Back to School with the Left: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God

As students head off to college this fall, one of the books they may encounter is Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.  This is not because Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the Great Books on a par with Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare, nor because it is a work of profound moral imagination like Great Expectations or Moby-Dick.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is neither.  It is not even a very good novel.  What recommends it to college faculty is that it is a feminist diatribe by a black woman.  It is not a book worthy of college classrooms, but it is politically correct in a way that none of the Great Books can ever be.

For those who've not had the pleasure of reading Hurston's novel, I will provide a brief precis.  The novel's protagonist, Janie Crawford, tells the story of her victimization at the hands of whites, men, and the rich.  That tale of woe begins with her forced marriage to Logan Killicks, an older farmer whom she deserts for Jody Starks, another financially secure but emotionally repressive older male who dies after a few years of unhappy marriage to Janie.  Euphoric after her husband's death, Janie marries the much younger Tea Cake, with whom she resides poor but happy in a hut in the Florida Everglades – that is, until tragedy strikes, and Tea Cake reverts to male form.  Maddened after being bitten by a rabid dog, Tea Cake attacks Janie, who kills him in self-defense and is acquitted at trial.  Having shed three husbands by the time she is thirty, Janie moves on to happier times.

As told by Janie to her friend Pheoby Watson many years later, this saga of female desire, conjugal unhappiness, and spousal annihilation is distinctly antagonistic toward conventional models of family life and bourgeois society.  Logan Killicks, a coarse but decent country man, is depicted as an aging oaf.  Jody Starks (like Hurston's real-life father) is a successful businessman and the mayor of Eatonville, Florida (Hurston's real-life hometown), but Janie publicly denounces him as an impotent and insensitive hypocrite, berating him even on his deathbed.  Tea Cake is both devious and violent.  The lesson seems to be that so far as men are concerned, it's out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Academic critics like to portray this melodramatic saga as the struggle of a repressed black woman for independence, sense of self, and "voice."  Presumably, Janie acquires all of these by surviving her three marriages (two of her husbands do not) and by fashioning and retelling her story to her close female friend, Pheoby.  Here in one brief volume is everything a modern-day academic could desire: an oppressed black heroine, a blustering capitalist fraud, an indictment of the institution of marriage, and an ending that celebrates the ties of sisterhood and female independence.  The novel supplies everything an instructor could wish for, except for great writing and a moral view toward human happiness.

General readers, those not enrolled in LIT101, recognize the limitations of Hurston's writing.  Other than Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is required reading at many universities, Hurston's work is largely unread today.  Hurston's other three novels were republished in a paperback series in 2008.  The Amazon sales ranking for Moses, Man of the Mountain was number 179,837.  Jonah's Gourd Vine came in at 279,919.  Seraph on the Suwanee, her last novel, was recently at 317,987.

As for Their Eyes Were Watching God, it continues to be read only because it is assigned.  According to the Open Syllabus project, the most recent assignment count for the novel was 1,198 classrooms.  That's a lot of students still plodding through the dreary tale of Janie's murderous resistance to male repression.  (By comparison, Moses, Man of the Mountain appeared in 24 syllabi, Jonah's Gourd Vine in one, and Seraph of the Suwanee in none.)

The persistence of Their Eyes Were Watching God on academic reading lists is not a tribute to the literary quality of the novel or to the moral imagination of the author.  It is, I would say, evidence of academic groupthink.  Hurston's novel is "approved reading" in a way that V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River (on 84 syllabi) or Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge (31 syllabi) are not.  Both of these are great works of fiction but works that offend correctness as a result of their strongly pro-Western and Christian sensibilities, respectively.  Few untenured faculty, and few enough who are tenured, would risk assigning these brutally honest works in the intolerant, micro-triggered world of academe.

For a taste of exactly how Hurston's novel is being taught, one can turn to recently published academic articles.  It's not difficult to locate academic treatises dealing with female desire, defiance, self-defense, and other feminist themes.  Nor is there any shortage of essays addressing race and class in Hurston's novel.  Their Eyes Were Watching God fits the race-class-gender paradigm perfectly, just as Alice Walker, who rediscovered Hurston's work for modern audiences, recognized back in the 1970s when she proclaimed Hurston an early example of the "womanist" author.  With Walker's article "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" in the March 1975 issue of Ms. magazine, Hurston's literary reputation was restored, and an academic cottage industry was launched.  

To some, the assignment of books like Their Eyes Were Watching God might seem harmless enough.  Professors can enjoy teaching the book, pointing out the evils of bourgeois society and the patriarchy.  Students can read it, or the Cliff's Notes version of it, write their papers, submit, and forget about it.

There are just two problems with this scenario.

The first is that books like Their Eyes Were Watching God displace other, more meaningful assignments.  Every time a politically correct seat-warmer like Their Eyes Were Watching God is assigned, it supplants truly great books that might contribute in important ways to the student's education.  Instead of the usual trifecta of race, class, and gender, students need to learn about the rewards and responsibilities of adulthood, how human beings relate to one another in a workable society, and how crucial are marriage and other sacred institutions of civilization.  Novels like Hurston's do not teach these lessons – they teach the opposite, and they crowd out the valuable works of great literature that might contribute to the student's development.     

A second danger is that impressionable students – the very demographic that should not be reading Hurston – will assume that this required reading conveys the truth about marriage, capitalism, and self-responsibility.  In Hurston's case, one finds a particularly dismal view of the relationship between the sexes.  At a time when the institution of marriage has come under one assault after another, it doesn't need to be further weakened by this kind of assigned reading.

The marital brutality and feminist retribution that Hurston represents in Their Eyes Were Watching God, combined with her fantasy of a sexual relationship with a much younger male, makes this author a poor choice for college reading.  Why not an author who portrays nobility and purpose within a lifelong marriage?  (Hurston's two real-life marriages lasted four years and seven months, respectively.)  Why not depict goodness and love instead of degradation and violence?  Why not a writer who understands the workings of capitalist society and the virtues of responsibility and hard work?  With reading of that kind, students would learn valuable lessons that would help them on their way to a purposeful life.  Such writers exist, both among the classics and among contemporaries, but they have been cut from the curriculum.

But then, alienation and resentment are what much of academe is all about.  What better writer for that purpose than Zora Neale Hurston?    

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).

As students head off to college this fall, one of the books they may encounter is Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God.  This is not because Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the Great Books on a par with Homer, Dante, or Shakespeare, nor because it is a work of profound moral imagination like Great Expectations or Moby-Dick.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is neither.  It is not even a very good novel.  What recommends it to college faculty is that it is a feminist diatribe by a black woman.  It is not a book worthy of college classrooms, but it is politically correct in a way that none of the Great Books can ever be.

For those who've not had the pleasure of reading Hurston's novel, I will provide a brief precis.  The novel's protagonist, Janie Crawford, tells the story of her victimization at the hands of whites, men, and the rich.  That tale of woe begins with her forced marriage to Logan Killicks, an older farmer whom she deserts for Jody Starks, another financially secure but emotionally repressive older male who dies after a few years of unhappy marriage to Janie.  Euphoric after her husband's death, Janie marries the much younger Tea Cake, with whom she resides poor but happy in a hut in the Florida Everglades – that is, until tragedy strikes, and Tea Cake reverts to male form.  Maddened after being bitten by a rabid dog, Tea Cake attacks Janie, who kills him in self-defense and is acquitted at trial.  Having shed three husbands by the time she is thirty, Janie moves on to happier times.

As told by Janie to her friend Pheoby Watson many years later, this saga of female desire, conjugal unhappiness, and spousal annihilation is distinctly antagonistic toward conventional models of family life and bourgeois society.  Logan Killicks, a coarse but decent country man, is depicted as an aging oaf.  Jody Starks (like Hurston's real-life father) is a successful businessman and the mayor of Eatonville, Florida (Hurston's real-life hometown), but Janie publicly denounces him as an impotent and insensitive hypocrite, berating him even on his deathbed.  Tea Cake is both devious and violent.  The lesson seems to be that so far as men are concerned, it's out of the frying pan and into the fire.

Academic critics like to portray this melodramatic saga as the struggle of a repressed black woman for independence, sense of self, and "voice."  Presumably, Janie acquires all of these by surviving her three marriages (two of her husbands do not) and by fashioning and retelling her story to her close female friend, Pheoby.  Here in one brief volume is everything a modern-day academic could desire: an oppressed black heroine, a blustering capitalist fraud, an indictment of the institution of marriage, and an ending that celebrates the ties of sisterhood and female independence.  The novel supplies everything an instructor could wish for, except for great writing and a moral view toward human happiness.

General readers, those not enrolled in LIT101, recognize the limitations of Hurston's writing.  Other than Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is required reading at many universities, Hurston's work is largely unread today.  Hurston's other three novels were republished in a paperback series in 2008.  The Amazon sales ranking for Moses, Man of the Mountain was number 179,837.  Jonah's Gourd Vine came in at 279,919.  Seraph on the Suwanee, her last novel, was recently at 317,987.

As for Their Eyes Were Watching God, it continues to be read only because it is assigned.  According to the Open Syllabus project, the most recent assignment count for the novel was 1,198 classrooms.  That's a lot of students still plodding through the dreary tale of Janie's murderous resistance to male repression.  (By comparison, Moses, Man of the Mountain appeared in 24 syllabi, Jonah's Gourd Vine in one, and Seraph of the Suwanee in none.)

The persistence of Their Eyes Were Watching God on academic reading lists is not a tribute to the literary quality of the novel or to the moral imagination of the author.  It is, I would say, evidence of academic groupthink.  Hurston's novel is "approved reading" in a way that V.S. Naipaul's A Bend in the River (on 84 syllabi) or Flannery O'Connor's Everything That Rises Must Converge (31 syllabi) are not.  Both of these are great works of fiction but works that offend correctness as a result of their strongly pro-Western and Christian sensibilities, respectively.  Few untenured faculty, and few enough who are tenured, would risk assigning these brutally honest works in the intolerant, micro-triggered world of academe.

For a taste of exactly how Hurston's novel is being taught, one can turn to recently published academic articles.  It's not difficult to locate academic treatises dealing with female desire, defiance, self-defense, and other feminist themes.  Nor is there any shortage of essays addressing race and class in Hurston's novel.  Their Eyes Were Watching God fits the race-class-gender paradigm perfectly, just as Alice Walker, who rediscovered Hurston's work for modern audiences, recognized back in the 1970s when she proclaimed Hurston an early example of the "womanist" author.  With Walker's article "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston" in the March 1975 issue of Ms. magazine, Hurston's literary reputation was restored, and an academic cottage industry was launched.  

To some, the assignment of books like Their Eyes Were Watching God might seem harmless enough.  Professors can enjoy teaching the book, pointing out the evils of bourgeois society and the patriarchy.  Students can read it, or the Cliff's Notes version of it, write their papers, submit, and forget about it.

There are just two problems with this scenario.

The first is that books like Their Eyes Were Watching God displace other, more meaningful assignments.  Every time a politically correct seat-warmer like Their Eyes Were Watching God is assigned, it supplants truly great books that might contribute in important ways to the student's education.  Instead of the usual trifecta of race, class, and gender, students need to learn about the rewards and responsibilities of adulthood, how human beings relate to one another in a workable society, and how crucial are marriage and other sacred institutions of civilization.  Novels like Hurston's do not teach these lessons – they teach the opposite, and they crowd out the valuable works of great literature that might contribute to the student's development.     

A second danger is that impressionable students – the very demographic that should not be reading Hurston – will assume that this required reading conveys the truth about marriage, capitalism, and self-responsibility.  In Hurston's case, one finds a particularly dismal view of the relationship between the sexes.  At a time when the institution of marriage has come under one assault after another, it doesn't need to be further weakened by this kind of assigned reading.

The marital brutality and feminist retribution that Hurston represents in Their Eyes Were Watching God, combined with her fantasy of a sexual relationship with a much younger male, makes this author a poor choice for college reading.  Why not an author who portrays nobility and purpose within a lifelong marriage?  (Hurston's two real-life marriages lasted four years and seven months, respectively.)  Why not depict goodness and love instead of degradation and violence?  Why not a writer who understands the workings of capitalist society and the virtues of responsibility and hard work?  With reading of that kind, students would learn valuable lessons that would help them on their way to a purposeful life.  Such writers exist, both among the classics and among contemporaries, but they have been cut from the curriculum.

But then, alienation and resentment are what much of academe is all about.  What better writer for that purpose than Zora Neale Hurston?    

Jeffrey Folks is the author of many books and articles on American culture including Heartland of the Imagination (2011).