Their Eyes Were Watching God is a story about a woman’s self-discovery. Zora Neale Hurston, a feminist writer, portrays a progressive attitude towards women. This is clearly demonstrated through the choice of her main character in the novel, Janie Crawford. Janie is portrayed has a beautiful black woman, the men notice her tight bottom, her beautiful hair and her "pugnacious breasts." The women show envy of her and hope she will be of the same level some day. She has strong will power to find happiness and live with memories of happiness thereafter (Hurston 10-11).
The novel revolves around Janie’s relationships with other characters. Her search for refined enlightenment and a strong sense of identity is clearly evident in the novel through finally becoming assertive to Jody, and being able to live independently after the death of Tea Cake. Hurston has portrayed a story of developing character and finally becoming independent woman. This can be seen through her use of language including silence, use of her voice and finally the relationship she had with the men in her life.
Janie learns how to shoot from Tea Cake and apparently becomes better than him. Janie's hair is an influential symbol of her individual trait and sexual orientation. It is thick, and healthy: "the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume" (Hurston 231). The novel narrates the development of the major character, Janie Crawford. When the novel comes to an end, Janie goes back to Eatonville a strong, independent and proud woman who has expressed changes and personal development throughout her journey, but at the beginning of her story, she is confused about herself (Hurston 1).
Janie is unlike other black women. Her marriage is pathetic and Nanny wonders why. Nanny's perception of marriage is based on her experience as a slave, possessing a land is a special benefit left for whites so a black man who owns it is immediately worth loving. Janie learnt about love under the pear tree watching bees. Land alone is inadequate to give her love.
Janie is more connected to nature than other women particularly in relation to time. "So Janie waited, a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time, but when the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she began to stand around the gate and expect things" (Hurston 31). She is more close to nature and this explains why Janie got the principles that she never learned from Nanny about love and happiness.
The use of the gate signifies a change and a new start. This shows that Janie's will has a new start. She begins to appreciate and celebrate black way of life, black oral traditions and music during her life with Tea Cake. She reveals her journey of life to Pheoby under the blossoming pear tree. The author symbolically chooses a blossoming pear tree to signify the development of her main character, Janie. She knows that she wants to achieve love, but she doesn’t know how to start. At this point, she is unable to coherently understand exactly what she wants (Hurston 8).
Janie’s search for spiritual well being is fundamentally by her strong will. She liberates herself from unsatisfying and boring relationships with Logan and Jody, whom, the author portrays as an obstacle to her personal journey to fulfillment and happiness.
Janie is able to break from the submissive marriage and get herself freedom. During her marriage with Joe, he had commanded her to tie her hair, and it signifies her captivity in marriage life. After the death of Joe, she unties her hair and leaves it free. Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake is fulfilling and rewarding. She feels secure and closer to the nature. As a woman, Janie's anger and fear regarding Tea Cake's flirting with Nunkie are clearly evident (Hurston 182).
Janie relationship with different women in the novel is quite interesting. Her interaction with both black and white women reveals the kind of society women lived in during her time. These have been depicted by various women Hurston uses in her novel. Pheoby Watson is Janie's only best and forever friend. Janie can adventure easily while Pheoby cannot because of her commitment to marriage. This does not affect their relationship. Pheoby represents the everyday person. Phoeby has been able to learn from Janie. She informs us that Janie's story has made her grow ten feet taller and has urged her to go fishing. Hurston asserts her desire for her audience readers to take action and free themselves.
Mrs. Turner is a mixed-race woman who hates being black and wants to be white. She feels good about her white features and is disgusted by her black characteristics. The author describes her "white" features as blunt and ugly. Hurston portrays everything associated with Mrs. Turner to be limited in one way or another. For example, the way she relates with the town women negatively. Her husband and son are portrayed as weak taking off to the Palm Beach during the brawl (Hurston 140-145).
Janie must defend black culture to another black woman. Mrs. Turner mocks her fellow blacks for laughing too much, for "whooping and hollering," for wearing bright colors, and for being poor. But Janie supports her culture through her choice of life. She marries black men, comes to the Muck to learn, work and live like fellow blacks (Hurston 145).
One important aspect is the difference between the "white" and "black" view of God. Mrs. Turner adopts the white view of a relentless and neglecting God. She thinks, "All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise, they would not be worshipped” (Hurston 193).
Nanny Crawford is Janie's grandmother. She has been a slave all her life, and therefore represents the fears of black slaves during their time. She values riches and safety above all and strongly encourages Janie to marry Logan because he has some wealth. Janie will eventually escape her grandmother's view of happiness and seek her own freedom (Hurston 14).
Logan Killicks is Janie's first husband. He lacks affection toward Janie and too old for her. He controls Janie like his mule. He cares for his wife and is annoyed when he learns that Janie will elope with another man, Joe Starks, but he lacks the power to convince Janie to stay with him.
Jody Starks enters Janie’s life. He seems to offer the possibility of escaping the boring and practical life of Logan. He is ambitious and he often talks about his desire to achieve his dreams. Because of his talks, he convinces Janie that he will help her achieve her dreams. Janie realizes that Jody’s use of power only represses her. But just before Jody dies, Janie’s stifled will breaks loose in outpour of verbal exchange. Having found her voice, she begins to express herself.
He is merciless, proud, and uninterested in Janie. This is how Jody relates to the world and his views about it. Jody uses power for his selfish gain. He feels good when controlling those around him. In Janie’s words, he needs to “have [his] way all [his] life, trample and mash down and then die ruther than tuh let himself heah ’bout it.” He needs to feel like a “big voice,” a force of “irresistible maleness” (Hurston 39).
When the shipment receipt for pig feet goes missing, Joe scolds her for being careless, saying "Somebody got to think for women and children and chickens and cows" (Hurston 43).
Jody life is all about controlling everything. He manipulates people to accomplish his works like purchasing, building, bullying, and political planning. He uses Janie to serve his purposes in his political career. She is young and beautiful. To Jody, this is an ideal woman to be mayor’s wife. Janie remains un-contended in their marriage because she cannot express herself. Jody wants Janie to tie her hair because he feels he might lose her to some men. She eventually protests against Jody’s repression.
Unlike her two previous husbands, the third one, Vergible Woods also called Tea Cake is completely different. He helps move towards achieving her goals. His role enables Janie to get the support she needs to become free and learn.
Janie has already begun to develop her own strong personalities, but Tea Cake supports her growth. Janie knows that her desires can only be fulfilled through love. In Tea Cake Janie finds a resourceful person who uses nature to help her develop. Logan and Jody treats Janie like a possession. Tea Cake entertains and teaches her new skills. He lets her personality grow and teach her new life full of adventures. Tea Cake says that "you just can't beat a woman, they won't stand for it." The man says, too, that Janie could become a great checkers player some day; "she has the brains for it" (Hurston 131-134).
Tea Cake is important for the development of Janie, but she can do without him, a fact that is revealed when Janie shoots him, ironically killing him. The killing mad Tea Cake by Janie demonstrates that she can stand alone and defend herself. She is not dependent on Tea Cake any more. She is able to live her life and find fulfillment thereafter alone.
“Janie benefits from her living with Tea Cake, as he teaches her the maiden language all over” (Hurston 131-134). She masters a good control of speech and learns to be silent whenever she likes as shown in the courtroom when the narrator interprets over her testimony. The courtroom shows the developments Janie has undergone since her journey begun. Janie makes a summary of the author’s attitude toward language use when she tells Pheoby that talking “don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans” if it isn’t connected to actual experience (Hurston 3).
Jody suppresses Janie’s speech after he is named mayor. She hates Jody because he stifles her individuality. Contrary to Jody, Tea Cake involves her in dialogue and shares jokes with her. This signifies his respect for her individuality.
Throughout the setting of the novel, Janie interacts with the people and community around her. As Janie returns to Eatonville, the narrator focuses on the porch-sitters who gossip and conjecture about her state of affairs. At certain times, she longs to be a part of this energetic social life, which offers excitement, safety, communication link, and interaction for Janie (Hurston 3).
During the hurricane, Tea Cake, Janie, and Motor Boat search for shelter the author notes that they “sat in company with the others in other shanties” (Hurston 163). People affected by the storm have a common bond, united against the large, scary force of the storm.
Janie does not like the pettiness and gossip going around in the porch within the communities. They criticize her out of jealousy for her freedom and strong ability to be alone. These communities prefer self sacrifice to the benefit of the community. This portrays negativity of black unity. Janie cannot give up her freedom for the sake of the community, but even towards the end of the book, during the court trial, “it is not death that she fears, but misunderstanding” (Hurston 3). She is still concerned about what people say about her.
Janie has been away from Eatonville for a while and comes back late in the evening. The people of the town look at her and gossip. The urban dwellers are unfriendly and envious. They cannot understand why she visits her late husband’s home.
Unlike other characters, Janie has money in the bank, which she can survive on. According to her, working and making money are two different things. Unlike others, she prefers toiling in the field to working at the shop, even though she is considered to be a woman of high social status, because it allows her to be close to nature and the love of life. Her closeness to nature defines also the kind of work she likes.
The novel is set in Central and Southern Florida in the early 20th century. It is one of the influential literatures focusing both on African American literature and women's literature (Gates10). Jody rises to power and also becomes a successful business man through taking over power from others. This power is obtained through manipulation of others including his wife.
Both blacks and whites show prejudice. Janie’s conversation with Mrs. Turner, a black woman with racist attitude towards blacks forces Janie to defend her culture. The blacks are against Janie in the courtroom. She is acquitted after which Janie is consoled by white women but serves as an object of contempt for her black friends. The individuals have the options to shun it or submit to it.
After the storm during the burial of the victims, the Red Cross orders the people to separate the casualties, white separate from blacks. All of the whites will be buried in coffins, while the blacks will be thrown in a mass grave. Since the bodies are so ruined, it is difficult to make a distinguish black from white. So the workers are instructed to use their hair as a guide (Hurston 19).