Their Eyes Were Watching God and meta-storytelling with a frame narrative

Some critics have said Zora Neale Hurston’s novel about love and loss is not “good” because the narration slips between Janie’s dialect and the narrator’s voice.

I think Edwidge Danticat’s words in the introduction to Their Eyes Were Watching God say it best, though: “Hurston herself also becomes Janie’s echo by picking up the narrative thread in intervals, places where in real life, or real time, Janie may have simply grown tired of talking.”

The novel makes use of a frame.  We start at the end of the story, when Janie is returning home after burying her lover Teacake.  Hurston generates interest immediately when we hear the villagers gossiping about Janie and where she’s been.  We find out a lot about her character when she ignores all of them and decides to tell her story to her friend Phoebe only, who can then do as she wants with it.

So, Danticat’s explanation makes sense because Janie is telling her story to her friend Phoebe “in real time.”  It also sets up the narrator as a fly on the wall in Janie’s life, someone who is telling the story of Janie telling her story.

If we look at the way Janie tells her story, she is always frank and honest, and does not sugarcoat the truth, although there are some ugly ones in there.  But, more importantly, she tells the story in her own voice–and a strong voice it is.

Although writing in dialect has gone out of vogue and is generally considered disrespectful and crass, I think it’s integral to this narrative.  Perhaps Hurston could have conveyed the same dialect and inflection without “misspelling” words, but then we would read the story in our own voices, with our own pronunciation.

By using dialect in this way, Hurston forces us to read in Janie’s voice, and in the voices of the other characters.  We have to become them, if only for a moment, to experience their stories.  That makes the narrative immersive.

Despite the frame narrative and the fact that this is a novel about a woman telling her friend a story, I have difficulty calling it metafiction, because of how immersive it is, and how wonderfully it draws the reader in without calling particular attention to anything but the story itself.

Yes, the astute reader is going to think about the way Janie tells the story and the frame narrative and what it means, but a casual reader will probably not.  After all, who hasn’t sat down after a particularly difficult experience and told the story to a close friend or family member?

I also have difficulty not calling it metafiction, or meta-storytelling at the very least, because the book does proclaim—rather loudly—that this is Janie’s story, and Janie is telling it her way, and she is not making any apologies.  Not to her neighbors, and not to the reader.  And that is a proclamation that should make us think about the structure, characters, and why we tell stories to each other.

A version of this post first appeared on my now-defunct blog about metafiction, The Narrative in the Blog, on September 7, 2010.

What do you think?