Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), by Nora Neale Hurston

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July 1, 2008


First published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Nora Neale Hurston typifies a bildungsroman novel (a coming-of-age novel of one’s early years which explores the development of the character). Appropriately, this literature is often called Black literature because the text deals with Black culture. The story concentrates on the protagonist Janie Crawford (a beautiful, middle-aged, self-assured Black woman) and her three husbands: Logan Killicks, Jody Sparks, and Tea Cake. The setting of the story takes place in rural Florida, roughly in the 1930s.

The story begins with a fairly young and stunning Black woman returning to Eatonville, Florida after being gone for a long length of time. Janie Crawford, somewhere in her 30s or early 40s, walks into town with filthy overalls (something the women take satisfaction in); the local residents know her and they all take notice as she strides her way home. The men gawk and admire her beauty, gaping at her gorgeous physique, while the women gaze with contempt. Obviously jealous and bitter, the women on the porch begin to bad-mouth and gossip about her after she enters her residence, speculating that her younger man left her after using all of her money.

Because Janie does not stop and talk to them when she returns, they take offense and depict her mannerism as rude and standoffish. What makes the women more resentful (and envious) is her physical beauty – especially her long, straight hair. As the women continue to take joy in berating her, Pheoby Watson – Janie’s best friend – sticks up for Janie and criticizes the women for their mean-spirited comments. She excuses her presence and heads to Janie’s home, bringing with her a platter of food for Janie.

Pheoby reveals the gossiping speculations of the women, which Janie finds humorous. As they converse, Janie tells her that she has returned without Tea Cake because he is gone – but not gone in the way that the women on the porch speculate. Pheoby does not grasp what she means, so Janie agrees to explain it to her. This is where Janie’s story begins as she recounts it to Pheoby; however, Janie is not the primary narrator but does serve as a narrator. Tea Cake, in fact, appears at midpoint to the latter. Moreover, the novel begins at the end of the story.

Janie’s first husband comes by way of her grandmother, a grandmother (Nanny) that plays mother and father since birth, because her parents were absent. When Janie turns sixteen, she takes pleasure in the fruitful springtime by sitting under a blossoming pear tree. At such young age, Janie begins to show her sexuality and kisses a local boy named Johnny Taylor, which gets her in trouble with her grandmother. Nanny witnesses her behavior and decides to marry her off to a much older man named Logan Killicks who she does not know. Janie obviously disagrees with her grandmother and says she does not want to marry. However, Nanny assures her that marrying Logan, an affluent middle-aged farmer, will bring security before she dies.

Janie gripes and begs, “Please don’t make me marry Mr. Killicks,” but her grandmother tells her it’s for her own good. Still dissatisfied, Nanny tries to convince her by recounting her difficulties in the past. Born into slavery, Nanny had a painful upbringing and was raped by her master; this rape produced a child named Leafy (Janie’s mother who she never meets). When the master’s wife realized that Leafy had gray eyes and straight hair, she knew her husband fathered Leafy. Angered with what she knew, she planned to sell off Leafy and have Nanny violently whipped, but Nanny escaped into the swamps with her child before such malicious act was carried out.

Thereafter, Nanny found work with the Washburns, her employers after she became a free woman. Nanny envisioned a better life for her daughter Leafy, but all hopes were shattered when Leafy, at the age of 17, was raped by her schoolteacher – a rape that brought Janie into the world. After her rape, Leafy’s behavior soured: She stayed out all night and intoxicated herself with liquor. In due course, Leafy ran away, leaving her daughter Janie with her mother.

With Nanny’s convincingness and retelling her past experiences, Janie makes comfort with her grandmother’s viewpoint of marriage, even though she says she could never see herself loving Logan. Nanny argues that love will come after marriage. Since old folks know the best, Janie takes the advice to heart. Subsequently, she marries Logan in Nanny’s parlor. The marriage is huge and jovial, but the marriage is not. Two months later, Janie visits her grandmother and says she does not love Logan and finds him ugly. Nanny scolds her and claims she is unappreciative of his wealth and status. Moreover, she tells Janie to hang in there and love will eventually come. Sadly, Nanny dies a month later.

Within a year of the marriage, Janie still has no love for Logan. The marriage is practically nonexistent and Janie’s happiness is absent. Logan wants Janie to partake in manual labor, so he leaves to purchase a mule for her to work in the farm. While he is gone, Janie sees a stranger, well-dressed and attractive, strolling down the road. His name is Joe Sparks, and he catches Janie’s attention immediately. She flirts with him and finds out that he comes from Georgia, and has grand plans to build and run a new town in Florida. She learns about his great ambitions and finds him interesting (especially his eloquence and objectives), unlike her husband.

Besides having no attraction to Logan whatsoever, Janie’s feeling for another man should raise no question, because her husband represents an uncaring and nasty man. He is simply rude and represents an authoritarian: formulating rules in which she has to comply with. Whenever he needs her aid, she has to be there to assist him quickly. When he talks, she has to listen and do what he utters accordingly. Logan’s disrespect is evident when he wants Janie, a woman, to carry chopped wood into the house.

His words are as follows: “If I can haul the wood here and chop it for you, look like you ought to be able to tow it inside.” He continues with his outlandish comment: “My first wife never bothered me about chopping no wood no how; she’d grab that ax and sling like a man. You done been spoiled rotten.”

Shortly after that altercation, the disrespect of Janie continues when he calls her from outside to help move a pile of manure. This call for help takes place when Janie is in the kitchen, cooking and preparing him a meal. But to Logan, it does not matter and he makes that very clear: “You don’t take a bit of interest in dis place. ’Tain’t no use in foolin’ round in dat kitchen all day long.” This clearly shows the sign of an inconsiderate soul. After his cries for help, she replies: “You don’t need mah help out dere, Logan. Youse in yo’ place and I’m in mine.” She could not have said that any better, but he has a comeback and thinks otherwise: “You ain’t got no particular place. It’s wherever Ah need yuh” (31).

Janie and Logan fight constantly and every day, so she finds comfort and happiness with Joe Starks. As Joe gets familiar to his new surroundings, he and Janie converge secretly each and every day; they become so close that he informs her to call him Jody. He takes her breath away and impresses her with his grandiose dreams. With Jody, her dream for real love blossoms. After two weeks of secret romance, Jody asks Janie to leave her husband and become his wife.

That same night, Janie and Logan carry out their normal relationship through argument. He belittles and slurs her for not helping him with the farm work, and Janie fires back. Obviously tired of the constant arguments, Janie threatens him by saying she will run away. Morning arrives and the argument continues about working in the farm. As expected, Janie’s threat of leaving him becomes a reality, going to her new man Jody, meeting in a prearranged time and place. Janie and Jody quickly get married before sundown and embark on their journey to the new town.

When they arrive to the new town, Eatonville, Florida, they realize its small nature which occupies a few shacks. Jody asks two men, Lee Cooker and Amos Hicks, to see the mayor, but there is no mayor. Jody begins to talk to the townspeople and realizes how undersize the town is, so he buys two acres to add to the existing fifty acres. The ambitious Jody then announces that he will build two structures: a store and a post office. He calls a town meeting and shares his plans on how he will beautify the town. Even though Tony Taylor is the chairman of the assembly, Jody does all the talking. His plans to have a store and a post office become a reality with the help of Coker and Taylor, two men he employs to build the structures.

With Jody’s money and power, he immediately becomes mayor of Eatonville. At the ceremony, held at his store, Taylor asks Janie to make a speech on behalf of her husband, but Jody precludes her from speaking. He rudely claims that speech-making is not for his wife to make. In Jody’s own words, he states: “Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but 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” (43). This comment angers Janie, but she says nothing.

With mayoral power, Jody continues to makes advances to Eatonville, but the townspeople are bothered by his condescending and bossy treatment. Not only do they look at Jody differently, but they start to look at Janie differently (by way of jealously) because she had it all; that is, a powerful man, an intricate new two-story house, and elaborate things. The townspeople begin to feel like Jody is taking pride in their lower class status by showing off his wealth, especially when he buys a spittoon for Janie and himself. Moreover, Jody forces a man, Henry Pitts, out of town for stealing a load of his ribbon cane, which bothered the townspeople. Jody’s mannerisms quickly make the people throughout the town dislike him, precipitating their relationship to grow apart. The gossiping by the townspeople about Jody and his wife begins, wondering how Janie could stay with such an overbearing and condescending man.

The townspeople’s criticism is right on point, because Jody represents a tyrant; he is a domineering man and Janie takes the full brunt of it – verbally, mentally, and physically. In fact, he treats his wife like trash, similar to a slave. In their store, Jody forces Janie to tie her long/beautiful hair and keep it in a rag, afraid that men will be attracted to her if she keeps it out. Janie hates managing the store but finds enjoyment from the stories the men partake in outside of the store. When Janie tries to join in the fun, Jody tells her to not interact with “trashy people.”

Janie’s marriage is clearly problematic at this juncture of the text. In truth, Jody is ten times worse than Janie’s first husband Logan. When he first arrives in the novel, he seems like a decent man with his enticing goals, his smooth-tongue, and his overall presence. He literally charms Janie. However, that charming man is nonexistent after marriage. Embarrassing her in the public eye, battering her flesh into submission, speaking to her like a child, and all the negatives are prevalent; she endures a lot of pain. He constantly belittles, disrespects, and treats her like the surface he walks on.

One day, Jody gets into an argument with Janie in the store about a misplaced bill and belittles Janie about its whereabouts: “Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows.” Such statement shows that he does not see her as an equal, but as an animal that needs order. His following comment is equally disrespectful by implying that she lacks intelligence: “When I see one thing, I understand ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”

Jody takes his mistreatment of Janie a bit further one day during dinner by hitting her. This beating, happening seven years after their marriage, occurs because Jody feels the dinner is badly done and distasteful. As Hurston inscribes, “He slapped Janie until she had ringing sound in her ears and told her about her brains before he stalked on back to the store” (72). During their marriage, Janie’s love for him declines tremendously, but this incident shatters every piece of love she has for him.

Later in the day, she shows her anger while at the store when overhearing the men on the porch taking pleasure in berating and talking badly about women. No longer can she hold in her anger nor her tongue; she speaks out and rebukes the men, telling them that they know nothing about women, etc. Jody quickly jumps in and tells her to quiet her mouth (“You getting’ too moufy, Janie”) and “fetch” him a checkerboard.

With passing years, Janie’s deplorable marriage affects her mental state, making her view herself as unattractive. She also realizes Jody’s unattractiveness because he looks old, something Jody realizes himself. His body droops and lumps; more apparent, he has problem moving around. To make Janie ignore his appearance, he tries to play with her mind by attacking her age and appearance. But she is not stupid and understands that this is a ploy to make her believe that she too is in a similar position of ugliness and old age, but that is not the case. As Jody’s health continues to worsen, he verbally attacks her more viciously and frequently. One of his verbal attacks, happening at the store in the presence of many, causes Janie to lash out by attacking his sagging body, stating it resembles “de change uh life.”

Her comment surprises the men on the porch, but it surprises Jody the most. Feeling disrespected, he violently hits Janie and drives her away from the store. But the damage is already done (thanks to Janie’s comment), and his reputation in the town decreases. Subsequent to that quarrel, they separate themselves in the house by moving to different rooms.

Jody’s health becomes dire. The townspeople gossip that Janie is causing his illness with poison, a rumor that her best friend Pheoby tells her about. However, the rumor is proven wrong when Janie calls for a doctor to check his condition; the doctor ascertains that Jody’s kidneys have failed, which will soon cause his demise. Janie tells him about his ominous fate and he becomes sad. In a way, she feels sorry for him but takes the time to scold him, telling him how badly he treated her with his domineering and violent ways. He tells her to stop but she refuses. Shortly thereafter, Jody dies. She looks in the mirror, frees her hair from its rag-bondage, and realizes that she is still beautiful. She then yells out the window that Jody has died with a guise of grief.

Janie sends Jody off with an elaborate funeral. She carries a mourning face for the outside world but feels happy internally. The townspeople see only one major change: Janie publically begins to showcase her long hair. With her beauty and wealth, several men approach her, but she pays them no mind and rebuffs their advances. Not one suitor comes close in a timespan of six months. Janie is happy with her freedom and does not want to be tied down to another man. However, her mind changes when she meets a man named Vergible Woods.

She meets this stranger when he enters her store to buy a cigarette – and he begins to flirt and jokes with her. This flirtation precipitates laughter from Janie. He continues to flirt with her during a game of checkers. After playing checkers, they converse and she finds out that this stranger’s name is Vergible Woods, but he says that everyone calls him Tea Cake. They enjoy each other’s company and he helps her close up the store at night. Most important, he makes her laugh, something her prior husbands could not execute.

One week passes and Janie does not see Tea Cake, so she begins to think that he cares only for her wealth. When he finally comes back after a week, he jokes around which puts a smile on her face. They again play checkers; afterward, he walks her home where they sit on the porch, eating, drinking lemonade, and conversing. They meet regularly and frolic in romance, which does not sit well with the townspeople for two main reasons: 1. she stops mourning for her late husband too soon, and 2. such a high-profiled woman should not be dating a poor man like Tea Cake.

Her best friend Pheoby tells her to watch out for Tea Cake’s true intentions; she replies by saying that he is a good man. She then shocks Pheoby by disclosing her plans to sell the store, leave town, and wed Tea Cake. She keeps her word, leaving Eatonville for Jacksonville where she marries Tea Cake. Later, they settle in the Everglades where Tea Cake plans to work in the muck.

Tea Cake, Janie’s third husband, is clearly better than her prior husbands. He really loves Janie and gives her space to grow mentally. He has fun with her by showing her how to shoot a gun, a skill that she ultimately overshadows him in. They even go hunting together. Most important, Tea Cake truly makes her happy and charms her with jokes. However, in no way does he represent a perfect husband; at times, he even treats Janie like her prior husbands via abuse and his domineering behavior. Moreover, he is manipulative and sneaky.

One day, without Janie’s knowledge he takes $200 from her dress and spends it away on a big wild party he sponsors. When he gets back home, he promises Janie he will pay her back by gambling. He keeps his promise and reimburses her. Believing in his trust, she reveals the money she has in the bank. When he starts his work in the muck, he sneaks away and visits Janie at home because he “deeply” misses her. This causes Janie to go work in the muck with him to be together all day. But someday in the muck, Tea Cake has other plans when he goes missing, and Janie finds him play-wrestling with a stocky girl named Nunkie, causing jealously and anger.

This is not his only questionable behavior. His most awful behavior happens when he beats Janie, similar to Jody. Hurston makes it clear that his beating is not brutal, but he physically abuses her nonetheless: “Being able to whip her reassured him in possession…He slapped her around a bit to show he was boss” (147). Her physical abuse is noticed by many in the muck, for her flesh is marked by his hands.

Nonetheless, bad luck quickly comes their way via a hurricane while living in the Everglades. With the chance to leave before the storm hits, they decide to stay. When the storm hits, it causes a flood and they realize that it is best to leave. They swim in the flood, passing dead bodies, to reach higher grounds, but the rough water blows Janie away. Tea Cake goes after her and a dog, which starts to attack Janie, bites him in the cheek; he stabs it to death.

Four weeks later, Tea Cake’s head pounds with a headache. Janie calls a doctor and after his assessment, he tells her a devastating news: The dog that bit Tea Cake had rabies and saving him is perhaps too late. While Tea Cake health worsens, he becomes delusional and thinks that she is sneaking away to meet another man. Actually, she leaves the house to find medicine that may save his life. She tries to calm his speculation, but she also becomes afraid when he hides a pistol under his pillow.

In the morning, Tea Cake becomes irate and goes outside when Janie plans to leave the house again to see a doctor. While outside, Janie manipulates his pistol (making sure it goes through three empty chambers before reaching a bullet) just in case he plans to use it on her. Tea Cake comes inside, angrier than before and retrieves his pistol. He pulls the trigger and nothing happens. A scared Janie retrieves a rifle to possibly make him stop, but it does not work. Tea Cake pulls the trigger two more times, rendering nothing. Janie is left with no choice but to protect herself by shooting him as he attempts to fire again. A trial follows quickly, but she is found innocent. Thereafter, she sends him off accordingly with a grand funeral. (It is important to know that even though Tea Cake’s behavior was questionable, he serves as the catalyst that helps Janie find her true self.)

As a whole, during the writing of this piece, Hurston executed the novel amazingly and did a great job showing how men disrespect and mistreatment women. The cruelty stems from the belief that men are superior to women; therefore, women should cater to the needs of men because, according to some men, that is their role. Although the novel was written in 1937, the most prominent theme of abuse resonates today, because some men batter their wives (or girlfriends), view women as property, and believe that women are inferior beings. The novel falls under fiction, but it captures realism that can not be denied, for thousands of women are abused and murdered yearly. In fact, there are a great number of Logan Killicks, Joe ‘Jody’ Sparks, and Tea Cakes out there.

Even though Nora Neale Hurston is no longer living, Their Eyes Were Watching God has kept her name alive and will continue to do so, because it represents a classic, getting many accolades and precipitating a film starring actress Halle Berry as Janie. Both men and women should read this novel and form their own conclusion on what the text means to them; it’s a deserving piece of literature that is filled with reality – not to mention the poetic elegance rendered by Hurston.

In the beginning, this novel may be difficult for some, due to the characters’ dialect (i.e., Black vernacular) and how it is written, but it won’t be too long before the reader understands it. Their Eyes Were Watching God represents a notable novel, despite its controversial text regarding men’s abusive behaviors.

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Literary Analysis: Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man: The Search for Identity and Individuality

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MARCH 27, 2007


A novel represents a work of fiction – a story that is creatively written from an author’s mind and point of views. That does not exclude fiction from the realm of reality, however.  Fiction and real life interrelate in every sense; in fact, fiction always has elements of reality.  Real-world experiences, people, history, and life in general are influential to a novelist and serve as a catalyst, assisting him or her to formulate ideas and craft a novel.  Therefore, real life and works of fiction aren’t too far apart; they are connected – directly, indirectly, or metaphorically.  Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man (1952) proves that to be true, for the historical insinuations are evident.

Scholars have taken notice of Invisible Man ever since its release in 1952, and continue to scrutinize the novel for good reasons: it is fascinating; it brings forth many interpretations and debates (negative and positive); it questions one’s role in society; it addresses racism, etc.  Overall, the text is profoundly powerful in all aspects.  As Per Winther writes in “Imagery of Imprisonment in Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man,” “Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man is an immensely rich novel, which explains why, since its publication in 1952, so many readers have been, and still are, moved by Ellison’s complex narrative of twenty turbulent years in the life of his young, nameless, black protagonist” (115).  The release of Invisible Man has rendered a plethora of scholarly analyses from the likes of Marc Singer, William Walling, Per Winther, James B. Lane, Eric Sundquist, and many more – touching on various issues.  However, few scholars (probably none) have found the time to address the invisibility of Ellison’s invisible protagonist and the silent generation in the 50s collectively.  Thus, I will attempt to tackle many issues of the narrator’s invisibility and struggles in conjunction with the Beats’ invisibility/“the Silent Generation” in the 1950s, and the artists of that time.  This is where fiction and real-life (historical allusions) share similarities.  The nameless protagonist in Invisible Man and artists in the 50s are in search for two things: true identity and individuality.

From beginning to end, the racism motif presents itself throughout Invisible Man, and the prologue swiftly demonstrates that:

“I AM AN invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywood-movie ectoplasms. I am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me” (3).

These opening words by the narrator do not provide his race, but the latter part of his statement provides a clear indication of who he is – a black man – from the way he states his invisibility and the historical context of his account.  At the time this novel was released, segregation was prominent and blacks protested for their equality, stating similar words like the narrator’s.  Because society selectively chooses to ignore his presence because of his phenotypical makeup as a black man, he is literally (and physically) rendered invisible.

The racism motif reaches its peak, physically, when the narrator gives an account of an incident in which he unintentionally bumps into a large blond man in the dark, causing the blond man to share his disgust with a racial epithet.  Feeling disrespected, the narrator goes on the attack and batters him onto the ground, pulling out a knife and preparing to take the man’s life.  But he thinks otherwise and comes to his senses: the blond man insulted him because he could not really see him due to his invisibility.  The narrator’s confrontation with this blond man is important, because he learns the following day that a newspaper labels the incident as a mugging.  This labeling by the newspaper (white society) demonstrates the narrator’s metaphorical slavery, invisibility, and subjugation – for he is being dominated by the views of others.  First, the narrator is dehumanized by the man’s racial epithet, which prompts him to attack and make the verbal abuser recognize his individuality; and second, the narrator is dehumanized by the newspaper that labels him a mugger.  The roles are reversed: the white man is not the assailant but the victim, while the narrator is viewed by the public as a criminal. Moreover, the actual incident with the blond man is ignored altogether, along with the narrator’s motives, which become invisible to the public.  Therefore, other people in society classify Ellison’s invisible man’s identity according to their own prejudices.

Conversely, Ellison’s nameless protagonist mirrors the feeling many critics had about the 50s (and those who lived it) in New York, labeling the decade “the Silent Generation,” which can be termed metaphorically as the “unnoticed generation” – similar to being invisible.  Critics have had a field day criticizing the fifties for what it produced, like the major Beat writers – Gregory Corso, Jack Kerouac, William S. Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg – known as the Beat Generation.  Some critics have named the bohemians of that decade as the strangest souls who wasted and abused their bodies with heavy doses of drugs and alcohol; some critics even said that they had dangerous intentions to change America.  In fact, Stephen Prothero’s article, “On The Holy Road: The Beat Movement As Spiritual Protest,” quotes Norman Podhoretz’s brutally harsh critiques in 1958 Partisan Review: “The Bohemianism of the 1950s is hostile to civilization; it worships primitivism, instinct, energy, ‘blood’; Podhoretz (the most outspoken critic of the Beats) continued: “This is a revolt of the spiritually underprivileged and the crippled of souls.” Podhoretz went so far as to characterize them as Nazis and Hell’s Angels.  The Beats ignored his rhetoric because in their minds, it was nonsense.  The Beats’ intentions – and those who lived in New York in the fifties – were to separate themselves and to be different from America’s norm, argued the Beats and others.  Therefore, when outsiders do not understand what people do or how people choose to live their lives, they are looked upon negatively, and that’s how many critics felt about those in the fifties, especially the Beats.

Were Podhoretz’s critiques and reviews from other columnists necessary?  Didn’t Podhoretz understand that people who lived in New York or journeyed there wanted to find something different and be free, especially the bohemians?  Did he not take notice that bohemians were people who lived an unconventional lifestyle – somebody, often a writer or an artist, who did not live according to the conventions of society?  They wanted to be different, rather than being conformists. Therefore, a couple of questions must be asked: Were the criticisms of these artists really warranted because they lived differently from how others lived?  More important, were the fifties really that dull and silent?

Although Podhoretz has bashed “the Silent Generation” as a whole, those who lived in New York at the time strongly believe that their decade has been given a bad name – and novelist Dan Wakefield is one of those who shares similar views. Because the fifties has been mislabeled and tagged as being dull, Wakefield felt obligated to address the stigma. Fittingly, Wakefield’s book New York In The 50s (1992) gives a vivid light of the New York that he knew and experienced, tackling the so-called silent:

“If my generation was ‘silent,’ it was not in failure to speak out with our work, but in the sense of adopting a style that was not given to splash and spotlights” (6).

This statement by Wakefield renders truth, because the body of written works produced in the 50s (including future works that were released by the artists of that era) were abundant, from The Catcher in the Rye to On The Road, from Howl to Notes of a Native Son, and many more. So “silent” was not an accurate term at all; people just made the choice to ignore the generation altogether, because the wild and free lifestyle they desired to live were bizarre to them. As a result, their works were invisible to the public and not taken seriously. Moreover, the strangeness of the Beats caused the banning of Burroughs’s Naked Lunch, which was later reinstated; and also brought a court hearing to ban Ginsberg’s Howl. Naked Lunch was described by a reviewer as “a prolonged scream of hatred and disgust, an effort to keep the reader’s nose down in the mud for 250 pages” (quoted by Prothero, 206). Similarly, Howl was called a disgrace and protested hatred for society.

In regard to Podhoretz’s ruthless critiques, it appeared that his attitude took not a constructive criticism approach but a personal hatred stance against the Beats and their disparity with society. His 1958 article “The Know-Nothing Bohemians” verified that as he tried to debunk the Beats by scrutinizing the real-world consequences of their point of views about life, and so forth. One of the Beats could have reversed his article’s title into “He knows Nothing Bohemian,” for he does not live it. Hence, Podhoretz’s rhetoric about the Beats stems from his ignorance in not knowing what the Beats were, and his unwillingness to accept a different style of living he was not accustomed to. Therefore, he dehumanizes their character by talking down to them and labeling them whatever he sees fit: pessimists, naysayers, nihilists, troublemakers, and dangerous. Like Ellison’s nameless character, Podhoretz removes the people-friendly features of the Beats’ character, taking away their good qualities (or features) which make it difficult for others to see them as normal and acceptable humans. In all, he dehumanizes their stature and importance, making them invisible by choice.

This dehumanization theme appears in the opening development of Invisible Man, which lingers throughout. Ellison shows that with his nameless protagonist and other blacks in a high school graduation ceremony, where he is to deliver the class speech. But before he gives the speech, the narrator (and other black boys) is ordered to partake in a boxing match, orchestrated by the white men. With firm orders by the white men, the narrator and his classmates put on boxing gloves and enter the ring – where a stark naked blonde parade the ring. It becomes stranger to the boys as they are blindfolded by the white men with threatening orders to batter and kill each other: “ ‘See that boy over there?’ ” one of the men said. “ ‘I want you to run across at the bell and give it to him right in the belly. If you don’t get him, I’m going to get you. I don’t like his looks’ ” (17). The bell sounds and melee ensues – blacks wildly punching blindly, hitting anyone in proximity – to the enjoyment of the white men.

Thereafter, the white men continue their ridicule of the narrator and the boys by trickery, with shudders via electricity.  Exhausted from the battle, the boys’ blindfolds are removed, while the white men place them on a wall, awaiting their bogus monetary prize on a rug.  Blind with ignorance, the boys (on their knees as commanded) rush to get the money and to their shock, they are literally shocked from an electric current that runs under the rug, as the narrator shares his pain: “A hot, violent force tore through my body, shaking me like a wet rat” (22).  While the boys’ laughter stems from being shocked, the white men’s laughter stems from the amusement of watching electrified blacks make a fool of themselves: “… he (one of the boys) ran from the floor amid booming laughter” (22).

Finally, after the embarrassment of the boys, the nameless character prepares to give his speech. The master of ceremony gives him a patronizing introduction, which prompts applause and laughter: “ ‘I’m told that he is the smartest boy we’ve got out there in Greenwood. I’m told that he knows more big words than a pocket-sized dictionary’ ” (23). The narrator takes the podium; he begins delivering his speech and realizes that the audience is ignoring him, while the laughing persists. He becomes nervous, mouth filled with blood, and it shows as he makes a mistake, saying “social equality” rather than “social responsibility.” After rendering his speech (and after fulfilling their comedic bone), one of the white men awards him with a briefcase and tells him to cherish it, claiming it will determine his peoples’ fate.

These episodes in Chapter One (i.e., battle royal, electric rug, and speech) do not only represent the evening’s entertainment for the white men, but it also demonstrates humiliation, animalization, passivity, and dehumanization.  The grandfather’s narrator did warn his son (narrator’s father) before he died that life is a war, and to keep up the fight.  War against whom?  A white society that aggressively fosters hatred and bigotry via systematic tactics and exclusion to keep Black society subjugated.  The grandfather orders and gives his family concrete wisdom: “I want you to overcome ’em with yeses, undermine ’em with grins, agree ’em to death and destruction …” (13).  In other words, the grandfather advises his family to uphold a dual identity: externally, they should embody the stereotypical good slaves’ motifs, which will satisfy the master; however, internally, they should carry the bitter hatred and resentment of such false identity against the master.  Following this model allows the grandfather’s descendants to play a false role, only to make it appear as if they are satisfying the whites’ ego.

However, the young narrator does not know how to play the dual identity, for he does not know his true identity and individuality, causing the white men to take advantage of his passivity during the entire day’s events.  Metaphorically, the boys’ blindfolding in the ring supports their real-life blindness; they are unable to see through the true intentions of the white men as they force the boys to conform to the racial stereotype of the black man as a violent and savage creature.  As the men watch the boys in the boxing battle royal, they look at them not as equals or humans, but as inferior beings – as wild animals.  Although the grandfather provides knowledge to his family, it is fruitless to the narrator, because it doesn’t fully register in his head. Believing that full compliance will gain him admiration and accolade, he obliges the white men’s commands.  To some extent, his beliefs prove true, for he is awarded the briefcase for his submission, but he is also tricked at the same time.  The nameless character has not yet learned to see behind the masks, behind the tricks, and underneath the various covers constructed by white society. He only learns after the fact that he has been made a fool of when he realizes the phony coins, subsequent to suffering the electric shock from the mysterious rug – at the expense of his humiliation and dehumanization. This lack of awareness – blindness – stems from lack of not knowing his identity and individuality.

Ellison’s invisible man experiences being tricked again, but this time it takes on a different meaning.  He is not deceived by the white men; rather, he is fooled by a black man, Dr. Bledsoe – the college president.  While transporting a white trustee, Norton, around campus and showing him the old slave quarters and taking him to Golden Day, Bledsoe becomes furious when he learns of the narrator’s journeys: “The quarters! Boy, are you a fool? Didn’t you know better than to take a trustee out there?” (79).  The narrator claims that he was told to go there by Norton, but Bledsoe does not care: “Damn what he wants. We take these white folks where we want them to go, we show them what we want them to see” (79).  Feeling the college is at risk, along with his power, Bledsoe takes swift action and expels the narrator from the school, to his surprise. Ironically, to seem as a nice and reasonable man, Bledsoe gives him various letters and tells him they will help him find a job in New York, but it’s only a ploy, which the narrator fails to recognize.

Similar to the sentiment that the narrator’s grandfather tries to pass down to his descendants, Bledsoe too utilizes dual identities, but his represents narcissism and immorality.  He cares for no one – including blacks – except for self. Bledsoe, being the president, uses the school to abuse his clout and gain more power, rather than achieving wide-ranging social advancement for his people and he makes that clear: “I’s big and black and I say ‘Yes, suh’ as loudly as any burrhead when it’s convenient, but I’m still king down here” (109).  Bledsoe continues: “… I’ve made my place in it and I’ll have every Negro in the country hanging on tree limbs by morning if it means staying where I am” (110).  Bledsoe pokes fun at his own race by talking in slang, using “I’s” rather than “I am” to seem uneducated like other blacks.  Bledsoe then states that when he tells the white men what they want to hear, he is able to control them.  Thereafter, his rant becomes disturbing as he claims that he would have all blacks lynched to keep his power.  Yes, such declaration by any human being is absolutely outrageous and sinister, but coming from a black man makes it even worse.  However, after the narrator has heard such unbecoming language, his trust in Bledsoe remains palpable, clearly indicating his lack of awareness because he still has not learned to look behind the masks through discernment.

Moreover, while on a bus ride to New York, the narrator meets the veteran who ridiculed Mr. Norton at Golden Day, precipitating Bledsoe to expel him like he did the narrator.  Strangely, the narrator doesn’t believe Bledsoe would do such a thing.  The veteran tells him to open his eyes and don’t take the face value of everything: “… look beneath the surface… Come out of the fog, young man. And remember you don’t have to be a complete fool in order to succeed” (118).  The veteran speaks these words because he knows that the narrator is ignorant (and still shows signs of blindness) for not believing that Bledsoe is the cause for his relocation.  For some reason, the narrator still has faith in Bledsoe although he has been punished by him. It is only when he learns Bledsoe’s true motives, then he realizes that he was tricked, for the letters that were to help him served as a way to hinder his progress, with punishing statements: “… this letter is a former student of ours … who has been expelled for a most serious defection from our strictest rules of deportment. The letter continues: “… it is to the best interests of the great work which we are dedicated to perform, that he continue undisturbed in these vain hopes … from our midst” (145).  Bledsoe’s betrayal of the narrator shows that it is not only whites who betray and suppress blacks, but blacks can do the same to their own race.

Additionally, the narrator’s pain and bad luck persist.  Like the electric shock in chapter one, the narrator suffers similar results; this time, however, it’s from shock treatment when he’s unconscious at the hospital following the fight with Brockway.  The white doctors mirror the same attitude the white men shared in the opening chapter via dehumanization.  Because the narrator is unable to respond to the doctors’ question, they began to practice shock treatment on him (while another doctor wanted to castrate him) as a way for entertainment.  The shock treatment causes the narrator to shake, and one doctor asserts that he is dancing: “Look, he’s dancing… They really do have rhythm…” (180-1).  While the narrator hears the screams of a woman in his head, the doctors play with his head and ask him questions like: Who was buckeye the rabbit? Who was brer rabbit?  The narrator attacks their amusement with his own: “He was your mother’s back door man… ‘Buckeye’ when you were very young and hid yourself behind wide innocent eyes; ‘Brer,’ when you were older” (184).  Following his humiliation at the hands of the doctors, they tell him he is cured and can leave.

This episode in chapter eleven represents significance, because he has somewhat changed metaphorically.  When he signs his release paper, he questions himself, “is he (the doctor) in on it too” (187)?  In on what?  The white suppression that haunts him.  The narrator begins to think and comes to the conclusion that he is no longer afraid of men like Norton or Bledsoe, for they are nothing to him so he expects nothing from them. Moreover, the transition is quite clear, something like a symbolic rebirth – he awakes without any memory; he does not understand language; and he does not know his identity.  The music and the machines’ noise collectively make him hear the sound of a screaming woman in pain, akin to a woman in labor. More important, the narrator’s metaphorical rebirth occurs with no parents; he takes on the doctors on his lonesome.  The veteran’s advice that he becomes his own father is crucial, for he starts doing that by opening his eyes and looking at things differently, questioning himself and others’ true intentions.

The narrator is slightly removing the blindfold as he questions why he shouldn’t do hard labor as the doctor warns him he is not suited yet.  “Take another job… Something easier, quieter. Something for which you’re better prepared,” the doctor said.  These words are condescending and a racial stereotype that blacks are lazy, unfit, and do not work hard.  This advice comes from the same doctor who took part in the amusement of the narrator’s humiliation, claiming he dances well as he is being shocked (which falls under a racial stereotype of blacks, something like a dancing Sambo doll), and trying to take his manhood by castration.  The castration reference by one of the racist doctors serves as a way to deny the narrator of his humanity.  Clearly, a castration of one implies the stripping of his power, his ability to function, his ability to foster children, his ability to progress, and his ability to be whole – the purest form of emasculation.  Nonetheless, from this episode, the narrator’s eyes begin to open to some extent; his invisibility and blindness are still intact, but he is freer and starts to find his identity in New York.

The narrator’s union with the Brotherhood shows that he still lacks individualism and has not removed that blindfold away from his eyes.  After seeing an injustice being done (white men evicting a black woman), the narrator speaks out prompting the crowd to react and take the furniture back into the house.  Cops arrive and he runs off, but hears a voice that calls him brother, a white man named Brother Jack.  Jack argues that he should become the spokesman for the Brotherhood; however, the narrator doesn’t agree and wants to think about the proposition.  Thereafter, the narrator thinks about Mary (a woman who gives him a place to freely live and generously feeds him) and makes the decision to join the Brotherhood.  Jack provides him with a house owned by the Brotherhood and strange enough, a new identity – claiming he should leave the past behind and focus on his new identity.

Joining the Brotherhood shows that the narrator is looking for a new identity (but not in the right place), and shows his lack of self-identity as he is labeled as what Jack wants him to be.  It becomes apparent from the start that the Brotherhood has sinister intentions and needs him to further its cause when Emma tells Jack he isn’t black enough.  Such comment proves that the narrator is unimportant to them as a human, but only as a figure and tool the group wants to exploit. In a sense, the narrator submits to white society for agreeing to serve as the black spokesman of the Brotherhood.  In more concrete language, he threatens and compromises his own identity by submitting to white men with clout.

The blindness of the narrator continues in a rally where he is to deliver a speech (in a former boxing ring), similar to chapter one.  He blindly gives his speech but is criticized for how he does it by the Brotherhood:  “In my opinion the speech was wild, hysterical, politically irresponsible and dangerous.  And worse than that it was incorrect” (264). This lambasting ridicule shows that his stay with the Brotherhood would not be a long stint. Moreover, the physical battle the Brotherhood had with Ras the Exhorter/Destroyer (somewhat resembles the real-life Malcolm X) and his followers show that clearly, because he is unable to recognize his group from Ras’s.  This confrontation shows signs of unfruitfulness on both sides, because both groups are fighting for the same thing, black equality – or at least one group.

The inevitable happens when Jack tells the narrator that he must attend a meeting the following day, but it never happens.  Jack toys with him and sends him away because he is done using him, so the narrator is of no use anymore.  Once again, the narrator shows his inability to see through the masks of others when he realizes that the Brotherhood’s intentions were to exclude him from the meeting initially.  The Brotherhood wants no part with the narrator, along with some blacks – feeling that his union with the Brotherhood is a betrayal to the black community.  The narrator is also betrayed again as he witnesses a former member of the Brotherhood, Clifton (who is later shot dead by a cop), selling Sambo dolls – a bad caricature of the Black culture.  The dolls are crucial and carry symbolic meanings, because although the dolls move by themselves, they need the help of strings to facilitate their movement.  This implies that Blacks continue to live under the umbrella and control of whites; blacks are puppets and whites are the puppeteers.  Metaphorically, blacks are in the driver’s seat, but whites are steering the wheel.

That is evidence how the Brotherhood has used the narrator for the main purpose to destroy Harlem all along by galvanizing a riot with the help of Ras.  He learns this at the end, but it comes too late.  To a certain extent, he becomes a traitor twice: first, for working with a racist group; and second, for playing an active part in the destruction of the black community.  However, as the narrator tries to subdue the riot and explain the cause for it, Ras orders his followers to kill him by way of lynching, but he runs away and falls into a gutter.  As he lies underground, it is completely dark with no light.  He has nothing with him but the briefcase – holding almost everything in his journey for identity: diploma, Clifton’s doll, letters, etc. – that was given to him in chapter one by one of the racist men.  In order to make light, he burns each in every one of the items in the briefcase.  By burning the items in the briefcase, the narrator has now found his identity (or close to finding his identity) and breaks away from his past.

The narrator being in New York prompts his sudden awareness of what is real as he remains underground, rejecting the idea that a single philosophy can constitute a complete way of being, for each soul embodies a multitude of various components. Interestingly, this philosophy is what Norman Podhoretz lacks because he refuses to see others – the Beat writers in the 50s – for their multiplicities, rendering him blind to others’ diversities.  Similar to how the nameless protagonist searches for his identity in New York, people in the 50s did the same, and New York was the place for it as Wakefield argues: “Our fifties were far more exciting than the typical American experience because we were in New York, where people came to flee the average and find a group of like-minded souls” (7).

Ellison’s Invisible Man represents a buffet that feeds one’s knowledge in every aspect, every turn, every page and chapter – for it is filled with profound metaphors and real-life (historical) issues.  More important, its prolific literature is influential and continues to bring forth discussion in college classrooms and from scholars as they continue to write about it.  Ellison also influenced (indirectly or directly) books from his counterparts like Richard Wright, James Baldwin, and others.  Whether one is black or white does not matter, because Invisible Man serves substance to everyone and influenced many in the 50s and beyond, including future works and American culture as a whole.  It will always be a topic of conversation for generations and generations to come.  Likewise, the Beat Generation may never be scrutinized entirely (or taken seriously by scholars) but it is catching on, because courses are being taught on various college campuses today.

Overall, Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man can be described for its fame in two words: extraordinarily superb. It signifies a richly crafted – in-your-face – novel that stands firm as a classical gem and continues to engage readers since its 1952 release.

Poetry Analysis: “In a Station of the Metro” by Ezra Pound

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Ezra Pound was a rebel and wanted to do things his way in regard to poetry – and so he did.  In the introduction of The Norton Anthology of American Literature (Volume D), it states:  “Pound first campaigned for ‘imagistic,’ his name for a new kind of poetry.  Rather than describing something – an object or situation – and then generalizing about it, imagist poets attempted to present the object directly, avoiding the ornate diction and complex but predictable verse forms of traditional poetry.”

Pound’s 1913 poem “In a Station of the Metro” demonstrates his imagistic motif in a couple of lines:

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
Petals on a wet, black bough.

This short piece illustrates his imagistic talent because the entire poem deals with images alone.  It is not complex; rather, the two-line poem is straightforward and to the point.  The brevity of the poem intrigues with a deep message regarding the beauty and diversity of human beings.

One word that overshadows all the rest in line one is apparition.  The word apparition alone means a ghostly figure, something strange or unusual that suddenly comes into view.  Pound may have seen different faces in a Paris subway and defined the “faces in the crowd” with the illustration of pure beauty or images of flawless human beings.  The reason for formulating such assertion is because of this:  with the meaning and usage of the word apparition, it enables Pound to convey the expression of shock and awe once he steps into the metro station.  It’s almost as if he discovers the faces in the crowd surprisingly.  More important, he may have not seen the faces clearly and saw only a blur that he interpreted as a vision of attractiveness.

The second line of the poem renders one word that overshadows all the rest:  petals.  Petals are vibrant flowers that have different colors and represent beauty when blossomed, which he identifies as the “faces in the crowd.”  Additionally, petals are flowers that come in various shades, sizes, shapes, and so forth – akin to human beings.  Therefore, Pound perhaps envisioned the people in the crowd as beautiful, for the diversity they embodied.

In all, the poem is incredibly short – but meaningful – and takes the meaning of short poetry to its purest form.  However, the images are captivating and make the poem move beyond the literal, for the two images that stand out are apparition and petals.  When one thinks of apparition, the first thing that comes to mind is a ghostly figure.  When one thinks of petals, something soft and delightful comes to mind as a floral.

Thus, Pound takes the two words and morphs them together as one to get a greater effect, meaning that when he witnessed mysterious faces in the crowd with various colors and shapes, it rendered a good-looking sight in his eyes.  The poem shows that whatever color, size, or shape a person embodies, he or she still has some characteristics of beauty – regardless of his/her outer appearance.
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[Originally Written January 18, 2008]