New Historicism in Their Eyes Were Watching God

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  • Topic: Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, New Historicism
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  • Published : November 4, 2006
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New Historicism and Eyes Watching God

New Historicism has developed from the "New" Criticism's inclination to treat

works of literature in a historical way. The New Historicist conditions include the fact

that images and narratives do important cultural work. They serve as a kind of workshop

where cultural problems, hopes, and obsessions are addressed or avoided. Consequently,

New Historicists argue that the best backdrop for interpreting literature is to place it in its

historical context. New Historicism plays an important role in understanding Zora Neale

Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. There are many problems and issues that are

touched by the author, mostly through the recollection of the main character, Janie


Racism is one of the main issues addressed in this novel as well. People were

discriminated against continuously because of the color of their skin. The influence of

white society is ever present, hanging over the novel like an oppressive cloud. For

example, Janie's husband Jody paints his house "a gloaty, sparkly white," (44) humiliates

the citizens of Eatonville in similar ways as the white man would, and forces Janie into the

slavish servitude reflected by the identity-confining head rag he makes her wear (51).

Janie fights Joe's tyranny by telling him off just before he dies in chapter eight. She then

reclaims her own identity by burning up "every one of her head rags" (85). Janie also

encounters Mrs. Turner, Hurston's symbol of internalized racism, who doesn't "blame de

white folks from hating (African-Americans) 'cause Ah can't stand 'em mahself" (135).

Most importantly, religion is an aspect which influences the plot. At that time,

people had little education, but their faith in God is what kept them going. They depended

on God to answer their payers. The following quote shows the point in the novel where

Hurston took the title of her book: "They sat in company with the others in other

shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to

measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes

were watching God" (151). "It's uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know

there…. Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and

they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves " (183) This shows that religion was a big

problem of the time. It is felt that everyone had not only the right, but also the

responsibility to find their God and to worship him if they wanted a chance at survival.

While many people feel envious of the money and power that Janie possesses

through her marriage with Logan Killicks, the potato farmer, and Joe Starks (the Mayor of

Eatonville), they were more envious when she found true love with Tea Cake. "Janie

looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding

place" (122). Her quest throughout the novel is her search for true love, which she finally

finds with Tea Cake, a man who does not try to control or mold her. The plot involves

many of the problems that deal with love. These problems are not limited to envy, lust and

spousal abuse. Spousal abuse was very common at the time this story was written. Women

were quite often treated like objects, more than they were as human beings. This is evident

when Joe Starks uses Janie as a status symbol more than as a wife. She does all of the

work behind the scenes, and he takes all the credit. He makes her do most of the work in

the store, even though "the store itself kept her with a sick headache" (54).
Rather than self-destruct under the constant realities of racism and misogyny she

receives throughout her life, Janie Crawford does the opposite at the end of Their Eyes

Were Watching God....
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