A Feminist Reading of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is an inherently feminist novel that focuses on the hardships suffered by African American women in particular, using Janie as a representative of black women. Throughout the novel, Janie battles problems common to all women, particularly black women, as she experiences different types of love and relationships that eventually lead to her fulfillment as a person.
Janie’s initial perception of life and love is influenced heavily by her grandmother’s pessimistic views. Nanny wants Janie to avoid the troubles she faced in her life, and she believes the only way to do this is to marry Janie off before Janie can come to harm. After Janie begins to show interest in men, Nanny is quick to show Janie the dark reality of how men will treat her and to push her own agenda upon her granddaughter, saying, “Ah can’t die easy thinkin’ maybe de menfolks white or black is makin’ a spit cup outa you. Have some sympathy fuh me. Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate” (Hurston, 20). Nanny has been “made a spit cup” out of many times in her life — being forced to leave the plantation where she lived, raising a grandchild born of rape, and watching her daughter lose her way in life. Any romantic ideals she once held have long since been stamped out, but she sees them in Janie, who envisions marriage as the union between bumblebees and pear blossoms, and wishes to protect the girl’s innocence. Nanny was unable to protect her daughter from the world, and men in particular, and sees Janie as a chance to rectify that failure. Janie realizes that her grandmother’s desire to protect her stems from a larger desire to end her own suffering, but she is reluctant to compromise her future for her grandmother’s sake. Nanny reveals the dismal story of her life to Janie as a cautionary tale, telling her, “Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me. Freedom found me wid a baby daughter in mah arms, so Ah said Ah’d take a broom and a cook-pot and throw up a highway through de wilderness for her…but nothin’ Ah been through ain’t too much if you just take a stand on high ground lak Ah dreamed” (Hurston, 16). Nanny’s daughter wandered off the highway Nanny made for her, and Nanny is terrified that the same will happen to Janie. She believes that the only way for Janie to “take a stand on high ground” is to marry Logan, who will protect her from harm and provide for her, even if they do not love each other. This pressure to marry for protection and provision is inflicted upon all women, but particularly black women of this time period, who were often the victims of violence such as what Janie’s mother suffered. It is beyond Nanny’s powers to bring all colored women to this high ground, but she is determined to get Janie there no matter the cost.
Janie’s marriage to Logan serves to show her the error of Nanny’s way of thinking and set her on her path to find her own love. When Janie first marries Logan, she intends to stay with him, believing that she will come to love him with time. Nanny tells her that love is irrelevant to marriage, huffing, “Here you got uh prop tuh lean on all yo’ bawn days, and big protection, and everybody got tuh tip dey hat tuh you and call you Mis’ Killicks, and you come worryin’ me ’bout love” (Hurston, 23). Nanny believes that because Janie’s marriage to Logan makes her respectable in the community and protects her from harm, it has fulfilled its usefulness. Janie’s imagining of marriage as mutually fulfilling, romantic, and sweet — like the bumblebees and pear blossoms in spring — is quickly dismissed as fantasy. This marks Janie’s loss of innocence and awakening to the way the world truly is; “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, and so she became a woman” (Hurston, 25). As Janie accepts the loss of her dream, she loses her innocence and is forcefully awakened to the true workings of the world. Thus in trying to protect Janie, Nanny inflicted a different kind of violence upon her by killing her “first dream.” Hurston implies that this violence is foisted upon every young girl when she “become[s] a woman.” The death of Janie’s romantic image of marriage is what pushes Janie to reject the ideas of marriage and love bequeathed to her and begin to search for her own, something every woman must do as she matures.
Janie abandons both Nanny’s notion of love and her husband by running off with Joe “Jody” Starks, whom she hopes will fulfill her fantasy of what love and marriage should be. Jody provides the means for Janie to escape a loveless marriage and attempt to resurrect her first dream. At the beginning of her life as Mrs. Starks, Janie believes that “from now until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom. Her old thoughts were going to come in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them” (Hurston, 32). Janie returns to her “old thoughts” of “flower dust and springtime” when she elopes with Jody, but she acknowledges that things will be different than she imagined. She has lost some of her innocence and seen the world’s uglier side, but remains naive and too quick to trust. Janie builds up an image of Jody as “a bee for her bloom,” the man who saved her from her “mouldy” marriage to Logan Killicks. She is disappointed again in finding out that Jody is not the man she dreamed of. She first realizes this during Jody’s speech to the town, when he says “‘Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.’ Janie made her face laugh after a short pause, but it wasn’t too easy. She had never thought of making a speech, and didn’t know if she cared to make one at all. It must have been the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off of things” (Hurston, 45). As he sets himself up to be Eatonville’s mayor, Jody reveals that he is uninterested in Janie’s intellect or abilities; he “never married her for nothin’ lak dat.” Instead, he is interested in Janie being a respectable wife, separated from life in the town, which is his domain. Janie, like many women, is relegated to the home without any choice in the matter, and is expected to make “her face laugh” and hide her discontent. Once again returning to the springtime imagery of pollen and bloom, Hurston describes Jody’s misogyny towards Janie as “taking the bloom off of things.” Rather than revive Janie’s dreams, Jody will throw the final handful of dirt onto their grave.
As Jody’s wife, Janie is eventually forced to give up her old ideas of love and marriage once and for all, resulting in the loss of the last of her naivete. Janie begins to do so as she becomes more and more dissatisfied with the way Jody treats her. She comes to realize that Jody does not care for her ideas, only for her obedience. After several years of marriage,“time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it. So, gradually she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again” (Hurston, 71). In this way, Janie’s marriage to Jody is just as unfulfilling as her marriage to Logan was. While Logan “spoke in rhymes” to her and play-acted at romance, Jody makes no such display. Janie’s job as his wife is to submit to his will and make him look good so their marriage can “shake hands” with company. The Starks’ marriage is a show for the town, to make Jody more respectable, while Janie is given no respect at all. In a situation many women find familiar, Janie is silenced, allowed to use her voice only to make her husband look better, never to contradict him. Janie is more and more disillusioned with Jody and her marriage through the months, but it is not until he strikes her that the veil is finally lifted. After a carefully prepared dinner that ends up inedible, Jody strikes Janie across the cheek in anger. Janie “stood there until something fell off the shelf inside of her…It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further…She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen” (Hurston, 72). In this instant, Janie realizes that from the moment she ran off down the road with him, she held an image of Jody that was far from the truth. She pictured him as the man who would give her springtime and fulfill her dreams because she was trapped in a loveless marriage and Jody was the way out. After seven years of marriage, Janie realizes that Jody is just someone she “had grabbed up to drape her dreams over,” fervently hoping that he would fulfill them when in reality he was interested only in his own fulfillment. It is this realization that cleanses Janie of her naivety, which clears the way for her to find the “man she had never seen” who would fulfill her dreams.
Janie’s third marriage, to Tea Cake Woods, brings her life full-circle by fulfilling her childhood dreams while also rejecting their childishness. Tea Cake is the opposite of Jody, interested in Janie’s feelings and unwilling to class her off and keep her separate from life. This is clear from early on in their relationship; the first time they meet, Tea Cake teaches Janie how to play checkers: “He set it up and began to show her and she found herself glowing inside. Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play” (Hurston, 95). Jody had forbidden Janie to play checkers, a game that everyone in town knew and loved, as a way to keep her separated from the others. Conversely, Tea Cake thinks “it natural for her to play,” signifying the vast differences between him and Jody and foreshadowing the major changes to come in Janie’s life. Hurston makes it clear that Tea Cake is the man Janie was “saving up feelings for” through sharp contrasts between Janie’s relationships with him and Jody. Whereas Janie’s marriage to Jody was primarily a show for the townsfolk, her relationship with Tea Cake is characterized by a “glowing inside,” signifying that this relationship is between Janie and Tea Cake rather than those around them. This comparison is carried further through the contrast of the way Tea Cake and Jody treat Janie and view her role as a wife. Jody viewed Janie as a servant and a necessity to make him more respectable. Tea Cake, however, views Janie as someone special that he is privileged to have in his life. He explains this to Janie when comparing her to Nunkie, the young girl trying to win his affections: “[Nunkie] ain’t good for nothin’ exceptin’ tuh set up in uh corner by de kitchen stove and break wood over her head. You’se something tuh make uh man forgit tuh git old and forgit tuh die” (Hurston, 138). In her relationship with Tea Cake, Janie is freed from being “set up in uh corner by de kitchen stove” as she was with Jody. While Jody tucked Janie away in the store and the house under head rags and propriety, Tea Cake is quick to include Janie in every part of his life. The freedom Janie experiences with Tea Cake is tempered with her knowledge of less contented times, signifying that the only reason Janie was able to attain her dreams at last is because of the growth she experienced since the day she mused about love under the pear tree.
Through her three marriages, Janie learns enough to truly become a woman in her own right. Janie’s growth begins with a rejection of her grandmother’s beliefs, but as she grows, she also comes to understand these beliefs. She remembers the “high ground” her grandmother wanted her to get to and compares it to the porch-talkers of Eatonville. “[Nanny] was borned in the slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me — didn’t keer whut it cost…so I got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Phoeby, Ah done nearly languished to death up dere. Ah felt like de world was cryin’ extry and Ah ain’t read the common news yet” (Hurston, 114). To get up on the “high stool,” Janie marries first Logan and then Jody, both of whom give her status and protection but ultimately keep her from experiencing the world. Jody especially is guilty of keeping Janie isolated from society, constantly insulting her intelligence but not allowing her to “read the common news” and join the town’s conversation. Although this satisfies Nanny’s hopes for Janie, it prevents her from achieving her own dreams. As Janie matures, she realizes that the cost her grandmother assigned her to pay is too high. Ultimately, Janie blames her grandmother for the years she spent under the thumb of men like Jody. Just after Jody’s death, Janie stops to reassess and realizes that “she hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity. She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people…But she had been whipped like a cur dog, and run off down a back road after things…Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon…and pinched it into such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love” (Hurston, 89). Although Nanny loved Janie and tried to do right by her, her what was important to her — protection, status, land and money — was things, not people, and things do not fulfill life. Just as Janie was growing old enough to experience the world and head for the horizon in search of her people, Nanny “tie[d] it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her,” stifling Janie’s growth by shoving her into a marriage. Over the course of the novel, Janie must reclaim her horizon and grow despite the limitations placed on her early in life. The men that Janie marries are important catalysts on this journey, but once Janie has finally learned all that she needs to and created her own outlook on life, she no longer needs them. Hurston uses Tea Cake’s death to symbolize Janie’s growth into a complete person, able to return to Eatonville content with her life.
Having experienced life and love in many different capacities, Janie eventually reclaims her horizon. Her journey was heavily influenced by her grandmother and three husbands, but in the end it was her journey and hers alone. The lessons Janie learns throughout her life are easy for many women to relate to as they read her story while on their own journey, confronting their own versions of Jody, Nanny, and Tea Cake. The power of Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God lies in its empowering message to women that is just as applicable to women today as in Janie’s time.