When I first began reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston I didn’t understand what the characters were saying because Hurston used phonetic spelling to capture the dialect. I had to read their words out loud in order to comprehend their meaning. But once I got the hang of it, I couldn’t put the book down. Their Eyes Were Watching God is about Janie Crawford, a black woman, who begins her adulthood at sixteen by marrying Logan Killicks, a man her grandmother chose for her. He treats her like his mule. She runs off to marry her second husband, Joe Starks, an ambitious man, who also treats her like his property. It is not until her third and last husband Tea Cake when she finds her true love and true self. Janie’s strong voice presents humor and sadness through vivid descriptions and marvelous metaphors.
I wrote a short story a long time ago about a black woman in prison and a couple of literary judges warned me about using phonetic spelling. They were afraid I would offend someone. I asked a black female friend of mine to read it. She wasn’t offended and liked it. Having one’s characters use Ebonics doesn’t make the writer a bigot. It is no different than presenting a Southerner, no matter their skin color, speaking in southern slang, such as “y’all.” A person’s dialect doesn’t represent their intellect. Many people misjudge a person’s level of intelligence by listening to their accent. According to Adam Sexton in Master Class in Fiction Writing writers should “ignore accents . . . and the phonetic spelling required to render them on the printed page” for the same reason I had trouble at the beginning of the novel, it sometimes has to be read out loud to be understood (116). Also, like the judges who read my story, Sexton believes this use of phonetic spelling discriminates against certain people, such as “inhabitants of the inner-city or the Deep South, immigrants and farmhands” (116).
Hurston, who is black, was ridiculed for using “Eatonville’s Ebonics.” Her critics thought she was downgrading her culture, and “pandering to a condescending white readership” (Gates, 204). Instead, she was trying “to achieve a precision of expression” which she did with aplomb (Boyd, 13). If, according to Sexton, 50 percent of characterization is created through dialogue, she did what she aimed to do, create believable characters (109). Just because her characters didn’t speak formal English, didn’t mean they were illiterate. They just had a different way of expressing themselves.
Her use of black linguistics was not meant to merely entertain or act as an “adornment.” She was “’naming’ emotions . . . in a language both deeply personal and culturally specific” (Gates, 204). She uses this language skillfully in not only the dialogue, but also in her narrative. “She could see a man’s head naked of its skull. Saw the cunning thoughts race in and out through the caves and promontories of his mind long before they darted out of the tunnel of his mouth” (77). Hurston used “black ‘idioms” . . . by a culture ‘raised on simile and invective” (Afterword, 203). The story begins at the ending of Janie’s ordeals by revealing a communities’ disapproval of her when she returns after running off with her third husband. The following is a perfect example of invectiveness: “Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy . . . So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs” (2). Her metaphors add depth, colorful description, and humor to her story, such as, “Unless you see de fur, a mink skin ain’t no different from a coon hide” (7).
Hurston also switches points of view throughout the book. Within a paragraph, we see Janie’s thoughts and then those of her three husbands. Though Janie is telling her story, the switches reveal the “woman in a male-dominated world.” Her narrative also shifts “between her ‘literate’ narrator’s voice and a highly idiomatic black voice,” a clever device underscoring her experiences as a “hyphenated African-American,” a “black person in a nonblack world” (Gates, 203).
There were some passages I didn’t understand, and I’m not sure if that had to do with my attempt at deciphering the dialogue or I didn’t comprehend the cultural context for the story is filled with folk lore. Although it’s advised to avoid phonetic spelling in dialogue to avert confusion and discrimination, master story tellers like Hurston can get away with it and create a classic that will survive time like those of Dickens and Twain. And Hurston wrote this classic work of art in seven weeks. To cover the range of a love story and adventure, with all variances of story motifs throughout, is a feat many writers never accomplish. She must have had one hell of a muse.
Boyd, Valerie. “She Was the Party.” About the Author. P.S. Insights, Interviews & More in Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, First Perennial Library edition, 2006.
Gates, Jr., Henry Louis. “Afterword” in Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, First Perennial Library edition, 1990.
Sexton, Adam. Master Class in Fiction Writing. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2006.