Everything Human in Death

Zora Neal Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God makes liberal use of elements of African American cultural experience. But what is most striking about the novel is how it conforms to the language and structure of the blues. In fact, Adam Gussow uses Hurston’s novel as an example of the language of the blues. He states,

Anybody who has read Hurston’s Mules and Men and Their Eyes Were Watching God, anybody familiar with her evocations of Sop de Bottom, Big Sweet, and Tea Cake, knows how much boastful, playful, threatening, self-annunciating energy the language of blues people contains. (Gussow)

Maria Johnson also sees blues in Hurston’s novel. She states, “The name Tea Cake is itself a blues name which conveys in blues language the depth and intensity of the singer’s passion. The name suggests a sweet food delicacy in the same way that the common terms jellyroll and sugar do in the blues” (Johnson 402). But Hurston does more than simply use the blues to create a unique tone: she uses the language of the blues to explore difficult ideas through Call and response as well as a three part blues structure. Hurston uses the language and structure of the blues particularly well in her development of the difficult topic of death.

In Hurston’s blues exploration of death, she approaches the topic through both serious and mocking representations of death. Both the tactful and the tactless depictions of death come together in a conversation. In the blues context, this conversation is known as a call and response. Discussing the call and response aspect of the blues Gussow states, “Two things are calling back and forth to each other—reinforcing, versioning, outdoing, and/or signifying on each other. Each is dynamically adjusting itself to the other, so that each response in turn becomes a call that provokes further response” (Gussow). For Janie, the serious representation of death set out a call and the mocking representations answer the call in a way that at times cushions the blow.

One example of the connection between the serious and mocking representations of death is the call and response between Nany’s death and the funeral for Matt Bonner’s mule. Nanny’s death is met with little fanfare. In fact, her death is related in one simple line. The narrator says, “A month later she was dead” (Hurston 24.) While the character of Nanny only occupied a small part of the narrative, her character was vividly drawn and her impact on Janie’s life was great, her death was almost ignored. Nanny’s death being treated so lightly creates an unresolved tension that can be felt overshadowing Janie’s life at least until the funeral for Matt Bonner’s mule. The funeral for Matt Bonner’s mule as a response to the call from Nanny’s death shows the town gathering together to honor the life that in no way deserves such an honor. The absurdity of the idea that the town would get together to mourn the loss of a mule points a glaring and mocking finger at Nanny’s uncelebrated death. But the way that the town revels in the absurdity, rather than intensifying the unresolved tension around Nanny’s uncelebrated death, de-sanctifies the notion of a funeral. The narrator states, “On the swamp they made a great ceremony over the mule. They mocked everything human in death” (Hurston 60). In their mockery, the notion of having a funeral for the dead is shown to be an empty experience and the pain of not having Nanny’s death celebrated is lightened.

However there is more to the blues than simply the application of call and response. The blues has a particular construction that shows up in Hurston’s novel as well. According to Gussow, the blues follows an AAB verse form. The first line is stated. Then, the line is restated, often with embellishment. Finally, the third line of the verse moves the idea in another direction. Gussow states,

[I]t is almost as though what blues song does is try out a statement, one that proposes an emotional or stylistic orientation towards life’s bad news, then reprises or repeats that statement in a way that suggests either a possible variant on the initial stance or, by contrast, an intensification of the initial stance. The B line, in any case, puts a cap on it—or in it—and sends you hurtling into the next verse. (Gussow)

Hurston’s realistic depictions of the topic of death are clearly laid out in this AAB verse form.

If Nanny’s death is the A line, and Joe Stark’s death is the repetition of the A line with embellishment, Tea Cake’s death is the B line that ends the verse and hurtles the blues forward to the next verse. The simple depiction of Nanny’s death with its single line delivery is intensified and embellished in the depiction of Joe Starks’ death. Whereas Janie is absent at Nanny’s death and unable to find closure, Janie is able to bridge the distance between herself and Joe Starks, at least physically, before he dies. The narrator says, “[Janie] got up that morning with the firm determination to go on in there and have a good talk with Jody. […] Jody, no Joe, gave her a ferocious look. A look with all the unthinkable coldness of outer space. She must talk to a man who was ten immensities away” (Hurston 84). While Joe Starks is unreceptive to Janie’s search for closure at least she was able to voice the feelings she had been holding back.

Janie’s experience of Tea Cake’s death also involves the overcoming of distance; yet, the distance between Janie and Tea Cake is not one that had been purposefully created like the distance between her and Nanny and her and Joe Starks. Nanny creates the physical distance between her and Janie that stops them from being together when Nanny dis. However, Nanny orchestrates the distance in an effort to protect Janie. She has Janie wed Logan Killicks as a representation of her love for Janie. Janie’s marriage to Logan Killicks both protects Janie from the type of abuse that Nanny fears Janie might otherwise receive, and the marriage creates the distance that keeps Janie away at Nanny’s death. On the other hand, the distance between Janie and Joe Starks is caused by mounting resentment between the two. The distance between Tea Cake and Janie is something different. The distance between Tea Cake and Janie is a result of the random nature of life and death. The distance between Tea Cake and Janie is a result of the love that Tea Cake holds for Janie. The distance between Janie and Tea Cake is a result of the mental illness Tea Cake contracts when he fights off the rabid dog that threatens Janie’s life. The narrator states, “They fought and somehow [the dog] managed to bite Tea Cake high up on his cheek-bone once. Then Tea Cake finished him and sent him to the bottom to stay there” (Hurston 166). Tea Cake’s self-sacrificing love for Janie, in a random twist of fate, causes the distance between the two. And in a twist that could be straight out of blues song, Janie shoots her husband dead in order to protect their love.

It is this final death, the death of Tea Cake, that reveals the most memorable aspect of the blues: the idea that, despite all the worst that life can throw your way, life continues on. Or as Gussow states,

‘You’ll live through it’ […] Living through it, whatever ‘it’ was, couldn’t be taken for granted […]. It put things in perspective. It reframed them in a useful way. It didn’t say, ‘Things are easy.’ It said, ‘They’re bearable, compared with the worst-case scenario, and they’ll get easier by and by.’ (Gussow)

And Janie does “live through it.” Janie says, “Ah done been tuh de horizon and back now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons” (Hurston 191).








Work Cited

Gussow, Adam. “Blues Expressiveness and the Blues Ethos.” Center for the Study of Southern Culture, 24 Jan. 2018.

Hurston, Zora Neale, et al. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Distributed by Paw Prints/Baker & Taylor, 2010.

Johnson, Maria V. “‘The World in a Jug and the Stopper in (Her) Hand’: ‘Their Eyes’ as Blues Performance.” African American Review, no. 3, 1998, p. 401.

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