Volume III, Number 1, Spring 2007

"Transparent Space and the Production of the Female Body in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jonah’s Gourd Vine" by Péter Gaál Szabó

Péter Gaál Szabó is Assistant College Lecturer at the Department of Foreign Languages, Ferenc Kölcsey Reformed College, Debrecen. Email: dszabop@yahoo.com

In this paper, my focus centers on spatial settings to explore how the female body is produced in hegemonic masculine social space–in both its public and private spheres in Zora Neale Hurston’s Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s women are often positioned in the private–most prominently: kitchens, bedrooms, back porches, and back yards; and rarely in the public–where they are marginalized and alienated. These women are thus ascribed to inflexible places, where, under the male gaze, they become immobile. However, even if Hurston’s women appear in a seemingly free context–outside the home and masculine social space– and acquire a nomadic identity (to use Rosi Bradiotti’s coinage), their stance remains intelligible in the function of transparent space.

Oppressive space is transparent space (Rose 40) – a term I borrow from feminist geographers to refer to masculine social space that is viewed by these thinkers as public and hegemonic. In this social space the female body has a symbolic value. The female symbolic/metaphorical (Rose 58) body is conceptualized by Susan Bordo as the “intelligible body” that “includes [. . .] our cultural conceptions of the body,” such as norms (Unbearable Weight 181). This conception of the body conditions the implementation of positioning of women in transparent social space as “useful bodies” (181), or “docile bodies” in Foucauldian coinage. It is customary to speak, concerning such contexts, of the public/private divide; however, the latter realm cannot be regarded autonomous space, in other words, a place constructed by women; instead, it marks exclusion from public social space and the body politics of positioning as well as of the inscription of “normalcy” on the body.

Transparent space denotes in the literature masculine space, which is conceptualized as homogeneous and uncontested. It also represents the social construction of masculinity: on the one hand, it is seen as public (as opposed to private femininity), hegemonic, and heterosexual (see Hanson and Pratt); on the other, it internalizes in the male subject the connectedness of masculinity to such notions as the outside, the official, the rational, the elevated (Bourdieu 38), or the representative (56). Transparency refers to order, that is, control and domination, in the first place. Certainly, it has consequences for men as much it does for women. As Bourdieu points out, masculinity must be understood in terms of relationality as it is constructed within a male collectivity (with respect to other men) and in spite of women (62). This places the male subject in a social space, in which he is endowed with expectations both enabling and limiting. It is clear, thus, that transparency describes a regulatory (or intelligible in Bordo’s coinage) framework; but it cannot deny the multiplicity of masculinity as the example of Tea Cake in Their Eyes also proves. Judith Butler, too, criticizes the idea of a “universal patriarchy,” arguing for the diversity of cultural background in which it appears (“Subjects of Sex” 3), and Miklós Hadas calls attention to the deconstruction of hegemonic masculinity by insisting on its multiplicity (40). On the one hand, transparent space becomes an oppressive framework if it can handle inner disruptions. As Lefebvre insists, “Space assumes a regulatory role when and to the extent that contradictions–including contradictions of space itself–are resolved” (420). On the other hand, the assumed multiplicity of masculine space establishes that males can appear in oppressed positions in masculine social space as well as women, while, for the latter, marginalized positions are presupposed.

For Hurston’s women, too, transparent masculine space effects exclusion, surveillance, and situatedness in terms of work, time, and place (Bourdieu 17-18). The threefold stratification of work, time, and place differentiating the masculine and the feminine is connected through the praxis of ritual, which constitutes the discursive production of femininity in Hurston’s works. Typically, in transparent masculine social space of this socio-cultural space–as established by Hurston–women are placed in the private sphere of social space, or else they appear in a marginalized position in masculine (public) places. Both types of enclosed places detectable in these works present women in an environment in which they are socialized into gender through “the repeated stylization of the body” (“Subjects of Sex” 33) under the regulatory male gaze.

The comparison between Janie’s conception of Killicks’s house exemplifies well what enclosed places mean for Hurston’s women. This is valid despite the fact that only scarce number of objects describe the spatial setting of Killicks’s lower class house–as opposed, for example, to Jodie Starks’s big white house belonging to the middle class. In the case of the former, the location of the place and the discursive maneuver of positioning the female body, which also lacks supportive props–the subjective rendering of objects– are indicative of the nature of place.

In Nanny’s materialistic understanding–a prime example of how power produces knowledge and how it generates a subject position in masculine social space–to be situated in a man’s house implies protection in a hostile masculine world, in which women, nevertheless, “uh pullin’ and uh haulin’ and sweatin’ and doin’ from can’t see in de mornin’ till can’t see at night” (22). Despite Nanny’s intentions, her remark points to a disruption in her argument: the time span in this reference establishes a correlate between time and social space in that privacy for women is excluded from the latter entirely by the overwhelming presence of social space, in which gendered job roles are advocated. In Nanny’s view, security, or rather, social acceptance in masculine transparent space is obtained for Janie through the integration in gendered places such as Killicks’s house. This becomes palpable in her narrative, when she explains the importance of marriage to Janie: “De thought uh you bein’ kicked around from pillar tuh post is a hurtin’ thing” (15); and then: “Ah can’t die easy thinkin’ maybe de menfolks white or black is makin’ a spit cup outa you” (19). Indeed, Nanny views the home as the site of initiation into womanhood, but that can, in fact, be equated with entering the (reproductive) labor market of the household. Initiation refers here to discipline and the sense of integration signifies the production of knowledge that is, for example, revealed in “the internalized patriarchal standard” (Bartky 77) of accepting marital abuse. This becomes palpable when Janie asks Nanny for advice a short time after the wedding: “Lawd, Ah know dat grass-gut, liver-lipted nigger ain’t done took and beat mah baby already!” (21), (emphasis added).

In Jonah’s, the harsh social environment of the working class places John’s mother, Amy, in a similar position to Nanny and Janie at this point. Hurston conceptualizes this character, too, restricted to the household. However, Amy’s position is different from theirs in that she is surrounded by the protecting shield of her sons against their stepfather, Ned. In a scene, for example, when Ned whips and beats Amy, she “wheel[s] to fight” (8), and John comes to her aid. In this sense, her status is ambiguous in masculine transparent space: while she is located in the private sphere of social space exposed to the violence of her husband and her existence can well be characterized by immobility, whereby the “local labor market” makes her oscillate between house and field, she is granted a well-established, empowering space as a mother, and also a voice in protection for her sons. The legitimation of Amy’s position in the house becomes ostentatious before the fighting, when “[t]he clash and frenzy in the air was almost visible” (7), precipitating the divisions between the opposing parties in the social space of the home; importantly, “Ned stood up and shuffled toward the door” (7), whereby he unknowingly accepts that “the house is women’s spatial domain” (Pellow 162). Despite Amy’s firm identification with the house, which means security, but also it imposes on her limiting anchorage (which is why she cannot leave with his son) and reveals thus a socially constructed identity, which is void of self-fulfillment. The description of the place echoes Nanny’s life in Their Eyes, when Amy, after saying good-bye to his son in the open, where “For a minute she had felt free and flighty” (12), she returned to the house “across the barren hard clay yard” (12). The barrenness of the working class female life parallels Nanny’s barren tree-like statue.

Both Amy’s and Nanny’s narratives prove the presence of the knowledge-producing mechanism of masculine and racial power, but this mechanism also leaves its imprints on their body. As Foucault claims, “the social body is the effect [. . .] of the materiality of power operating on the very bodies of individuals” (“Body/Power” 55). Power can be pinpointed in the materiality of the subject (“Jelentős testek” 544)–in its physicality and positionality, as well as in the politics of mobility (Law 583). This refers, importantly, to the discourse of the body; but, as Butler argues, places have materiality, too, inasmuch they are instruments and vehicles of power, that is, they are endowed with power (544). More precisely, “The whole of (social) space proceeds from the body, even though it so metamorphoses the body that it may forget it altogether–even though it may separate itself so radically from the body as to kill it” (Lefebvre 405). Spatial discourses involve, therefore, the interrelation of both body, itself “concreteness and concrete (and limiting) _location_” (Twilight Zones 185), and space.

In Nanny’s case, the home has the function of mediating the discursive acts of regulating the body. The two times, when Janie is imparted a lecture at this stage, happen in Nanny’s bedroom and in Mrs. Washburn’s kitchen, with Nanny preparing biscuits. At these places Janie is socialized into the acceptance of her gender roles by Nanny’s narrative. It happens within houses and, interestingly, is conducted by a woman, which proves how gender has grown to “congeal over time to produce the appearance of substance of a natural sort of being” (“Subjects of Sex” 33) in women for it to become self-perpetuating. As it is narrated: “she [i.e., Janie] extended herself outside of her dream and went inside the house. That was the end of her childhood” (12). Nanny and the spatial discourse of the places associated with her fulfill power-related functions to incorporate Janie into the masculine order. This is established by how the spatial anchorage of Janie’s vision outside the built environment forms a contrast with Nanny’s house, which heightens Nanny’s malfunction as a “spiritual mentor” or “spiritual mother” (Johnson 29), and renders Nanny’s house a socio-spatial fixation, and her sense of place akin to Killicks’s place.

Contrary to Janie’s expectations (“Ah wants things sweet wid mah marriage lak when you sit under a pear tree and think”[ 23]), her marriage to Logan Killicks turns out to be a material treatise, an undesired job with clearly defined gender roles emplaced in definite spheres of the house. Initially, Janie finds there not sweetness, but a “lonesome place like a stump in the middle of the woods where nobody had ever been” (20), a house “absent of flavor” (21). The strong contrast between the metaphors of a stump defocalized by the immensity of the woods and the trope of the visionary blossoming pear tree which centers place around itself heightens the sense of Janie’s alienation. Establishing a nature/culture binary, Michael Awkward draws a parallel between Genesis and Janie’s “natural education” in the “ahistorical backyard,” where Janie is presented as a “prelapsarian, precultural human being” (19) and a prophetess. Conversely, Killicks’s house proves to be a place of incarceration here, too, as she experiences it at Nanny’s. It crowds in on her. Nevertheless, accepting temporarily the gender roles signified by the framework of the kitchen, Janie still maintains her vision and tries to find validation of her dream revelation under the pear tree, but to no avail.

Lucy in Jonah’s has an even narrower life space in Alabama. She is locked into the cycle of reproduction that literally ties her to bed. Her physical enslavement as a breeder is also symbolically reified, since they received the wedding bed from Alf Pearson, the white (slave) owner of the place. The bed thus symbolizes the continuation of antebellum slavery in the case of free black women and frameworks “normative expectations of the gendered body” (Park 213). She is always presented in bed in her marriage both in Alabama and in Eatonville, Florida, too, where she reaches a middle class status on the side of her husband. The metaphor of the bed marks disability and social marginalization that really becomes powerful in contrast with the promiscuous behavior of John, who is seldom presented in the home, but whose figure is connected to superior physical power and agency. Lucy’s deprivation reaches its heights when her brother, Bud, takes away her wedding bed, on which she has depended despite its regulatory character: “Lucy was crumpled in a little dark ball in the centre of the deep mound of feathers” (91). The contrast between her broken stature and the nest-like image parallels the demolition of Janie’s vision.

Much as Eatonville is presented as the setting of possible social upheaval in both novels for men and for their women, the constraint of class only adds to a sharpened maintenance of gender differences and the representation of gender remains also inscribed in places. Starks and, as a satellite entity, Janie stand on “high ground,” which fulfills Nanny’s expectations for Janie to be established in the middle class. Hemenway points out that the vertical metaphor of “high” Nanny uses and which is also induced by Starks proves how the notion of classism institutionalized by whites in blacks is misleading in Hurston’s African American community (237). However, Orvar Löfgren’s argument concerning the differences between working and middle class home-making does not pertain to a mostly agrarian black community setting, even if the fundamental conceptions of men as “homo economicus” and of women as “femina domestica” (147) are identical. Whereas home for men is a “place of retreat and rest” (146), Hurston shows that middle class women remain captive to working class gender conceptions. So, for example, Starks, relying on an ambiguous class argument, forbids Janie to make speeches on the porch on story-telling occasions because, as “uh big woman” (43), she is supposed to class off: “Ah can’t see what uh woman uh yo’ stability would want tuh be treasurin’ all dat gum-grease from folks dat don’t even own de house dey sleep in” (51). This view of the female body reflects white Christian concepts of mythologized female morality Starks has absorbed from Southern (aristocratic) plantation culture, but it functions more like an ideological weapon in his hand to exhibit class power by being chivalric and protective, yet, in fact, demonstrating control over Janie. Women in Hurston’s masculine world are ascribed a materialistic and domestic (labor), as well as a symbolic function, but they do not fulfill the symbolic function of intimacy and homeliness (Löfgren 147-8) that marks middle class female roles of the time at least on an ideological level.

Similarly to Janie’s regulation via spatial tactics–i.e., through place and her body–and through language, Lucy is subjected to the same tactics of power including the constraint of class. The change in Lucy’s class position in Eatonville does not change her positionality, either–she remains tied to the domestic sphere, and, most of all, to the bedroom. Separated from her family in Alabama–although also separated from a directly white environment–her social isolation and subjection become even more visible as she never enters the all important porch of the store–the primary form of masculine public space in Eatonville. When, for example, an innocent joke is made on the porch that Lucy might leave the otherwise unfaithful John, he goes home, takes his Winchester into the bedroom, and threatens Lucy that “Ahm de first wid you, and Ah mean tuh be de last [. . .] if you ever start out de door tuh leave me, you’ll never make it tuh de gate” (110-1). John proves his dominance over Lucy’s small, frail body, but this act does not only serve the purpose of discipline, but it verifies for John his masculinity both before himself and within the male community. As it is narrated, “he held Lucy tightly and thought pityingly of other men” (111). Throughout the novel Lucy remains locked in this position, in the shadow of her husband, and seems to have less mobility and even less voice than Janie in Their Eyes.

As mentioned above, beyond the construction of masculinity in opposition to femininity, the relational aspect of masculine space requires the validation of masculinity before other males. So in interpreting Addison Gayle, Jr’s argument that “the black man’s route to manhood lay in the exploitation of black women” (39), it becomes conspicuous that this does not only refer to labour or marital abuse, but to games directed at defeat and precedence regarding both men and women (Hadas 34). Typically, when people gather on the porch, Starks finds a way to send Janie in the store–an act he takes pleasure in (51)–, disregarding Janie’s preferences in order to demonstrate both a higher class and his status as a male before other males. The negotiation of masculine identity is conducted foremost in public spaces in concert with other males.

In Eatonville the discursive production of femininity appears spatially, in the first place, in both novels, through place and the structuring of place; even when the docilicization of the female body evolves often through the performativity of language. In fact, language occupies a significant role in Janie’s Eatonville experience, but language and space complement each other. In Janie’s case, they form two conspicuous functions of regulation. Language (or speech) is both situated in space (and often time)–e.g., as in the case of evening porch talks– and it is the constitutive element of the Eatonville socio-cultural space. It emplaces Janie in masculine social space, and place provides for the maintenance of this position. Furthermore, in Eatonville agency is assigned to language (voice), and, in this sense, language constructs place. Joe Starks speaks Eatonville, the initially “scant dozen of shame-faced houses” (32), into being by voicing his vision. His porch remains the “meetin’ place fuh de town” (38), the centre of Eatonville, where story telling, “playin’ the dozens,” and so on prove to be the centripetal forces in the community.

The contrast between speech and silence codifies social hierarchy, which is paralleled by the contrast of visibility and invisibility–the public/private divide. This accompanies Janie’s mode of dwelling throughout this stage of her development. Already at the beginning of their stay in Eatonville, Starks is presented directly on the porch talking to men, while Janie “could be seen through the bedroom window getting settled” (34). Janie is shown alone isolated and muted in closed place secondary to the open space of the porch. Her fixation in space through language becomes a constant practice of Starks’s. This becomes obvious, when Tony Taylor asks Janie to articulate some words on the occasion of opening the new store. Starks does not allow her to speak up publicly: “mah wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home” (40-41).

The porch functions indeed as “a public alternative to the court” (Joseph 467). However, the democratic nature of the porch is questioned. As both Lucy’s case, who does not appear on the porch at all, and that of Janie, who is marginalized on the porch, women cannot negotiate an identity there; i.e., only gendered identities are interpolated in objectified positions. Janie is thus muted on the porch, and other women are the objects of verbal games such as mock courtships. Furthermore, the porch is also the place, where femininity is verbally constituted in public for Janie. Conversely, one of the few places in both novels, where women can break away from black masculine social pace, is the court– a dispositif (Deleuze 159) that, interestingly, denotes a regulatory interface with white space. From a feminine perspective, Hurston empowers, quite strikingly, her female characters in such settings. They become heroines like Lucy, who “thrust[s] her frailty between [John] and trouble” (165). The white court becomes a setting, where black males depend, interestingly, on their women for voice.

Besides the images of the porch and the court that prove to be a powerful metaphor in both Hurston’s major fictional works, where they emerge at decisive moments of the narratives, in the everyday lives of Hurston’s female protagonists two metaphors haunt in enclosed spaces. The veil shows how the body/mind as minimal space serves as the “space-off” (De Lauretis 26), where women can achieve relative autonomy. The metaphor of the veil establishes a dialectics of social space rendering the latter, in fact, contested and heterogeneous. As Teresa De Lauretis expresses,

The movement in and out of gender [. . .] is a movement between the (represented) discursive space of the positions available by hegemonic discourses and the space-off, the elsewhere, of those discourses: those other spaces both discursive and social that exist [. . .] in the margins [. . .]. These two kinds of spaces [. . .] coexist concurrently and in contradiction. The movement between them [. . .] is the tension of contradiction, multiplicity, and heteronomy. (26)

The veil symbolizes the innermost boundary of the self, which enables Hurston’s female protagonists to construct their own places in the physical environment such as the backyard, the house, or even on the porch in and out of social space.

The other metaphor is the spatial metaphor of contrast of the (“big”) road, which serves as an important trope for Hurston to define the location of enclosed places. It heightens the contrast between women’s situatedness and the seeming unboundedness of the other-than-private sphere. Houses–more importantly porches–are built on roads (usually on the main road of the settlement), where public and communal events take place. So in Eatonville every evening “was the time for sitting on porches beside the road” (1) that, otherwise, create a genuine cultural space. Furthermore, houses built on the main road mean also status in the community. Nanny, for example, tries to convince Janie to marry Logan Killicks by arguing that he “Got a house bought and paid for and sixty acres uh land right on de big road [. . .]! Dat’s de very prong all us black women gits hung on” (22). For Hurston’s important women the big road has thus a dual role. On the one hand, it embodies masculine social space marked by mobility as well as agency, where only men appear in the books; and as a contrast it refers back to female rootedness in closed place. More specifically, the big road, too, for women, depicts limited social mobility and marginalization in gendered space. On the other, the roads, beyond representing a mere token of possible escape, metaphorize the horizon for these women. It is reported of Janie that “she began to stand around the gate and expect things” (23) at Killicks’s place, and remaining inside the fence “she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off” (24). The equation of the roads with expectations becomes more concrete when Janie leaves Killicks and finds that “[t]he morning road air was like a new dress” (31). This sensuous description of Janie’s renewed hopes shows her outside lived environment in a space-off and her identification with nature, or rather wilderness in African American terminology, the anti-picture of social space.

Hurston’s conceptualization of transparent, oppressive space represents masculine domination “by defining a particular intersection between a spatial order and a system of surveillance” (Wigley 332) through the positioning of the female body in space and time, as well as through praxis, i.e., ritual and work–both for men empowering them and for women assigning gender roles to them. For Hurston’s women regardless of their class status, this limiting, enclosed context materializes via private, domestic places, the familial context, in which transparent space is realized through the domineering presence of the masculine body and through masculine spatial ordering inclusive of the female body; and via public places, where female identity is constituted as the result of the concerted action (verbal and ritual) of the masculine community in social space.

Works Cited

  • Awkward, Michael. Inspiring Influences. New York: Columbia UP: 1989.
  • Bartky, Sandra Lee. “Foucault, Femininity, and the Modernization of Patriarchal Power.” Feminism and Foucault: Reflections on Resistance. Ed. Irene Diamond and Lee Quinby. Boston: Northeastern UP, 1988. 61-86.
  • Bordo, Susan. Twilight Zone: The Hidden Life of Cultural Images from Plato to O. J. Berkely: U of Californua P, 1997.
—-. Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body. Berkeley: U of California P, 1993.
  • Bourdieu, Pierre. Férfiuralom. (La Domination Masculline.) Budapest: Napvilág, 2000.
  • Bradiotti, Rosi. “Introduction: By Way of Nomadism.” Nomadic Subjects: Embodiment and Sexual Difference in Contemporary Feminist Theory. New York: Columbia UP. 1994. 1-40.
  • Butler, Judith. “Subjects of Sex/Gender/Desire.” Gender Trouble. London: Routledge, 1990. 1-34.
  • —-. “Jelentős testek.” A posztmodern irodalomtudomány kialakulása: A posztstrukturalizmustól a posztkolonialitásig. Ed. Antal Bókay et al. Budapest: Osiris, 2002. 538-60.
  • De Lauretis, Teresa. “The Technology of Gender.” Technologies of Gender: Essays on Theory, Film, and Fiction. Houndmills: MacMillan, 1987. 1-30.
  • Deleuze, Gilles. “What is a Dispositif?” Michel Foucault Philosopher. Trans. Timothy J. Armstrong. New York: Harvester, 1992. 159-69.
  • Foucault “Body/Power” Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon, 1980.
  • Gayle, Addison Jr. “The Outsider.” Zora Neale Hurston. Ed. Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House, 1986. 35-46.
  • Hadas, Miklós. A modern férfi születése. Budapest: Helikon, 2003.
  • Hanson, Susan, and Geraldine Pratt. Gender, Work, and Space. London: Routledge, 1995.
  • Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: U of Illinois P, 1976.
  • Hurston, Zora Neale. Jonah’s Gourd Vine. New York: Harper, 1990.
  • —-. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper, 1990.
  • Johnson, Alonzo. “Pray’s House Spirit: The Institutional Structure and Spiritual Core of an African American Folk Tradition.” “Ain’t Gonna Lay My ’Ligion Down:” African American Religion in The South. Ed. Alonzo Johnson and Paul Jersild. Columbia: U of South Carolina P, 1996. 8-39.
  • Joseph, Philip. “The Verdict from the Porch: Zora Neale Hurston and Reparative Justice.” American Literature 74.3 (2002): 455-83.
  • Law, Robin. “Beyond ‘Women and Transport’: Towards New Geographies of Gender and Daily Mobility.” Progress in Human Geography 23.4 (1999): 567-88.
  • Lefebvre, Henri. The Production of Space. Oxford: Blackwell, 1991.
  • Löfgren, Orvar. “The Sweetness of Home: Class, Culture and Family Life in Sweden.” The Anthropology of Space and Place: Locating Culture. Ed. Setha M. Low and Denise Lawrence-Zúňiga. Malden: Blackwell, 2003. 142-60.
  • Park, Deborah C. “Disability Studies in Human Geography.” Progress in Human Geography 22.2 (1998): 208-33.
  • Pellow, Deborah. “The Architecture of Female Seclusion in West Africa.” Low, Anthropology 160-85.
  • Rose, Gillian. Feminism and Geography: The Limits of Geographical Knowledge. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993.
  • Wigley, Mark. “Untitled: The Housing of Gender.” Sexuality and Space. Ed. Beatriz Colomina. New York: Princeton Architectural P, 1992. 327-89.