A Comparison of Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple
Of Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Alice Walker says "it speaks to me as no novel, past or present, has ever done." Though 45 years separate Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple, the two novels embody many similar concerns and methods. Hurston and Walker write of the experience of uneducated rural southern black women. They find a wisdom that can transform our communal relations and our spiritual lives. As Celie in The Color Purple says, referring to God: "If he ever listened to poor colored women the world would be a different place, I can tell you."
Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God depicts the process of a woman's coming to consciousness, finding her voice and developing the power to tell her story. This fresh and much-needed perspective was met with incomprehension by the male literary establishment. In his review in New Masses, Richard Wright said the novel lacked "a basic idea or theme that lends itself to significant interpretation." Hurston's dialogue, he said, "manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk mind in their pure simplicity, but that's as far as it goes. . . . . The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought." Many male reviewers and critics have reacted with similar hostility and incomprehension to The Color Purple. But to be blind to the definitions these and other women writers give to women's experience is to deny the validity of that experience.
For Hurston's heroine, Janie, self-discovery and self-definition consist of learning to recognize and trust her inner voice, while rejecting the formulations others try to impose upon her. Increasingly, she comes to validate "the kingdom of God within" and to refuse to be conformed to the world. Like the women in Walker's novels, Janie must find the ground of her being, a source of value and authority out of which to live. This problem is especially acute for black women, both writers seem to be saying, because the structures neither of society nor of formal religion provide this grounding. Janie finds it by being true to her own poetic, creative consciousness; in The Color Purple Walker's characters discover it through the strength and wisdom available in the community of women.
The ways of the world are represented for Janie by the views of her grandmother, Nanny and her first two husbands, Logan Killicks and Joe Starks. Nanny sees society as a hierarchy, with black women at the bottom. As she tells Janie,
Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tub find out. Maybe it's some place off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don't know nothin' but we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don't tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so far as Ah can...