Their Eyes Were Watching God: An Analysis Essay, Research Paper
So many people in modern society have lost their voices. Laryngitis is not the cause of this sad situation– they silence themselves, and have been doing so for decades. For many, not having a voice is acceptable socially and internally, because it frees them from the responsibility of having to maintain opinions. For Janie Crawford, it was not: she finds her voice among those lost within the pages of Zora Neale Hurston’s famed novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. This dynamic character’s natural intelligence, talent for speaking, and uncommon insights made her the perfect candidate to develop into the outspoken, individual woman she has wanted to be all along.
As the novel begins, Janie walks into her former hometown quietly and bravely. She is not the same woman who left; she is not afraid of judgment or envy. Full of “self-revelation”, she begins telling her tale to her best friend, Phoeby, by looking back at her former self with the kind of wistfulness everyone expresses when they remember a time of childlike na?vet?. She tries to express her wonderment and innocence by describing a blossoming peach tree that she loved, and in doing so also reveals her blossoming sexuality. To deter Janie from any trouble she might find herself in, she was made to marry an older man named Logan Killicks at the age of 16. In her na?vet?, she expected to feel love eventually for this man. Instead, however, his love for her fades and she becomes a mule to carry his burdens. This causes one major personality change in Janie– she accepts Logan Killicks as her husband and the pack mule as her role in life, yet keeps her knowledge of the world near to it for comfort. Hurston says it best:
She knew things that nobody had ever told her… She knew the world was a stallion rolling in the blue pasture of ether. She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up… She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman (24).
Janie remains relatively demure in her relationship with Killicks until Jody Starks appears. A wealthy, well-dressed man on his way to a small black town he heard about, a little of Janie’s previous na?vet? emerges again because of him. She mistakes his spending and kindness for the love she had been seeking, but eventually realizes that he loves her as a reflection of his wealth. Of Janie’s three husbands, he is the one with the most negative effect on her. He defines all the boundaries of her life and expects her to submit to everything he commands. When she defies him and insults him in public, he reacts by shunning her and attempting to hurt her, and because of this she was not free of his “rules” even after his death. “She lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods– come and gone with the sun. She got nothing from Jody except what money could buy, and she was giving away what she didn’t value”(72).
At this time, Janie begins to see her personal voice and talents as hindrances rather than gifts. She becomes a model of what society feels the grieving widow should be and cannot express outwardly her true feelings for months after his death.
If Janie’s second marriage is her most negative, then her third is the most positive. The mutual love between her and Tea Cake, a poor southern boy much younger than herself, was the cause of the worst social condemnation she ever experienced, and the reason she discovered her true self. She truly adored him, as is evident here:
…Mrs. Turner said, ‘Yo’ husband musta had plenty money when y’all got married.’
…[Janie said,] ‘Naw, mah husband didn’t had nothin’ but hisself… He kin take most any lil thing and make summertime out of it when times is dull. Then we lives offa dat happiness he made till some mo’ happiness come along’ (134-5).
He helps her out of her grief and teaches her that it is all right to be herself. With Tea Cake, she is a person (not a mule or a trophy), a decision-maker (not a submissive woman), and his love (not his burden). Here, she learns that she is important and that her lucid, quick mind is a blessing. She evolves from an introverted, na?ve girl unsure about her own sexuality into a warm, witty woman who cared only for one man, in the course of only two decades. Freed from both personal conflict and social attitudes, she is finally happy.
Janie Killicks, Janie Starks, and Janie Woods are three very different people, despite their similar physical structure and dynamic, constantly changing nature. Each has her own values, and the first two are shaped by their husbands. The third throws off her restraints, which are loosened by Tea Cake. Only one is truly satisfied; only she has realized how to live. She had to destroy Janie Killicks and Janie Starks to become Janie Woods, who has a conscience and doesn’t need dreams to live romance and success. Finally she is Janie Woods, who has a voice. Women– and, for that matter, men– everywhere, even today, need to follow her in stepping outside the lines to step into their true selves.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Harper & Row Publishers, New York 1990.