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Although Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is a widely read novel today, that wasn't always the case. When her novel was first published, many black readers were enraged. It wasn't until the early seventies when Hurston's novel was rediscovered. What aspects of the novel enraged the readers so that it would be forgotten for more than thirty years?
One of the most important aspects of the novel that enraged the black readers was Hurston's portrayal of the white people. Readers complained that Hurston wasn't harsh enough in her critique of the white people's treatment towards the black people. Rather than portraying whites as the stereotypical "Simon Legree" of Uncle Tom's Cabin-the ideal poor, racist "white trash"-most whites that take part in the novel are contrarily very helpful towards the blacks and show great compassion towards them as well. For example, when Janie begins her story we meet the Washburns. These are the white folks for whom Nanny worked for and they are very helpful towards both Nanny and Janie by treating them as if they are part of the family. Contrary to a lot of whites at the time who treated blacks as if they were still slaves, the Washburns treat both Nanny and Janie as human beings rather than slaves, showing great respect and love. In a way they are portrayed as "angels" who truly believe in human equality and don't have one bit of prejudice in them. "Mah grandma raised me. Mah grandma and de white folks she worked wid...They was quality white folks up dere in West Florida. Named Washburn. She had four gran'chillun on de place and all of us played together..." (8).
Furthermore, by reading Hurston's novel, one can clearly see that all blacks place the whites on a pedestal of knowledge. According to the blacks of the novel, whites know everything and are always right; they are superior and since blacks are supposed to be ignorant and stupid, they should believe and do everything the whites say. For example, Mrs. Turner states that she trusts only white doctors because black doctors aren't as educated and skilled as the white doctors. "Don't bring me no nigger doctor tuh hang over mah sick-bed...White doctors always gits mah money" (135-136). Another example is when the Indians are evacuating the muck because they foresee a big hurricane coming and the blacks don't evacuate stating that since the whites aren't evacuating there's no reason to.
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Of course not all whites are depicted as "angels". For example we meet "Mistis" in Nanny's story and learn of her cruel behavior towards Nanny and her baby who is Janie's mother. Furthermore, later in the novel we encounter the two whites who force Teacake to burry the dead bodies despite the fact that he is a free man. However, it is interesting to note that the character with the most hatred towards blacks, and thus is later most remembered by the reader, isn't a white character but a mulatto woman named Mrs. Turner. Mrs. Turner believes that since she has white blood in her, she is more worthy than the more dark-skinned people. Furthermore she believes that black people are the hindrances that are holding people like herself and Janie back from being accepted by the whites. She cannot accept the fact that Janie is married to someone as black as Teacake and states that there are too many blacks already and thus they should "lighten up the race". She is the Simon Legree of the novel and displays more hatred and discontent of blacks than any other white character in the novel. "Ah can't stand black niggers. Ah don't blame de white folks from hatin' 'em 'cause Ah can't stand 'em mahself. 'Nother thing, Ah hates tuh see folks lak me and you mixed up wid 'em. Us oughta class off" (135). Such ironic situations such as this can only instigate readers to dislike Hurston's novel.
The issue of race isn't the only reason for the discontent of the readers. The fact that Hurston portrayed the community of blacks as always being jolly and having no worries, when in reality they were disregarded by the white society and ill-treated, further outraged the readers. During the majority of the novel when Janie was married to Joe Starks and also when she was living with Teacake in the muck, a common scene is repeated over and over again. The scene of blacks sitting around the porch of either Joe Stark's shop porch or Teacakes porch, entertaining themselves with stories and jokes, is too unreal for the readers. These blacks, unlike the blacks in reality, lack the daily problem of racial discrimination and also live in a worry-free world where everything seems to be perfect. By depicting such scenes, Hurston conceals the harshness of the real world that millions of blacks experience constantly in their every day lives.
Furthermore, one of the main themes of the novel deals with the struggle between men and women. Although Janie's final love Teacake is the ideal man of her dreams, her previous two husbands turn out to be not so ideal. Logan, her first husband, was at first a loving man. However, as time went by, he began to lose interest in Janie's physical beauty and always complained about her not helping him enough with the farm and how spoiled she was. "If Ah kin haul de wood heah and chop it fuh yuh, look lak you oughta be able tuh tote it inside. Mah fust wife never bothered me 'bout choppin' no wood nohow. She'd grab dat ax and sling chips lak uh man. You done been spoilt rotten" (25). Joe Starks, her second husband (although they never really got married), was a man who merely used Janie's physical beauty to show her off to the town as a trophy wife. Contrary to Logan, he didn't want her to do any hard work, but, on the contrary, expected her to tend the store all day and act like a mayor's wife. He had no respect for her opinions and incessantly ordered her around. "Ah done told you time and time agin tuh stick all dem papers on dat nail! All you got tuh do is mind me. How come you can't do lak Ah tell yuh?" (66). "[Women] just think they's thinkin'. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don't understand one" (67). Furthermore, when both Janie and Joe become older, Joe tries to conceal his old physical features by pointing out the faults of Janie's physique. He constantly makes Janie the subject of laughter to others in the store by teasing her. "Don't stand dere rollin' yo' pop eyes at me wid yo' rump hangin' nearly to yo' knees!" (74). Due to the fact that most critics were men at the time the novel was published, such negative depiction of men would have insulted the readers themselves, thus resulting in criticism of Hurston's novel.
As one can clearly see, such characteristics of Hurston's novel weren't themes to please the readers of that era when the whites suppressed blacks and most-or possibly all-critics were males. However, that era has dissipated and a new era has been born. The readers today appreciate Hurston's novel by surpassing the issues of black versus white and issues of male versus females. Instead, we concentrate on Janie herself as an individual who spends her entire life searching for her ideal love: her desire to be a "tree in bloom" with "kissing bees" surrounding her "bursting buds". It is only with this point of view that one can truly appreciate Hurston's work of art.
Works Cited and Consulted
Callahan, John F. " 'Mah Tongue is in Mah Friend's Mouff' : The Rhetoric of lntimacy and Immensity in Their Eyes Were Watching God." Modern Critical Interpretations: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Clinton, Austin. "The Negative Reception of Their Eyes Were Watching God” Web Site. Austin Clinton, ed. 11/16/01. Available at www.1.am/zora
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, 1937.
---. "Conjured Into Being: Zora Neale Hurston." Tim Gallaher, USC E texts. Online. Internet. 8 October 2000.
Available < http: 11 www. ñ hsc. usc.edu/ ~ gallaher/ hurston/ hurston. html>.
Johnson, Barbara. "Reaction of Black Readers to Their Eyes Were Watching God." Modern Critical Interpretations: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Kubitschek, Missy Dehn. " 'Tuh de Horizon and Back': The Female Quest in Their Eyes Were Watching God." Modern Critical Interpretations: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1987.
Pondrom, Cyrena N. "The Role of Myth in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God." American Literature 58.2 (May 1986): 181-202.
Wright, Richard. "Review of Their Eyes Were Watching God." Zora Neale Hurston - Critical Perspectives Past and Present. Eds. Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and K. A. Appiah. New York: Amistad, 1993