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.

Voice Authenticity and Respectful Dialect in A Gathering of Old Men

by Rhonda Browning White

Ernest J. Gaines’s A Gathering of Old Men relates the story of a white Cajun murdered by a black man in the Louisiana bayou during the late 1970’s. The entire story is narrated through the first-person point of view of fifteen different characters, each with his own chapter, but with some narrators sharing their viewpoint in more than one chapter. This first person point of view allows readers to develop some intimacy with each of these narrators and lends a sense of credibility to the story. I find it interesting, however, that none of the main characters (Beau Boutan, Candy Marshall, Mathu, Sheriff Mapes, and Charlie Biggs) have a point of view chapter. Perhaps Gaines wanted to give the impression of misjudgment—outsiders opining on a situation about which they understand little or none of the truth.

Gaines’s use of regional dialect and its conveyance from oral speech patterns into written word maintains each narrator’s different voice. Snookum’s narration in the first chapter easily expresses his childish diction, though he seldom spoke aloud: “Old Toddy with his snagged-teef self looked at me and grinned, ‘cause he thought Gram Mon had to hurt my feeling when she told me to sit back down. I checked on of my fist, but he knowed I couldn’t hit him, ‘cause he already had caught me and Minnie playing mama and papa in the weeds, and he told me I had a year when I couldn’t do him nothing no matter what he did me, and if I did he was go’n tell Gram Mon what he caught us doing” (7-8).

The dialect distinctively changes when Lou Dimes narrates his chapters: “I drove the thirty-five miles from Baton Rouge to Marshal in exactly thirty minutes. Why I didn’t have every highway patrolman in the state of Louisiana on my tail was just a miracle” (93). Without the reader being plainly told, we know Lou Dimes is older and better educated than Snookum by his narration voice.

Even though Gaines uses the Cajun-Creole-French-Louisiana regional dialect with a heavy hand, he allows his narrators to speak with full knowledge of their own experience. They never appear ignorant because of their colloquial voice patterns, just different. This is a subtle reminder to the reader not to pass judgment on these characters based on their speech patterns, but to listen to what they are saying beyond their mispronunciations.

Work Cited

Gaines, Ernest J. A Gathering of Old Men. Thorndike, ME: Thorndike, 1984. Print.