Their Eyes Were Watching God Neale Hurston’s work provides the African-American community with a one of the first literary symbols of racial health – a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings. 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 independence of her own reality, as she constantly learns and grows from her difficult experiences with gender issues and racism in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurstons grasp on the readers imagination is demonstrated with her masterful use of imagery and phrasing. Janies dialogue and vernacular carry the reader along with seemingly innocuous pieces of vivid perception. In reality Hurston has put the reader in such a position that they hardly realize they are ingesting something deep and true.
Their Eyes Were Watching God recognizes that there are problems to the human condition, such as the need to possess the fear of the unknown and the result of stagnation. Hurston does not leave us with the hopelessness; rather, she extends a recognition and understanding of humanity’s need to escape emptiness. The truth of life, as with death that it is done alone and at the end of it all there should be a sense of self with a positive resolve. Janies search begins in her Nanny’s yard, as 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. 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. Janies resilience is rewarded when she finally meets and marries Tea Cake, who represents the closest semblance to her youthful idealism regarding love and marriage. 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” (199). 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” (183). At the end of a novel focusing on self-revelation and self-formation, Janie survives with her soul – made resilient by continual struggle – intact. Janies grandmother was one of the most important influences in her life, raising her since from an infant and passing on her dreams to Janie.
Janies mother ran away from home soon after Janie was born. With her father also gone, the task of raising Janie fell to her grandmother, Nanny. Nanny tells Janie Fact uh de matter, Ah loves yuh a whole heap moren Ah do yo mama, de one Ah did birth (15). Nannys dream is for Janie to attain a position of security in society, high ground as she puts it (19). As the person who raised her, Nanny feels that it is both her right and obligation to impose her dreams and her ideas of what is important in life on Janie. The strong relationship between mother and child is important in the African-American community, and the conflict between Janies idyllic view of marriage and Nanny wish for her to marry for stability and position is a good illustration of just how deep the respect and trust runs.
Janie has a very romantic notion of what marriage should be. While Nannys idea of a good marriage is someone who has some standing in the community; someone who will get Janie to that higher ground. Nanny wants Janie to marry Logan Killicks, but according to Janie he look like some ole skull-head in de grave yard (13). Even more importantly to Janie, though, was the fact that the vision of Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree. Nanny tells Janie, So you dont want to marry off decent like .
. . you wants to make me suck the same sorrow yo mama did, eh? Mah ole head aint gray enough. My back aint bowed enough to suit you! (13). After they have the fight over Logan Killicks, Nanny says something, by way of an explanation of why Janie needs to marry up the social ladder, that reveals a good deal about the reality of being an African-American woman.
She says De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see (14). Janie, out of respect for her grandmother, went off to start her role as a wife. Considering Nanny’s dreams for Janie, why is Janies marriage to Logan ironic? Nanny told Janie that black women were the mules of the world. White men handed their burdens and their work to black men, who in turn gave them to black women. Nanny did not want Janie to be anyone’s pack mule. She believed that financial security and respectability would save Janie from this fate.
She saw Logan Killicks as a man who could provide Janie with these things. Nanny did not think love was at all important in Janies marriage. She even admonished Janie for complaining that she did not love Logan after two months of marriage. Ironically, Logan came to see Janie as a pack mule when he was disappointed that Janie did not come to love him. When it became clear that Janie did not return his affection, he tried to force her into the servitude that Nanny feared. He planned to make her work in the fields at his side in addition to doing all the cooking and the cleaning.
He wanted to buy a second mule so that Janie could help him plow the fields. Whereas Nanny disdained the role of love in Janies marriage, the very lack of it on Janies part caused it to fail. Janie’s marriage to Logan Killicks was the first stage in her development as a woman. She hoped that her forced marriage with Logan would end her loneliness and desire for love. Right from the beginning, the loneliness in the marriage shows up when Janie sees that his house is a “lonesome place like a stump in the middle of the woods where nobody had ever been” (21). This description of Logan’s house is symbolic of the relationship they have.
Janie eventually admits to Nanny that she still does not love Logan and cannot find anything to love about him. “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (25). Janie’s prayer is her final plea for a change in her life. She says, Lawd, you know mah heart.
Ah done de best Ah could do. De rest is left to you” (24). Nanny’s actions robbed Janie of the freedom to live her life on her own terms. Janie did not want to marry Logan, but she did so because Nanny told her that she would eventually come to love him. Ironically, Logan wanted to force Janie into the servitude that Nanny feared. Also, he was disappointed that Janie never returned his affection and attraction. If he could not possess her through love, he would possess her by demanding her submission.
At heart, his actions arose from the fear that Janie would leave him. 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 it. 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 Janies 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 it.
It is through the journey of her life that Janie realizes that she is living Nanny dreams rather than her own. She also recognizes that with protection comes obligation-Killicks feels he deserves to slap her around. With that discovery, she makes the choice to escape with Jody. Janie’s search for love is parallel to the human search for meaning and what life consists of. There is no one answer, either of despair or happiness.
Hurston has portrayed a world of true individuality, where every experience will end differently with each person. To paraphrase Hurston: Life is not like a grindstone, but the sea. Hurston does not promise it will bring happiness to all; she simply shows us the life of one woman who did end up with happiness and contentment. Janie states: “If you kin see de light at daybreak, you dont keer if you die at dusk. Its so many people that never seen de light at all” (159).
By imparting this philosophy to the reader Hurston gives a direction to Janies journey and a powerful message to the reader. Life experiences are universal in nature, while affected by race are not unique to any one race. At the same time there is no set path. All anyone can hope to achieve (or has control over) is the self and what feelings are left and the end. According to Hurston, life is “all according to the way you see things” (89). If one has the intuition to look out over the horizon and dream, take a chance, acknowledge fear, he or she will be able to live life to the fullest. Once well traveled there can be a impression of meaning and substance that lives in the quite of ones soul not in the recognition of others.
Bibliography Hurston, Zora Neale . Their Eyes Were Watching God . New York : HarperCollins. 1937.