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In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston uses metonymy several times in order to express motifs which appear throughout the novel. For instance, one of the clearest examples of metonymy, the porch, appears as a whole or general entity, which Hurston uses to describe specific elements of Janie’s experience, in this case, the people, or particularly, the men. The porch represents a community, a cooperative body of people. At the end of the day, Hurston notes, the porch serves as a place to relax for the black people, after, “Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins” (1). Here, people gather to socialize, becoming one body, an example of metonymy.
Most importantly, the porch acts as a gathering place for Eatonville’s men to engage in discussions and forums. For example, Hurston states, “The porch was boiling now. Starks left the store to Hezekiah Potts, the delivery boy, and come took a seat in his high chair” (66). This quotation shows the conformist nature of the black men of Janie’s community. Instead of describing how Lige Moss, Sam Watson, or others boiled, Hurston depicts them as a collective body where all share the same ignorant sentiments and views and find themselves unwilling to profess a different set of opinions. They boil, laugh, and cry at the same time for the same reasons. The “boiling” does not apply to Jody’s porch itself, but the men which occupy and define it. Plus, this example shows that Jody’s porch holds a central role in the community and reinforces his role as the leader the one who sits in the “high chair.”
Moreover, the men often engage in misogynistic talk, as Hurston describes the black female experience. She notes, “That was what the porch was waiting for. They burst into a laugh.” When a destitute, but persistent mother begs Joe for a little free sustenance from his store (73). By laughing at her, the entire porch humiliates her, ensuring that she, as well as other women, remain lower than men. This quotation shows how the men, in their conformity, mistrust the woman and reduce her to an inferior status, knowing she must subordinate herself to them to survive and taking advantage of that. Thus, Hurston vents her distaste with certain spineless black men. However, this metonymy represents both the negative and the positive of black life: the collectively oppressive force of black men as well as a strong sense of community.
Another example of metonymy appears in chapter six. Here, the mule roughly represents the black woman; an example of metonymy where one word substitutes another that seems closely associated. Although most readers do not often see the comparison of a black woman to a mule, in black tradition and in the black experience, this comparison often surfaces. As a black female writer, Hurston most likely chose this metonymy for its empathy towards the black woman. As Nanny forewarns Janie in her younger years, “De nigger woman is de mule of de world so fur as Ah can see” (14). Nanny also confesses that she prays Janie can receive a better life. Yet, the way Matt Bonner starves his mule of food reminds the reader how Jody starves Janie of independence. Janie empathizes with the poor creature when, “Five or six more men left the porch and surrounded the fractious beast, goosing him in the sides and making him show his temper. But he had more spirit left than body. He was soon panting and heaving from the effort of spinning his old carcass about. Everybody was having fun at the mule-baiting. All but Janie” (57).
The mule represents the black woman, especially Janie, a mulatto. Like the half-horse, half-donkey mule, Janie comes from the merging of different parents, one black and one white. The two words even sound alike. Even Joe’s purchase of the mule serves as a clever metaphor for Jody’s exploitation of the townsfolk, especially the woman, to glorify himself. Jody buys the mule not to save it from its master’s torment, but to convince the people of his kindness and charity, which he indeed lacks. He therefore prohibits his wife from attending the funeral because the whole charade strikes Jody as a gathering where he can once again promote himself.
Yet, he must rid himself of Janie, who might protest against the spectacle. Despite Janie’s absence, the buzzards speak for her when the Parson asks, “What killed this man?” To which the crowd of buzzards replies, “Bare, bare fat.” Meaning the cruelty and starvation the mule endured at the hands of Matt Bonner (62). This echoes the plight of the black woman, who constantly finds herself tormented, controlled, starved, exploited, and beaten by the black man, supposedly her counterpart and supporter. This metonymy serves to depict the toilsome struggles of Janie and her peers via the pathetic and saddening life of the yellow mule.
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