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Literary Analysis: Their Eyes Were Watching God

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LITERARY ANALYSIS: “THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD”
Literary Analysis: “Their Eyes Were Watching God”
Earl T. McGinnis
School of Education, Liberty University
Author Note
Earl T. McGinnis
I have no known conflict of interest to disclose.
Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to
Earl T. McGinnis
Email: [email protected]
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LITERARY ANALYSIS: “THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD”
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Literary Analysis: “Their Eyes Were Watching God”
Their Eyes Were Watching God follows the life of Janie Crawford, a girl of mixed black
and white heritage, around the turn of the century...which was not an easy time to be of mixed
race. As an adolescent, Janie sees a bee pollinating a flower in her backyard pear tree and
becomes obsessed with finding true love. (Because there is nothing hotter than a little bee-onflower action.) From there, the novel documents her emotional growth and maturity through
three marriages.
About the Author
Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) was a writer and noted anthropologist who was born on
January 7, 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama; her birthplace has been subject to some debate because
Hurston wrote in her autobiography that she was born in Eatonville, Florida. [Coincidentally, this
is the physical location or setting for this story.] However, it has been determined that Hurston
took creative license with this fact. Hurston was also known to adjust her birthday dates and
years from time to time. “For years, misled by Hurston herself, scholars set the year of her birth
as 1901, when in fact, she was born a decade earlier, on January 7, 1891” (Gates & Smith, 2014,
p. 1029).
Hurston was the daughter of two former slaves. Her father John Hurston was a pastor,
and he moved the family to Florida when Zora was young. Hurston’s childhood was not perfect,
and her parents’ marriage was marred by tension due to her father’s infidelities. After Hurston’s
mother died in 1904, her father remarried, and Hurston was shuffled off to live with various
family members because she frequently clashed with her stepmother (Gates & Smith, 2014, p.
1030).
To support herself, Hurston worked several different jobs, including the role of a maid for
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an actress in a Gilbert and Sullivan production. While in Baltimore, Hurston left her employer
and returned to school. She earned her high school diploma, then went on to attend Howard
University from 1918 to 1924. In 1924, Hurston earned an associate degree from Howard
University, having published one of her earliest works in the university's newspaper. By this
time, Hurston had developed literary interests.
In Washington, D. C. Hurston met the literary figures Alain Locke and Georgia Douglas
Johnson. Locke inspired Hurston to move to New York when “he urged her to submit
“Drenched in Light” to the editor of Opportunity, Charles S. Johnson, who published her work in
his magazine in 1924” (Gates & Smith, 2014, p. 1030). Hurston moved to New York in 1925
during the Harlem Renaissance. There she was introduced to the area’s thriving art scene and
how she often held social gatherings in her apartment. Hurston became friends with such
notables as Langston Hughes and Countee Cullen. Along with Hughes and Cullen, Hurston
helped to launch a short-lived literary magazine called Fire!! ( Biography.com, 2020).
Hurston received a scholarship to Barnard College, where she majored in anthropology
and graduated in 1928. One of her professors at Barnard forwarded a paper that Hurston had
written to Franz Boas, a leading authority in anthropology at the time (Gates & Smith, 2014, p.
1030). Boas was so impressed with her work that Hurston pursued her graduate studies in this
field, attending Columbia University where he was teaching.
Hurston established herself as a literary force because of her accounts of the African
American experience. This was one of the attributes of the Harlem Renaissance. Her acclaim
began shortly after the short story “Sweat” was published in 1926. “Sweat” related the story of
Delia, a black washerwoman, who has a hard life and must submit to an abusive, philandering
LITERARY ANALYSIS: “THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD”
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husband, who continues the abhorrent treatment of his spouse until he receives his due (Gates &
Smith, 2014, pp. 1032-1040).
In 1928, Hurston wrote her autobiographical essay “How It Feels to be a Colored Me.” In
the essay Hurston recounted how it felt to be an African American moving into an all-white area
(Gates & Smith, 2014, pp. 1040-1042). Hurston wrote her first novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine in
1934. This story was also about the experiences of an African American, but this time it was
about a man, “the [flawed] Baptist minister, John Buddy Pearson, who is unable to remain
faithful to his wife between sabbaths” ( p. 1031). Apparently, the tale is loosely modeled on the
infidelities of Hurston’s father, but no proof of this claim was ever presented.
In the late 1920’s Hurston returned to Florida to collect African American folktales. She
published this collection in the book Mules and Men (1935). Mules and Men was considered
“the first collection of African American folklore to be compiled and published by an African
American” (Gates & Smith, 2014, p. 1030). Mules and Men received mixed reviews because
several black critics felt it was “too easy on whites” (p.1030).
During the 1930’s, Hurston worked in the theater on several plays (Biography.com,
2020). She collaborated with Langston Hughes on the play Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro
Life. A quarrel with Hughes eventually led to a falling out between the two writers, and this
prevented them from working together. This play was never performed until after Hurstons’
death (Biography.com, 2020). In 1939, because of her theater experience, Hurston became a
drama instructor at the North Carolina College for Negroes at Durham.
Receiving a Guggenheim fellowship, Hurston traveled to Haiti and wrote what would
become her most famous work: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). The novel tells the story
of Janie Mae Crawford, who learns the value of self-reliance through multiple marriages and
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tragedy. This book drew its share of criticism at the time, particularly from the “leading men” in
African American literary circles. Author Richard Wright, for one, labeled Hurston's style as a
"minstrel technique" designed to appeal to white audiences (Biography.com, 2020).
In 1942, Hurston published her autobiography Dust Tracks on a Road which although
well-received by critics but led to “controversies and misconceptions concerning her” (Gates &
Smith, 2014, p. 1031). Additionally, Hurstons’ publisher refused to publish the book because
Hurston “indicted white America for its hypocrisy and racism” (p. 1031). Once the
objectionable passages were deleted, the book was published. Later that year, ironically,
Hurstons’ Dust Tracks on a Road “won the Anisfield-Wolf award for its contribution to the
amelioration of race relations.” However, some black critics thought the work was contemptable
because they felt it too cheery a portrayal to be based on the life experiences of a black woman
(p. 1031). Therefore, it appears that Dust Tracks on a Road failed where Their Eyes Were
Watching God succeeded. Hurston now found herself writing for several publications such as
The Saturday Evening Post and Reader’s Digest. Unfortunately, her popularity was cut short by
a personal calamity.
In September 1948, Hurston was accused of molesting a ten-year-old boy
(Biography.com, 2020). Although the charges were unfounded, the story was printed in the
papers, and Hurston was traumatized. She never recovered from the incident and did not write
much in the remaining years of her life. The years that followed left her in poor health. She
suffered from multiple strokes. When Hurston died in 1960, she was practically destitute.
Hurstons’ death left her buried an unmarked grave, in the segregated section of a Florida
cemetery. The grave was unmarked until 1973, when Alice Walker had a tombstone erected on
the approximate location of Hurstons’ gravesite (p.1032).
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Plot Summary
Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) focuses on the experiences of Janie Crawford, a
beautiful determined, fair-skinned black woman living in the American South. The novel begins
with Janie returning to Eatonville, Florida after having left for an undetermined amount of time.
She is met by the judgmental gossiping of Eatonville's “porch-sitters”, whose conversations
focus on the fact that Janie had left town with a young man named Tea Cake (Liberman, 2013).
Despite their gossiping, Janie's friend Pheoby Watson stands up for Janie and goes to greet her
friend, bringing a meal. Janie and Pheoby chat, and Janie tells Pheoby her life story, including
what transpired since she initially left Eatonville, which is the story of the rest of the novel.
Janie spends her childhood being brought up by her grandmother , Nanny, a former slave
who, despite her controlling nature, has only the best intentions for her granddaughter. Prior to
purchasing a new home for herself and her granddaughter, Nanny raises Janie in the backyard
home of Mr. and Mrs. Washburn, a friendly white couple whom Nanny began working for after
the Emancipation. Nanny wants Janie to find improved social standing and financial security in
life, and so when she sees Janie kissing Johnny Taylor under the “pear tree” (Liberman, 2013),
Nanny quickly arranges for Janie to marry the wealthy farmer Logan Killicks.
Janie is not pleased with her marriage to Logan Killicks, but hopefully believes that she
will grow to love him (Lieberman, 2013). Unfortunately, her hopes are only met by abuse from
Logan, whom she feels treats her like a mule. Thankfully, one day Janie meets the handsome and
ambitious Jody Starks, who courts her and eventually encourages her to run away from Logan.
Janie complies, they marry, and head off together to Eatonville, Florida (Lieberman, 2013).
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In Eatonville, Jody seeks political power and entrepreneurial control over the town
(Lieberman, 2013). In short order, Jody becomes the mayor, a landlord, and the owner of the
main store in town. Janie feels love for Jody in the early stages of their relationship, but
ultimately becomes stifled by his desire for control and power – especially because he regards
Janie as nothing more than a “trophy wife”.
Jody eventually becomes ill, and his treatment of Janie worsens with his deteriorating
health. Finally, Janie speaks up for herself and Jody violently beats her in front of everyone in
the store. While Jody is on his deathbed, Janie ceases to be silent, and tells Jody how terrible he
made and makes her feel (Lieberman, 2013). Soon after these conversations, Jody dies.
Following Jody's funeral, Janie does not feel as though she is in a state of mourning, but
instead feels emancipated. Janie becomes excited about her life and fulfilling her dreams for the
first time in decades. She begins to wear her hair down – not in the mandatory head rag Jody
made her wear – and white clothing, to alert potential suitors of her new availability (Lieberman,
2013) One day while Janie is working in Jody's former store, a handsome young man named Tea
Cake walks in. Tea Cake flirts with Janie and invites her to play checkers with him. Despite
Janie's initial ambivalence, she is charmed and spends the rest of the evening with Tea Cake.
Due to Tea Cake's age and lower social status, the townspeople worry about Janie going out with
him, but Janie disregards their judgment, listening to her feelings instead. She and Tea Cake
eventually elope to the Everglades and get married.
Janie and Tea Cake's married life together in the Everglades (or "the muck") is not
perfect. Janie steals money from her, whips her once to assert power over her, and wrestles
playfully with another girl in town named Nunkie. There is a woman in town named Mrs.
Turner, who also causes tension in their marriage. Mrs. Turner repeatedly suggests that Janie
leave Tea Cake for her lighter-skinned brother, demonstrating tremendously racist views. Albeit,
Janie feels better with Tea Cake than she had felt with either of her other husbands. Tea Cake
treats her as an equal, and their marriage is built on authentic love and mutual respect. In “the
muck,” they have many friends and host frequent informal parties at their home.
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Their happy life in “the muck” comes to an end when a massive hurricane hits the area.
During the storm, a rabid dog attacks Tea Cake and infects him with the disease. At first, Tea
Cake is unaware of his condition, but it quickly worsens, and he begins to go mad. Janie calls for
a doctor who tells her about the disease, but the doctor assures the worried Janie that he will send
for medicine. Janie realizes; however, that in his ill and manic state, Tea Cake has convinced
himself of Janie's infidelity, and he has hidden a loaded pistol beneath his pillow. Janie is forced
to kill Tea Cake to save her own life. She is brought to court, but found innocent by an all-white,
male jury after delivering a heartfelt testimony about her love for Tea Cake.
Janie returns to Eatonville [Janie’s return is the beginning of this story]. Now Janie has
concluded her story to Pheoby. Despite her sadness about Tea Cake's death, Janie tells Pheoby
that she is happy to be back. Janie knows that she has reached the horizon and has had access to
her dreams. Tea Cake, Janie feels, is still a presence in her life. Their relationship provided her
with the fulfillment of her desire for a voice and a sense of independence. These things, she had
never known, before him.
The Analysis
Janie’s return and her being the subject of town gossip appears somewhat mysterious.
The townspeople’s curiosity about what happened to Janie foreshadows that this novel begins at
the end of her story. This points out one of the important themes in this novel - storytelling and
language.
Another theme developed in the first chapter is the theme of judgment and jealousy. The
townspeople greet Janie but have already judged and condemned her for leaving and returning as
she did. Hurston provided the “porch-sitters” with malicious tones in their voices. The author
also describes the gossip as “spit” using a vernacular that has a vulgar connotation.
The sexualized details of Janie’s beauty (i. e. light skin, nice body, and long straight hair)
may also explain some of the neighbor’s jealousy. However, Janie’s interracial heritage suggests
that the townspeople’s judgements and jealousies may have racial origins as well.
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In Chapter 1, the townspeople’s’ gossip does not have any basis of fact. Their disdain for
Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake serves to introduce another theme of the novel- the love
between men and women. Additionally, Pheoby’s kindness towards Janie reveals Janie might be
a good person, the exact opposite of what the townspeople believe her to be. However, it also is
apparent that Pheoby shares some of the same judgements and perceptions that her neighbors do.
Recall when Pheoby asks Janie if Tea Cake stole her money or ran off with another woman.
Janie’s ability to disregard the gossip shows how Janie has achieved an inner peace. As
she explains why she has returned to Pheoby, the theme of storytelling is introduced. Therefore,
this novel may be considered the product of Janie’s story. Hurston’s literary language and
colloquial dialect reveals that Hurston believed that dialect was just as important as literary
language.
In Chapter 2, we learn about Janie’s family dynamics. Jamie’s parents have left her
living with her maternal grandmother. This has probably shaped Janie’s identity. Since Jamie
and Nanny live in the guesthouse of the Washburn’s, a white couple (where Nanny works as a
maid), living in such proximity to them, Janie thinks she is white until she is shown a photograph
of herself. Black children at her school pick on her because she is different. She is light-skinned
and does not live in a traditional family environment. Nanny wants to provide Janie with a better
way of life, so she works to gain material independence. Nanny then leaves the Washburn’s and
buys a new home.
Janie’s first kiss takes place under the pear tree in the spring. This marks Janie’s sexual
awakening to womanhood. References to the pear tree appear in several parts of the novel
because they allude to Janie’s preoccupation with sexual desire. At this juncture of adolescence,
Jamie equates sexual desire with marriage. This idea of sex with love and love with marriage
affects Janie’s decision-making later in the novel.
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Nanny observes Janie and Johnny kiss from the window. Nanny views sexual desire as
something dangerous. She regards desire as something that will threaten Janie’s independence
and financial security. Nanny’s comment about black women being “the mules of the world
proves that she believes the only way a black woman can maintain their independence is through
financial security. However, given Janie’s belief that sexual desire equals marriage, Nanny’s
practical decision for Janie to marry the older, wealthy Logan Killicks is destined to end badly.
When Janie protests this arranged marriage, Nanny relates her own difficult past.
Nanny’s past as a slave provide references which give the novel credibility. Nanny’s past also
serves as a reflection of Janie’s own identity and personal history. Nanny’s tale provides an
explanation for Janie’s light-skin and indirectly explains a reason for Janie’s issues regarding her
self-image and racial identity. Finally, Nanny’s story explains why she believes financial
security is so vital for a black woman to attain.
Nanny’s past also explains why she has strived to shelter her granddaughter Janie. Nanny
is atoning for the mistakes she made raising her own daughter. Unfortunately, her story also
foreshadows why Janie’s marriage to Logan will fail, because it is not based on Janie’s desires.
Marrying Logan does not excite her because these are not her hopes and dreams but Nanny’s. At
this point, Janie is under Nanny’s control although this control is based on love.
Janie does not feel authentic desire or love for Logan Killicks and discovers her views on
marriage and gender differ from those of her grandmother. Janie’s idea that she will eventually
come to love Logan, stems from her love for Nanny. Janie understands that Nanny’s experiences
have conditioned her to seek the traditional virtue of security for her granddaughter.
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Although Janie now has financial security, she pines for true love. Therefore, Hurston
wrote “ She [Janie] knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so
she became a woman” (Hurston, 2019). In Janie’s mind, love equates with passion and sexual
desire. Janie does not feel this way with Logan.
Janie yearns for something “sweet” in her marriage, like “when you sit under a pear tree”
(Hurston, 2019). Jamie’s marriage to Logan is a variation of a marriage of convenience. Jamie’s
marriage to Logan could also be considered the result of the submissive relationship she has with
her grandmother. Nanny projects her own fears onto Janie, and as a result, controls her.
When Nanny dies, Janie starts to think for herself. She realizes that marriage does not
bring about love and sexual desire, Janie self-identifies as a woman because she can differentiate
between sex, love, and marriage and she has experienced disappointment at the hands of men.
This appears to be a character flaw of the women in this family.
Logan’s unkind treatment of Janie only serves to validate her initial misgivings regarding
this marriage of convenience. Logan might have material wealth, but his treatment of Janie does
not improve her material reality. This enables the reader to see the flaws in Nanny’s worldview
of marriage.
While Logan is looking for ways to make Janie work harder, Janie meets Joe Starks. Joe
tells Janie he wants to become a “big voice,” to achieve greatness. Joe wants to move to a
predominately black community in Florida. Janie observes that Joe “spoke for far horizon” and
therefore, she becomes smitten with him (Hurston, 2019). This indicates that Janie’s desires are
rather impetuous, and she tends to correlate desire with what it means to love and be loved.
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Joe and Janie engage in a secret liaison. Joe asks Janie to refer to him by a nickname
“Jody.” Joe criticizes Logan because he treats Janie like an animal. Jody suggests that a
beautiful woman is meant to sit on a front porch and look beautiful. This foreshadows the
problems with Janie and Jody’s marriage. Jody wants Janie to be silent, obedient, and look
beautiful. This will give him total control , but to Janie it sounds like heaven. Janie’s fight with
Logan indicate that she is gaining a voice, and learning to express herself, but not necessarily in
a way that she can have her social and emotional needs met. Jody offers Janie possibilities and
hope. Whether Jody is an ideal match for Janie is yet to be determined, but it is clear that Janie
is progressing towards a deeper sense of herself (Hurston, 2019).
Jamie and Jody arrive in Eatonville, Florida and Janie’s situation portends the possibility
of an improved life. Jody’s purchase of land from Captain Eaton provides evidence that Jody
needs to exercise his lust for power and control of those around him. This foreshadows how his
desire for power outweighs his desire to focus on his wife and marriage. Jody desires total
control of the citizens of Eatonville, and this is symbolic of his desire for total power over Janie.
It becomes apparent to the reader that Jody’s ego, pride, and ambition is problematic.
Jody usurps the town meetings and takes over various aspects of the town while he is mayor.
Jody sets into motion several actions that alienate the townspeople and causes them to resent his
behavior.
Jody refuses to allow Janie to speak in front of the townspeople. This is one of the
negative effects of Jody’s relationship with Janie. Janie’s decision not to react to Jody, and the
angst she experiences makes her realize how important it is to be allowed freedom of expression,
and to have a voice
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Jody’s decision to bring a streetlight to Eatonville symbolizes that Jody may have a “God
complex.” God brings light to humankind in the book of Genesis, and Jody wants to bring light
to Eatonville. Further, when Jody repeats, he has “aimed tuh be uh big voice,” this is meant to
emphasize that he wants to stifle Janie’s voice. Sadly, Jody’s view of power is only realized at
the expense of others.
Janie becomes aware of the feelings of admiration and animosity that the townspeople
hold for her and Jody; however, one must realize that she is also a victim of Jody’s personality.
Their home for example does not reflect her tastes, but it serves as a symbol of Jody’s desire to
recreate feelings of servitude amongst the populous. Although this lifestyle makes Jody feel safe
and secure, Hurston created visual images reminiscent of the slave plantation with the “big
house” and the surrounding cabins.
Janie’s hair symbolizes her fertility, sexuality, and identity as a mixed-race woman.
Jody’s need to have Janie tie up her hair in a rad is further evidence of Jody’s pathological need
for control. The silence of the townspeople also parallels Janie’s silence, which emphasizes the
intensity of Jody’s mental abuse.
Janie’s submissive role in this relationship is evidenced by the fact that her sole
amusement comes from listening to the conversations of the townsfolk. Because Jody forbids her
interactions with other members of the community, Janie loses her voice. Janie yearns to express
her feelings and thoughts, to become a part of the conversation. When Jamie witnesses the
townspeople abusing a mule, Jamie voices her feelings. Her sympathy for the animal indicates
Jamie most likely identifies with another victim of subjugation; therefore, she speaks out
(Hurston, 2019).
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Jody overhears his wife, and to stifle her, he purchases the mule, making it the towns’
mascot(Hurston, 2019). [This will stop the townsfolk from abusing it.] As a result, the
townspeople focus on this magnanimous gesture and compare this act to Abraham Lincoln
freeing the slaves. Irony is definitely evident here, because Jody wants to subjugate the
townspeople, not emancipate them.
The mule also represents the victimization of Janie. Janie is the victim of Jody’s
domination. Jody’s decision to prohibit Jamie from attending the mule’s funeral is for a selfish
reason, despite his rationalization. Jody wants Janie to preserve her high status within the
community, and he does this by discouraging her attendance at this “lowly event” (Hurston,
2019). Jody wants Janie to promote his power, despite her feelings or connections to others.
After the funeral, Janie finds herself upset with Jody. Instead of remaining silent, she
says, “You sho loves to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see” (Hurston,
2019). Here Jamie shows she is aware of her desire for self-expression; however, she is also
aware of the consequences this entails.
One day, a poor woman, Mrs. Robbins enters the store, and asks Jody for a bit of meat to
feed herself and her hungry children. Janie fetches the meat and Mrs. Robbins remarks that her
husband often neglects to provide food for his family. The men laugh at this and say that they
would never allow their wives to act this way in public. Immediately, Janie voices her
disapproval of their condescending attitudes. She also tells the men that despite what they
imagine, that do not know anything about women. Though these men were not actually abusing
her, Janie sympathizes with Mrs. Robbins as another victim of male domination. Jody and the
other men on the porch care about pride, but Mrs. Robbins must swallow her pride because she
cares about her children ( Hurston, 2019).
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Janie becomes rather stoic due to the abuse and stifling she receives from Jody. This
indicates her determination and self-control. Although Janie remains in this passive position,
she has gained insight and self-awareness. Likewise, Janie begins to recognize her own
independence.
Over the years, Jody has aged a great deal, and Janie describes their being “something
dead about him” (Hurston, 2019). Jody physically deteriorates but continues to verbally
denigrate Janie. This sudden deterioration of brings about his sudden focus on Janie’s old age.
Jody’s quest for power stems from his insecurities, such that his power tends to grow
exponentially as his insecurities intensify.
The relationship between Jody’s health and his constant verbal abuse clearly establishes
the connection between his desire for power and his insecurity. Janie’s response to his public
humiliation does not indicate her desire to stand up for herself but is a result of remaining silent
for so many years. Jody uses his physical strength as a last resort to exert control over Janie,
because he finally realizes that not only is he losing his health, but he is losing his ability to
control his wife.
Jody decides to relocate his belongings to a guest bedroom. The purpose behind this is to
arrange a novel way to insult Janie. Janie has begun to find her voice, as evidenced by her
sardonic series of insults at the end of Chapter 7. Pheoby Watson also reveals that the
townspeople believe that Janie is poisoning Judy. Janie’s continued sense of allegiance to her
husband demonstrates the complexities of their relationship. She feels saddened about his
condition, the deterioration of their marriage, but Janie is angry because of the years of silence
she has endured.
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Janie has a doctor from Orlando come to examine Jody. Finally, able to find both selfexpression with the knowledge of Jody’s impending demise, Janie uses her capacity for self defense and expression (language) to push Jody closer to death. Janie realizes that his
deterioration is a sign of her own freedom. Janie tells Jody that he is the always has been a
tyrant, while at the same moment, she informs him of his death. Janey recites every episode of
their relationship and quickly arrives at this moment of terrible self- reflection.
Soon after their argument, Jody dies. Janie’s removal of the scarf from her head,
symbolizes the end of Jody’s control over her life. She begins to regain her sense of self and
understands she is both a beautiful and desirable woman. Yet Janie’s decision to keep the scarf
on, implies she is still subject to judgment from the townspeople. Janie is still not free to express
herself.
Janie’s concern for public perception reveals that she is self-censoring her recognized
independence. As a result of her new state of freedom, Janie considers her family origins, and
her relationship with Nanny. Janie’s ideas of freedom as it relates to marriage and with Nanny
points out the complexity of Janie’s ideas on love, sex, and marriage. They end up being a
combination of her own ideas and those of her grandmother.
Nanny’s past as a slave caused her to prioritize financial security and marriage, but it
limited her sense possibilities. Therefore, nanny limited Janie’s sense of “the horizon” - the
realm of possibility. Janie’s feelings of anger towards Nanny indicate Janie’s growing sense of
independence and self-expression.
Janie’s decision to wear white and to rebuff the advances of any suitors, exemplifies
Janie’s growing sense of independence. Janie can feel happy on her own, and wants to share this
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knowledge with the world, without any sense of guilt. It is during this time, then another man
enters her life.
Tea Cake comes into Janie’s life when she is caught off-guard and engaged in her daily
routines. Tea Cakes acceptance of Janie’s true self marks him as different. Tea cakes invitation
to play checkers shows that he treats Janie as an equal (Hurston, 2019). The game reflects the
playful aspect of their dynamic. It is a realm where rules can be taught, but also bent to allow
for cheating (Hurston, 2019).
When Tea Cake and Janie make their first public appearance as a couple at the town
picnic, Janie becomes a victim of the towns people’s judgmental gossip. Pheoby’s husband Sam
Watson, speculates to his wife that Tea Cake must be using Janie for her money, and that he is
“draggin’ de woman away from de church” (Hurston, 2019). The town gossip reveals the
repercussions and Janie’s decision to act according to her own desires, and not according to the
traditional standards set by society. In this way, Janie proves to the townspeople that she is “her
own woman,” while she exhibits tremendous growth-finding self-expression and individual
fulfillment by listening to her own desires.
Pheoby warns Janie of her status as the object of town gossip; however, Janie does not
care. Janie explains she plans to sell the store, and she and Tea Cake will leave Eatonville, then
establish themselves in the place they will no longer be surrounded by gossip. Chapter 12 of the
novel, Janie feels comfortable expressing her happiness for the first time, regardless of the
repercussions. Janie’s reflections on Nanny also revealed tremendous growth in Janie’s level of
maturity. Janie demonstrates a more empathetic understanding of her grandmother. Janie
comprehends that her grandmother’s behavior was a result of her traumatic experiences as a
LITERARY ANALYSIS: “THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD”
18
slave. Yet Janie also clearly expresses her own vision for herself and has the will to follow that
vision.
Janie leaves Eatonville and needs tea cake in Jacksonville, Florida where he has been
waiting for her. Free from their past, Janie and Tea Cake marry. Even though Janie feels “so
glad she was scared of herself” this only indicates the danger and instability of Janie’s love for
Tea Cake. When Janie hides money from her new husband, she experiences pangs of anxiety and
she thinks of Mrs. Tyler being conned, while waiting for Tea Cake to return. This serves to
remind the reader that Janie does not know where her hearts’ desires may lead her. She is still
driven by the perceptions of others. Now she is more defiant of them; however, they still seem to
dictate her actions.
Tea Cakes decision to take Janie’s money was not malicious, but an example of his nontraditional approach to life. Tea Cake prioritizes play over anything serious, and seldom thinks
ahead. For all her anxiety, Janie is still in a new and improved state. She can express herself to
Tea Cake, where this was and never a possibility in her previous marriages.
Tea Cake listens to Janie, then responds. He makes it clear that he is not interested in her
money. At this moment, Hurston writes one of the most significant quotations in the story.
Hurston wrote [Janie feels a] “self-crushing love” as “her soul crawled out from its hiding
place” (Hurston, 2019). This signifies Janie’s contentment. This description of love speaks to the
paradoxical nature of her new state of happiness with Tea Cake: on the one hand she is now
experiencing a state of sexual and relationship fulfillment that she had always yearned for and
had never experienced in her previous marriages; on the other hand, she loves Tea Cake so much
that she is also giving up some part of her individuality. Janie's love for Tea Cake both
empowers her and gives him power over her.
LITERARY ANALYSIS: “THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD”
19
When Janie and Tea Cake arrive in the Everglades, Janie is overwhelmed by how lush
and different the landscape is from anything she has ever seen before. The fertile and new
landscape of the muck mirrors the new and sexually vibrant (or "fertile") quality of Janie and Tea
Cake's relationship. Their experiences working and hunting together situate Janie in a different
and much less traditional dynamic in relation to a man. She learns new, non-feminine skills, and
exceeds, and Tea Cake shows no insecurity when her skill exceeds his own.
Janie does not mind doing manual labor when it is done out of love and shared
commitment, in direct contrast to how she felt about similar work when being forced to do it by
Logan, whom she did not love. Tea Cake has a kind of power over Janie just as Logan did;
however, Tea Cake's power is one of love rather than force.
Tea Cake and Janie's life together is defined by shared experience. This equality
ironically emerges from Tea Cake's forceful presence over Janie and is what leads her to feel this
sense of fulfillment. Although, Janie still wonders what "normal" society would think about her
now.
Tea Cake's poor judgment in his mistreatment of Janie emerges not from an active desire
to hurt her, but from prioritizing fun so much as to show a clear disregard for traditional social
norms. Janie's need for monogamy with Tea Cake indicates that she expects equality in all facets
of their relationship and is willing to appear controlling to ensure that her husband is faithful.
Satisfied with their lifestyle at the end of the harvest season, Janie and Tea Cake decide
to remain in the muck and wait until next year. At this time, Janie becomes friends with her
neighbor Mrs. Turner, a black woman with a notably awkward posture and gait. During one of
her visits at Janie's home, Mrs. Turner encourages Janie to meet her brother, emphasizing his
intellect and straight hair. After referring to her brother as "uh white folks nigger," Mrs. Turner
LITERARY ANALYSIS: “THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD”
20
tells Janie that she wishes Janie and her brother could be a couple, simply because Mrs. Turner
appreciates their lighter skin and yearns to "lighten up the race."
Mrs. Turner's self-created hierarchy shows that racism in general is not something that
can stand alone and be accepted as inherently true at face value. Instead, it is a set of ideas that is
created by humans to make one side feel higher and the other lower but has no connection to
truth or reality. Mrs. Turner's obsession with whiteness is not unlike Jody's obsession with
power, as both characters seek a way of finding power and seniority in societal organization.
Tea Cake's beating of Janie—which come as an extreme surprise to the reader—is a
symptom of his insecurity, which is not about political power as it was for Jody but rather around
sexual power. Either way, though, it drives him to affirm his power over Janie through a
preemptive physical attack. Janie's silent acceptance of Tea Cake's abuse is not of the same kind
as her silence in response to Janie, as she has now found her voice and been treated as an equal
by Tea Cake. Rather, her choice not to put up a fight is just that— a choice—born out of her love
for Tea Cake. That said, this dynamic indicates another complicating factor in the paradoxical
nature of Janie's relationship with Tea Cake – while he liberates Janie, her love for him
compromises her sense of independence.
Tea Cake has never seemed to care what people think of him, but Mrs. Turner and her
brother makes him feel insecure, and so he acts to try to look good in their eyes, to prove himself
noble. But in doing so he just creates more chaos, and somehow ends up looking even worse as
far as Mrs. Turner is concerned. The implication is that acting just to please others who are
judgmental of you will never work, as they will just find new reasons to perpetuate their original
judgment.
LITERARY ANALYSIS: “THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD”
21
Tea Cake's refusal to leave the muck in the face of the storm (despite the warnings from
nature) highlights his excessive pride in his own physical strength as well as his emphasis on a
fun-loving approach to life. Janie simply accepts this decision—she has no voice in it at all and
does not attempt to have one. She just trusts Tea Cake. The scene in which Tea Cake, Janie and
“Motorboat” watch the violent storm embodies this chapter's overall exploration of human
survival and man versus nature and God. The hurricane episode reveals the fact that all other
obstacles in Janie's life – Nanny's traditional views, Logan's mistreatment, Jody's desire for
control, Tea Cake's overpowering physical appeal, Mrs. Turner's racism – bear no weight against
the strength of nature. Just as Tea Cake feels threatened by the physical (sexual) threat he
perceived from Mrs. Turner's brother, in the face of the storm, he is once again insecure and
thinks that Janie probably wishes she had never come with him.
Janie's response is telling, too. In saying that she is happy if she is with Tea Cake, she is
both expressing the depth of her love for him but also indicating just how much of her own
independence she has given up to that love. Her only desire is just to be with him. She has
fulfillment, but not real independence.
Although Tea Cake indirectly provides Janie with feelings of self-recognition and
confidence in her ability to express herself over the course of their relationship at large, Tea
Cake's rescue of Janie in this scene reveals the extent to which their relationship relies on
physical manifestations of affection. Here, unlike in Chapter 15, Tea Cake does not comfort
Janie with sex, but the episode's "resolution" is still grounded in physical terms – Tea Cake fights
the dog to save Janie's life. Still, there is an impediment to Tea Cake's physical empowerment in
this scene – being bitten by the dog – a moment which quite overtly foreshadows Tea Cake's
physical downfall.
LITERARY ANALYSIS: “THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD”
22
Surrounded by dead bodies and destroyed homes in Palm Beach, Janie and Tea Cake
discuss where to go and what to do next. Meanwhile, two white men carrying rifles approach Tea
Cake and forcefully enlist him to help with the mass burials of the surrounding dead corpses.
Both black and white men are forced to help with the work, though the black and white corpses
are treated differently: white corpses are buried in coffins, while black corpses are hurled like
trash into a hole. Tea Cake finds the work physically and emotionally intolerable, as he fears that
Janie waits for him with anxiety each day and cannot bear to think about the obvious racism
throughout Palm Beach. Tea Cake and Janie resolve to leave Palm Beach and return to the muck.
Tea Cake's case of rabies is an extension of the force of nature that victimized him and
Janie during the hurricane. After contracting rabies, Tea Cake loses his physical strength, and, by
extension, his sense of command over himself, Janie, and the rest of the world. Tea Cake thought
himself to be more powerful than nature, and he was wrong.
Just as Jody descended into fear and vicious lashing out as his body deteriorated, so too
does Tea Cake (Hurston, 2019). But Jody's attacks were verbal, they were expressions of
political power. Tea Cake's fears are physical (Janie cheating on him) and so is his potential
response—a gun. But also note how he lets Janie care for him in ways that Jody would not. Their
love is still there, but it has just been warped by the rabies.
When Janie says earlier that she would be happy if she was with Tea Cake, she had
essentially sacrificed herself to their love(Hurston, 2019). This made her happy but did not make
her independent. This moment of showdown with Tea Cake is significant not just because of its
action, but because of the choice it forces on her—does she choose herself or Tea Cake? And
despite her love for Tea Cake, and, in fact, because of her love for Tea Cake (who has been so
warped by the rabies) she chooses herself.
LITERARY ANALYSIS: “THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD”
23
In the aftermath of choosing to live, of making the choice to choose herself over a
damaged Tea Cake despite her love for him, Janie fully finds her voice in giving her testimony at
the trial( Hurston, 2019). And she does so in front of the judgment of whites and blacks. By
emphasizing her love for Tea Cake, Janie indicates her arrival at a place where her love can
coexist with a sense of independence and self-expression, a balance she did not have at any
earlier point in the novel. The white jury's acceptance of Janie – especially when contrasted with
the judgment of the black onlookers – is another instance in the novel of irony with regard to
racism: Janie is rejected by those who nurtured her, and is supported by unfamiliar, white faces.
And Janie continues to honor Tea Cake, even in death.
The black men living around the muck realize after the "royal" burial Janie gives Tea
Cake, that they were wrong to abuse her as they did. As such, they turn their aggression to Mrs.
Turner's brother and run him out of town. The men beg Janie to stay in the muck with them, but
she is unable to stay there without Tea Cake. She returns to Eatonville with a package of garden
seeds that remind her of Tea Cake and plans to plant them in memoriam (Hurston, 2019) . At this
point, Janie's roles as narrator and protagonist of her story intertwine, bringing the narrative to
its fitting conclusion. At this moment, Janie not only tells Pheoby that she has reached "the
horizon" but shows it, too: she is no longer a passive pawn in someone else's life, but the narrator
of her own story, someone with a voice, one who has power over her own life, who is able to
face judgment with indifference, and who has attained both independence and spiritual
fulfillment (Hurston, 2019).
LITERARY ANALYSIS: “THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD”
24
Before falling asleep that night, Janie returns to the memory of killing Tea Cake. She
realizes that Tea Cake is still alive if she is still alive, as he is still with her, having shown her the
true meaning of the horizon.
Despite the inherent sadness of Janie's memory, this final moment of the novel reveals
the impressive extent of Janie's strength and sense of self-recognition: she has found a balance in
her life between love, even in Tea Cake's absence, and self-realization.
LITERARY ANALYSIS: “THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD”
25
References
Biography.com (Ed.). (2020, March 2). Zora Neale Hurston. Retrieved from
https://www.biography.com/writer/zora-neale-hurston
Gates, H. L., & Smith, V. L. (2014). The Norton anthology of African American literature (3rd ed.,
Vol. 1). New York, NY: W.W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Hurston, Z. N. (2019). Their eyes were watching God. Daryanani, New Delhi: General Press.
Lieberman, C. (2013, September 17). Their Eyes Were Watching God Summary. Retrieved from
http://litcharts.com/lit/their-eyes-were-watching-god/summary
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