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Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston

Chapters 15–16

Summary Chapters 15–16

The narrator’s meditation on Mrs. Turner’s racism also occasions stylistic variation. When describing ordinary events, the narrator often employs language that resonates with the dialect of the novel’s characters. The Chapter 16 sentence, “That is why she sought out Janie to friend with,” for example, turns the noun “friend” into a verb and ends with a preposition, violating a convention of Standard Written English. Indeed, the narrator sounds like an educated Janie. This subtle incorporation of black dialect into the narrator’s voice integrates the dialogue and narration into a workable whole: the narration and dialogue do use very different styles, but one can hear the echo of the dialogue in the narration, and this echo helps to glue the two styles together. In the discussion of Mrs. Turner’s racism, however, the narrator’s voice loses the folksy tone and flies off into omniscient, high poetry. Here, Hurston indulges her command of pithy, almost biblical language: “That was the mystery and mysteries are the chores of gods.” The display is impressive, but the stronger the language becomes, the greater the strain between it and the narrator’s other voice, which uses nouns as verbs and illustrates with barnyard metaphors. Their Eyes Were Watching God is framed as Janie’s telling of a story, but words in the text like “insensate,” “seraph,” and “fanaticism” seem to resist such a context. These words and the poetic passages in which they occur do not sound like they were filtered through Janie’s personality. The narration itself has two different styles. This difference is problematic if we expect the narrator to maintain one style. On the other hand, the novel self-consciously deals with the control of language and transgression of convention. Rigorous adherence to one style of narration may be as legitimate a target for transgression as traditional gender roles.