Their Eyes Were Watching God: An Epic Search Essay, Research Paper
Their Eyes Were Watching God: An Epic Search
In the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston shows how
the lives of American women changed in the early 20th century. Zora Neale
Hurston creates a character in her own likeness in her masterpiece, Their Eyes
Were Watching God. By presenting Janie’s search for identity, from her
childbirth with Nanny to the death of Tea Cake, Hurston shows what a free
southern black women might have experienced in the early decades of the century.
To the racial ties that would affect Janie all the way through this life long
Janie’s search for identity actually started long before she was born.
Because Janie’s search is her family’s search. Nanny and Janie’s mom gave Janie
a reason to search. They were always held back by their owners, and their owners
took advantage of them, and raped them. They raped them of their identity. Nanny
signifies to evade the realities of her life and the life of Janie. When Nanny
says, “Thank yuh, Massa Jesus,” she is illustrating that although she is no
longer a slave, the slave consciousness has caused her to view even her
relationship with the deity about slave and master. This makes Janie the leader
of her family’s search. However Nanny realized this, and when she saw that Janie
was old enough for love she had her married. This guaranteed that Janie would
not continue a loss of identity.
Even as a young girl, living in the materialistic world of her Nanny and
her first husband, Logan Killicks, Janie chooses to listen to “the words of the
trees and the wind” (23-24). This is the first evidence of her searching beyond
her boring life. This then leads to her everyday life left empty, because she is
always looking farther than where she is at the time. So day by day she gets
more worked up into leaving Logan, and searching for love. When she leaves Logan
to run off with Joe, she thinks to herself, “Her old thoughts were going to come
in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them” (31).
Joe aims to be a big voice and that is why he comes to Eatonville,
Florida. He feels that he will have a better chance at being a big voice in an
all black town than in a white man’s town. The problem is that he has adopted
white man’s values and forces them upon the townspeople and, most notably, upon
his wife Janie. Hurston points out the irony of Joe’s dilemma: “Starks is able
to ’set himself up as lord, master, and proprietor’ everywhere in Eatonville,
and not just in his general store. His power in Eatonville approximates the
white man’s almost total institutional control of America” (27-28). This
relationship was just another setback in Janie’s epic search. Nevertheless, when
her marriage to Joe collapses, she again decides, “So new thoughts had to be
thought and new words said” (77).
After a long stretch of pointless and endless days in her search, Joe
dies. This is one of the greatest days in her search. By now Janie’s
relationship with Tea Cake was growing into her greatest love yet. When she
falls in love with Tea Cake, she tells her friend Pheoby, “He done taught me de
maiden language all over” (109). Her search seemed very close to a peaceful end.
However, it was far from over, Tea Cake became ill after being bitten by a rabid
dog, he feared that he had been conjured. He was suspicious that Janie wanted to
be free of him so that she could marry a lighter skinned man. In an attempt to
quell his fear, Janie said, “Maybe it wuz uh witch ridin’ yuh, honey. Ah’ll see
can’t Ah find some mustard seed whilst Ah’s out” (166).
Janie’s search for an identity for herself, free of the ideas she had
grown up with, ties into bigger issues, important for her race as a whole.
Nanny’s vision of Janie’s care free life on a porch somewhere is associated with
being white; somehow the other lives of women are made to be less honorable
along with their racial ties. Janie’s straight hair becomes tied up with
whiteness, and because of the society’s racial pecking order, her hair is a form
of power against which her first two husbands strive. It is only toward the end,
when Janie both lets her hair down and condemns Nanny’s vision, that Janie sheds
the same restrictions that continue to doom others to personal stagnation. In
one compelling novel, Hurston ties together the important issues facing her
generation without distracting from the tale of one woman’s struggle with them.