Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God charts the development of an African American woman living in the 1920s and 1930s as she searches for her true identity.
A Search for Self
Although the novel follows Janie through three relationships with men, most critics see its main theme to be Janie’s search for herself. She must fight off the influences of her grandmother, who encourages her to sacrifice self-fulfillment for security, and her first two husbands, who stifle her development. Her second husband, Jody, has an especially negative impact on Janie’s growth as his bourgeois aspirations turn her into a symbol of his stature in the town. She is not allowed to be herself, but must conform to his notions of propriety, which means she cannot enjoy the talk of the townsfolk on the porch, let alone participate in it. After he is elected mayor, she is asked to give “a few words uh encouragement,” but Jody interrupts the applause by telling the town, “mah wife don’t know nothin’ ’bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for her nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.” After this, Janie feels “cold,” realizing that by cutting her off, Jody has prevented her from deciding for herself whether or not she even wanted to give a speech. Throughout the rest of her marriage, Janie must bury her own desires to the point where she loses sight of them altogether. But after Jody’s death she feels a freedom she has never known.
When the young Tea Cake enters her life, she decides that she has done what Jody and the town have wanted her to do long enough, so she rejects their ideas for her future and marries a younger man. Her relationship with Tea Cake allows her to find herself in a way that had not been possible before. But some critics see Tea Cake as another obstacle to Janie’s development. In some ways, their relationship is conventional in the sense that Janie willingly defers to his judgment and follows him on his adventures. “Once upon uh time, Ah never ‘spected nothin’, Tea Cake, but being’ dead from the standin’ still and tryin’ tuh laugh,” she tells him. “But you come ‘long and made somethin’ out me.” Statements like this have caused critics to question how successful Janie is at discovering her true self. But some see the ending as a reaffirmation that a woman must find herself on her own. By killing Tea Cake in self-defense, although she deeply regrets having to do so, Janie has come full circle in her development. She now knows who she is and has found “peace.” In the closing lines the narrator tells us, “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net,” indicating that she no longer has to seek for meaning outside of herself in the world; she has found it within herself.
B Language and Meaning
Integral to Janie’s search for self is her quest to become a speaking subject. Language is depicted in the novel as the means by which one becomes a full-fledged member of the community and, hence, a full human being. In Eatonville, the men engage in “eternal arguments, … a contest in hyperbole and carried on for no other reason.” These contests in language are the central activities in the town, but only the men are allowed to participate. Janie especially regrets being excluded, but “gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush.” But the dam of repressed language erupts when Jody ridicules her aging body in front of the men in the store. Her speech then becomes a weapon as she tells him (and everyone else), “When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.” By comparing him to a woman going through menopause, she attacks his manhood in an irretrievable way. Janie has gained her voice, and in the process has metaphorically killed her husband, whose strength has resided in her silence and submission. Later, when Janie and Tea Cake are on the muck, Janie becomes a full member of the community, as signified by her ability as a speaking subject. “The men held big arguments here like they used to on the store porch. Only here, she could listen and laugh and even talk some herself if she wanted to. She got so she could tell big stories herself from listening to the rest.” At the end of the book, Janie’s return to tell her story to the town, through Pheoby, signals to some critics her reintegration in the community. Others, though, believe she is still excluded because she will not speak to them directly.
C Race and Racism
Although there is very little discussion of relations between whites and blacks in the novel, racism and class differences are shown to have infected the African American community. The supposed biological and cultural superiority of whiteness hovers over the lives of all the black Characters in the book, as Janie witnesses the moral bankruptcy of those who value whiteness over their own black selves. Joe Starks is on his way to Eatonville when Janie meets him, because he is tired of being subservient to whites. He intends in an all-black town to have power over others, a kind of power that is modeled on that of white men. He possesses a “bow-down command in his face,” and his large white house impresses the town because it makes the rest of the houses in town resemble “servants’ quarters surrounding the ‘big house,’” reflecting the housing arrangements of plantations during slavery. He also buys a desk like those owned by prominent white men in the neighboring town of Maitland and adopts behaviors which mimic the habits of middle-class whites. For Jody, success is measured by standards adopted from the white community, and as a result, he looks down on the townsfolk as “common” and even as his inferiors. One of the men comments, “You kin feel a switch in his hand when he’s talking to yuh.” Janie’s rejection of Jody’s feelings of superiority and his emphasis on attaining bourgeois respectability have led many critics to see the novel as a critique of middle-class blacks who had gained some prestige in the 1920s but had also lost their connection with the roots of the black community, the folk.
This critique becomes more explicit in Janie and Tea Cake’s dismissal of Mrs. Turner’s feelings of superiority over dark-skinned blacks. As a fair-skinned and financially well-off mulatto, Mrs. Turner desires to separate herself and Janie, who is also mulatto, from the “black folks.” She tells Janie, “We oughta lighten up de race,” and “Us oughta class off.” But Janie responds, “Us can’t do it. We’se uh mingled people and all of us got black kinfolks as well as yaller kinfolks.” For Janie, there are no divisions in the black community. She has moved easily from her high-class position in Eatonville to her life amongst the folk with Tea Cake, and together they have welcomed the black workers from the Bahamas, who had previously been ostracized from the African Americans on the muck. In addition, Mrs. Turner’s racist ideas are ridiculed by the narrator, who writes, “Behind her crude words was a belief that somehow she and others through worship could attain her paradise-a heaven of straight-haired, thin-lipped, high-nose boned white seraphs. The physical impossibilities in no way injured faith.” Racism and division within the African American community are finally revealed as not only ridiculous but as tragic, as a woman like Mrs. Turner is consumed by self-hatred, the inherent by-product of her disdain of blackness. Only through a loving acceptance of all things black can one become a full, healthy human being, as Janie learns.
Their Eyes Were Watching God follows Janie Crawford’s growth through two stifling marriages and one that allows her to blossom into self-awareness.
Although the framing device of Janie telling Pheoby her story sets up the novel as Janie’s story, it is not told in the first person. Instead, a narrative voice tells most of the story, and there has been much discussion of whose voice this is. Claire Crabtree, writing in Southern Literary Journal, argues that it is “always close to but not identical with Janie’s consciousness,” indicating that the omniscient narrator, who knows more about other Characters’ thoughts than Janie could know herself, is also closely aligned with the heroine. The narrator also uses free indirect speech at many points to convey Janie’s thoughts, another indication that the narrator and Janie’s consciousness are closely aligned. But Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in his The Signifying Monkey, argues that the narrative voice “echoes and aspires to the status of the impersonality, anonymity, and authority of the black vernacular tradition, a nameless, selfless tradition, at once collective and compelling.” The narrator, then, who speaks in standard English, while the Characters speak in black dialect, becomes, according to Gates, more and more representative of the black community as it progressively adopts the patterns of black vernacular speech. The narrative voice takes on the aspect of oral speech, telling not only Janie’s story, but many other stories as well. For example, Nanny’s voice takes over as she tells the story of Janie’s heritage, and the voices on the porch also take over for long stretches as their “arguments” tell the story of life in Eatonville. In essence, there are many storytellers within the larger story of Janie’s life, and many voices inform the novel.
One of the most unique features of Their Eyes Were Watching God is its integration of folklore with fiction. Hurston borrows literary devices from the black rural oral tradition, which she studied as an anthropologist, to further cement her privileging of that tradition over the Western literary tradition. For example, she borrows the technique of repetition in threes found commonly in folklore in her depiction of Janie’s three marriages. Also, in the words of Claire Crabtree, “Janie follows a pattern familiar to folklorists of a young person’s journey from home to face adventure and various dangers, followed by a triumphant homecoming.” In addition, Janie returns “richer and wiser” than she left, and she is ready to share her story with Pheoby, intending that the story be repeated, as a kind of folktale to be passed on.
G Harlem Renaissance
The Harlem Renaissance, which experienced its heyday in Harlem in the 1920s but also flourished well into the 1930s, was an outpouring of creative innovation among blacks that celebrated the achievements of black intellectuals and artists. The initial goal of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance was to overcome racism and convince the white public that African Americans were more intelligent than the stereotypes of docile, ignorant blacks that pervaded the popular arena. In order to do so, then, most of the early writers associated with the movement imitated the Themes and styles of mainstream, white literature. But later writers felt that African American literature should depict the unique and debilitating circumstances in which blacks lived, confronting their white audiences with scenes of brutal racism. Zora Neale Hurston, considered the most important female member of the Harlem Renaissance, felt that the writings of African Americans should celebrate the speech and traditions of black people. The use of dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God caused much controversy among other black writers of the day when it was first published because many felt that such language in the mouths of black Characters perpetuated negative stereotypes about blacks as ignorant, but critics today agree that the novel’s celebration of black language was the most important contribution Hurston made to African American literature.