomeness some questions. (Their Eyes 137)
In "Jailhouse Blues" the singer reasons with the blues, a metaphor suggesting on one level her giving voice to her feelings and on another level her wish to reason with the jailkeeper or confront the "system." Similarly, by externalizing emotions Hurston gives voice to Janie's feelings, and Janie confronts her past, takes stock of the present, and envisions her future.
Through the use of hyperbolic imagery, singers and storytellers dramatize oppressive conditions and feelings of powerlessness.(7) In Bessie Smith's recording of "Mean Old Bedbug Blues," for example, the bedbug embodies the abusive forces which the singer faces. The depth of the singer's powerlessness and pain is conveyed as this very small being is pictured very big:
Bedbugs big as a jackass, will bite you and stand and grin [2x] Will drink all the bedbug poison, turn around and bite you again.
In Their Eyes, when Matt attempts to defend his treatment of the mule (" 'Ah does feed 'im. He's jus' too mean tuh git fat'"), the "mule-talkers" use hyperbole along with irony to confirm the mule's powerlessness and subjugation to Matt's abuse:
"Us all knows he's mean. Ah seen 'im when he took after one uh dem Roberts chillun in de street . . . . [he]
wuz dead in behind 'im and gainin' on 'im every jump, when all of a sudden de wind changed and blowed de mule way off his course . . . and before de ornery varmint could tack, de youn-gun had got over de fence." (84)
Like the blues singer, Hurston uses the lingistic process of inversion to reverse power relationships and turn conventions around. In the following examples from Bessie Smith's recording of "Downhearted Blues" and Hurston's text, the biggest thing (the world) is made small, tangible, and controllable:
I got the world in a jug, the stopper's in my hand [2x] I'm gonna hold it until you, men come under my command. (Smith)(8)
"You'se got de world in uh jug and make out you don't know it. But Ah'm glad tuh be de one tuh tell yuh." (Their Eyes 157)
In "Downhearted Blues" the metaphor boasts a woman's power over men. In Hurston's text, it signifies Janie's powerful hold on Tea Cake, and her own power which Tea Cake helps her to discover by mirroring the image back to her.
In portraying Janie's relationship with Tea Cake, Hurston draws frequently on the language, situations, and themes of the blues. The blues character of the relationship is initially signaled by a traditional blues couplet "sung" by Janie to Pheoby which expresses both Janie's new-found sense of freedom and her intent to marry Tea Cake and leave the Eatonville community: "'Some of dese mornin's and it won't be long, you gointuh wake up callin' me and Ah'll be gone'" (173). Structurally, the line marks closure in the chapter and signals a new beginning for Janie - a new marriage and a new life. On the next page, Hurston celebrates Janie's subsequent departure with a second song, a signifying nod to the vaudeville tune "Shuffle Off to Buffalo," as Janie waves goodbye to the silence Jody has imposed on her and embraces the music-filled freedom which life with Tea Cake offers:
The train beat on itself and danced on the shiny steel rails mile after mile. . . . the engineer would play on his whistle for the people. . . . And the train shuffled on to Jacksonville. (174)(9)
In the early stages of her relationship with Tea Cake, Janie experiences a multitude of powerful new feelings at the same time that she is haunted by troublesome remnants of the internalized voices of others. Compare Hurston's text with Memphis Minnie's expression of love/hate, pain/pleasure in "Bumble Bee Blues":
She adored him and hated him at the same time. (Their Eyes 163) She tried to look cold but she was smiling in spite of herself. (164) It made her so glad she was scared of herself. (175) Sometimes he makes me happy, then sometimes he makes me cry. He had me to the place once, I wish to God that I could die. (Minnie, qtd, in Garon 106)
In projecting Janie's love and vulnerability, Hurston employs shifts in idiom and address and juxtaposes contrasting feelings, as the blues singer does, to convey mixed emotions and internal conflict.(10) Compare Hurston's text with Minnie's "Moaning the Blues":
Anyhow, she wasn't going back to Eatonville to be laughed at and pitied. She had ten dollars in her pocket and twelve hundred in the bank. But oh God, don't let Tea Cake be off somewhere and hurt and Ah not know nothing about it. And God, please suh, don't let him love nobody else but me. Maybe Ah'm is uh fool, Lawd, lak dey say, but Lawd, Ah been so lonesome, and Ah been waitin', Jesus. Ah done waited uh long time. (Their Eyes 179-80)
Oh the blues got ways sometimes just like a nat'chal man [2x] I don't care which-a-way you turn, they always is on your hands.
Won't you tell me baby, how come you don't come back home? [2x]
I lay down last night with my back door open all night long.
Here come the blues this morning, just 'fore day they shut my door [2x]
But the Lord forgive me, I won't have them things no more.
This morning, setting on the side of my bed
This morning, blues set on the side of my bed
Said I just come brought you a letter, why your plumb good man fell dead.
[Spoken:] Blues, what must I do?
Mmmmmmmmmm, mmmmmmmmm- mmmmmmmm
Mmmmmmmmm, mmmmmmmmm- mmmm (Minnie, "Moaning")
In this passage from Their Eyes, Hurston moves from a narrator's voice to Janie's voice, from third-person ("she") to first-person ("Ah"), from standard English to Black dialect, and from the narrator indirectly conveying Janie's feelings to Janie talking directly to God about her feelings. As the person, idiom, and address shift, we glimpse the range of Janie's conflicting responses to Tea Cake's disappearance. In "Moaning the Blues," Memphis Minnie begins by addressing her audience, then her lover, then the Lord; finally, the blues addresses her. Like Hurston, Minnie utilizes shifts in address along with personification to' express a range of emotions in response to her lover's disappearance. Hurston's passage evokes passion, fear, jealousy, distrust, shame, and loneliness; Minnie's song suggests betrayal, guilt, disbelief, and grief.(11)
Fortunately, in Their Eyes Tea Cake does return; still, a few pages later, Janie again wrestles with conflicting feelings when Tea Cake leaves her to go out gambling. Compare Hurston's writing with the stanzas from Bessie Smith's "In the House Blues" which follow:
She got up and sat around scared and miserable. Thinking and fearing all sorts of dangers. Wondering at herself as she had many times this week that she was not shocked at Tea Cake's gambling. It was part of him, so it was all right. She rather found herself angry at imaginary people who might try to criticize. Let the old hypocrites learn to mind their own business, and leave other folks alone. Tea Cake wasn't doing a bit more harm trying to win hisself a little money than they was always doing with their lying tongues. Tea Cake had more good nature under his toe-nails than they had in their so-called Christian hearts, She better not hear none of them old backbiters talking about her husband! Please, Jesus, don't let them nasty niggers hurt her boy. If they do, Master Jesus, grant her a good gun and a chance to shoot 'em. Tea Cake had a knife it was true, but that was only to protect hisself. God knows, Tea Cake wouldn't harm a fly. (Their Eyes 188-89)
Sitting in the house with everything on my mind [2x] Looking at the clock and can't even tell the time Walking to my window and looking out of my door [2x] Wishing that my man would come home once more . . . Catch 'em, don't let them blues in here [2x] They shakes me in my bed, can't set down in my chair (Smith, "In the House")
In this passage from Their Eyes, Hurston uses shifts in idiom, implied speaker and audience, and point of view dramatically to articulate Janie's continuing struggle to reconcile conflicting feelings, responses, and attitudes in the first weeks of her relationship with Tea Cake. Unlike the previous passage, Hurston does not utilize the first-person pronoun ("Ah"), and her consistent use of "she"/"her" roots the passage more firmly within the frame of the narrator. Still, several sentences could be direct discourse, except that, as in the previous passage, there are no quotation marks. Hurston also shifts the idiom, using hints of Black dialect ("hisself," "was," "Master Jesus," "'em") to reinforce the presence of Janie's voice. In addition, Hurston shifts the implied audience of her address from Janie talking to herself while imagining and responding to others' attacks to Janie pleading to God to grant her some power over the situation, and back again.
As Janie defends Tea Cake from the various voices inside her, contradictory attitudes are exposed. The shift to address God, in particular, marks an abrupt shift in attitude as Janie moves from defending Tea Cake's gambling to condemning the gamblers as "nasty niggers." In Janie's address to God, Hurston ironically juxtaposes a pleading subservience to God ("Master Jesus") with a deprecatory reference to gamblers ("nasty niggers"), suggesting an internal struggle with racist attitudes, class bias, and patriarchal power structures. Hurston adds another layer of irony when, after asking God for a gun and a chance to shoot the gamblers, Janie turns back to the imaginary critics to defend Tea Cake's possession of a knife.
In passages like these, Hurston's movement from idiom to idiom and voice to voice within the narrative frame clearly achieves the expressive dramatic effect of music or theater. Critic John Callahan has suggested that Hurston's juxtaposition of voices in Their Eyes achieves a polyrhythmic musical effect (96). The textural contrasts Hurston creates through the use of shifts in idiom, address, and point of view are also aesthetically related to the use of distinctive timbres and contrasting sound colors in blues and other African American musics.(12)
Key to Hurston's shifts in voice and idiom and expressive use of variation and contrast in passages like these is that which Johnson and Gates have termed "a Black and idiomatic free indirect discourse," a "speakerly" language which mediates between standard English and Black dialect, showing and telling, in which narrative commentary aspires to the immediacy of the drama (76, 85). The contrasts which Johnson and Gates identify between direct and indirect discourse and between the free indirect discourse of Janie and Joe function much like musical contrast in the blues, underscoring conflict between characters and Janie's struggle to separate inner from outer, self from other, in the process of finding her own voice (80).
As family members, colleagues, and critics went to great lengths to stifle Hurston's voice during her lifetime, Jody tries hard to suppress Janie's voice in Their Eyes.(13) It is through her own self-division that Janie is able to survive the marriage with her own inner world of feelings, thoughts, and dreams put away more or less intact (Johnson, "Metaphor" 165). But Jody isn't satisfied with her submission. Out of his own pain and dissatisfaction, Joe abuses her verbally as well as physically, cruelly criticizing her "looks" and her "doings." Finally, he pushes her too far, and Janie is forced to speak the truth which exposes his lie and the contradictions of his life.
This is a climactic scene in the novel. Expressive intensity reaches a peak through Hurston's complex, multi-layered use of opposition, inversion, and hyperbole, in conjunction with the traditional vehicle of signifyin(g). While both Jody and Janie use inversion and signifyin(g), Jody uses it to distort reality whereas Janie uses it to restore and clarify the truth. In the following scene, Jody merges his looks and age with Janie's and focuses attention on her in order to divert attention away from his own condition. His attack culminates in signifyin(g):
"I god amighty! A woman stay round uh store till she get old as Methusalem and still can't cut a little thing like a plug of tobacco! Don't stand dere rollin' yo' pop eyes at me wid yo' rump hangin' nearly to yo' knees!" (121)
When Jody signifies on Janie, he also merges Janie's "doings" (her competence) with her age and "looks," exaggerating her age in the hope that making her look mentally and physically powerless (stupid and old) will make him look more powerful. At the same time, he also merges his "doings" with his "looks," hoping that if he exaggerates his "doings" and material power, it will hide his deteriorating physical condition.
When Janie responds, demanding that Jody stop mixing her "doings" with her "looks," it threatens the foundation of his lie. He pushes to maintain his lie about her looking old in order to maintain his illusion of omnipotence. And Janie is pushed to defend herself and to articulate the truth of her own image. The strength of Janie's presentation comes from the fact that she first truthfully assesses and expresses her own condition (redrawing the image he has presented of her), then takes what he has said about her age and looks (his lie) and mirrors it back to reflect the truth about his age and looks. Like Joe's attack, Janie's counterattack culminates in signifyin(g):
"Naw, Ah ain't no young gal no mo' but den Ah ain't no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah'm uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat's uh whole lot more'n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but 'tain't nothin' to it but yo' big voice. Humph! Talkin"bout me lookin' old! When you pull down yo' britches, you look lak de change uh life." (122-23)
In her response, Janie systematically separates (1) her looks from her doings, (2) her looks and age from Jody's looks and age, and (3) Jody's "talk" from the truth, appearance and lie from reality. In so doing, she exposes Jody's physical impotence, the reality behind the appearance of his material power. As Johnson and Gates point out, Janie's signifyin(g) not only robs him of the illusion that he is God, but also of the illusion that he is a powerful man (74). Janie uses the humor of signifyin(g) and the dozens to expose the discrepancy between lie and reality.
This scene is the culmination of a series of scenes in which Janie articulates her ability to separate her own voice from that of others. Barbara Johnson has demonstrated how, in the passages leading up to this scene, Hurston utilizes linguistic processes of objectification and inversion and juxtaposes variations on the inside/outside opposition to convey in the narrator's voice Janie's process of separating true from false images, reality from appearance ("Metaphor" 164). By juxtaposing an externalization of inner space with an internalization of outer space, Hurston signals a reversal of the power structure. From this point on, Janie's power and resistance grow as Jody's body and public image deteriorate (Their Eyes 111-12). In terms of blues strategies, what is crucial in this climactic signifyin(g) scene is the way in which Hurston extends her series of variations on the inner/outer opposition with a dramatic shift to direct address which functions, as in a blues performance, to move the "piece" to an expressive peak. It is especially fitting that signifyin(g), one of the most powerful vehicles of direct address, provides the stage for Janie's debut of her verbal competence and, by extension, of her individual voice.
To illustrate the relationship between Hurston's use of direct address and that of the blues performer I bring back Bessie Smith for a full reprise of her first issued recording, "Downhearted Blues":
Gee but it's hard to love someone when that someone don't love you I'm so disgusted, heart-broken too, I've got those downhearted blues Once I was crazy 'bout a man he mis- treated me all the time The next man I get has got to promise me to be mine all mine Trouble trouble I've had it all my days
[2x] It seems like trouble goin' to follow me to my grave I ain't never loved but three men in my life [2x] My father, my brother, the man that wrecked my life It may be a week, it may be a month or two [2x] But the day you quit me honey it's comin' home to you I've got the world in a jug the stopper's in my hand [2x] I'm gonna hold it until you / men come under my command (emphasis mine)
"Hear" in Smith's performance the groundedness of Hurston's use of direct address in the blues tradition. In the first part of the song Smith addresses her audience and, speaking about her "man" in the third person, seeks affirmation for her "inherited" proclivity for "trouble." In the last line of the penultimate verse she turns to address her "man" directly, telling him he's "gonna reap just what he has sowed." In the last verse, she continues to address her man in particular, while broadening her address to men in general. Her phrasing - with its emphasis on "you" and with the break between "you" and "men come under my command" - underscores both levels of direct address. In the final verse, through her phrasing coupled with the potent "world in a jug" image and "amped" use of direct address, the singer commands authority and demands a mutually respectful relationship. In both Their Eyes and in "Downhearted Blues," climax occurs when a woman speaks the truth of her experience in the face of abuse, using the life-affirming language of the tradition.(14)
In Their Eyes, Hurston uses language to evoke vividly the destructive as well as creative potential of voice - "words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song" (10). The same voice that creates "big pictures" (81) may wield "killing tools" (10). The abused mule by day may become the abuser by night (10). Like the mule image, the process of inversion is a double-edged sword in the novel. On the one hand, it describes the creative process of blues singers who hold "the world in a jug and the stopper in [their] hand" and storytellers who use "a side of the world for [their] canvas" (85). On the other hand, it also describes the process whereby Janie's grandmother had limited and stifled her: "Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon - for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you - and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her grand-daughter's neck tight enough to choke her" (138).
As a core image, the horizon itself reflects this ambiguity in the novel. At the beginning of the book, Hurston makes a distinction between men's and women's pursuit of their "horizons." For women, she says, "the dream is the truth"; "women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget"(9). The horizon embodies the full experience of self which Janie seeks. For a long time, Nanny controls Janie's horizon. But by the end of the novel, Janie controls her own:
"Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons." . . . The day of the gun, and the bloody body, and the courthouse came and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner in the room; out of each and every chair and thing. . . . Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. . . . The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. . . . She pulled in her horizon like a great fishnet. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see. (284, 286)
In this passage, Janie remembers the final pain of her love with Tea Cake ("the song of the sigh"). Hurston personifies the objects of Janie's memory and objectifies her feelings in such a way that the objects in the house and the house itself embody her feelings. She sets up an opposition between the sickness, shooting, and testifying (her memory of the final pain of their love), and the laughter, smiles, and sunshine (her memory of the pleasure of their love). Then she attempts to dissolve the contradiction by metonymically substituting the pleasure for the pain - in short, by repressing the painful memory or, in Hurston's own words, by forgetting what she doesn't want to remember. Finally, using the language of the blues singers and storytellers, she takes the biggest thing (the horizon) and makes it tangible and controllable.
In these final paragraphs, Hurston repeats and varies her earlier image of Nanny manipulating the horizon. When Janie pulls in her horizon and calls her soul in to see, she comforts and fortifies herself with memories - those that she selects to carry forward. Janie's gesture is basically a nurturing and self-affirming one, unlike Nanny's, which squelches Janie's dreams with her own limited vision. At the same time, Hurston's revision seems to embody a critique of the limitations Janie faces. That Janie decides at age 40 (at the end of a one-and-a-half year growing/nurturing relationship) that she has been to the horizon and back and resolves to live by comparisons, I think, is suggestive of these limitations.
Janie's relationships are the vehicle through which she finds her voice/self. While Janie's relationship with Tea Cake is crucial as a catalyst for her self-discovery (the vehicle that takes her to her horizon), he himself appears ultimately to be dispensable (his memory will suffice). Why does Tea Cake have to die?(15) Janie's relationship with Pheoby, which provides the overall structure for Hurston's novel, outlasts all of her marriages put together. In blues terms, Tea Cake is a stanza in the blues song which Janie "sings" to Pheoby. Their Eyes reflects the impermanence of love relationships found in the blues. The fact is that Janie's final step in acquiring her voice - the telling of her story to a close woman friend - comes only after Tea Cake is dead and buried, when she is resigned to living by comparison. Their Eyes does not envision Janie in a lasting relationship, or envision her achieving full autonomy and voice in relationship with a man. The novel reflects the difficulties Hurston and other women of her time faced in satisfactorily sustaining careers and relationships simultaneously (see Hurston, Dust Tracks 253-63). In Janie's relationship with Tea Cake, then, Hurston gives us both a celebration of the possibilities for equality in female-male relationships and a critique of their limitations.
In "Metaphor, Metonymy and Voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God," Barbara Johnson argues that at the end of the novel Janie's self-division (that is, her ability to separate her own voice from that of others) is healed over at the cost of loss of the other (166). It seems to me, however, that Janie's self-division is lost in her relationship with Tea Cake at the point when she feels a "self-crushing love" and lets her soul out of hiding (192), and that in the final paragraph of the book Hurston gives us a gesture toward self-division once more. Sharing her life-story with Pheoby is Janie's final and grandest gesture in externalizing the inner - sharing her thoughts and feelings with others via Pheoby. She does not intend to tell her story again herself. Instead, she places the continuance of her story literally in Pheoby's mouth - "'Mah tongue is in Mah friend's mouth'" (17). Then she pulls her memories, thoughts, and feelings back inside once again, to be protected from the outside world.
In Their Eyes Hurston uses techniques and processes of the blues performer to challenge the ways in which African American women have been controlled by others at the same time as she celebrates the individual journeys of women like herself who have struggled to make spaces where self-expression is possible, if not always nurtured. Like the blues woman's life and song, Hurston's stories in fiction, folklore, and autobiography stand as testimony and creative expression, empowering others on their own journeys, making their own ways.
1. See, for example, Callahan, "Mah Tongue"; Johnson, "Metaphor"; Gates; Johnson and Gates; Walker; Kubitschek; hooks; duCille; Bethel; Washington; McCredie; Meese; and Wall.
2. I would agree with James A. Miller, who has written that the blues "shape the pattern of incident, character, conflict, and resolution in the novel" and that "the blues function as the underlying structure of Their Eyes" (60).
3. Henderson borrows the term mascon from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, which uses it to identify an especially strong gravitational pull - "a massive concentration of matter below the lunar surface" (44).
4. My use of singer when referring to the "I" experience voiced in a song is for convenience only. Like other scholars I would be wary of assuming a literal relationship between the experiences described in a particular song (the "I" voice) and the autobiographical experiences of the singer.
5. My use of the term signifyin(g) to describe the blues process of repeating and varying, responding and revising, follows Henry Louis Gates's usage of the term as "repetition with a difference" (xxiixxiii, xxvii) - and Sherley Anne Williams's definition of the blues as "a traditional statement about a traditional situation with a new response" (37).
6. By objectification, I mean language that makes tangible something usually thought of as without substance - in this case, Nanny's voice and feelings.
7. The use of hyperbolic imagery is one of the poetic techniques Stephen Henderson discusses in Understanding the New Black Poetry (38).
8. "Downhearted Blues" was composed and first performed by Alberta Hunter (Hunter).
9. I am indebted to Nancy J. Levine, who first brought to my attention the reference to "Shuffle Off to Buffalo" when we were preparing a joint paper on Hurston as a blues performer.
10. Barbara Johnson's exploration of Hurston's use of shifting address and variation techniques to dramatize and challenge an inside-outside opposition in the essay "How It Feels To Be Colored Me" is especially relevant to my discussion of blues techniques in Their Eyes (see Johnson, "Thresholds" 319-21).
11. In "Moaning the Blues," the image of the back door in the second stanza (arguably a mascon image) evokes the "backdoor man" of the blues - the second-line lover, not the husband, who may also be married or involved otherwise. The clause from the first verse "the blues got ways like a natchal man" suggests a distrust of this man and comments on the problematic nature (a set-up for pain) of "backdoor" relationships. The female persona waits for her man, but the blues come instead. The open door embodies her hope and vulnerability; the shut door her despair, guilt, grief.
12. Composer and scholar Oily Wilson has termed this the heterogenous sound ideal (Wilson).
13. See Hurston, Dust Tracks 21, 38, 72, 98; Walker xiv-xv; Washington 8; Barbara Smith 26.
14. As would be expected in a good blues performance, the impact of the textual shift to direct address and poetic potency of the final image and assertion is further highlighted by expressive musical techniques.
15. bell hooks argues that Tea Cake's egotism - ignoring nature's signs - is the cause of his death. Janie must kill Tea Cake to "effectively oppose the re-inscription of a life-threatening male domination" in her life. His death then is essential to Janie's assertion of autonomy (hooks 17).
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-----. "How It Feels to Be Colored Me." 1928. I Love Myself When I'm Laughing: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. Ed. Alice Walker. Old Westbury: Feminist P, 1979. 152-55.
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-----. "Thresholds of Difference: Structures of Address in Their Eyes Were Watching God." "Race," Writing and Difference. Ed. Henry L. Gates, Jr. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1986. 317-28.
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Johnson, Maria. "Voices of Struggle: An Exploration of the Relationship Between African American Women's Music and Literature." Diss. U of California-Berkeley, 1992.
Kubitschek, Missy. "'Tuh de Horizon and Back': The Female Quest in Their Eyes Were Watching God." Black American Literature Forum 17 (1983): 109-15.
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Wall, Cheryl. "Mules and Men and Women: Zora Neale Hurston's Strategies of Narration and Visions of Female Empowerment." Black American Literature Forum 23 (1989): 661-80.
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-----. "New Bumble Bee." 1930. Memphis Minnie v. 2. Blues Classics 13.
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-----. "In the House Blues." 1931. The World's Greatest Blues Singer. Columbia CG33.
-----. "Jailhouse Blues." 1923. Any Woman's Blues. Columbia CG30126.
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-----. "Preachin' the Blues." 1926. Nobody's Blues But Mine. Columbia CG31093.
Maria V. Johnson is Assistant Professor of Music at Southern Illinois University at Carbondale.
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|Title Annotation:||novel entitled 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' by Zora Neale Hurston|
|Author:||Johnson, Maria V.|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Sep 22, 1998|
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