Rhetorical Grammar in Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Bluest Eye

Black and white scribble art depicting a hand holding a calligraphy pen, scratching on a sheet of paper. Source: https://www.pinterest.com/pin/735634920356474407/

By Amy Guajardo

Through the rhetorical grammar lens, what differences and similarities can be found between the two novels The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston? The Bluest Eye, written in 1970, follows the life of a young African American girl named Pecola. Our main character’s story is told mostly through her friend’s point of view. Their Eyes Were Watching God, written in 1937, and follows the life of an African American woman as she tells her life story to a friend. Both of these novels have an informal tone as the narrators are telling a story. Each book follows a young woman through important events in their life. Taking excerpts from each novel, I will compare and contrast the rhetorical grammar devices and styles used.

POINTS OF VIEW AND TENSES

Their Eyes Were Watching God begins at the end of Janie’s journey. She is coming home from being away for a while and telling her friend what she had been through. Her story takes us back to her childhood. We see what her life had been like growing up with her grandma, and through her life with three different husbands.

Well then, we can set right where we is and talk. Ah got the house
all opened up to let dis breeze get a little catchin’. Pheoby, we been
kissing’-friends for twenty years, so Ah depend on you for a good
thought. And Ah’m talking to you from dat standpoint. (Hurston 7)

This is where Janie begins to tell her friend, Pheoby, her story. Janie trusts Pheoby to listen and let her get everything off her chest. She goes back to when she was a child living with a white family that her grandmother worked for, and continues her story until she catches up to the evening she returns to town and catches up with Pheoby. The characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God speak with a Southern African American dialect. The dialect gives a depth of reality to the characters, it allows the reader to hear how they would actually be speaking if they were standing right in front of you.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston uses third person point of view. “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone.” (8) While Janie is the one who begins to tell her story to Pheoby, the narrator takes over and tells the story from a third person point of view. The use of “Janie” and “her” are what I use to identify the point of view. When Janie is speaking in the dialogue she uses “Ah” (I) when referring to herself. However, the dialogue does not affect the point of view and the “Ah” is only seen in the dialogue.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is told in past tense. In this example sentence from the text, Hurston uses the past tense verbs “was” and “had come”. “So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead.” (Hurston 1)

In The Bluest Eye, we follow Pecola’s story for a year of her life. It is divided up by the seasons and also told from different points of view. Pecola’s story is mostly told by her friend, Claudia.

Mama had told us two days earlier that a ‘case’ was coming- a girl who had no place to go. The county had placed her with us until they could decide what to do, or, more precisely, until the family was reunited. (Morrison 16)

This excerpt is where Pecola is introduced to the story. Claudia tells Pecola’s story from her 9-year-old point of view. Like Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Claudia then goes back in Pecola’s story to fill in any missing information. As additional major characters are introduced to the story, the narrator flashbacks to the beginning of each of their stories. This happens for Pecola’s parents, Pauline and Cholly, and a religious man, Soaphead Church.

In The Bluest Eye, Morrison uses first person point of view. “My supply of ideas exhausted, I began to concentrate on the white spots on my fingernails.” (Morrison 27) The use of the first person pronouns “my” and “I” are what I used to identify the first person point of view. Later in the book, during flashbacks, it switches to third person point of view. “Cholly stirred. The ache in his head was all he felt.” (Morrison 157) The third person pronouns used here are “his” and “he” as well as referring to Cholly by his name.

The Bluest Eye begins and ends with an older Claudia speaking in past tense over the events that happened as a 9-year-old. “We thought, at the time, that it was because Pecola was having her father’s baby that the marigolds did not grow.” (Morrison 5) The difference in tenses can be seen in these two quotes from the novel. When the narration switches to 9-year-old Claudia the tense switches to a present tense. As seen in this line, “Rosemary Villanucci… sits in a 1939 Buick eating bread and butter. She rolls down the window to tell my sister Frieda and me that we can’t come in.” (Morrison 9) The present tense of 9-year-old Claudia puts the reader in the action of the story.


RHETORICAL GRAMMAR STYLE CHOICES

Hurston begins Janie’s story with this paragraph.

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment. (Hurston 1)

This sentence fragment is here to add detail about the dead. I find it interesting because it is a deliberate fragment. After years of having it repeated over and over again that fragments are bad, here is a deliberate fragment. According to Kolln and Gray, “…experienced writers know how to add a detail without a full sentence.” (Kolln and Gray 134) That is what I believe Hurston did here.

In the second and fourth sentence of this excerpt Hurston makes two statements about Pheoby with the transitional phrase “but” to then contrast her first statement.

They sat there in the fresh young darkness close together. Pheoby eager to feel and do through Janie, but hating to show her zest for fear it might be thought mere curiosity. Janie full of that oldest human longing—self-revelation. Pheoby held her tongue for a long time, but she couldn’t help moving her feet. So Janie spoke. (Hurston 7)

By doing this, Hurston emphasizes Pheoby’s feelings. Pheoby was her friend before she left and now that she is back Phoeby wants to go back to how it was, but she is also there for the gossip and to find out what happened to her friend, Janie. The “but” adds the emphasis between the two feelings being portrayed in each sentence.

This metaphor opens Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. (Hurston 1)

In this metaphor, ships hold men’s dreams and stay out of reach. The goals and dreams are only attainable by time and good fortune, but for most men- their dreams will never come to fruition. Where Hurston adds emphasis in transitions, Morrison uses power words. For instance, in this excerpt:

It was autumn too when Mr. Henry came. Our roomer. Our roomer. The words ballooned from the lips and hovered about our heads – silent, separate, and pleasantly mysterious. My mother was all ease and satisfaction in discussing his coming. (Morrison 12)

The narrator is talking about a conversation with her mother. She is describing the heaviness of the words as silent, separate, and mysterious. Then in the next sentence “ease” and “satisfaction” aren’t words I would normally call power words, but juxtaposed with the previous sentence they stand out and are seen. The addition of “pleasantly” before “mysterious” adds emphasis by taking away the negative connotation from the power words that surround it. This makes “pleasantly” an adverbial of emphasis. If you took out the “pleasantly” in that sentence I would be scared of Mr. Henry; however, with the “pleasantly” placed there I am intrigued. In the prologue of The Bluest Eye, we find a metaphor that gives insight to both Claudia’s mindset and to Pecola’s troubles.

We had dropped our seeds in our own little plot of black dirt just as Pecola’s father had dropped his seeds in his own plot of black dirt. Our innocence and faith were no more productive than his lust or despair. What is clear now is that of all of that hope, fear, lust, love, and grief, nothing remains but Pecola and the unyielding earth. Cholly Breedlove is dead; our innocence too. The seeds shriveled and died; her baby too. (Morrison 6)

The metaphor compares Pecola’s father’s actions to planting seeds. Cholly had actually raped and impregnated her. The “seeds” would be his sperm and the “pot of black dirt” would be Pecola. Claudia and her sister bargain with God that if the flowers can grow then the baby can live. Sometimes conditions are not good enough for seeds to sprout- just as sometimes during a pregnancy conditions are not ideal and a miscarriage happens. This shows the childlike mindset of our narrator trying to use the flowers to save Pecola’s baby.

CONCLUSION

Morrison and Hurston wrote two wonderful books about African American women. They chose some similar rhetorical grammar styles like metaphors, points of view and tenses. Both authors also made choices that were different from each other; like Hurston’s use of transitional phrases and Morrison’s use of power words. Overall, both works are powerful in their own right as essential literature for dual credit students.

Works Cited

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 75th Anniversary, Amistad, 2006.

Kolln, Martha, and Loretta Gray. Rhetorical Grammar: Grammatical Choices, Rhetorical Effects. 8th ed., Pearson, 2016.

Morrison, Toni. The Bluest Eye (Vintage International). Reprint, Vintage, 2007.

Published by modcasters

We’re a group of graduate students studying English Literature and Language on a mission to discuss literature, provide access to those on the deafness and/or blindness spectrum, and rock mustachios.

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