Voice, Language, and Perfect Endings

From time to time, Why The Writing Works will repost some of our earlier blogs. This entry was posted in February, 2012.

in Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Rhonda Browning White

Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford’s personal emancipation from a voiceless black woman who didn’t count for much in the grand scheme of her horizon, the Deep South, into a woman who explored the future, discovering strength in herself in spite of other’s opinions.

Strong themes run throughout the story—feminism, racism and classism, for example—but the thing resonant to me throughout is voice, or language, and the way the two intertwine. Metaphorically, Janie has little or no voice in the story, but relies on others to do the talking for her. This is true even as she relates her life story to best friend Pheoby in flashback, prompting Pheoby to repeat her story to others: “You can tell ’em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf” (6). This demonstrates Janie’s complete trust in Pheoby, but it also reveals Janie’s belief in the futility of talk, of voicing her opinion, bearing forth an argument, or trying to convince people to change their minds. “Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ‘em nothin’, Pheoby. ‘Taint worth de trouble. . . . To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothing’ about” (6). Janie left home at sixteen with much to learn, and she returns having broadened her horizon (not only demographically, but emotionally, as well), and she is no longer as prejudiced as she was when she left.

Hurston’s liberal use of the Southern black vernacular spoken by her characters juxtaposed with the narrator’s rich, literary prose provides framework for the setting and underscores the sense of place in which the characters exist. This union of these two radically different styles of language adds depth and knowledge of the culture of 1930s Florida that environmental descriptions alone can’t provide. This change in voice mimics the distinctly different discernments of the scene as viewed through the eyes of Janie, who had never been there before and saw it as another “new horizon,” and Tea Cake, who knew from experience the hardscrabble life they’d live while inhabiting the Everglades. Hurston’s variation in these two interpretations of the place gives the scene a feeling of fact, depth and realism it wouldn’t have if both descriptions had been conveyed using the same regional dialect.

The story’s final paragraph returns to the narrator’s lyrical voice and ends with a reference to the horizon mentioned in the novel’s first paragraph and referred to throughout:

“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. . . . She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. 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” (193).

An ending like this that references the beginning is a common trend in fiction, one that feels both necessary and natural. Had Hurston ended the story with Janie giving voice to her feelings, the story wouldn’t have had such power. Janie had finally learned what it meant to love, was at peace with the loss of that love, (because she felt honored to have experienced it for a time), and refused to share that glorious, private feeling of privilege with anyone else. She finally found her voice by defending herself and sharing her life story, but she determined to keep it to herself, to draw it close, cherish and protect it. This, in my opinion, is a perfect story ending.

Hurston, Zora Neal. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper, 1998. Print.

What About an MFA?

Having trouble deciding if you should pursue and MFA or not? Here are some resouces from around the web:

Do Writers Need an MFA?” at Leslie Pietrzyk’s Work-in-Progress blog.

“To MFA or Not To MFA?” by Robin Black at Beyond The Margins

Links at the Literary Citizenship blog.

The Creative Writing MFA blog

AWP’s Guide to Writing Programs