Parson People in God's Disguise
(An examination of theme in Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston
"I have often thought about what this music of hers really means. For we are quite unmusical; how is it that we understand Josephine's singing or, since Josephine denies that, at least think we can understand it. The simplest answer would be that the beauty of her singing is so great that even the most insensitive cannot be deaf to it, but this answer is not satisfactory."
- Franz Kafka, Josephine the Singer, or the Mousefolk
To be a shepherd with his flock calls to mind a mixed bag of metaphory. On the literal level we have an archetypal impression of a bearded man, crook in hand, walking amongst the baaing white fluff balls on green idealized meadows in some other time. This theme continues to impress on our contemporary world. In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the shepherd takes the temporary form of an almost evangelical buzzard-parson, which combined with a few more moments of poetic prose provide illumination to the choice of the novel’s name.
I find it interesting that Hurston chooses to bestow the life of a “white-headed leader” on a buzzard (61). The flock fosters a sense (in its brief passage) of a code of operations which can be interpreted as either god’s will playing itself out in nature, or as a satire in the tradition of Franz Kafka’s Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk, with a possibly more direct religious edge.
The ritualistic nature of the buzzards’ plundering is interesting: they wait for the Parson, “peck(ing) at heads in hungry irritation,” while the “Parson (sits) motionless in a dead pine tree about two miles off… Decorum,” writes Hurston, demands that towards the offering he must "sit oblivious" until "notified." A parson is a man traditionally expected to somehow be close to god. The parson-buzzard’s waiting to be signaled reflects an image of a god waiting to be called upon, as in the god will only hear you if you pray angle. Continuing on this line of thought, the image of the Parson’s “ponderous flight” calls attention in its evangelical nature. The Parson is not god. The parson is a buzzard who may be tired of waiting for god. Buzzards wait on god, god waits on buzzards. So he comes in swooping, causing dances of ‘joy and hunger at his approach.’ What exactly is god waiting for? A flock of buzzards sit drooling around the dead carcass dinner. The parson wants to turn their attention to god in whatever way he can, because perhaps he thinks that if he can turn their attention to god, god will turn his attention to them. Call-and-response appears in the natural order as well, as the Pastor toots “What killed this man?” And the chorus returns: “Bare, bare fat” (62). The bare fat of life can kill any man, but when that man is a "mule," as in the next scene I will discus--the bare, bare fat is replaced with a lean mule's death. If the man is the mule, and the buzzards the flock, and the Parson closest to god, the bare fat of life is what you’ve got to live for. Experience god through his nature.
Just prior to that scene, the townspeople demonstrate their own ritualistic way of eulogizing the dead—“They mocked everything human in death” (60). And then, when it was time, they summoned Mr. Starks, the then-husband of Janie and mayor of the town, (not unlike the buzzard’s summoning of the Parson). His “preaching.. spoke of the joys of mule-heaven to which the dear brother had departed this valley of sorrow; the mule-angels,” and lots of food for the donkey to eat, and most importantly no more slaving master. Eternal heavens stretched in every way. If man is like a mule, then these people foresee a nice afterlife for themselves. That’s one way to be free, but first your eyes have got to watch god.
Later in the book another particular passage calls attention to itself in its poetic style and resonant theme:
“When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hum. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is dead and dumb.” (90)
It’s lonely under the mud, after we die. We know that, fear that, and wait for it. Our eyes watch god to see if anything is going to change. If the process of life and death will somehow alter. If even in a mighty tempest, we turn our eyes to god, then he must be listening. He gave us song so we could sing to him. And “their eyes were watching god” (160). But what is to be the response to the song? We wait and we watch. But sometimes nothing happens.
Look to nature if you want to find god—from a tempest, to the order of the things within nature—passage of life to death, communication between species, the wheel of life—these are the things that I feel Zora Neale Hurston was getting at when she included these passages and titled the book Their Eyes Were Watching God.
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