Adoption of “Outsider” Perspectives in American Literature

When looking at different novels, readers tend to look at the perspectives adopted and portrayed by the authors in their works. In the two stories, Their Eyes Were Watching God and Catcher in the Rye, the authors adopt “outsider” perspectives, as can be seen in their narrative development. Over the years these two novels have been the subject of much debate and criticism due to their “outsider” perspectives. In particular, Zora Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has been subjected to decades of critical attention. The angst that is characteristic of Holden is used by the author of Catcher in the Rye to distinguish the “outsider” character in Holden, as the unparalleled representation of teenage rebelliousness in today’s literature (Salinger 5; Hurston 222). This paper provides a comparative analysis of the role and adoption of “outsider” perspectives in communicating of the authors’ message in the novels Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Catcher in the Rye.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, the author uses symbolism in a style that makes her narration resemble a folk story or myth. Focus is laid on the female psyche by upsetting the human/animal boundary in a way that makes the scenes appear absurd or contorted by means of comical violence (Hurston 208). The text in many ways contradicts feminism. Yet, it was ordinary for leading women during this time after Harlem Renaissance to clamor for feminist emancipation, but Hurston thought otherwise. “Outsider” perspective comes out clearly in the narration about the encounter between Mrs. Turner and Tea Cake. The narrator uses ‘milky’ to refer to Mrs. Turner’s motherhood, in addition to linking her to the cow in “Then that same cow took and stepped in her mouth…” when describing her looks. We are shown Tea Cake ridiculing her for her shape which he compares to an object of domestic drudgery (Hurston 207). Fortaki (1256) argues that there is widespread embracement of male norms in the society and the absence of women in symbolic representation that entrenches the doctrines of patriarchal societies.

Further, Their Eyes Were watching God is seen to revolve around the ideas of racial identity and gender. The narrative in this highly influential novel is potent with depth and uses poetic language and folklore-like language to express the intended message. For example, the term ‘mule’ appears throughout the novel symbolizing the black and white women that underwent ridicule and maltreatment by the evil society. In addition, the hurricane is used to symbolize the psyche of emancipated black women who had undergone the pains of destruction, thereby becoming an eradicator and destroyer of white power as unreal distinctions and hierarchies. Thusly, the people – the women in the American society that the author seeks to emancipate – are compelled to have a look and face the God (Hurston 29).

In the Catcher in the Rye, the narration opens with obscurity concerning the identity of the narration follows a similarly peculiar style as in Their Eyes Were Watching God in their respective individual contexts. In the former, the narrator is hesitant to reveal himself but when he does, he addresses the reader directly. He also reveals his family relations and that he is indeed a literary narrator when he alludes to David Copperfield, which is a novel by Charles Dicken’s that is full of autobiographical elements in it which are not easy to notice at the surface level. For example, the narrator begins as follows, “If you really want to hear about it, … all that David Copperfield kind of crap .. I’ll just tell you..” (Salinger 1). There is much eventfulness throughout the narration that is characterised by recursion, stasis, and bathetic deflation. Sayeau argues, “Works of literature are predicated on eventfulness” (Sayeau 35). This “outsider” approach seeks to elicit interest in the reader by not following the customary order of eventuation in the narration of the story besides tampering with the narrative.

Holden Caulfield is portrayed as an “outsider” in The Catcher in the Rye because he suffers from teen angst and is also being troubled by other feelings, and therefore experiences sentiments that he is way outside the normal lives other people go through. He is therefore an outsider since he has lost all motivation that is necessary for individuals in teenage stage. He becomes pessimistic and is unable to relate with his classmates. He is disillusioned in many things and feels that he is alienated from his former teacher, who was his favorite. In the beginning of the narration, Holden explains about his brother’s going to Hollywood and him having become a “prostitute” writer citing the reason that he no longer writes genuine books. He also tells of not planning to attend the football match and bitterly questions the value of education since he feels that he has no meaningful purpose in which he best serve his generation.     He is complains that people work so hard through the educational system only so that they can afford to obtain material vanities in the future. He is disappointed that the football team is so mad at him since they previously missed a game when he left heavy equipment on the subway. Disappointedly, Holden says, “you have to keep making believe you give a damn if the football team loses”. Another reason that he feels that he cannot attend the much anticipated football match is that he has received an expulsion notice and is afraid that he has to not be able to be with his classmates since he cannot risk seeing his history teacher again (Salinger 88).

On her part, Zora Hurston particularizes his literary work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, where her story addresses a white audience by targeting their implicit bias – she is a connoisseur at this. It would naturally have been expected of her to write themes the way other mainstream African Americans writers were doing it, by addressing the Negros with their literature. Thusly being an “outsider”, she continues the use of the minstrel technique to help in delivering her message. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, a minstrel refers to “A medieval singer or musician, especially one who sang or recited lyric or heroic poetry to a musical accompaniment for the nobility”. Richard Wright, the ideal example of an “insider” author directs much criticism towards Hurst’s Their Eyes Were Watching God since her work is created just to entertain the “white folks”. He argues that Hurst’s [black] characters “eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears” (Wright 23).

Moreover, other critics such as Romeyn (211) believe that Hurst’s work can only be relevant in racial ventriloquism. According to Romeyn, “For the time being, the centrality of African American performance in the creation of a modern, inauthentic, role-playing self could be acknowledged only in racial ventriloquism, through erasure”. Yet, a ventriloquist is “A person, especially an entertainer, who can make their voice appear to come from somewhere else, typically a dummy of a person or animal” (Oxford English Dictionary). Another kind of ‘othering’ that effectively defines Hurst as an outsider is her description of the American Indians and their inability to resist the subjugation by the whites in their own indigenous land – America. She explains that if the Aborigines were more intellectually capable, they would have long resisted white rule in the United States and reclaimed and rule their indigenous country. Romeyn further likens Hurst with Bert Williams as another master of the “minstrel mask” and the two face criticism where their efforts are termed mere colonial mimicry that creates virtual subjects that narcissistically demand some form of colonial subjugation. It was unusual for African American literature at this time to follow in this direction when all other black authors were engrossed in fighting for equal rights and other aggravations especially now that this was a period after the Harlem Renaissance. Romeyn further likens minstrel mask to “colonial mimicry” … a form of repetition and self-doubling that produces a “virtual subject” who incorporates the “narcissistic demand of colonial authority”” (Romeyn 201).

The concepts of minstrelsy and masking raise serious concerns in the eyes of the key critics of the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God      especially so in relation to the minstrel characters alluded to in the Jim Crow laws that are viewed as openly and unapologetically segregationist against the black community. In reference to this, Du Bois (284) criticizes the African American literature that such as Hurst’s and Bert Williams’ as being products of “double-consciousness”, he says is viewing one’s own race through the eyes of another race. Du Bois argues, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity”. He was critical that fellow African Americans could engage in literature that was not loyal to their own heritage. In this way the outsider perspective incorporated by in the Hurst’s novel is clearly visible. This is described in the concept of double consciousness as aforementioned by Du Bois in his novel The Souls of the Black Folk where he proposes that the biggest challenge of the 20th century is the race issue. As such, outsider perspectives are identified as unnecessary obstacles for the progress of the black race (287).

However, Their Eyes Were Watching God receives literary acclaim from some authors such as Spencer who recognizes the subtle radical political approach in her message that many only chose to see through the hue of their skins and not through a broader that are not subjective in any way. According to Zora Hurston, one’s self-respect should not be hinged upon decisions by the High Court. She defends her position by indicating that true and sincere freedom cannot be declared by a court of law since the bias within the white folk remains the same regardless of the legal proclamations of the law. Hurston argues that, “The whole matter revolves around the self-respect of my people. How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them? …. I regard the ruling of the United States Supreme Court as insulting rather than honoring my race” (Spencer 115). This is further elaborated in the author’s selection of characters. Janie seeks to fulfill her dreams despite having a dark past. She was born of a grandmother and mother who had been raped, something that goes a long way in highlighting the hardships and psychological violence that some black women had to endure. She struggles through multiple relationships until she eventually finds some respite in her last marriage with Tea (Spencer 115).

In modern contemporary literature, Hurst’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has been embraced and admired because of its efficient recording and enacting cultural strategies ultimately aimed at resistance (Hughes 402-03). For example, we can see conversations among the guards who were debating chapter 19 about burying blacks without coffins but at the same time having whites buried in coffins yet both parties died under the same circumstances. This offers subtle critique of the Jim Crow’s laws which were the foundations upon which segregationist existence at was based. Unfortunately, the blacks’ corpses have lime spread on their dead bodies to suffice for coffins (Hurston 228). Concerning the dead black men, the guards in Their Eyes Were Watching God say, “They cain’t find enough of ’em tuh go ’round. Jus’ sprinkle plenty quick-lime over ’em and cover ’em up” (228). Hence, the author indirectly tries to empower the ladies and also the blacks through her pragmatic protest literature since she knew that lacked the spirit of urgency in addressing the issue. Her herself having experienced racism, slavery, and gender inequality, she seeks to present the cruel environment which the blacks had to stomach, with nothing much to do to change their reality (Hurston et al 1041).

Similar to Hurst’s critique of the society, albeit through subtle means, is the social critique offered by Salinger in his Catcher in the Rye. Here the author is critical of the new paradigms within the post-war society he lives in where people are more and more consumerist in their attitude towards life. As a result of the social apathy and isolation brought about by the effects of the World War II, the rapid advance in technology comes along with mass production that causes most people group together into homogenous social structures characterized by their spending habits (Kinane 117). In reference to this, Kinane explains that “The country had just emerged victorious from a major World War, and consumer spending increased rapidly on an expanding array of new technologies” (117). This perspective reveals the author as an “outsider” to the white society that has the features of a consumerist culture. The author further juxtaposes these capitalist excesses with the horrors that had become of the War years and the terrible economic depression of the early 1930s, which isolates and disillusions Holden while breeding feelings of frustration and apathy. This causes Holden to long for something more than just mere social inclusion and as a result looks for an intimate and authentic communication with another. This helps in bringing the predicaments of the contemporary teenager to the fore, which was a generation opposed and silenced with repression, for whom the mainstream ideologies and ideals had fail to work. Kinane further explains that “Holden Caulfield encapsulated the sheer frustration of a society that had been irrevocably altered in the wake of war” (118). This is similar to the character Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God, where she struggles to keep her head up in a society where black women are afforded little or no regard.

Further, the two novels are similar in their use language styles that hold back social critique. For example, in the Catcher in the Rye, Holden is unable to cope with the strictness of Spencer and therefore addresses him using very neat and literate language when he talks to him. Inasmuch Holden holds him in low regard; he particularizes his faked politeness towards Spencer since he is supposed to be his ‘mentor’, according to the immediate society (Yazdanjoo 767). Yazdanjoo further explains the role of Holden as an “outsider” as follows: “Holden’s sneering attitude toward orthodox and institutionalised conventions characterises him as a social misfit who rejoices at ignoring the practices prescribed by the civil society”. Additionally, he uses his own uniquely remarkable language style in making descriptions about his peers and classmates, words that he never openly uses when talking to Antolini, Spencer and other grown-ups. Those that are subject to his bitter utterances include Sally, Stradlater, and his other peers. Therefore, his inner world differs from his outer world, thus making it complex to distinguish his temperament as “non-conformist” or “rebellious” (770).

Hurst achieves the same ends in her Their Eyes Were Watching God by the use of carnivalesque language style to portray the Southern grotesque. According to Kershner, “the carnival undermines the concept of authoritative utterance” and disparages norms in the society. This helps in delivering the message in a subtle manner, the same as the withholding of critique by Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye withholds bitter language when talking to Spencer and other adults. This way, Hurst is able to communicate the acts of resistance among the blacks in the South. This style also shows death as unimportant and an equalizer of all human beings and helps the blacks in viewing themselves as not inferior to the white race since everybody dies in the end. The carnival atmosphere used in this novel also degrades the human body through the employment of the grotesque mule body in order to ridicule the notion of being human. It is by downplaying the notion of humanity that the concerned parties are able to transcend racism and view it as an unimportant issue to dwell on. This exemplifies Hurston’s outsider perspectives the more, and helps in driving her intended message to her audience indirectly and subtly encouraging the mockery of the authorities while giving a voice for the marginalized to be heard. However, the use of carnivalesque is intended as an intermezzo which should not only be a temporary state of affairs. Bakhtin elaborates the use of carnivalesque by Hurston as “The essential principle of grotesque realism is degradation, that is, the lowering of all that is high, spiritual, ideal, abstract; it is a transfer to the material level, to the sphere of earth and body in their indissoluble unity” (Bakhtin 20).

In both literary works of Hurst and Salinger, the leading, struggling characters find solutions in the end and therefore realize their “dreams”. In the Catcher in the Rye, Holden is advised by Antolini that the more and more a man comes to maturation, the more he discovers a cause and calling to humbly live for. Antolini explains to Holden that there are many that have before him that were stuck in the same dilemmas as he is and from whom he can learn a lot from so that he can also provide inspiration for future generations if he moulds himself appropriately (Salinger 204). According to Steckel (Beidler 73), Holden ought to “learn to give up his belief in his unconquerable nature, the fiction of his ‘great historic mission,’” in order for him to realize his dreams of protecting innocent children from the harsh realities that come with being a grown-up (Beidler 75). In the end, Holden’s concern leads him to the realization of the superficiality and phoniness of the adult world. He believes the adult society as lost to materialism and have a strong intent on saving the innocent children from falling off the “cliff” into this endless nightmare of the adult society. He is an outsider, in comparison to other adolescents his age and that why he sees the reality differently (Salinger 225).

Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God undergoes numerous challenges in her quest for living an enlightened life where she will not suffer due to her gender or race. In her relationship with Logan, the author explains that he is weirdly insensitive to and way too old to be in a relationship with Janie. This “outsider” perspective can be seen from the beginning where the author permanently discredits Logan’s ability to ever become a good husband for Janie since he is shown to dehumanize her daily and their relationship is awarded too little a time by the author. Then the couple soon breaks up and Janie moves on with Joe Starks whose relationship with Janie sooner or later comes to a standstill since he lacks pertinent communication skills that are necessary for a successful relationship. In addition, Joe is likes to dominate her and has the tendency for pursuing power in the same manner that the whites used to do in the times of slavery. In this relationship, Joe always has the upper hand in all matters but things change for Janie when Joe dies, leaving with the inheritance of a fortune that enables Janie to (for once!) experience the joy of living as her own person. Thereafter, Janie courts Tea Cake whereupon their marriage brings into play various forms of equality that were not present in her previous marriages. She realizes her “dreams” with the ideal husband Tea Cake with whom he lives as an equal (Hurston 150).

In conclusion, both authors – Hurst and Salinger use different motifs to advance their stories by using “outsider” perspectives in order to drive their message home. Both use relationships within the community in order to help in portraying their themes. It is through relationships that these authors have shown that to become enlightened requires the continuous application of a combination of efforts and approaches. The moral provided by the “outsider” perspectives is that by becoming independent, we can be successful in our endeavors. The characters Janie and Holden become contented and find success in the end after talking to Tea Cake and Antolini, respectively. The challenges the characters in these two novels went through are still relevant today. Though life presents us with adversity it is only wise that we persist and unwaveringly seek to behold the light at the end of the tunnel as the fuel of our dreams and coziest imaginations.


Works Cited

Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World (1965), trans. by Helene Iswolsky (Bloomington:             Indiana University Press, 1984).
Beidler, Peter G. “The Sources of the Steckel Quotation in Salinger’s The Catcher in the             Rye.” ANQ: A Quarterly Journal of Short Articles, Notes and Reviews 26.2 (2013): 71-       75.
David Sayeau. Against the Event: The Everyday and the Evolution of Modernist Narrative             (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2013), pp. 29, 35, 13.
Du Bois, William Edward Burghardt. “The problem of the twentieth century is the problem of         the color line.” On sociology and the black community(1901): 281-289.
Hughes, M. Elaine. “Africa and the Americas: Culture, Politics, and History.” Reference & User    Services Quarterly 48.4 (2009): 402-403.
Hurston, Zora Neale, et al. “The Norton Anthology of African American Literature.” (2004):            1041.
Kinane, Ian. “” Phonies” and Phone Calls: Social Isolation, the Problem of Language, and JD        Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye.” Arizona Quarterly: A Journal of American Literature,       Culture, and Theory 73.4 (2017): 117-132.
Marianna Fotaki, ‘No Woman is Like a Man (in Academia): The Masculine Symbolic Order and        the Unwanted Female Body’, Organization Studies, 34.9, 1251-75 (1256-57).
Oxford English Dictionary. “minstrel”. Retrieved from   
Romeyn, Esther. Street Scenes: Staging the Self in Immigrant New York, 1880-1924.             Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press,           2008: 211.
Salinger, J. D. The Catcher in the Rye (1945-46; 1951). Penguin, 2010.
Spencer, Stephen. “Radical Politics and the Literary Reception of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their   Eyes Were Watching God.” Multiethnic Literature and Canon Debates. Eds. Mary Jo        Bona and Irma Maini. Albany: State University Press of New York, 2006:115. Print.
Stefania Ciocia. “‘The World Loves an Underdog,’ or the Continuing Appeal of the Adolescent      Rebel Narrative: A Comparative Reading of Vernon God Little, The Catcher in the Rye       and Huckleberry Finn”. Children’s Literature in Education, 2016 <DOI: 10.1007/s10583-         016-9287-1>
Gelfant, Blanche H. The Columbia Companion to the Twentieth-Century American Short Story. Columbia University Press, 2000.
Wright, Richard. “Between Laughter and Tears.” The New Masses, (5 October     1937): 22-23.
Yazdanjoo, Morteza, Mahmoud Reza Ghorban Sabbagh, and Hesamoddin Shahriari. “Stylistic         features of Holden Caulfield’s language in JD Salinger’s The Catcher in the Rye: a corpus-based study.” English Studies 97.7 (2016): 763-778.

3 thoughts on “Adoption of “Outsider” Perspectives in American Literature

  1. Ah….look at that: you caught us working through our crap!

    Yes, indeed, this kind of writing happens big historically in the U.S. — often as a means of exploring how “we” really feel or “ought” to feel…Sometimes as a way of being a “proxy” for voices we know will not be given the stage to express themselves and then we wind up in this misbegotten attempt to speak “for” those Others and typically get it wrong. It’s a Road to Hell Initiative… and while we are still guilty of “editing” the REAL voices of Others far too often, we are (ironically sometimes because OF these previous attempts to address the needs of the Other in place of the Other’s own voice) slowly crawling toward HEARING those very Other voices… on their OWN terms.

    It’s a process. And it tells oh so much about us as a country — for good or ill.

    Liked by 1 person

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