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A century elapsed between the period of transcendentalism and the publication of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. During this time, the philosophies of Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau faded as the post-war era of social realism began to dominate American culture and American literature. Thus, Their Eyes, published in 1937, was scorned and criticized by many for not being “political or serious” enough.
It was not until twenty years after Hurston’s death that people began to appreciate Hurston’s works, especially Their Eyes, as important literatures in the African American and the American feminist movements. With further analysis, although Their Eyes is a modern novel, it actually takes the readers back to the period of Thoreau and Emerson; Their Eyes Were Watching God possesses elements of transcendentalism – self-reliance, nonconformity, and the over-soul – as supported by the essays of transcendentalist thinkers.
To begin, a fundamental idea of transcendentalism is self-reliance, which stresses a person’s own judgment and intuition. Janie, the protagonist of Their Eyes, shows self-reliance when she uses her own judgments for the struggles she faces. For example, as she realizes that her marriage with Jody is tumbling down, “she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. […] She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them” (Hurston, 72).
Janie knows her goals and desires, both are which shattered by Jody, so she must now distinguish the difference between the lies and the truth of her dream. Together with courage, her intuition gives her the strength to speak up to Jody on his death bed. Moreover, when she finally finds the love of her life, she feels “a self-crushing love, [allowing] her soul [to] crawl from its hiding place” (Hurston, 128). She doesn’t hide her feelings but goes to pursue her lover, Tea Cake. She is strong-will and has control over her feelings and thoughts.
Even Tea Cake encourages Janie to use her own mind, “‘Nobody else on earth kin hold uh candle tuh you, baby. You got de keys to de kingdom’” (Hurston, 109). As Emerson would say that Janie possesses transcendentalist ideals because, “[She has the] integrity of [her] own mind […] What [she] must do is all that concerns [her], not what the people think” (Emerson, 80). Her past experiences and her present judgments lead Janie to maker her own path in the future. Only when Janie relies on herself and holds her “keys to de kingdom” does she find her happiness and reach her dream.
Furthermore, another element of transcendentalism is nonconformity, or individualism, which stresses the importance of finding one’s identity instead of giving in to society. Emerson explains nonconformity as “the great man who in the midst of the crowd keeps with perfect sweetness the independence of solitude (Emerson 80). Janie shows exactly this on the day she arrives back in Eatonville. Dressed in her blue satin dress, she confidently walks past the women and men, ignoring their hurtful gossips and leaving them in awe. Despite her solitude due to Tea Cake’s death, Janie welcomes her independence; she is perfectly at ease with herself.
Moreover, Thoreau also writes about nonconformity; he writes, “The only obligation which I have a right to assume is to do at any time what I think right […] They only can force me who obey a higher law than I” (Thoreau, 104). Janie shares Thoreau’s attitude when she stands up to both of her late husbands and declares what she believes is right. Logan tells her that she doesn’t belong anywhere but “‘It’s wherever Ah need yuh’” (Hurston, 31). This is probably the worst thing he can say to his newlywed; it’s hurtful, disparaging, and disrespectful.
However, unlike all the other women, such as Nanny, during the time, Janie stands up for herself by yelling back at his wrongs so she can gain back her independence and dignity. As for Jody – a husband who makes her tie her hair back, denies her of speech and social interaction, and abuses her – Janie finally takes up the courage to tell the truth at his deathbed. “‘All dis bowin’ down, all dis obedience under yo’ voice—dat ain’t whut Ah rushed off down de road tuh find out about you’” (Hurston, 86). Jody has crushed her hopes and dreams and her image of love, and she’s not about to let him forget that.
She would not obey; she has no obligation to obey. After Jody’s death, Janie is finally free. Even more, she feels no remorse and she doesn’t mourn because the lost of her husband gives her back her individuality. Last but not least, the over-soul is another focal point of transcendentalism; it connects God, Nature, and Man. Emerson writes in his essay, Over-soul, “We live in succession, in division, in parts, in particles. Meantime within man is the soul of the whole; the wise silence; the universal beauty, to which every part and particle is equally related; the eternal One” (Emerson, Over-soul).
This over-soul connects the broken pieces of the universe together. Hurston’s Their Eyes contains many details that support the over-soul. For instance, in the beginning Janie “saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree form root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight” (Hurston, 11). This imagery of the bee and the flower symbolizes Janie’s dream. The bee and the flower coexisted in harmony, just like what Janie hopes her marriage will be.
This is Janie’s innocent soul as depicted by nature. Later on however, as she’s forced into marrying a man she doesn’t love, she begins to know “the words of the trees and the wind. She often spoke to falling seeds and said, ‘Ah hope you fall on soft ground’ […] Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (Hurston 25). As she begins to mature more, she also begins to understand the sound of nature. Nature and Janie’s souls appear to be one, united and growing together. She talks to the seeds, warning them, sympathizing with them of a world that can be disappointing and unfair.
Finally, after she shoots her beloved Tea Cake in order to protect herself, Hurston writes that Janie “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” (Hurston, 193). Although it was a tragic and sudden death, Janie is in peace. The love of Tea Cake will not be forgotten because he will always be with her. Janie now understands the mysteries of nature and her world; she is ready for whatever that may come. Janie has learned and grown, most importantly, she has found her soul.
All in all, a century later, Their Eyes Were Watching God leads to the rebirth of transcendentalist ideas, including but not limited to self-reliance, nonconformity, and the over-soul. Throughout her journey, Janie begins to identify herself as a self-reliant individual with a soul, all of which are transcendental characteristics. In the mid 1900s, because of the on going civil rights movements, an African American woman is the least expected person to posses all these traits. Even so, Janie Crawford becomes a prominent literature figure that gives people hopes and dreams, while fulfilling those of Emerson and Thoreau.
Bibliography Emerson, Ralph Waldo. “From Self-Reliance. ” The InterActive Reader Plus. Illinoise: McDougal Littell, 2003. 78-83. Print. Ferguson, Craig. “Ralph Waldo Emerson – “Within Man Is the Soul of the Whole; the Wise Silence; the Universal Beauty”” Transcendental MeditationBlog. N. p. , 27 Mar. 2010. Web. 05 Aug. 2013. . Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel. New York: Perennial Library, 1990. Print. Thoreau, Hentry David. “From Civil Disobedience. ” The InterActive Reader Plus. Illinoise: McDougal Littell, 2003. 90-105. Print.