Search This Blog

Popular Posts

Monday, September 19, 2011

Their Eyes Were Watching God as a “Legal” Novel

The discussion on Dee Perry's Around Noon today was Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.   You can hear all of the show at the link above. The book is  a timeless classic that, in broad brush summary, is about hierarchy and race, gender and class.  The novel begins where it ends, and ends where it begins, telling the story of  Janie Crawford and her journey from late girlhood to womanhood.  It is often read in literature courses and especially in African-American literature courses.  It combines its gritty realism, black dialect and lofty poetic language to depict the black South of over 70 years ago.  It is not typically thought of as a legal novel.  There is, of course, chapter 19, which depicts Janie’s trial for murder. But that chapter seemingly stands alone in offering explicit language about law.  

There is, however, much more about law in the novel.  Their Eyes Were Watching God is, in large measure, a book about laws, rules and norms.  It is a book about the way that social regulatory regimes shape society.  It is a book about the way that law is and is not created. There is a very apt quote about this in chapter 5 of the book where the author writes, in describing the town's feeling about Joe Starks, its self-appointed, well-to-do mayor:  “The town had a basketful of feelings good and bad about Joe's position and possessions, but none had the temerity to challenge him. They bowed down to him rather, because he was all of these things, and then again he was all of these things because the town bowed down." If allusions to Joe are replaced with the word law, then we can get a very clear sense of how norms, whether formal or informal, work, both within the novel and outside of it.   This is because even formal law is often said to be organic—it is molded and remolded at regular intervals, even if that re-molding is slow.  More importantly, we reflect those changes back into the face of law. Law can't happen if we turn away.  To a great extent, law is only law because we allow it to be. That we allow law to be speaks much about our vision for ourselves and for our world.