Literary and Narrative Devices in Zora Neale Hurston's Work

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Zora Neale Hurston and Clifford Geertz were both American anthropologists. Hurston was known for her belief in the documentation of folklore and their potential for conveying deep-seated, whilst Geertz was known for his influence on the practice of symbolic anthropology and an interpretive ethnographical approach. In this essay, the comparison and contrast between Hurston and Geertz’s writing styles will be explored, and thus how the narrative discourse is used as a vehicle in which the underlying themes of the subsequent texts, “Mules and Men” and “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”, are explored. This will be done by analysing how the author’s writing style and altering of pronouns within the narrative shift the perspective of the text and the meaning thereof. In addition, the positionality of Hurston and Geertz in relation to potential assumptions and judgements they may have made will be analysed.

Zora Neale Hurston’s introductory excerpt from her auto-ethnographical account of southern African-American folklore; drawing from her participant observation (Hurston became involved with the people of the community, allowing her to participate in the traditions) – “whereby the researcher interacts with people in everyday life while collecting information” (Jorgensen, 2015) - in Eatonville, Florida and New Orleans; “Mules and Men”, utilises a narrative structure marked by duplicity that is representative of the practice of folklore - “all traditional expressions and implementations of knowledge operating within a community” (Abrahams, 1971) - and Hurston’s identity.

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Hurston’s altering personae; in her shift from the first-person narration of subsequent events to the impersonation of her informants’ dispositions through third-person narrative voice - from subject to object - is achieved through the subtle change in pronouns. This is indicative of Hurston’s divided identity and interests, and thus her role in the “Negro’s double environment”, in which Hurston associates and distances herself from the southern African-American community she is inscribing. W.E.B Du Bois writes of a “double consciousness” experienced by the “Negro American”: “The Negro American has for his environment not only the white surrounding world, but also, and touching him usually much more nearly and compellingly, is the environment furnished by his own colored group,” (Bois, 1940). Hurston’s grammatical distancing aims to cultivate insight into an expression of African-American cultural identity, to which white intellectual readership would not be aware of otherwise. “He can read my writing but he sho’ can’t read my mind,” suggests that whilst the information is made available, the intended meaning may not be grasped by the white reader (Hurston, 1935).

Clifford Geertz’s, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight”, observing the illegal Balinese practice of cockfighting; utilises a duplicitous narrative strategy, which acts as a carrier for hermeneutics – “the methodology of interpretation” (Philosophy, 2016). Geertz’s literary work is structured as both a research report and literature. Geertz transitions from first-person description of subsequent events to the interpretation and symbolic reflection on his observations. This is illustrated when Geertz writes: 'Most of the time, in any case, the cocks fly almost immediately at one another in a wing-beating, head-thrusting, leg-kicking explosion of fury so pure, so absolute, and in its own way so beautiful, as to be almost abstract, a Platonic concept of hate. Within moments one or the other drives home a solid blow with his spur.” (Geertz, 1973). Geertz inscribes that such understandings must be displayed in ‘thick descriptions’ – “thinking and reflecting” and “the thinking of thoughts” (Geertz, 1973) - of ‘webs of meaning’.

Hurston writes as both an author and an anthropologist, and therefore the book is inserting each narrative within the context of another, larger narrative. The experience of attaining the folklore is itself a narrative told from Hurston’s point of view. The impact of the narrative is found in Hurston’s ability to articulate a story. Hurston returned to the town in which she grew up, Eatonville, Florida, to observe folk tradition within the community; through the eye of the anthropological “spy-glass”: “I couldn’t see for wearing it. It was only when I was off in college, away from my native surroundings, that I could see myself like somebody else and stand off and look at my garment. Then I had to have the spy-glass of Anthropology to look through at that,” (Hurston, 1935). Hurston documents this as both an emic – “insider” - and etic – “outsider” - perspective. Hurston is an insider, as once being a member of the community having lived there; but also, an outsider, through the distance she created by furthering her education in a northern state in America. If Hurston’s ethnographic approach was emic, it would be biased – as she would have had close interpersonal relationships with the people within the community. As an etic approach, Hurston could not easily the gain the trust of the strangers in the community in order to successfully obtain knowledge on the folk traditions: “They are most reluctant at times to reveal that which the soul lives by,” “I knew that I was going to have some hindrance amongst strangers,” (Hurston, 1935).

Contrastingly, Geertz was ostracised from the Balinese village in which he was observing the cockfight. A shared moment of cowardice, in which Geertz and the Balinese villagers ran away from the police during their illegal cockfight, united Geertz and his wife with the community. Geertz immersed himself in the culture through his participation in observing the illegal cockfights, despite the risk of being incarcerated. Due to this positioning, Geertz had gained the Balinese villagers’ trust, and thus they shared insight into their rituals. Geertz’s etic ethnographical approach resulted in an estimated interpretative approach of the Balinese culture. 'The language of everyday moralism is shot through, on the male side of it, with roosterish imagery,' Geertz demonstrates how the significance of the cockfights penetrates the conscious culture of native language.

The similar stylistic variation of a duplicitous narrative and the use of a metanarrative is adopted in the writings of both Hurston and Geertz’s texts. They reflect contrasting themes of a divided, double consciousness; and a representation of the interweaving of the author’s interpretive ethnographical approach, respectively. The ability of the authors to be an insider and an outsider influences the way in which the events are observed and interpreted.

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