Philip Roth, “American Pastoral

1998

A family drama that seems an important precursor for Eugenides and Franzen, American Pastoral is one of several novels Roth wrote about Nathan “Skip” Zuckerman. Rather than the fusion of narrative and psyche that Henry James, for example, demonstrates, in Roth the layering of voices calls attention to the problem of linguistic (self-)representation. Like Eugenides and Franzen, too, this is a novel of suburban solipsism – the lives of others.

The formal device of novel writing is (over)performed here. It falls in concentric nests here: we read a novel about a novelist trying to imagine the mind of the Swede, who is in turn trying to imagine the mind of his daughter Merry. But the narrator often does not sound like the Swede, even/especially in moments of free indirect discourse – the neurotic calling himself “stupid bastard,” or the “oh boy, what’s really wrong with Merry,” etc. Oddly, we never return to Nathan’s frame, or if we do, it is ambiguously. Tthe novel concludes:

“Yes, the breach had been pounded in their fortification, even out here in secure Old Rimrock, and now that it was opened it would not be closed again. They’ll never recover. Everything is against them, everyone and everything that does not like their life. All the voices from without, condemning and rejecting their life! And what is wrong with their life? What on earth is less reprehensible than the life of the Levovs?” 423.

We have no idea whose voice this is – Nathans? The Swede’s? The stuttering, violent Merry has made the Swede “see” – beyond his own desire to “pass” (a repeating theme in Roth), and to be successful, into the pressures his own brother has resisted. But this is only if we believe we have entered the Swede’s mind at all, or whether it has been “put on,” like a glove from his factory.

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William Faulkner, “The Sound & the Fury”

1929

The Sound and the Fury unfolds in four parts – Benjy’s disjointed narrative (Holy Saturday – April 7th, 1928), Quentin’s last day before suicide (June 2, 1910), Jason’s clear and cruel tale (Good Friday – April 6th, 1928), and Dilsey’s focalized perspective (though not in first person – Easter Sunday – April 8th, 1928). The novel’s title comes from the final soliloquy in Macbeth – “the tale of sound and fury, told by an idiot and signifying nothing” (the “nothing” pun in Naiman’s terms would be interesting here, given the centrality of Caddy’s sexuality). Once again, you could consider these as Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, Mark being the oldest source material for the other two synoptic gospels and John (the Dilsey section) being that of revelation.

Faulkner originally proposed representing Benjy in different-colored fonts, and to be sure, both he and Quentin are synesthetes (Benjy’s “smelled cold,” etc). Benjy’s narrative is odd because he cannot speak (he repeats “I tried to say”), but we see the world through his eyes. He seems to believe he creates the very world around him “the fire disappeared,” “the bowl appeared.” Benjy’s narrative accumulates moments that conflate all chronology or clock time – a heap of duree in one dose. His obsession with mirrors and what enters and exits their frames is thus interesting: Benjy watches to see his own creation of life, and is upset when the mirror disappears. He listens at the fence for the golfers to say “caddie” to hear the name of his sister, which no one else speaks.

The incest trope (Caddy and Quentin) functions here not so much for the shock, but because the plot hinges on unspeakability. Incest mobilizes the problems of kinship and loyalty, the inability for the characters to communicate – they all suffer from versions of Benjy’s “I tried to say,” a modern condition, perhaps. Dilsey and the other black characters escape/are erased from even the narrative effort: “These others were not Compsons. They were black:… Dilsey. They endured” 427.

Jeffrey Eugenides, “The Virgin Suicides”

1993

Eugenides’ first novel tells of the 5 Lisbon sisters of Grosse Pointe, Michigan during the 1970s. It has an unusual style, told from a Greek chorus of teenage boys who are in love with the sisters. They reconstruct the stories by memories, voyeurism, and research, emphasizing the importance of the material objects in each girl’s room and the particularities of each of their bodies, which appear to the boys to be mappable onto their desires and depressions. Ronald Lisbon is a math teacher, his wife is a homemaker, and they have 5 daughters: Cecilia (13), Lux (14), Bonnie (15), Mary (16), and Therese (17). The family is Catholic.

The girls’ lives problematically overlap and intersect, as the opening paragraphs suggest:

“On the morning the last Lisbon daughter took her turn at suicide – it was Mary this time, and sleeping pills, like Therese – the two paramedics arrived at the house knowing exactly where the knife drawer was, and the gas oven, and the beam in the basement from which it was possible to tie a rope. They got out of the EMS truck, as usual moving much too slowly in our opinion, and the fat one said under his breath, ‘This ain’t TV folks, this is how fast we go.’ He was carrying the heavy respirator and cardiac unit past the bushes that had grown monstrous and over the erupting lawn, tame and immaculate thirteen months earlier when the trouble began.

Cecilia, the youngest, only thirteen, had gone first, slitting her wrists like a Stoic while taking a bath, and when they found her, afloat in her pink pool… her extremities were already blue… the laminated picture of the Virgin Mary she held against her budding chest…

We’ve tried to arrange the photographs chronologically, though the passage of so many years has made it difficult” 3-4.

Cecilia lives, but kills herself only weeks later during a chaperoned party, when she jumps from the window and is impaled on a fence spike (the detail of the bracelets that cover her arms while the lights glimmer over every surface in the rec room).

In the fall, “despite their closed ranks, we could see the new differences among them, and we felt that if we kept looking hard enough we might begin to understand what they were feeling and who they were” 64. Lux, the most sexualized of all the girls (sounds like Lo, also a delicious fabric) sleeps with Trip Fontaine after the school dance (she is permitted to go because she gets the other girls dates). “The girls we knew, along with their mothers, fell in love with Trip Fontaine. Their desire was silent yet magnificent, like a thousand daisies attuning their faces toward the path of the sun” 69. For Trip, “Lux is the most naked person with clothes on he had ever seen,” dramatized in the movie when we see x-ray style through her dress to her panties, on which she has written “Trip” in permanent ink. One boy kisses Bonnie and “her soul escaped through her lips” 130. Trip can “feel how slim [Lux is] under all those drapes. It killed me” 131.

Lux misses curfew, and the parents pull the girls out of school. The house becomes stale and eerie. Lux is still seen making love on the roof each night with a different boy, “a cellophane body” like a film star 145. The boys begin to obsess, imagining trips with the girls inspired by travel brochures they toss out (especially after learning of Lux’s pregnancy scare): “The only way we could feel close to the girls was through these impossible excursions, which have scarred us forever, making us happier with dreams than wives” 169. The title of the novel comes from the song lyrics “Virgin suicide, What was that she cried? No use in stayin, On this holocaust ride, She gave me her cherry, She’s my virgin suicide” 176. “The song certainly ties in nicely with the notion that a dark force beset the girls, some monolithic evil we weren’t responsible for” 177. What is illegible to the boys are the girls’ differences – they cannot make them coincide. On the trees in the neighborhood (once imagined as lungs filling with air): “for a time the tree stood blighted, trying to raise its stunted arms, a creature clubbed mute, only its sudden voicelessness making us realize it had been speaking all along” 179.

The boys call the house and play records to the girls over the phone, and the girls respond in kind, but with more inscrutable lyrics and choices (less pop, more folk). The girls send them a message on a laminated picture of the virgin to come over at midnight, but when they arrive, the suicides go off like dominoes: Bonnie hangs herself in the basement, Therese swallows sleeping pills, and Lux dies of carbon monoxide in the garage (escaping by car, as it were). Mary fails to copy her, sticking her head in the oven, but goes a month later by sleeping pills, a year after Cecilia’s death and 13 months after the bathtub incident. As they stand looking at Bonnie, they think, “We had never known her. They had brought us here to find that out” 215. “We knew them now,” they claim afterwards 217. In a moment like Humbert and Lolita, the coroner “spoke of the incredible cleanliness of the girls’ bodies, the youngest he had ever worked on, showing no signs of wastage or alcoholism. Their smooth blue hearts looked like water balloons, and the rest of their organs possessed a similar textbook clarity” 221. The boys are dismayed as everyone begins to recite the TV version of the occurrences, rather than the events as they were. The novel ends,

“They made us participate in their own madness, because we couldn’t help but retrace their steps, rethink their thoughts, and see that none of them led to us. We couldn’t imagine the emptiness of a creature who put a razor to her wrists and opened her veins, the emptiness and the calm… we had to breathe forever the air of the rooms in which they killed themselves. It didn’t matter in the end how old they had been, or that they were girls, but only that we had loved them, and that they hadn’t heard us calling, still do not hear us, up here in the tree house, with our thinning hair and soft bellies, calling them out of those rooms where they went to be alone for all time, alone in suicide, which is deeper than death, and where we will never find the pieces to put them back together” 249.

The misguided close reading of the girls (as in Lot 49, Oedipa misreads the clues around her) recalls the line in Little Women “over the mysteries of female life there lies a veil best left undisturbed.” I would like to compare this to Roth’s project of the obsessive mythologies American suburbia maps onto its members, as well as to Jonathan Franzen. To me, the family drama of Roth-Eugenides-Franzen seems like an interesting one to pursue against the backdrop of the “hysterical realist” or more typically “postmodern” novel of social issues and complexes. The Virgin Suicides seems particularly interesting for the way it focuses in on female space, women as products and surfaces, and the prize of their virginity (ironic in Lux’s case). The mythology of the girls supersedes their humanity – it is the thing the boys cannot recover from the trash of history and its artifacts.

Don DeLillo, “White Noise”

1985

DeLillo’s zeitgeisty “breakout” novel tells the story of Jack Gladney, a professor of Hitler studies (a department he invented) who can’t speak German. He works at The-College-on-the-Hill (perhaps a “city on the hill” reference to the Bible/Kennedy/Reagan) and is married for the fifth time to his fourth wife, Babette. They have a baby, Wilder, and a number of other children, including the prescient Steffie and the morose Heinrich. Both Babette and Jack are obsessed with death and with discussing who will die first. The bland 1980s and its “white noise” in the form of technology and advertising are recurrent subjects in the novel. (I would love to teach this with a John Hughes movie, like Sixteen Candles, and think about how trends, products, and cliches work in each).

When the “Airborne Toxic Event” arrives, Jack is exposed and later learns from testing that he has somehow been affected. The acronym is ironic, as the cloud is dispersed when microbes are released to eat it. SIMUVAC’s priority is to pretend the real event is simulated: “there is no substitute for a planned simulation” (a reality reversal like the most photographed barn bit. The barn’s aura is increased, rather than decreased, with each photograph in a “collective perception” that is different than Benjamin’s original theory: “we can’t get outside the aura” 13). Jack discovers Babette has slept with a man to get Dylarama, a drug to cure people of the fear of death. It is not working for her, but for a time Jack becomes obsessed with procuring some for himself. Jack and Murray talk, and Murray theorizes that “the more people you kill, the more power you gain over your own death… a secret precision at work in the most savage and indiscriminate killings” 291. Jack’s final confrontation with Willie Mink, the scientist who makes Dylar, is a sort of parody of the Marlow/Kurtz communication or the Humbert/Quilty conflict. It also seems to follow on the failed glory of Taxi Driver and the imagined horrors of American Psycho, both of which focus on sex and youth as well. The novel ends with Wilder miraculously surviving as he rides his tricycle across the freeway. Jack decides to stay away from the doctor and the “binary secrets” the information age seems to offer 326.

Ralph Ellison, “Invisible Man”

1952

Though it owes much to Richard Wright’s earlier Native Son, Ellison’s complex and subtle work supersedes the genre of protest novel and is one of the earliest examples of postmodern tropes in American literature. The repeated use of spectacle in the novel, the trickster-like cycle of stories, the flatness of characters who are overstated types and come and go, and the cryptically unnamed narrator and his bizarre underground life all point ahead to the literature that would take firmer hold in the 60s with novels like Pale Fire & The Crying of Lot 49. 

More than anything, Ellison’s novel represents a moving away from the binary or double-consciousness (Hegel, DuBois, the Marxist dialectic) and towards a more uncertain multiplicity. Ellison wrote to Wright that he wanted to expose the Communist Party’s abandonment of blacks in the novel, and to depict a man “who had been forged in the underground of American experience and yet managed to emerge less angry than ironic.” Part of his resistance to becoming a “type” is his constant movement, his search for self-knowledge, and his awareness of his own contradictions – like Langston Hughes’ speaker, this narrator, too, sings America and ‘contains multitudes.’

It’s interesting to consider women in this novel – the narrator champions women’s rights at one point, relates to a white stripper, has an affair with a white woman (its ‘rape play’ rehearses Birth of a Nation and Bigger and Mary, but also looks ahead to blaxploitation films like Sweet Sweetback). Unlike the “invisible man,” itself a rewriting of the “native son,” women do not have the luxury of remaining invisible in the novel; they are made into spectacle, as the stripper and raped daughter of Trueblood attest.

– The Introduction: The unnamed narrator squats in a basement at the edge of Harlem, “a border area,” sucking power off the grid to light it up brightly with filament bulbs, which are more expensive to run: “I live rent-free in a building rented strictly to whites, in a section of the basement that was shut off and forgotten during the nineteenth century.” In this sense, he siphons and ‘wastes’ the provisions of capital in a repurposed way. He listens to Louis Armstrong’s “Black and Blue” because Armstrong “made poetry out of being invisible” 8.

– The Battle Royal: The story begins 20 years earlier, when the narrator is a boy. He does not understand his grandfather’s advice to treat life as a war, to “overcome ’em with yeses…let ’em swoller you till they vomit or bust wide open.” He is invited to give a speech to a group of white men in the town. There is a stripper there who “saw only me with her impersonal eyes” – as in McKay’s “Harlem Dancer,” the woman’s eyes are vacant as she performs, moving outside her body (the kewpie doll is comparable to the Sambo doll here). The white men make the black boys fight for coins on an electrified rug, dehumanizing them before the boy’s speech. He wonders if this is not a time for “humility and nonresistance,” but is forced into battling the others. It is no surprise that his speech is largely a recitation of Booker T. Washington’s “Cast Down Your Bucket” speech. He is given a scholarship in a briefcase, and in a dream, he sees the paper as “To Whom It May Concern: Keep this Nigger Boy Running” 33.

– The university: The narrator drives the rich, white Mr. Norton around, who is obsessed with his own pure, dead daughter. He is fascinated by Trueblood, a local black sharecropper who rapes and impregnates his own daughter, supposedly in his sleep. Trueblood says he is in “the tunnel” in his dream (MattyLou’s vagina), and once a man gets himself in “a tight spot” like that, he “wants some more” 68. Norton gives him cash and makes the narrator take him to a black brothel, where he gets drunk and a fight breaks out. Homer Barbee lectures the narrator on how great the founder is and says he should have shown Norton an idealized picture of black life. He is dismissed from the college with 7 letters of recommendation.

– Harlem: The narrator learns from the trustee Emerson that he can’t get a job because the recommendation letters condemn his character. He gets a job at Liberty Paints making Optic White with Lucius Brockway. They quarrel because Lucius fears he is in the union. One of the paint tanks explodes and the narrator wakes up in a hospital. The doctors experiment with electric shock treatments on him, feminizing him as hysterical and bringing an element of madness in that also reminds me of the Beats. He recovers his memory, is released, collapses outside, and is taken in by Mary.

– The brotherhood: Brother Jack offers him a job as a spokesman for the Party after his impassioned speech at the eviction. He takes it to earn some money to help Mary. He associates with Tod Clifton and Ras the Exhorter (and sleeps with a white woman after a rally). The white Brother Hambro trains him in rhetoric, and he gives speeches.

– Clifton: Clifton sells Sambo dolls on the street and is shot for not having a permit to sell them. After the narrator holds a funeral, the Brotherhood is angry and lectures him. He turns against the brotherhood, as Ras has, but Ras also turns against him, since he blames him for the Brotherhood’s failure to use the momentum of the funeral for action. He is mistaken in a disguise for “Rinehart” – a pimp, bookie, and reverend. He confronts Brother Hambro, who has decided the Party is not interested in racial issues (here is where Ellison plays out his disillusionment with the Party, which he shared with Richard Wright). He sleeps with Sybil to try to play along with the Party, but she is clueless and only plays out her rape fantasy with him.

– The riot: Ras has started a full-blown riot in Harlem. The narrator participates, setting fire to a tenement house. As the police chase him, he falls down a manhole and has stayed there ever since, mulling over his own individual complexity and preparing to emerge again, which he says he is now ready to do. His conflict explores the complexity of self-articulation vs social struggle. (You could also read this against the simplifying films he discusses in “The Shadow and the Act.”)

Importantly, the narrator insists at the end, “I’m invisible, not blind” and that “white is not a color but the lack of one” (a reversal of the Freudian sex dynamic that feminizes white men?) 576. He observes the “spectacle” of whites becoming blacker and blacks becoming whiter without understanding each other. The stench in the air is “either of death or spring” 580. “I’m shaking off the old skin and I’ll leave it here in the hole… even an invisible man has a socially responsible role to play… Who knows but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” 581.

 

 

Richard Wright, “Native Son”

1940

In Native Son, Richard Wright suggests an inevitable fate for Bigger Thomas. He works for the Daltons, driving Mary and her communist boyfriend Jan around. Mary gets drunk and as Bigger puts her to bed, he suffocates her for fear that she will betray him when Mrs. Dalton enters the room. She goes away, but Mary is dead. He cuts her up and burns her in the furnace. Bigger discovers during the ensuing chaos that Dalton owns the filthy flat where his family lives. Bigger is asked to clean the furnace. Mary’s bones and earring are discovered in the ashes as Bigger stirs them into a cloud. He writes a false kidnap note for money and he and Bessie try to run away. The kidnap note is most interesting in its invisibility to the whites – “do what this letter say,” it reads, and is signed “red.” It is a color deterrent whose own diction, in the form of a missing letter, should give itself away, but somehow does not. No one in the house sees him as clever enough to write it – or to write anything, to be a man of letters, as it were. Bessie is paralyzed with fear, so Bigger beats her to death with a brick. The only money he has is from her pocket. He is captured by the police. Jan hires him a communist lawyer, Max.

Biblical allusions to Job abound in the novel, but are delivered with an ironic tone, since Bigger must answer to himself in the end, not God. Max is just “the man who had lured him on a quest toward a dim hope” 352. His moment of “I-I” in the final pages of the novel is both self-articulation and split consciousness. He has been abandoned by language itself, and has no recourse to art to comfort him: “Distractedly, he gazed about the cell, trying to remember where he had heard words that would help him. He could recall none. He had lived outside of the lives of men. Their modes of communication, their symbols and images, had been denied him” 353. It is almost as though Wright suggests that if he did have aesthetics, he could have been saved. What he realizes is that “Max is not a friend” either, and that “anger was useless” 353. What is left with Max is the memory of the night of questioning: “You asked me questions nobody ever asked me before. You knew that I was a murderer two times over, but you treated me like a man” 354. Max ends up spewing some Communist stuff about how belief and fear hold up the material world of men: “Die free… Every time you try to find a way to live, your own mind stands in the way… because others have said you were bad and they made you live in bad conditions” 357.

Bigger’s self-realization is not exactly what Max was hoping for: “They wouldn’t let me live and I killed… what I killed for, I am! It must’ve been pretty deep in me to make me kill!… What I killed for must’ve been good!… I didn’t know I was really alive in this world until I felt things hard enough to kill for ’em” 359. Max is horrified, but Bigger ends with a wry smile.

Willa Cather, “My Antonia”

1918

Willa Cather’s novel explores immigrants and Americans settling in Black Hawk, Nebraska. The unusual frame narrative is that of Jim Burden, whom the unidentified narrator meets on a train and asks to tell Antonia Shimerda’s story. Jim, like Nick Carraway, has blind spots in his idealized, Georgic view of Antonia. We see his narrative, but also its flaws, its failure to cohere, its overdetermined symbolism.

The novel has an episodic/epiphanic structure at the start and end, almost like the land it describes, which “was not a country, but the material out of which a country is made.” In between, it has a more normative structure around Antonia’s extended adolescence and nascent sexuality. It is iterative, quotidian, and insists on a sense of routine even when the events it describes are too particular to have been repeated. It is a kind of double bildungsroman, in which Jim is the ascetic scholar and Antonia the earth mother.

Part of this is to explore the different positions for women – Antonia breeds at home, Tiny loses her toes making a fortune in Alaska, and Lena has a rags to riches story as a successful seamstress. The magic of “my Antonia” is a kind of incantation of the future of America, an embodiment of the frontier after its 1890 “end” according to the US government. The phrase is repeated by her father, Jim, the neighbor widow, and even Antonia herself, who calls her husband “my Anton,” having met the other half with whom she becomes a (re)productive (w)hole.

From Wikipedia:

  1. The Shimerdas – the longest book within the novel. It covers Jim’s early years spent on his grandparents’ farm, out on the prairie.
  2. The Hired Girls – the second longest section of the novel. It covers Jim’s time in town, when he spends time with Ántonia and the other country girls who work in town. Language, particularly descriptions, begin to become more sexualized, particularly concerning Ántonia and Lena.
  3. Lena Lingard – this chronicles Jim’s time at the university, and the period in which he becomes reacquainted with Lena Lingard.
  4. The Pioneer Woman’s Story – Jim visits the Harlings and hears about Ántonia’s fateful romance with Larry Donovan. This is the shortest book.
  5. Cuzak’s Boys – Jim goes to visit Ántonia and meets her new family, her children and husband.

 

Edith Wharton, “The House of Mirth”

1905

Wharton’s novel tells the story of the decline of Lily Bart, a well-bred New York woman climbing the social ladder towards an advantageous marriage who exhausts her possibilities and falls. I’d like to compare this novel to James’ The Ambassadors in the sense that both are concerned with the distinction between sense and sensibility. (Wharton paid for his prefaces in the New York editions.) Whereas in James, the novel plots Strether’s advancement from common sense to sense/sensuality  (sight, taste, touch) to a sensibility of manners (perspective, taste, tact), it seems Wharton is engaged in a slightly different approach – a sort of American Vanity Fair. 

Lily Bart’s extreme tact (in the sense of manners and strategic acumen) bars her from touching (emotionally or physically) any of the people around her. The notion of tact also has to do with her intact and frigid virginal body. The proliferation of money metaphors in the novel demonstrates how not only Lily, but the novel itself makes sense and sensibility part of the same flat surface, confusing literal and metaphorical, material and spiritual. Many of the novel’s main events are effaced – presented to us later in the form of gossip in which they are retold, rather than presented as events when they occur. A major event is Lily’s misconstruction of the money from Trenor as figurative, rather than literal, and some of the novel’s metaphors go so far from the things they represent as to question the alchemical properties of language, as if it were itself an unreliable market. Rosedale “stood scanning her with interest” 17 and “people say Judy Trenor has quarreled with [Lily] on account of Gus” 167.

“It was true that, during the last three or four weeks, she had absented herself from Bellomont on the pretext of having other visits to pay; but she now began to feel that the reckoning she had thus contrived to evade had rolled up interest in the interval” 123.

Much of this confusion seems to stem from Lily’s mother, who tells her that her beautiful face (like that of a coin) will always get her money. As she declines, she does so “at face value,” so to speak – her struggles are not reflective, but reflected outwardly – she is herself a perfect surface. Trenor has “been somewhat heavily ‘touched’ by the fall in stocks” 171, when Lily is repulsed by Trenor, “the words were worse than the touch!” 195, and Lily “gave to the encounter the touch of naturalness which she could impart to the most strained situations” 306. Towards the end of the novel, “the mere touch of the packet thrilled her tired nerves” when she is addicted to sleeping drugs 389 and it is only in this state that she can be “frankly touched” by Rosedale’s kindness, just pages before her accidental overdose (after which Selden finally touches her) 391.

Zora Neale Hurston, “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

1937

Ellison, Wright, and Alain Locke disliked this novel, but it has become a classic at least in part because of its unique deployment of free indirect discourse in the story Janie tells Pheoby of her life in three parts. Janie famously moves “from object to subject” in the process, and the last line of the novel is “She called her sould to come and see” 193. Barbara Johnson claims it solves some narrative issues of Jakobson’s conflict between metaphor (universalizing totality) and metonymy (the repetition and renaming of the particular). I don’t have any recent notes on this novel, so I’m going to publish some information from Wikipedia…

Wikipedia summary:

The main character, an African-American woman in her early forties named Janie Crawford, tells the story of her life and journey via an extended flashback to her best friend, Pheoby, so that Pheoby can tell Janie’s story to the nosy community on her behalf. Her life has three major periods corresponding to her marriages to three very different men.

Nanny, Janie’s grandmother, was a slave who became pregnant by her owner and gave birth to a daughter, Leafy. Though Nanny tries to create a good life for her daughter, Leafy is raped by her school teacher and becomes pregnant with Janie. Shortly after Janie’s birth, Leafy begins to drink and stay out at night. Eventually she runs away, leaving Janie with Nanny. Nanny transfers all the hopes she had for Leafy to Janie. When Janie is sixteen, Nanny sees her kissing a neighborhood boy, Johnny Taylor, and fears that Janie will become a “mule” to some man. Nanny arranges for Janie to marry Logan Killicks, an older man and farmer who is looking for a wife to keep his home and help on the farm. Although Janie is not interested in marriage at that time, her grandmother wants her to have the kinds of things she never had the chance to have, and by marrying Logan Killicks Janie’s grandmother thinks it will give her the opportunity to make this possible. Janie has the idea that marriage must involve love, forged in a pivotal early scene where she sees bees pollinating a pear tree, and believes that marriage is the human equivalent to this natural process [think Beloved and the turtles!]. Logan Killicks, however, wants a domestic helper rather than a lover or partner and feels Janie does not do enough around the farm and she is ungrateful. Janie runs off with the glib Jody (Joe) Starks, who takes her to Eatonville.

Starks arrives in Eatonville to find the residents devoid of ambition, so he arranges to buy more land from the neighboring landowner, hires some local residents to build a general store for him to own and run, and the people of the town appoint him mayor. Janie soon realizes that Joe wants her as a trophy wife. He wants the image of his perfect wife to reinforce his powerful position in town, as he asks her to run the store but forbids her from participating in the substantial social life that occurs on the store’s front porch.

After Starks passes away, Janie finds herself financially independent and beset with suitors, some of whom are men of some means or have prestigious occupations, all of whom she turns down. She meets a young drifter and gambler named Vergible Woods who goes by the name of Tea Cake. She falls in love with Tea Cake after he plays the guitar for her. She sells the store and the two head to Jacksonville and get married, only to move to the Everglades egion (“the muck”) where they find work planting and harvesting beans. While their relationship has its ups and downs, including mutual bouts of jealousy, Janie realizes she now has the marriage with love that she had wanted.

The area is hit by the great hurricane. Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog while saving Janie from drowning. He contracts the disease himself. He ultimately tries to shoot Janie with his pistol, but she shoots him with a rifle in self-defense. She is charged with murder. At the trial, Tea Cake’s black, male friends show up to oppose her, while a group of local white women arrive to support her [think bell hooks!]. The all-white jury acquits Janie, and she gives Tea Cake a lavish funeral. Tea Cake’s friends forgive her, and they want her to remain in the Everglades. However, she decides to return to Eatonville. As she expected, the residents are gossiping about her.

  • In Maria J. Johnson’s article “‘The World in a Jug and the Stopper in [Her] Hand’: Their Eyes Were Watching God as Blues Performance”, she states that Hurston’s novel takes a similar structure and aesthetic to blues culture [if jazz is masculine?]. Johnson also shows how the contrast of Hurston’s images, such as the pleasure and pain dynamic of the bee, can be seen in songs by singers like Bessie Smith.
  • The article, “The Cognitive Construction of the Self in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Patrick S. Bernard highlights the connection between the construction of self and cognition in Hurston’s novel. According to Bernard, cognition is the inner essence of an individual that embodies the idea of “thinking, seeing, speaking, and knowing,” but is often determined by one’s exterior environment. Janie, the protagonist, uses her cognitive skills in order to find her identity and throughout the novel develops her cognition further. While Janie is living in a sexist society she continues to rise above her opposition specifically that of her three husbands. Bernard demonstrates this,

In a conversation with Jody, Janie defends ‘womenfolk,’ disagreeing with the sexist claim that God made men “different” because they turn “out so smart” (70). When she states that men “don’t know half as much as you think you do,” Jody interrupts her saying, ‘you getting too moufy Janie … Go fetch me de checker-board and de checkers’ (70-71) so that he and the other men could play (Bernard 9).

The comment from Jody, Janie’s second husband, attempts to suppress her voice and manipulate her thoughts. Rather than acting submissive to Jody, Janie for a brief moment contends with Jody by telling him how men misunderstand women. Jody fears that Janie’s thinking will lead to her gaining more knowledge and naturally to speaking her mind, eventually leading to Janie achieving the power of knowledge to recognize and change the mistreatment and unfairness she has been receiving. Bernard proposes the idea that Jody’s relationship with Janie represents society’s assumption that women are of limited cognition. This assumption positions women in subservient roles that limit their ways of thinking, speaking, and seeing.
In addition to bringing up Janie’s relationship with Jody, Bernard emphasizes how her relationships with her other husbands influenced her cognition. He points out the fact that Logan Killicks, Janie’s first husband, mistreated her by severing any beginning form of self construction by treating her as an infant [think Friedan and de Beauvoir!]. Bernard also brings forth the idea that Janie’s construction of selfhood blossoms when Tea Cake, her third husband, allows her to participate in experiences unimaginable to her. While Logan Killicks gives her no opportunity of expressing herself, Jody overpowers her expressive voice; Tea Cake allows her construction of self to mature.link between self construction and cognition. Bernard’s main point therefore is that self-construction is influenced by cognition, that is, knowing, thinking, seeing and speaking are important to the construction of self in Zora Neale Hurston’s novel.
  • In “The Hierarchy Itself: Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Sacrifice of Narrative Authority”, Ryan Simmons argues that Hurston made a statement against models of authority that supplant an oppressive system with other oppressive systems and offered an alternative. By models of authority, Simmons means the narrative voice of the author and Janie’s narrative voice. Hurston represented the different ideologies of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois through the characters of Logan Killicks and Joe (“Jody”) Starks. Like Washington, Logan models the path of “gradual progress” that wouldn’t threaten the white-dominated sphere of power and Hurston presents his practices as a tradeoff between liberty and modest prosperity. Joe models the path advocated by Du Bois, which is one of assertion of dignity and less compromise. But the issue shown by Joe’s eventual isolation from the community dialogue he helped establish and Janie’s overpowering of him through a usurpation of authority, Hurston shows that the weakness with Joe’s approach is that it mirrors that of white suppression. Instead, Hurston introduces a third way of achieving self-autonomy through Tea Cake. He represents an independence from reliance on communal validation, and instead serves as a mirror for Janie to discover her narrative power. In relation to the author’s narrative power, Tea Cake is the epitome of a good reader, one that is receptive to the transformative message of the text. Language is the understanding and sharpening of one’s identity while communication comes second. In Hurston’s innovative narrative, she is attempting to fulfill the “ideal narrative”, which is one that nurtures and changes both the reader and the author. [think of Banjo, dialectic, Adorno]

Langston Hughes, “The Negro Artist & the Racial Mountain”

1926

One of the most promising of the young Negro poets said to me once, “I want to be a poet–not a Negro poet,” meaning, I believe, “I want to write like a white poet”; meaning subconsciously, “I would like to be a white poet”; meaning behind that, “I would like to be white.” And I was sorry the young man said that, for no great poet has ever been afraid of being himself. And I doubted then that, with his desire to run away spiritually from his race, this boy would ever be a great poet. But this is the mountain standing in the way of any true Negro art in America–this urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible.

This article appeared in The Nation in 1926. The first paragraph implicitly refers to Countee Cullen, who used very traditional forms in his work and sometimes seemed to have a more conservative, Booker T. Washington-like approach to reform, as opposed to McKay and Hughes’ more radical ideas, drawn from the tradition of Du Bois.

Hughes blames the poet’s bourgeois background, which effaces the beauty of his race and people in favor of normalization. The racial mountain is the “Nordic world and Episcopal heaven” such a poet tries to reach in spite of himself. He praises instead the low-down folks who are still individual “in the face of American standardizations” (rather an ironic comment for a Marxist!). There is a colorful world of raw material for the Negro artist in black popular culture. Toomer does this: “Cane contains the finest prose written by a Negro in America. And like the singing of Robeson, it is truly racial.” Folk music has already arrived, as has Negro literature. Now painting, theater, and dance will take off. Hughes describes his method:

“Most of my own poems are racial in theme and treatment, derived from the life I know. In many of them I try to grasp and hold some of the meanings and rhythms of jazz… But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul–the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.”

“An artist must be free to choose what he does, certainly, but he must also never be afraid to do what he must choose.” [that is, concern himself with race in art… vs Baldwin?]

“We younger Negro artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves.”