Adventures in Cultural Consumption:

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston:
Let's say the problem is this: the average person on whom privilege is conferred will be unaware of the scope of that privilege; the capacity to regard his situation as normal defines it. That person will require education if they are to recognize this most basic of facts, and nothing educates quite like good literature. It's even better if the literature they encounter is not only didactic--written for the privileged audience--but transcends this, and is simply excellent. In this context, excellence allows the privileged reader to see how other people live without making the point of the book demonstrating this to the otherwise-ignorant. The challenge for the privileged reader is then to not make the book simply about their own dawning awareness.

Their Eyes Were Watching God has this problem, no less than Invisible Man, whose conclusion is hard-won through the construction of the narrative but easily reduced to a slogan, if that's what one wants to do. It's a book that looks at the world through female eyes, but has the grace and warmth and acuity of perception to not be only that. In pacing, plotting, and construction, it is a model of balance: the lyrical voice can be sweet but not treacly, the dialects a good contrast not overdone. In all respects a perfectly executed book.

And, yes, useful, for the things it allows women to say about themselves and, in particular, to let them look the way at least some of them look. The novel is full of the female gaze, and double useful for it: an authentic expression of one way of looking at the world, which becomes useful because it dispels illusions about how women look at the world. It's not hard to notice that when Tea Cake is introduced as a character, there are certain things about him that are very important (i.e. talking to her like she's a human being, and not an object requiring special care) and others which are not. If you're prepared to listen, it will tell you a lot.

No comments: