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“The Role of Myth in Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Myth-in-TEWWG-1k9y5m6“The Role of Myth in Their Eyes Were Watching God”
By Cyrena Pondrum
Contradictions in How the Novel Has Been Viewed
• Praised for expressing the “genius of black folklore”; denounced for presenting blacks as folkloric stereotypes
• Criticized as an “apologia” for traditional sex roles; praised as one of the earliest black feminist novels
• Analyzed as a quest for self- fulfillment and self-identity; but read as well as a novel about the need for love
• Both defended and condemned as a novel that expresses its protest against white injustice only by affirming the creative power of black folk life.
Myth • Surprisingly, before this article,
critics didn’t pay attention to “an extraordinarily important feature of Hurston’s novel”: how it replicates ancient myth.
• Specifically, it replicates mythology that involves “a questing, regenerative lover/wife/sister/mother and a dead and resurrected god whose ritual relationship interprets the seasonal destruction of plants by both harvest and winter, the setting of the sun, and the death of human beings.”
Hurston’s Background Makes a
Mythological Reading Plausible • Plato and Persephone
reading in elementary school (recounted in Dust Tracks)
• Studies with Franz Boas while in New York
• Began studying anthropology only 10 years after the publication of the last volume of Sir James Frazer’s The Golden Bough.
• Same period as well of J.A. MacCulloch’s 13-volume The Mythology of All Races
Modernists and Myth
• This interest in myth connects Hurston to other modernists
• T.S. Eliot and the “mythic method”—myth as a way of controlling chaotic modern world
• Also, Yeats, Joyce, Pound, Crane, H.D., Woolf, Stein, etc.
Ishtar and Tammuz (Babylonian Myth)
Ishtar is a Babylonian goddess of dual character, associated with both love and war. She was thought to treat her lovers harshly, never remaining permanently faithful. The most important myth associated with Ishtar concerns her love for Tammuz, a young fertility god. In a way the myth leaves unclear, her love for him somehow causes his death. She grieves for him ceaselessly, and her grief is symbolized by the summer sun drying the vegetation. She descends into the underworld to retrieve him, and she is imprisoned there. At last Ea, god of water and wisdom, sends a creature armed with magic spells against the queen of the underworld. Her rescuer pours over her the water of life, after which she returns to earth, bringing Tammuz with her.
Aphrodite and Adonis
(Greek Myth) Adonis is a lovely boy born to Myrrha when she is inspired with a passion for her father as punishment for scorning Aphrodite (goddess of love). Aphrodite, who loves the boy, gives him to Persephone (goddess of the underworld) for safe-keeping, and Persephone refuses to give him back. When Zeus’ mediation is sought, he assigns Adonis one-third time to each woman, and permits him to spend the remaining time as he will. Adonis chooses to spend the time with Aphrodite rather than in the underworld. His period of time with Persephone thus closely coincides with the months in which the winter leaves the earth without vegetation. (In a variant of this tale, Adonis is killed by a boar sent by Aphrodite’s jealous lover, and Aphrodite’s grief is so great that the gods permit Adonis to spend six months of each year on earth).
Isis and Osiris (Egyptian Myth)
Isis is the sister/wife who loves her brother/husband Osiris, the sun god, by whom she conceives Horus. Before their son can be born, Osiris is slain by the forces of evil and his body set afloat in a box. Isis seeks her beloved and, finding his body, partially revives him. He is discovered again by his adversary (his evil brother Set), and this time his body is torn apart. Isis finds and reassembles the pieces, and Osiris lives again as judge of the dead. Horus revenges his father and replaces him as the sun god. In its bare outlines, Osiris, the sun, is overcome by Set, the night; he is resurrected by Isis, the eastern sun at dawn, who gives birth to Horus, son of the new day.
Their Eyes • Our first indication we’re in the
mythic world is the beginning of the novel—it opens on the general and universal level
• Mythic cycle of death and resurrection implied: “In the beginning” echoes Genesis, but this beginning follows the burying of the dead
• Key imagery of the horizon repeated at the end
• Jamie presented as Ur-female figure. For another 3 pages she remains simply “the woman”
• Like Ishtar, she has harrowed Hell and escaped to tell the tale
Narrative Voice • Narrator switches from Janie herself to an
omniscient narrative voice • This implied narrator is “a person of folk wisdom
and rich black experience who is able to represent the minds and speech of Pheoby, Janie, Nanny, and the old buzzard Parson in turn, integrating all into a vision of experience that is finally mythic”
• This voice moves outside of Janie’s limited point of view
Natural Imagery • The blooming pear tree is a
powerful symbol of female fertility
• Mythic tone re-enters the novel periodically
• Example: “So Janie waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time . . .” (23)
• Example: “She knew things that nobody had ever told her. For instance, the words of the trees and the wind. She often spoke to the falling seeds” (24)
• She knows that “God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up” (24)
Janie as Ishtar • Like Ishtar, Janie discards
her consorts when they fail her
• When she leaves Logan Killicks, she doesn’t show pity, fear, loyalty, or guilt
• She’s outside normal social boundaries: the question of her current marriage never comes up when she marries Joe before sundown
Joe Starks • “A cutting satire on white ‘go-
getters’ who become wealthy on their own initiative and salesmanship and treat their wives as the paramount emblem of their status and potency”
• Cruelty to Joe on his deathbed also like Ishtar, and characteristic of myth (81-82)
• In myth, like in the novel, human error has consequences; people don’t necessarily “deserve” the calamity which befalls them
Tea Cake • When Hurston introduces
Tea Cake, she is at pains to make him the appropriate mythic consort of the great female goddess and an analogue of the dying and resurrected god
• All 3 myths (Ishtar, Aphrodite, Isis) are tales of love between an older woman and a younger man.
• Osiris is explicitly 28; Janie is nearly 40, Tea Cake is 12 years younger
Tea Cake (cont.) • 93: Tea Cake’s name is
Vergible Woods (verdant woods?); recalls Adonis’s birth out of myrrh tree
• 101: He could be a bee to her blossom
• 102: Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.
• 103: She lets Tea Cake out the window to mount to the sky. Without Tea Cake, there is no sun.
Yet, the Relationship Cannot Last • Like the mythic relationships, the
love between Janie and Tea Cake must follow the cycle of birth and death
• 169: “ Tea Cake, the son of the Evening Sun, had to die for loving her”
• At the mythic level, it’s necessary that the sun must set in order to rise again
• The Great Mother/Lover, herself eternal, secures the endless renewal of the earth by seeking again each year a lover who is young and strong
• So, she’s partly responsible for his death, but still loves him and calls him back again each year
On the Muck • Tea Cake goes wrong when
he trusts the white bosses; he stays in order to make more money (p. 150)
• Also, jealousy: Tea Cake does not trust the attractiveness of his own blackness and believes that a man who looks white will take Janie from him (Mrs. Turner’s brother)
• Giving up on his own blackness is “madness” indeed, acc. to Pondrum
Rebirth • The novel’s end suggests the
capacity of Ishtar/Janie to restore to life even the lover whose death she has caused
• She plants seeds in remembrance of Tea Cake
• He lives in her memories: “Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was . . . Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn’t dead” (183).
• “He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking”
Conclusion • Mythic pattern offers a means by which real-life suffering
can be accepted; it also connects us to others • Hurston’s teacher Boas (and comparative mythology in
general) taught that humans were pretty much the same through time: we ask the same questions, and the answers we give have the same fundamental structures