112th Annual Conference - Riverside Convention Center, California
Friday, October 31 - Sunday, November 2, 2014

This page is about the 2014 conference. For 2015 conference info, go to PAMLA 2015.

"The time for sitting": Bodily Work in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God

Kate Marantz, University of Massachusetts, Amherst

This paper considers Hurston’s representations of her protagonist Janie’s body through the multi-valenced lens of “work,” pointing at once to Janie’s bodily movements and positions as enactments of her labors as an African American woman in the South of the Great Depression, and to the important cultural and political work that Hurston herself accomplishes in these depictions. 


Throughout the rich history of criticism surrounding Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, scholars have linked protagonist Janie Crawford’s search for independence to her achievement of a voice.[1]I would suggest, however, that alongside an engagement with the significance of voice, Hurston's literary project involves exploring Janie’s body’s capacity for negotiating and testing the racial, gendered, and classed hierarchies of her culture, and probing the fundamental relationship between Janie’s corporeal, psychological, and interpersonal struggles and triumphs. In this paper, I argue for the value of considering these representations of Janie’s body through the multi-valenced lens of “work.” Looking at Janie’s bodily movements and positions, I consider the novel’s nuanced treatment of Janie’s labors as an African American woman in the South of the Great Depression—labors that far exceed paid jobs to encompass a web of shifting performances of femininity, domesticity, sexuality, caretaking, and love. In another equally important register, I point to the important cultural and political work that Hurston as a black woman writer accomplishes in these depictions, how writing Janie’s body allows her to call attention to the lives and subjectivities of women like her protagonist.[3] 

More specifically, I trace the role—the work—of sitting, a bodily act that marks many of the novel’s pivotal moments and signifies Janie’s ongoing labors of self-discovery, romantic fulfillment, and community engagement. Janie’s seat on the porch as she narrates the story that comprises the novel; her protests to her husband Jody when insists that she sit in their store; her seat on the stand as she defends herself for killing her lover Tea Cake—in these and other instances, Hurston reveals her protagonist’s ongoing negotiations of what it means to be free, and to work for that freedom through the strategic placement and manipulation of her seated body. This consequently raises productive questions about the work of Hurston herself as a woman writer who insists on the simultaneously textual and bodily terms upon which struggles for self-possession must be waged.

[1] See, for instance, essays by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Karla Holloway, and Cheryl A. Wall in the 1993 collection Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Gates and K.A. Appiah.

[2] See Clarke’s article, “‘The porch couldn’t talk for looking’: Voice and Vision in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” African American Review 35.4 (2001): 599-613.

[3] In decentering voice in favor of an exploration of the body as a site of expression, I do not argue that the body is more authentic than speech, or more essential than words; rather, I focus on bodily positions and movements as a way of thinking about what writing about these acts can communicate, particularly in terms of African American women’s claims to selfhood and independence. 

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