Janie’s emancipation - The “gaze of the Other” in Zora Neale Hurston’s "Their Eyes Were Watching God"

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

23 Pages, Grade: 1,3


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Janie’s emancipation from the gaze of the other in Their Eyes Were Watching God
2.1 The gaze of the other – the race concept as an example
2.2 Janie’s emancipation from society’s conventions in Their Eyes
Were Watching God
2.2.1 Zora Neale Hurston
2.2.2 Summary
2.2.3 Opposing and deconstructing society’s “assignments”

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Whenever we encounter people in our lives, we automatically and instantly label them and sort them into certain categories. For example, a woman with short hair who wears clothes that are generally assumed to be more likely worn by men will often be expected to be a lesbian. A bodily disabled person, meanwhile, may cause great surprise in many people when he or she proves to be an excellent athlete.

There are innumerous stereotypes or general assumptions that are created in relation to a person’s looks, biology, and physiognomy, which have an enormous impact on our perception of our environment. They weave a very complex construct of beliefs about what is “natural” for a person to be and do, which sociologists seem to have proven e.g. for the concept of race. It has been created by society itself and only gains its seeming legitimacy in its members’ incorporation of these values and according behavioral patterns. What does not fit in these created schemes is most often discriminated against, while in reality the supposed “otherness” or “unnaturalness” only exists through the myths woven around a person’s outer appearance. However, on the background of this dynamic, through the “gaze of the other”, and depending on the extend to which they incorporate these societal ideas, subjugated people and groups may actually become the way they are seen. They apply the generally assumed characteristics of their sex or race to themselves and thus give them their seeming legitimacy, while in fact race, gender, age or whichever roles must not be seen as static, but as “uh movin’ thing” (Hurston, 191).

In the following I will try to depict how Janie, the female protagonist in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, emancipates herself from the beliefs and values her environment tries to impose on her. As an example of how exactly the dynamics of societal values and beliefs work, as well as how they may be created, I will start with an introduction into the construction of the race concept. On this background, the reader should be able to anticipate a similar history of the concepts of race and gender, which should show the validity of such a reading of the novel as mine. A depiction of the emergence of all three concepts, meanwhile, would go beyond the scope of my work. Also, some biographical data on Zora Neale Hurston shall legitimize my assumptions and understanding of the novel. The brief outline of the plot, which follows, shall support the literature analysis, in which I attempt to show how Janie opposes to her society’s stereotypes and roles.

2. Janie’s emancipation from the gaze of the other in Their Eyes Were Watching God

2.1 The gaze of the other – the race concept as an example

The “gaze of the other” is a principle that occurs in many different contexts – for example in that of race. It is the way we encounter people that we see as different from us and the driving force in executing the beliefs we have about their supposed “otherness” so far as to rob them of any chance to be anything else than what we see in them. The “gaze” assigns an identity to everyone we encounter It creates a “being through the other”. How it is shaped, its consequences and the way it functions can be explained by the example of race. The latter is often seen as a mere unchangeable, natural fact, when actually the different race categories were created by humanity itself, through the “gaze of the other”, as Michael Omi and Howard Winant discuss in their studies on what the call “racial formation”. How race dynamics were created and the way they function becomes clear when looking back almost six centuries, when in the colonial epoch race consciousness made its first appearance (Omi and Winant 1).

As colonialists encountered the native inhabitants, people of a “different” outer appearance, they tried to find a deeper meaning in nature’s variations of human physiognomy, unable to believe that they who looked so different could indeed be human. To them, the only seeming logical explanation was that of polygenesis - the assumption that the “others” were not created by God as they thought of themselves to have been. From this belief emerged the fatal conclusion that race difference must be seen as a natural condition and thus biological fact, which even today is accepted by a broad audience. Eventually, this worldview, which distinguished the civilized Europeans from the savage “others” (Omi and Winant 12), appeared to legitimize slavery. The “white man” started oppressing the native inhabitants and made them into what he believed they were – inferior beings.

Later, beginning in the 18th century, the above beliefs about what race should be were joined by a new theory, which understood it as a social concept, not a natural fact. Max Weber realized that it was created through the “gaze” and declared it to have emerged from certain social and political factors (Omi and Winant 13). Also, 20th century anthropologist Franz Boas articulated his disbelief in the existence of higher or lower cultural groups. Their revolutionary theses and new approaches of the subject opened many people’s eyes and paved the way for contemporary social science which has identified race as a “variable which is shaped by broader societal forces” (Omi and Winant 13). According to Omi and Winant, the concept must even be seen as a sociohistorical one, since what is associated with the term “race” has extremely varied, both, from one society to another, but also within a society, over the course of time (13). In both cases, the process of “racial formation” itself (Omi and Winant 14), the way race categories are created and changed, is deeply impacted by social, political and economic criteria. To give an example of how these race categories vary it is very useful to draw a comparison between the meaning of the term “black” in the USA, Latin America, and Britain, as Omi and Winant do.

In the USA, what Marvin Harris described as the theory of “hypo-descend” (13) has largely shaped people’s perception of racial categories. According to this thesis, “anyone with at least one-thirty-second ‘Negro blood’” (11) is black, the rest of the people are white. But a person who is labelled a “Negro” by this theory would often not be able to “pass” for black in Latin America, if he was of fair complexion. Instead of only a separation into “black” and “white”, a lot of intermediate categories exist. Such is the case in Brazil for example, where members of the same nuclear family are often seen as of different races. In Britain, furthermore, people as well of Asian descend as of African heritage are associated with the term “black”. They even positively identify themselves with it (14), while in the USA it is widely seen as a stigma. Thus, the assignment of races is only such, a societal label created by humanity, and must not be seen as an objective, natural fact.

But not only did society make race, the anticipated race stereotypes also have great impact on the further process of racial formation within a society. In the process of socialization, everybody “learns some combination, some version, of the rules of racial classification and of their own racial identity” (Omi and Winant 15), often in a very subtle, unconscious way. A certain kind of behavior is expected from a certain “race” on the background of these incorporated beliefs and notions. Character traits in a person are explained through their physiognomy – in terms of their taste, intelligence, temperament and many more. Such, the “preconceived notions” (Omi and Winant 14) themselves form rules for people of different races. Identities built on the fundament of bias and standardization are assigned to societies’ minorities as the “other”, often leading to traumatization on their part, which is true for people of African heritage, as Frantz Fanon shows in his book “Black Skin, White Masks”.

Among their own, the members of a subjugated group will not realize that they are seen as different from the rest of their society and wherein this difference is supposed to lie. But as soon as a person who is discriminated against becomes acquainted with a member of the oppressing party, he will notice, which supports the idea of one’s “being through the other” (Fanon 109). Since for someone of African ancestry the discreditable – not immediately perceivable – tribal stigma of race is often very closely connected to the discredited – immediately perceivable – stigma of his (more or less) dark skin (Goffman 14), whatever he does, his entire personality and identity is very likely to be perceived in relation to the latter. So, if a stigmatized person is successful that often causes great astonishment or admiration in others because they did not believe him to ever be able to achieve success. If he fails, his shortcomings are interpreted as a result of his “nature” (Fanon 117). Consequently, a person discriminated on the background of his physiognomy, will tend to see his own body as a prison. Since his body seems to be the cause for his misery and makes it impossible for him to hide the supposed “otherness”, he may feel like the “slave […] of my own appearance” (Fanon 116). What Fanon describes as a sort of “triple consciousness” (112) will possibly take possession of him. Mind and body now seem to be separated and coexist with the awareness of the anticipated “Negro identity”.

Besides disgust of the own body, a stigmatized person is liable to question his own perception of his character and compare it to what society sees in him (Fanon 138). Either because in his socialization he unknowingly adapted part of the prejudices about his own kind (Fanon 147) or – if he happens to first encounter his biased oppressor’s beliefs as an adult – through the constant social punishment he has to endure and the resulting paralyzation. The stereotypes that exist about certain races are so numerous that he may happen to find some of these to apply to his character. Oftentimes, that will lead to fear of oneself on ground of the tragic belief that society’s perception may be true: “I am guilty. I do not know of what, but I know that I am no good.” (Fanon 139) In bowing “to the world’s anticipation” (Fanon 139), the discriminated person’s aim ultimately becomes to be like “The Other […], for The Other alone can give him worth. That is on the ethical level: self-esteem” (Fanon 154). Since that goal is unattainable and he is not allowed to be himself, the stigmatized person is completely robbed of any identity (Fanon 132).

Such, beliefs that were raised on the ground of misunderstanding have become tragic truth, seemingly unalterable, through the incorporation of them by all parties involved. In case of the black man, white reality has become the only real reality (Fanon 116). But this situation is not at all as static as we often believe. As Fanon (130) and Hurston (Wall 18) state one is only a victim and an inferior being if he allows others to see him as one. All human behavior is learned (Fanon 143) and can be deconstructed and reinvented. It may seem a hard task to try and emancipate oneself from what society believes to be normal, mainly because in our socialization we learned these beliefs and incorporated the standard roles offered to us by our environment as the only ones possible. But there is a chance to deconstruct the latter where we detect them as what they are, and find others who mirror our interests. If they encourage our perception of the situation there is a chance to finally find satisfaction from within our own selves, even if the outer world does not necessarily appear to change its attitude towards us. Processes as the ones depicted above are the main topic of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. An emancipation and liberation, if not even salvation from them, is what she lets her female protagonist Janie go through.

2.2 Janie’s emancipation from society’s conventions in Their Eyes Were Watching God

2.2.1 Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notsulga, Alabama, on January 7th, 1891 to John and Lucy Potts Hurston (Wall 7). When she was still very young, Hurston’s family moved to Eatonville, “the first incorporated Negro town in America” (Wall 17). After high school, she began studying at Howard University in Washington intermittently for six years. In 1925, Hurston moved to New York, where she was offered a scholarship to Barnard College, and studied anthropology with Franz Boas. Along with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman, she produced the famous literary magazine Fire!! (Wall 8), which is why Hurston is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance. Zora Neale Hurston died penniless in Fort Pierce, Florida, on the 28th of January 1960 (Wall 6).

In her lifetime, Hurston wrote four novels, “two volumes of folklore and ethnography […], and a memoir” (Wall 7). She also published several short stories, essays, and plays, none of which very successful. Due to her conservative politics and the belief that “the physical closeness of blacks to whites was not going to be the salvation her people had hoped for” (Wikipedia), her work was largely boycotted. Male black writers such as Alain Locke and Richard Wright also harshly criticized her for ridiculing her African-American heritage. Wright claimed that her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) “‘carries no [political] theme, no message, no thought’, but exploited those ‘quaint’ aspects of Negro life that satisfied the taste of a white audience.” (Hurston x). Hurston, meanwhile, declared that she only tried to avoid stereotypes and the “traditional lay figures.” (Wall 18) because she believed “the most insidious aspect of racism [to be] the extend to which its victims internalize the attitude of their oppressors.” (Wall 10)


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Janie’s emancipation - The “gaze of the Other” in Zora Neale Hurston’s "Their Eyes Were Watching God"
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Julia Balogh (Author), 2007, Janie’s emancipation - The “gaze of the Other” in Zora Neale Hurston’s "Their Eyes Were Watching God", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/178400


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