Their Eyes Werw Watching God Essay, Research Paper
Alice Walker depicts Zora Neale Hurston’s work as providing the
African-American literary community with its prime symbol of “racial
health – a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished
human beings” (190). Appropriately, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were
Watching God, published in 1937, provides an enlightening look at
the journey of one of these undiminished human beings, Janie
Crawford. Janie’s story – based on principles of self-exploration,
self-empowerment, and self-liberation – details her loss and
subsequent attainment of her innocence, as she constantly learns
and grows from her difficult experiences with gender issues
and racism in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
After joyfully discovering an archetype for sensuality and love under
the pear tree at age sixteen, Janie quickly comes to understand the
reality of marriage when she marries Logan Killicks, then Joe Starks.
Both men attempt to coerce Janie into submission to them by
treating her like a possession: where Killicks works Janie like a
mule, Joe objectifies her like a medal around his neck. In addition,
Janie learns that passion and love are tied to violence, as Killicks
threatens to kill her, and both Joe and Tea Cake beat her to assert
their dominance. Yet Janie continually struggles to keep her inner
Self intact and strong, remaining resilient in spite of her husbands’
physical, verbal, and mental abuse. Janie’s resilience is rewarded
when she finally meets and marries Tea Cake, who represents the
closest semblance to her youthful idealism regarding love and
Another male figure playing prominently in Janie’s life is the white
man who raped her grandmother; her lineage determines, therefore,
that Janie will look whiter than other black women. This fair
complexion eventually attracts the ambitious Joe Starks, yet also
contributes to Joe’s objectification of Janie. Yet, outward
appearances aside, Janie’s identity takes shape in response to the
white male tyranny that made her own birth possible.
For example, Janie’s husband Jody paints his house “a gloaty,
sparkly white,” (44) humiliates the citizens of Eatonville in similar
ways as the white man would, and forces Janie into the slavish
servitude reflected by the identity-confining head rag he makes her
wear (51). Yet, Janie fights Joe’s tyranny by telling him off just before
he dies in Chapter Eight, then reclaims her own identity by burning
up “every one of her head rags” (85). Similarly, Janie encounters Mrs.
Turner, Hurston’s symbol of internalized racism, who doesn’t “blame
de white folks from hating [African-Americans] ’cause Ah can’t stand
‘em mahself” (135). Again, however, Janie remains true
to herself as she continues to form her own identity by refusing to
leave Tea Cake and class off as Mrs. Turner suggests.
Rather than self-destruct under the constant realities of racism and
misogyny she receives throughout her life, Janie Crawford does the
opposite at the close of Their Eyes Were Watching God. The novel’s
final image states what Janie does throughout the story – taking her
difficult past in and growing stronger and wiser as a result of it.
Author Zora Neale Hurston believed that freedom “was something
internal?.The man himself must make his own emancipation” (189).
Likewise, in her defining moment of identity formation, Janie “pulled
in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of
the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its
meshes! She called in her soul to come and see” (184). At the end of
a novel focusing on self-revelation and self-formation, Janie survives
with her soul – made resilient by continual struggle – intact.
Pear tree: In her Nanny’s back yard, Janie lies beneath the pear tree
when, “the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a
dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand
sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver
of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and
frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been
summoned to behold a revelation” (11). Janie’s youthful idealism
leads her to believe that this intense sensuality must be similar to
the intimacy between lovers, and she wishes “to be a pear tree – any
tree in bloom!” (11). The image suggests a wholeness – as bees
pollinate blossoms paralleling human sexual intercourse – which
Janie finds missing in her marriages to both Logan Killicks and Joe
Starks, but finally discovers in her relationship with Tea Cake.
Mules: Janie’s grandmother initiates comparison between black
women and mules, declaring “De[African-American] woman is de
mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (14). In addition, both of
Janie’s first two husbands own mules, and the way they respectively
treat them parallels the way they treat Janie. Logan Killicks works
his mule demandingly; Joe Starks, having bought Matt Bonner’s mule
from him, puts it out to pasture as a status symbol rather than using
Janie’s hair: Forced by Joe Starks (who refuses to allow other men
to lust after his wife’s hair) to be worn up under a head rag throughout
their marriage, Janie’s hair functions as a symbol of the submission
Joe demanded of her. Janie surrenders to Joe’s will externally by
wearing the head rag, yet remains steadfast internally against Joe’s
abuse. Thus, her hair suggests that Janie “had an inside and an
outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them” (68). After
Joe’s death, Janie burns all of her head rags in a symbolic act of
Their Eyes Were Watching God: The novel’s title is taken from
Chapter 18, as the hurricane strikes the Everglades. Tea Cake and
Janie “sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes
straining against crude walls and their souls asking if he meant to
measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at
the dark, but their eyes were watching God” (151). This passage,
taken in conjunction with other occurrences in Their Eyes Were
Watching God, signifies God’s arbitrary will, which provides Janie and
her companions with a sense of fate and destiny. Janie recognizes
that people have to be watching because life comes down hard on
them, as evidenced in the case of many characters throughout the
Top Ten Quotes
1) Janie, on her gossiping neighbors, stressing the importance of
storytelling and oral tradition: “Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ‘em
nothin’, Pheoby. ‘Tain’t worth de trouble. You can tell ‘em what Ah
say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is
in mah friend’s mouf” (6).
2) Janie, to the men of Eatonville: “Sometimes God gits familiar wid
us womenfolks too and talks His inside business. He told me?how
surprised y’all is goin’ tuh be if you ever find out you don’t know half
as much ’bout us as you think yo do. It’s so easy to make yo’self out
God Almighty when you ain’t got nothin’ tuh strain against but women
and chickens” (70-71).
3) On Janie: “She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the
surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels” (72).
4) Janie, after Joe’s death: “To my thinkin’ mourning oughtn’t tuh last
no longer’n grief” (89).
5) Eatonville habitants, on Janie: “It was hard to love a woman that
always made you feel so wishful” (111).
6) On Tea Cake: “Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing
love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place” (122).
7) On waiting for the mighty hurricane: “They sat in company with the
others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and
their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against
His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were
watching God” (151).
8) Tea Cake, on Janie: “?don’t say you’se ole. You’se uh lil girl baby
all de time. God made it so you spent yo’ ole age first wid somebody
else, and saved up yo’ young girl days to spend wid me” (172).
9) Janie, on love: “?love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de
same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch.
Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its
shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore”
10) Janie: “It’s uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh
there?.Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got
tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves”