Introductory note: This pieces is a little on the long side (13 single-spaced pages), so be sure to have a few minutes before you start reading it. And it you like ecocritical works, be sure to check out my long pieces on Robert Frost and William Blake and shorter ones on Walt Whitman and Emily Dickinson. I also have several reviews of books on ecocritical theory by a variety of authors: Luc Ferry, Neil Evernden, Steven Rosendale, David W. Gilcrest, and Lawrence Buell. And check out the hyperlinks in the post, they add some depth to the conversation.
Their Eyes Were Watching God: An Ecowomanist Ruling On Kyriarchy
In her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neal Hurston’s protagonist, Janie Crawford, struggles with several different systems of oppression, but ultimately achieves an autonomy that most from her station in life could hope for. It is how Crawford achieves this autonomy that is the crux of the novel. Mary Jane Lupton suggests Hurston’s focus is on “the conflict between Black men and Black women” (Lupton, 45), couching the issue in strictly feminist terms. This is misleading though, as Crawford’s oppression was based on more than her sex. As Alice Walker notes, without “money, an illness… can undermine the will” and “getting into a hospital… and getting… treatment is nearly impossible” (Walker, 90). Walker is speaking directly to Hurston’s own personal issues, but economics is also a factor in Crawford’s life. Considering economics and gender together is not comprehensive enough, as perceived race is also an issue. Walker’s term ‘womanist’ seems to incorporate all three as she defines a womanist as a “feminist of color” who demonstrates audacity, courageousness and a desire for learning (xi). Crawford then could fairly be called a womanist protagonist, but none of these approaches speaks to the nature of oppression which Crawford endures at the hands of her grandmother who projects her own values onto Crawford by forcing Crawford into an arranged marriage. Each of these forms of oppression are the result of “the interlocking and multiplicative systems of domination and submission” (Pui-Lan, 193), which fits in with Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza’s definition of kyriarchy, a term she coined to describe interconnected systems of oppression. The source of Crawford’s oppression cannot be reduced to any one element, whether it be economics, perceived race, gender, or socially prescribed familial bonds, but rather on a number of interlocking systems built on oppression: a kyriarchal system. The “desire for learning” (Walker, xi) about and understanding these systems of oppression is inherent in Crawford, and also fits in with Walker’s definition of a womanist. It is through her relationship with nature that Crawford seeks out and comes to an understanding of her oppression, and so an ecocritical approach is integral. Ecocriticism, though, is limited to the environment. Carolyn Merchant notes that “emphasizing the interconnectedness between people and nature” and juxtaposing “the goals of” feminism and environmentalism can help to “suggest new values and social structures” (Merchant, xv), thus creating the core principle of ecofeminism. This would be an excellent analysis of how Crawford learns in the novel as her understanding of the natural realm is what allows her to construct new values. An ecofeminist approach seems ideal for Their Eyes Were Watching God, but the language is not quite suited for Crawford as she is more in line with Walker’s womanist figure than she is with a feminist figure. The term ‘ecowomanist’, then, is perhaps the most appropriate term, as it allows for considerations to be paid to economics, perceived race and gender, all whilst incorporating Crawford’s desire to learn and understand as it is channeled through her relationship with nature. It is through such an ecowomanist reading that Hurston’s work gains the most clarity. Just as Crawford gains insight into of the kyriarchal nature of her own oppression through her study of nature, so too does the reader gain an understanding of Hurston’s attack on kyriarchal social structures through an ecowomanist reading of the text.
Hurston’s use of vernacular is a prominent feature of the novel and an integral component to an ecocritical reading. Though language itself is a human construct, the development of various vernaculars is a naturally occurring phenomenon that is a reflection of a number of social, cultural and geographical factors. In order to maintain some consistency in a given language, hegemonic institutions, often academia, prescribe a specific use and application of language. Embracing such rigid human constructs inevitably reinforces the authority of academia and fails to recognize the legitimacy of regional vernaculars. For communities who share African heritage, there has historically been a lack of access to academia, an issue that has extended far beyond Hurston’s time. This process links three oppressive systems: the system which denies rights based on perceived race, as Jim Crows laws prevented
Americans with African heritage from gaining access to many schools; the systems which denies rights based on economics, as the private school system requires parents with economic flexibility; and the systems which denies employment opportunity due to a lack of education, which will then exclude the ‘uneducated’ from employment opportunities. These three processes are interlinked in an overarching kyriarchal system. The naturally developing vernaculars that arise do not resemble the constructed prescriptions enforced by academia, and so, further alienate those communities from the social significance gained via academia. Hurston, though, represents the vernacular by employing a descriptive approach to language, rather than a prescriptive, and thus legitimizes the naturally occurring vernacular by challenging the reader to learn how to understand the voices of her characters. This approach implies that such vernaculars are worthy of representation and challenges academia’s dismissal of them. Walker recognizes the power of such an approach when she notes that for “regular people form the South [who were] rapidly forgetting their… cultural
inheritance”, the works of Hurston served as “a kind of paradise regained” (Walker, 84). Andrew Delbance moves this one step forward, from recognizing the value of such cultural, to demonstrating the oppressive nature of academic institutions, noting that there is a “universal disjunction between the limitless human imagination and the constrictions within which all human beings live their lives” (Delbance, 108). Delbance, however, only speaks to issues regarding vernacular, and does not link this form of oppression within the kyriarchal networks of oppression. His identification of the disjunction between the prescriptive language and naturally occurring vernaculars, though, remains important. By failing to recognize vernacular languages as “inventive, joyous, courageous” (Walker, 85), and legitimate forms of expression, academia has served to suppress and oppress the voices of many Americans with African heritage. By making an effort to record the authentic vernacular and challenging readers to learn and understand these unique voices, Hurston challenges the academic oppression of such dialects, employing a descriptive approach that reflects the natural progression of language over the constructed and static forms prescribed by kyriarchal institutions like academia.
The interpretations of Hurston’s use of vernacular offered by Walker and Delbance are not universally accepted. Many people, even those who shared Hurston’s African heritage, have found fault with Hurston. Some writers of the Harlem Renaissance, “such as Alain Locke and Richard Wright, [author of Black Boy] viewed ‘characteristics of Negro expression’… with the uncultured, intellectually lacking, [and] passive” (Douglas-Chin, 176-177) voice as problematic. Likewise, Delbance notes that “Roy Wilkins publically attacked Hurston as a peddler of nostalgia” (Delbance, 103), an inversion of Walker’s view of Hurston’s work as an example of ‘cultural inheritance’. However, in suggesting that the vernacular was ‘uncultured’ and ‘intellectually lacking’, such critics demonstrate their personal ascription to rigidly constructed forms over the naturally occurring vernacular. As a result, they embrace and reinforce the oppression of the academic arm of kyriarchal oppression by failing to recognize the value in a culture whose naturally changing vernacular was not recognized by academia.
Such negative views on Hurston’s work have shifted, raising new concerns about the work. Rosemary Hathaway, though she recognizes “Hurston’s remarkable ear for language” (Hathaway, 168), expresses concern for what she refers to as a ‘tourist reading’. Hathaway defines a ‘tourist reading’ as a “fallacious practice whereby a reader assumes, when presented with a text where the writer and the group represented in the text are ethnically different… that the text is necessarily accurate, authentic and [an] authorized representation of that ‘Other’ cultural group” (169). In the case of Hurston, there is no questioning the accuracy and authenticity of her work in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston was not a tourist in Eatonville or Southern Florida, the town and region depicted in the novel: she was a native of both. Concerns for the work being viewed as an authorized representation, however, remain. Since the likes of Wright, Wilkens and Locke, among others, have expressed concern regarding Hurston’s representation of the vernacular employed by some peoples with African heritage, the work cannot be seen as one that universally represents the ‘Black’ voice. This is a theme addressed by Ishmael Reed in his novel, Mumbo Jumbo, where a newspaper hopes to represent the “Negro Viewpoint” (Reed, 76). The issue here is that the paper believes there is a ‘Negro’ viewpoint: singular. In actuality, there are a multitude of distinct perspectives in America who share African
heritage, and each one is unique. Should a tourist reading ascribe such authority to Hurston’s presentation, the work could be misappropriated and employed to limit the self-expression of Americans with African heritage, ironically serving to assist the kyriarchal system of oppression by projecting a singular ‘Black’ voice through the media, as Reed suggests, and academia, as Hathaway postulates. Hathaway’s concerns that a tourist reading of Hurston’s work might impose “an external context” (169) are legitimate and demonstrate a deeper problem. Even when such works are accepted by academic institutions, they become misappropriated and are viewed through a lens that may warp the intent of the author and serve to further suppress the culture that is meant to be uplifted by the text. Hurston’s work, though, is not meant to exist in a vacuum. It is meant to be viewed as part of a cornucopia of voices with African heritage, that the multitude of voices might be heard in concert. Hurston’s work does require a responsible reading, and when considered alongside works by others writers with African heritage, it serves to deny the misconception that there is a single ‘Black’ consciousness, dispelling the illusion of such kyriarchal prescriptions. Even within the novel Hurston presents a multiplicity of ‘Black’ voices, among them her own authorial voice, via the omniscient narrator, as well as the voices of her characters who, even when they share a similar vernacular, express different perspectives. In place of the kyriarchal suggestion of a singular ‘Black’ voice, Hurston suggests that there is a naturally occurring multiplicity of voices and her novel plays host too many such voices.
Just as figures like Wright and Wilkins embraced academic institutions, Hurston’s character Jody Starks (no relation to John), Crawford’s second husband, embraces economic and political institutions, which allow him to inherent the authority of kyriarchal economics and politics. Starks recognizes that his perceived race limits his authority in a community controlled by Caucasians, as “de white folks had all de sayso” (Hurston, 33). When he hears about a town comprised exclusively of “colored folks”, Starks, who boasts of having “money all saved up” (33), expresses his plan to “buy in big” at Eatonville so that he can “be a big voice” (34) politically. With his focus on economics, Starks clearly hopes to subvert the systems of oppression that are based on perceived race by embracing a systems of oppression based on economics. Starks has no interest in subverting kyriarchal systems of oppression; instead, he hopes to rise to a position of oppressor in such a system. Eatonville allows him the opportunity to do this. Just as Wright was invested in the academic arm of kyriarchy, Starks invests himself in the economic and political extensions of kyriarchy. When Starks arrives in Eatonville, he discovers there is not yet a mayor and asks the residents “who tells [them] what to do” (41)? Upon his arrival, it is clear that the existing community had developed a natural equilibrium that had no overt systems of oppression. Starks’s first inclination, then, is to impose a constructed, political hierarchy onto the town, placing himself squarely at the top. This demonstrates Starks’s eagerness, not only to ensure a position of economic authority, but also one of political authority, which he does by introducing a political system of oppression and thus facilitating the kyriarchal system. The fact that Eatonville’s population had naturally found an equilibrium without systems demonstrates how such kyriarchal systems stand in contrast to natural interpersonal relationships.
The contrasts between the constructed kyriarchal systems and the natural relationship between people is evidenced both in how the people of Eatonville respond to Starks, as well as by
Hurston’s Crawford’s behaviour when she inherits Starks’s position upon his death. One might assume that ascending to authority would provide Starks with a comedic ending, but instead it is a tragic one. The omniscient narrator notes that the “man who walks in the way of power and property is bound to meet hate” (58). Concepts of property are not natural, but rather, are human constructs that encourage people to view the person with possessions with envy and pity (95), and so, Starks cannot build meaningful interpersonal relationships because all of his relationships are tainted with envy and pity. Hurston Crawford does not want to be the subject of such envy or pity. When she inherits Starks’s property, the collection of rent seems so unnatural to her that she “almost apologize[s] to the tenants the first time she collect[s]” rent and feels “like a usurper” (111). The observations of the omniscient narrator make it clear that Starks, though envied by many, was also the object of pity and was not respected, while Crawford’s approach to ownership demonstrates clearly how unnatural the act ownership is.
Though Crawford is not interested in making others submissive to her, Starks’s authority allowed him to obtain submission from many, filling him with an arrogance that soured his personal relationships. In the case of Crawford, Starks “wanted her submission” (85) and assumed his property and political agency gave him the right to have it. Though Crawford conceded to Starks, the “spirit of the marriage left the bedroom”, assuring that the “bed was no longer a daisy-field for her and [Starks] to play in” (85). Starks’s demands for submission killed the emotive portion of the relationship and left only the social. Lupton claims that it is when Crawford “ridicules her husband’s manhood” that he “beats her and moves her out of the bedroom” (
Crawford Hurston, 47). Starks’s masculinity and physical dominance is not alone what governs Crawford, as his economic and political strength also threatens her. Lupton is correct in asserting that patriarchy plays a key role in Crawford’s domination, but is wrong in claiming that Crawford had “economic security” (Lupton, 46). All of the property and money was in Starks’s name, so without Starks, Crawford was essentially a pauper. Crawford had already rejected one husband for Starks, so it is not Starks’s gender that allows him to abuse Crawford, but rather his economic authority over her. Crawford was initially drawn to Starks because of his “citified, stylish dress”, his bragging about the “three hundred dollars… in his pocket” (33) and the promise of a better life. Because Crawford had already displayed the willingness to leave one husband, she could have left Starks just as easily if all he represented was patriarchy. Starks, however, represents more than patriarchy: he represents security in a capitalist society. What Lupton refers to as “Starks’s tyranny [and] unwillingness to permit [Crawford] to blossom” (Lupton, 46) is very much present in the novel, but it is a tyranny that is not based entirely on patriarchal oppression, but on capitalist oppression as well.
Crawford’s submission to Starks’s authority feeds an arrogance that blinds Starks, preventing him from seeing the realities of nature, whilst simultaneously offering Crawford insight into the authority that nature possesses. Nature’s authority enters Starks’s life when he becomes ill, but his arrogance and ignorance advises him to refuse medical assistance. Though Starks refuses to acknowledge his situations, his kidneys do not follow his lead. Crawford sends for a doctor who notes that when “a man’s kidneys stop working… there is no way for [a man] to live” (100). Instead of an actual doctor, Starks invests in a ‘hoodoo doctor’, or as Phoeby, Crawford’s friend, dysphemistically calls him, a “two-headed doctor” (99). Starks arrogantly ignores the signs of nature that were clear to “everybody… for de longest” (99) time, and consequently, Starks dies with his personal health ravaged by his own arrogance and ignorance. The kyriarchal systems serve as the source of tragedy, while the natural world, which Starks’s arrogance inspired him to ignore, is unable to offer him the happiness and autonomy that is eventually awards to Crawford.
During her relationship with Starks, Crawford’s connection with nature, specifically her identification with the yellow mule Starks buys, allows her to become acutely aware of the scope of the oppression she was hoping to escape when she ran off with Starks. Crawford finds herself at the mercy, or lack thereof, of Starks. Starks tells Crawford that somebody had “to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows” (84), linking Crawford, and women, with animals. Crawford is helpless against Starks: when he commands her to tie her hair back, she does so (66); when her work fails to meet Starks’s standards, she is publically ridiculed (94); and when she expresses her thoughts, Starks is sure to mock her and order her back to work (68, 84-85). When Crawford witnesses Starks and his compatriots baiting the mule, she states that the mule has “had his disposition ruint wid mistreatment” and suggests that the crowd assembled before the mule is going to be “devilin’ ‘im tu death” (68). This scene, as Sharon Davie points out, “is an expression of frustration at what [Crawford] perceives to be her own helplessness” (Davie, 449). It is through her connection with nature, via the mule, that she is able to recognize the cruelty which she endures, and is then able to defend a kindred spirit against the maliciousness of oppression, and, in turn, argue against the brutality of her own oppression.
The link between Crawford and the mule goes beyond a simple metaphor. As a woman with both African and European heritage, Crawford, like Hurston, would have been referred to as ‘mulatto’ during the era which the book was published. The term is derived from the Spanish word mulo, translating literally to mule, and the suffix attoo, denoting the young of an animal (‘mulatto’). Mules are typically unable to reproduce, a trait they share with Crawford as she remains childless in the novel. The mule, as the product of a horse and a donkey mating, is the offspring of an interracial relationship, an aspect of the metaphor that reinforces that Crawford is perceived as being biracial herself. Using language to link people of colour with an animal, most especially the young of an animal, can be demeaning, which was likely the intention when the term was coined. This language of oppression is one of the layers of kyriarchal oppression. Hurston, though, challenges the demeaning connotation of the term by employing the link between mule and women of colour as a metaphor that that allows Crawford to ultimately find autonomy. Though any animal could have been used in this instance, Hurston’s choice is one that is clearly carefully measured to make the link between Crawford and the mule more overt and reinforce that nature of the oppression that Crawford endures.
After Crawford’s successfully defense of the mule, she soon learns just how low her position in the American, kyriarchal hierarchy is. Starks buys the mule “tuh let ‘im rest” (Hurston, 69), but Crawford must continue to work under Starks’s instruction. Sylvia Bowerbank notes “that harmony in the family, as well as in government and in nature” is necessary (Bowerbank, 8). Though Starks eventually buys a harmonious reprieve for an element of nature by emancipating the mule, such harmony is absent from the familial realm as Crawford must continue to work. When the mule passes away, Crawford, thirsty for experience, displays the womanist desire to learn when she asks Starks if she can attend the “draggin’-out”, but Starks instructs Crawford to stay behind whilst the rest of the town goes to the “draggin’-out” (Hurston, 71-72). He later commands Crawford to serve Mrs. Bogle (83) and orders Crawford around the store, chastising her performance (84). Though Starks is eager to ‘free’ the mule, he has no aspirations to free Crawford. Despite this, the town’s people align Starks with Abraham Lincoln for freeing the mule (70), though the omniscient narrator aligns him, not with a liberating Lincoln, but with oppressive overseer, when it is noted that Starks’s house, “with its bannisters”, made the “rest of the town look like servants’ quarters surrounding the ‘big house’” (56). Starks, according to the omniscient narrator, is more in line with a slaver than he is with an emancipator, but Crawford, the victim of Starks’s oppression, has nobody to empathize with her. When the mule passes, Starks suggests that the mule fought death “like a natural man” (71), lifting the animal up to the level of man, while Crawford remains, in the patriarchal hierarchy, below man, further establishing Crawford’s position in the kyriarchal hierarchy. As Davie notes, it is difficult to discuss nondualistic modes of experience, but the link between the mule and Crawford demonstrates “the multiplicity and contradictoriness of experience” which cannot be easily identified (Davie, 447). Through her alignment with the mule, though, Crawford is able to learn and understand her own oppression, and it is her link with nature that facilitates her learning. Likewise, through an ecowomanist reading of this juxtaposition, the reader, too, can understand the nuances of, nondualistic, kyriarchal oppression which Davie speaks to.
The mule is not the only element of the natural world through which Crawford has moments of self-discovery, as she also has similar experiences through her interactions with several tress throughout the novel. Early in the novel Crawford is described as spending “most of the day under a blossoming pear tree” (much better than a lemon tree), where she would spend whatever time she could “steal from her chores” (Hurston, 14). This juxtaposition demonstrates how Crawford, even at a young age, was more in tune with the natural world, represented by the pear tree, than she was with the human world, represented by the chores. Walker’s definition of womanist is a woman of colour with a desire to learn (Walker, xi). When examining the language Hurston chooses, it becomes clear that Crawford’s engagement with the pear tree is inspired by Crawford’s desire to learn. Hurston writes that the tree “called [Crawford] to come and gaze on a mystery” and “behold a revelation” (Hurston, 14). While the immersion with the tree is a learning experience for Crawford that demonstrates the womanist aspect of the reading, it is likewise clear that it is an experience that shapes Crawford’s constructs on social structures, specifically marriage. Crawford witness the symbiotic
relationship shared between the bees and the blossom and concludes that “this was marriage” (14). This experience “suggests new values and social structures” (Merchant, xv), which Crawford then applies to marriage. Rachel Stein suggests that this “radically revises… binary oppositions” (Stein, 475). The pear tree certainly does radically challenge binaries which Crawford has learned, but it does not revise binaries: it suggests their dismantling. Simply revising the binaries leaves a kyriarchal system in place, albeit an inverted one. What the tree suggests is a world without binaries where the bees and the blossoms are interrelated, or two parts of the same entity, rather than two opposing parts. Hurston makes the link between Crawford and nature more explicit here than in the example of the mule. In the case of the mule, Crawford simply observes the mule and draws her own parallels, but with the tree, nature speaks directly to Crawford. Hurston writes that the tree “called to” Crawford, and “stirred her… caressed her”, going on to state that the “inaudible voice… came to her” (Hurston, 14). Not only does Crawford’s desire to learn fit Walker’s womanist reading, and her formation of her own concept of the social construct of marriage fit in with Merchant’s ecofeminist reading, but Hurston’s own language makes the conversation between nature and Crawford overt, with Crawford clearly taking on the role of student to a mentoring pear tree.
Crawford’s relationship with the pear tree offers her many insights, but it was not the only tree which gave her an understanding of the world, as she often invokes metaphors involving trees to provide clarity to her thoughts. Neil Evernden suggests that nature is “replete with messages that people must discern, the better” to understand the world around them (Evernden, 42). This is certainly the case for Crawford throughout the novel. When working in the fields with her third husband, Vergible Woods (no relation to Tiger or Natalie), Crawford experiences jealousy and describes it as a “little seed of fear [that] was growing into a tree” (167). With this metaphor, Crawford realizes the potential force of her jealousy, recognizing the budding influence of this human construct through her understanding of
nature. When speaking to her conversation with Woods, Crawford notes that they ran the “conversation from grass roots to pine trees” (130), employing this natural metaphor to indicate the comprehensive and varied nature of their conversation, while at the same time demonstrating that the conversation always shared common ground, literally in the case of the metaphor. Crawford even describes her life as “a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches” (11). The tree, here, is all-encompassing and includes all spectrums of life. Such analogies likely seem natural to Crawford given the language that her grandmother employed with her. When rationalizing an arranged marriage, Crawford’s mother tells her that she only wants her “pick from a higher bush and a sweeter berry” (17). Speaking to the literal height of the bush, Crawford’s grandmother invokes the concept of hierarchies and how, rather than deconstructing the hierarchy, she merely hopes to place Crawford higher in a position on the hierarchy that is superior to the one that she herself had. Crawford’s grandmother also compares the community of Americans with African heritage to “branches without roots” (20), referencing how this ethnic group found itself cut off from its cultural heritage, or ‘roots’, after they were lifted from their homeland during the slave trade. In examining the language of the novel, it seems clear that Crawford depends heavily on ecological metaphors involving trees to understand the world in which she lived and the feelings that arose within her, a practice handed down to her from her grandmother.
Neither of Crawford’s first two marriages fit the template of marriage which she discovered in her observations of nature, but Crawford eventually finds a relationship that comes close to this symbiotic union when she meets Woods. Woods is linked with nature in several ways. His first name is a homophone (which is not a ‘gay’ iPhone, so don’t even think of making any crass jokes in the comments section) with the word ‘vegetable’, and his last name is a noun used to describe an ecosystem, the root of which is a portion of a tree. This seems fitting since Crawford’s model of marriage was based on her observations of a tree. His first encounter with Crawford happened because he, like Crawford, was not in tune with the human world. Just as Crawford sought to escape chores, Woods, who aimed to attend a baseball game, “got de thing all missed up” (116) and was not able to make it to the game on time. It is clear that Woods is disjointed from the human world. Unlike Crawford’s pervious two relationships, her relationship with Woods is symbiotic. They take pleasure in each other, which was not the case with Crawford’s first two marriages. Crawford’s first marriage, to Logan Killicks, was one in which she did not love her husband, and when she raised this issue to her grandmother, Crawford was told that she was “full uh foolishness” (17). The marriage itself is described with a metaphor of a tree, with the place of the wedding ceremony being described as “a lonesome place like a stump in the middle of the woods” (16). This tree is an inversion of the pear tree that defined marriage for Crawford. Her marriage to Starks started off well, but the emotive spirit of the relationship soon dissipated as Starks compelled Crawford to work from him in his store, just as Killicks compelled her to work in his field (31-32). Woods, however, works with Crawford, as the couple picks beans side by each in the fields of southern Florida. Crawford tells Woods that she “laks it… mo’ nicer than settin’” around the house and even juxtaposes the experience with working clerking “in dat store”, claiming that working the in the field is easier because she and Woods “come home and love” (164). In her first two marriages, Crawford works for her husbands, making her feel like a ‘lonesome stump’: the antithesis to the pear tree. Though Crawford endures some physical abuse from Woods, the marriage is, for the most part, a symbiotic relationship that mirrors the construct of marriage which Crawford developed by observing the pear tree: a stark contrast Crawford’s marriages to Killicks and Starks.
Woods also facilitates Crawford’s womanist desire to learn. Within a minutes of their first meeting, Woods invites Crawford to plays checkers and Crawford finds herself “glowing inside” at the thought that somebody “thought it natural for her to play” (117). It seems unlikely that Crawford’s selection of the word ‘natural’ is coincidental here. Woods satiates Crawford’s curiosity and teaches her how to play, something which Crawford notes that Starks refused to do because it “was too heavy fuh [Crawford’s] brains” (118). Woods also teaches Crawford how to drive (133) and his pedagogical approach to Crawford takes her out of the store and brings her into nature where Woods teachers her to fish, a lesson that had the two “digging worms by lamp light” (125). This process reinforces the symbiotic nature of their relationship as they not only fish together, but when it comes time to prepare the fish, they divide the work equally amongst themselves, with Woods cleaning the fish and Crawford frying them (126). The hunting lessons progress as the narrative unfolds. When Woods teaches Crawford how to handle a gun, he tells Crawford that there is no reason why she should not know “how tuh handle shootin’ tools” (160). The lessons prove ironic in that Crawford employs the weapons to defend herself against Woods, but until Woods falls into a rabid fury, he facilitates Crawford’s desire to learn through nature by teaching her how to fish, hunt, and by working alongside her, either in her garden, or in the fields of southern Florida, demonstrating how the relationship serves, for the most part, to encourage an ecowomanist reading of the novel.
Whilst Crawford’s marriage to Woods fulfills, in many respect at least, the symbiotic construct of marriage which Crawford formed through her observations of the pear tree, the hurricane that propels the climax of the novel offers lessons of a more tragic nature, most notably how the human constructs of intelligence fail to consider the value of different life experiences. Though Crawford seems to be in tune with the natural world throughout much of the novel, there is a group of people who make a brief appearance that seem to display an even deeper understanding of the natural realm. When rumours of a hurricane break, Crawford soon sees “a large party” of “Seminoles passing by”, followed by a second party of ‘Indians’ headed in the same direction, reportedly seeking out the high ground (189-190). Though the group of people with whom Crawford was working were all collectively victims of discrimination based on their perceived race, they are quick to indulge in prejudicial judgements of the Seminoles, suggesting that “Indians are dumb” (190) and going onto claim that “Indians don’t know much uh nothin’” (191). Dismissing the intellect of an entire people is overtly and tragically ironic coming from victims of discrimination, but is especially problematic because by adopting the Western constructs of intelligence, which reserves a subordinate social position for people of colour, the people with African heritage fail to see the life-saving value of the Native world view. This phenomenon exemplifies the nature of kyriarchal oppression. Each group is situated above another, and so, are invested in the system to some degree as it privileges them above another group.
The following day, the animals followed the Seminoles with some rabbits, possums, snakes, deer and even a panther being seen heading for high ground (190). Though considered cognitively inferior to humans, these animals are not invested in flawed constructs that discourage them from heeding their innate responses to the natural world. The Seminoles and animals are dismissed as intellectually inferior, no doubt because they do not have access to the academic realm, but ultimately are the only group to survive the storm unharmed, challenging the value of evaluating intellect through lens of Western academia. Merchant suggests that there are “inherent characters, and vital powers of persons, [and] animals” and that one who is not in tune with the world around them would “‘go against nature’… [and] disregard.. innate” impulses (Merchant, xix). The Seminoles and the animals seem to be very much in tune with their environment, demonstrating an ideal relationship with nature, whilst the bean pickers and others around them seem to be disregarding and reasoning against their innate impulses. What is especially interesting is that this piece of the narrative demonstrates that humans are actually more in tune with nature than are the animals as it is the Seminoles who first flee to high ground, indicating the potential interconnectivity that can exist between humanity and nature, whilst also highlighting the tragic consequences that arise when such interconnectivity is broken. In observing the Seminoles and the animals, Crawford learns, albeit in hindsight, the value of maintaining one’s interconnectedness with nature while also realizing the inherent flaws of dismissing the value of a world view that falls outside of the West’s ascription of what intelligence is supposed to be.
The aftermath of the hurricane also highlights how the differences which some use to define race can easily be erased by nature. With a number of corpses littering the streets, the survivors are tasked with the burial of the bodies. ‘Headquarters’, also know as white people, or ‘the man‘, deems that the ‘white’ bodies are to be buried in a coffin, whilst the ‘colored folks’ are to be buried without boxes as there is not “enough of ‘em tuh go ‘round” (210). The problem is that the bodies have been exposed to the elements and many of the ‘workers’ are unable to “tell whether [the corpses] are white or black” (211). The storm does not discriminate based on the colour of skin, and when it is over, the cosmetic differences that existed are wiped away by nature, leaving behind only what is common between the two ‘races’ and deleting the barrier of perceived race. This point is driven home when Woods notes that the practice of burying ‘whites’ and ‘blacks’ separately implies that “God don’t know nothin’ ‘bout de Jim Crow law” (211). The spirit, or soul, has not colour, so in the religious realm, as well as in the natural one, skin colour makes no difference. This similitude is reinforced by Hurston’s use of vernacular in these scenes as well. Just as the storm left corpses that were impossible to differentiate as ‘white’ or ‘black’, so too does the natural occurring vernacular unify all parties, regardless of skin colour. Like the people with African heritage employ a vernacular, so too do the ‘white’ characters: ‘dere’ is used instead of ‘there’; ‘dem’, instead of ‘them’; ‘dat’, instead of ‘that’; ‘de’, instead of ‘the’; ‘whut’, instead of ‘what’; and ‘fuh’, instead of ‘for’ (210). The hurricane not only erases the difference in colour, but also suspends the segregation that is employed throughout most of the novel so that the reader might see how the vernacular also serves as an element that demonstrates the commonalities between ‘white’ and ‘black’. This challenges the basis of oppression based on perceived race and strips away one layer of the kyriarchal system of oppression.
While the storm demonstrates the limits of kyriarchal systems that oppress people based on perceived race or academic standing, it also highlights the flaws in the economic system. When Crawford sees the Seminoles fleeing for the high ground, she does not follow. The reason for this is twofold. Firstly, the Seminoles are dismissed because they are not viewed as intelligent based on their perceived race. They are also dismissed for economic reasons. When faced with the dangers of a forthcoming hurricane, and seeing the Seminoles leave, the bean pickers do not only suggest that the “Indians are dumb”, but also state that beans “are running fine and prices [are] good, so the Indian… must be wrong”, stating further that one “couldn’t have a hurricane when [one is] making seven and eight dollars a day picking beans” (190), and concluding that the “money’s too good” (191). The bean pickers do not only attribute authority to the economic process, but also to their economic superior. Woods notes that Crawford “aint’ seen de bossman go up”, lending authority to their supervisor over the Seminoles because he is in a position of hierarchical authority both as a supervisor, and as a person who is in a better economic situation. The dual kyriarchal authority of the ‘bossman’ encourages Woods and the other bean pickers to erroneously place their trust in him whilst disregarding the Seminoles. Not only do the bean pickers dismiss the Seminoles’ assessment of the situation, but they also deny that nature is capable of intruding on economic plenitude, misguidedly assuming that economic constructs have authority over nature.
This upholding of economic constructs is further challenged in the face of other elements of the kyriarchal system when Woods comes across several white men in the aftermath of the storm. Once the storm has passed, Crawford and Woods have concerns about going out and being accosted by the white authorities. Woods mistakenly assumes that the authorities are only forcing unemployed men to work at burying corpses and assures Crawford that he will be exempt from being forced into such work because he has “money on” him and that the authorities, therefore, “can’t bother” him (208). When he is stopped by white men, who refer to him as ‘Jim’, invoking the Jim Crow laws, he is quick to note that he is “uh workin’ man wid money in [his] pocket”, to which the white men suggest that they might be burying Woods if he doesn’t cooperate (209). The sense of security provided by economics fails in the face of nature, and in the face of other elements of the kyriarchal system.
Though general response to the hurricane demonstrates how many of the characters often rationalize ways in which to subvert nature, nature also affords most of the characters a way in which to express their ideas, which comes through clearly in the use of ecological metaphors. Evernden sees “nature as the source of authority” (Evernden, 6), and so when communicating, Hurston’s characters often rely on natural elements to provide clarity and act as the authority behind their voices. When describing the men and women of Eatonville after a day’s labour, Crawford notes that mules “and other brutes had occupied their skins” (Hurston, 2), demonstrating how she understood their labours in the context of beasts of burden. When speaking of the gossipers who were postulating rumours about her, Crawford says simply that “they’s a lost in de high grass” (6), framing their misguided understanding as a person who is lost in nature, aligning the embracement of human foibles with a lack of understanding the natural world. After being reprimanded for kissing a boy, the omniscient narrator notes that Crawford’s grandmother made the “kiss across the gatepost seem like a manure pile after the rain” (16). Crawford’s grandmother likewise employs naturalist metaphors when expressing her intent with Crawford, telling her that she wanted Crawford to be able to pick from “a higher bush and a sweeter berry” (17), claiming that she did not want Crawford’s “feathers always crumpled” (24). The problem with such metaphors, as Evernden notes, is that in viewing “nature as the source of authority” (Evernden, 6), one can use “nature [to] justif[y] nothing, or anything” (15). Still, “ecological metaphor [is] a way of knowing… the complexity and messiness of twenty-first century meaning making” (Fleckenstein et al. 389) and when employed with sincerity, can provide great insight. In each of these instances, Hurston’s characters depend on ecological metaphors to express their thoughts in order to provide clarity to their ideas, demonstrating the value of ecological metaphors.
Being an ecowomanist text, such employment of ecological metaphors comes into play heavily when women are being spoken of. When the men see Crawford return, they notice her buttocks are firm “like she had grapefruits in her hip pockets” (3). This ecological simile describes the curves of the woman’s body in terms of natural elements. When describing the woman’s role in society, Crawford’s grandmother tells her that a woman of colour “is de mule uh de world” (18), describing women of colour in animalistic terms. When speaking to her role as a wife, Starks employs a similar tone to denote Crawford’s lack of emotion, telling her that she “ain’t no hog” (102). This is consistent with Starks’s rhetoric throughout as when the pair first arrive in Eatonville, he tells Crawford that she “must look on herself as the bell-cow” (49), situating Crawford as a key social figure who is supposed to help guide the herd. This is doubly important because Starks is implying that the community is a herd which needs to follow him. Whether they are employed to articulate the position of working-class people, or gossipers, or even to situate women within their material, social, or physical spheres, ecological metaphors are integral in Hurston’s work for both the characters, and the omniscient narrator. These metaphors position nature as “the source of authority” (Evernden, 6), and bring clarity to the words, while guiding the reader to look at the narrative and the characters through an ecological lens.
Just as the ecological metaphors bring clarity to the words of those who employ them, human constructs seek to obscure authentic meaning and shapes. This is clear from the onset of the novel when Crawford is walking home. Phoeby (NOT, Pheobe) tells Crawford that even “wid dem overhalls on, you show yo’ womanhood” (Hurston, 5). This seems to challenge the Genesis narrative where, in the post-fall world, humanity felt the need to cover themselves, but here the reader sees that no construct can disguise nature and that the natural form will transcend any constructs that seek to obscure them. Starks makes Crawford wear kerchiefs when she walks around the store in order to mask her beauty. Upon his death, however, Crawford tears “off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there” (105). In stating that there was glory in the hair, the omniscient narrator uplifts the natural realm and demonstrates that it is superior to the imposed construct, in this case the kerchief that sought to conceal it. Not only did the kerchief obscure this glory, but it inspired a vehement response from Crawford who “burnt up every one of her head rags” (108), demonstrating that such constructs not only mask beauty, but instils a sense of oppression in the people subjugated to them. Such constructs are meticulously interspersed throughout the novel and demonstrate that even when they successfully obscure the natural world, their impact is oppressive. It is through Crawford’s experience with such constructs that both she and the reader come to understand the nature of Crawford’s oppression.
Hurston furthers her critique of the flawed nature of such garments when she portrays Crawford’s response to the death of both Starks and Woods. Upon Stark’s death, Crawford embraces socially contrived dress. It is noted that Crawford’s face was hidden “behind her veil” (107) and she wore “expensive black folds” (108), displaying the wardrobe of mourning. Her demeanour is described in constructed terms. Her face is described as a “wall of… steel” and the omniscient narrator notes that Crawford “starched and ironed her face” (107). Starching and ironing are processes that create a false appearance, and so Crawford’s assembled face is aligned with falsehood. Such language demonstrates how Crawford’s appearance at Starks’s funeral is the epitome of fabrication, and just as the kerchiefs hide her natural beauty, so too does this contrived mourning fail to elucidate Crawford’s true emotive response. In stark contrast to her engineered self, Crawford’s inner self is described as “rollicking with springtime across the world” (108). Crawford’s true emotive response is described in natural terms with ecological metaphors, while the fashioned self is described in rigid metaphors that draw on unnatural processes. When Crawford attends Woods’s funeral, she is a polarization of the woman that attended Starks’s funeral, reinforcing these same values. Crawford eschews “expensive veils and robes” and instead attends the funeral in overalls because she “was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief” (232). In this instance, it is clear that the prescribed garments of mourning are not required for sincere grief, and that it is the genuine emotive response that defines grief, not what one wears. These funerals clearly demark the difference between prescribed mourning and natural mourning, demonstrating how, even in personal instances such as grieving, social and kyriarchal structures seek to define how one is supposed to respond, but fail to sincerely reflect authentic grief.
The final passages of the novel see Crawford fully realize how imbedded with nature she is, reinforcing the running theme through the novel in which Crawford rejects human constructs in favour of that which seems natural to her. The construct of marriage is one of the first constructs which she rejects, abandoning Killicks in favour of Starks. Her true love is Woods, a man for whom she feels a natural affinity and with whom she spends time immersed in nature, be it in backyard “seeding her garden”, or when they go out fishing (136). Crawford, though, is concerned when she is first drawn to him. According to the kyriarchal systems, which had leant Crawford relative autonomy within the Eatonville community, Woods was not a match for Crawford as “he didn’t look like he had too much” (123), while Crawford was financially independent. There was also a concern that Woods was “around twenty-five and… she was around forty” (123). Constructs of economics and age suggest that the two were not a match, but Crawford ultimately rejects these constructs and embraces a relationship with Woods, rationalizing the age difference between the two by stating that it is the “thought dat makes de difference in age” (141). This demonstrates how Crawford rejects constructed or learned views on issues such as age and embraces, instead, her natural position. Woods provides further contrast with Starks. Where Starks had Crawford embracing a sedentary life by clerking in the store, a constructed work place, Crawford and Woods work together, either hunting and fishing, or in the bean fields, embracing a peripatetic life that allows them to be immersed in nature. Crawford’s body rejects the sedentary life, leaving “her with a sick headache” (65), demonstrating the body’s natural disinclination to such work. Adversely, Crawford notes how she enjoys working in the field because it is “nicer than settin’ round… all day” and going onto note that clerking “in dat store wuz hard” (164). These sentiments are succinctly articulated in the closing passage as Crawford describes her concept of love to Phoeby, stating that “love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone”, rejecting a metaphor involving a human action. Instead, Crawford suggests that love “is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore” (235). Here Crawford rejects prescribed notions of love in favour of an ecological metaphor that allows for a multiplicity of incarnations of love that are unique for every person. The novel ends with an ecological metaphor as the omniscient narrator tells how Crawford “pulled in her horizon like a great fishnet” and “called in her soul to come and see” (236), establishing how Crawford has rejected and triumphed over the constructs of kyriarchal oppression and has found solace in nature: a solace she wants to mesh with her soul.
Evernden suggests that “Nature is God’s handiwork, replete with messages that people must discern” (Evernden, 42). This sentiment epitomizes Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. In viewing the relationship between Crawford and nature as one between student and teacher, the reader can see how nature facilitates Walker’s womanist qualities, which are inherent in Hurston’s protagonist. These experiences give both Crawford and the reader a deep understanding of the kyriarchal systems that oppress Crawford. Through the authentic depiction of regional vernacular, Hurston uses naturally occurring dialect to challenge academic prescriptions handed down by kyriarchy’s instructive arm. Crawford’s time under the pear tree shows her the benefits of a symbiotic relationship where both entities nurture the other, rather than a kyriarchal relationship where one person is under the oppression of the other. In witnessing the treatment of the mule, Crawford becomes conscious of the extent of her own oppression under Starks’s patriarchal, economic, and political authority. Ultimately, though, the hurricane that brings the novel to its climax demonstrates the fallibility of each of these kyriarchal systems. Crawford’s trust in her patriarch, Woods, is show to be flawed. Likewise, Crawford’s trust in economics proves vulnerable to nature. Concepts of perceived intelligence are shown to be faulty as the Seminole, who were dismissed as unintelligent, prove to have more insight than first thought. Notions of perceived race also prove unsound as not only do the Seminoles prove to be above their perceived racial handicap, but notions of defining race by skin colour are undermined in the after math of the storm when the bodies become unidentifiable. Seeing such constructs so easily undermined by nature “suggests new values and social structures” (Merchant, xv) are needed. The understanding of such values is enhanced through ecological metaphors of the novel, while human constructs prove unable to conceal or accurately represent true human nature. This is demonstrated throughout the novel, perhaps most especially in the funeral scenes. Crawford’s desire to learn defines her and makes her a template for womanist ideals and her learning, much like the reader’s understanding of kyriarchal systems, come from her interactions with nature. And so, it is through an ecowomanist reading of Their Eyes Were Watching God, that the novel is most clearly illuminated.
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