By Mercy Hamilton
The most common assumption about Janie Crawford, the main character in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, is that she is a lonely young woman in “search for her authentic self and for real love” (Danticat 1). This is a misinterpretation of Hurston’s most successful and critiqued novel. What Janie is most driven by is an intense desire for storytelling and adventure. For Janie, both are inextricably linked as it is not enough to merely have a grand adventure; she needs to regale someone through the recounting of her experiences. Unlike the vast and exotic worlds inhabited by the swashbuckling protagonists in stories like The Odyssey and The Aeneid, Janie’s world is small, limited, and almost entirely controlled by men. Starting with her great “revelation” beneath a pear tree, Janie begins to wonder about the world beyond her Nanny’s front gate. Instead of opening the gate to find out for herself, she “[waits] for the world to be made” by men (11). Men are the literal gatekeepers to adventure in Janie’s mind, and it is through her relationships with men that she gains access. Her subsequent three marriages are a means to an end which comes in the form of Pheoby Watson who eagerly absorbs Janie’s anecdotes about them. In Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God what Janie wants most is to share her story, but to do that she needs a good story to tell.
Logan Killicks is Janie’s first experience of the world beyond the gate, but she soon longs for a way out after discovering that life with him will never resemble bees and pear trees. As an overreaction to an innocent kiss from the lowly Johnny Taylor, Janie finds herself being married off to the senior but wealthy Mr. Killicks. Janie is repulsed by Logan who makes no attempt to make himself attractive to her; he cannot so much as “mention nothing’ pretty” (24). Logan is clearly not the romantic hero Janie is looking for. Her hopes are permanently dashed when he reveals his intentions to make her work his land, thereby confirming Nanny’s ominous declaration from beyond the grave. It’s enough to make Janie threaten to “run off and leave” Logan, but despite the bleakness of her situation, Janie is not prepared to strike out on her own (30). This marriage, originally meant to be a source of security and protection, has become a thing she desperately needs to escape, or else live out the rest of her days in an endless loop of loveless drudgery; instead of divorce, she waits for a more exciting prospect to come along, and it soon comes in the form of Joe Starks.
Right away Janie knows that she isn’t going to get “sun-up and pollen and blooming trees” with the ambitious Joe “Jody” Starks; she hopes for “change and [a] chance” for real adventure only to be denied once again (29). On the surface Jody appears to be everything Logan is not. He’s stylish, ambitious and he sweet talks Janie in a way Logan never bothered to. When they begin their new lives in Eatonville Janie, like everyone else in town, is impressed by Jody’s commanding presence and competent leadership. With silk dresses, the most spectacular house in Eatonville, and a host of entertaining new neighbors, Janie’s life as a mayor’s wife is a vast improvement to life as a farmer’s wife on the surface. Beneath the veneer however, Janie slowly begins to realize her new life is not the eternal springtime she imagined. The first time Jody “took the bloom off of things” came during a town gathering at the newly built storefront (43). Janie was asked to speak in public for the first time in her life only to be usurped by her husband who told the townspeople “mah wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin’” (43). Not only is Janie discouraged from public speaking, she is also forbidden from intermingling with the townspeople because “de mayor’s wife is something different” (60). Ryan Simmons describes Janie’s predicament in his article “The hierarchy itself: Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the sacrifice of narrative authority” by saying “what is gained in material prosperity is lost in personal freedom” (183). By stifling her voice and confining her to the ivory tower of the storefront, Jody denied Janie the crucial elements of her only ambition; the adventure was over, and the fate of their marriage was sealed.
Janie is liberated after Jody’s death, and she thoroughly enjoys her newfound freedom, but freedom is not the goal; when the opportunity for adventure reemerges, it is quickly utilized. After Jody’s funeral, Janie spends her days continuing to run the store, socializing with Pheoby, and fending off the advances of fortune hunters. She confesses to Pheoby “Ah jus’ loves dis freedom”, but at the same time she is “ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people” (89, 93). The caravan of opportunists lined up at her front porch do not interest her because they can’t offer her any new experiences. Despite the options her newfound wealth affords her, Janie never acts as the agent of her own adventure. Even the way in which she runs the store hasn’t changed much from Jody’s time. As Carla Kaplan puts it in “The Erotic’s of Talk: “That Oldest Human Longing” in their Eyes Were Watching God”, Janie is acting out some sort of fairytale waiting “for her prince or in this case her bee to come” (116). Janie appears self-infantilizing and naïve in her outlook as she continues to defer to men despite no longer needing to; Hezekiah, who is seventeen, manages the store even though his only qualification is that he is male. Janie needlessly falls back on old behaviors despite their sexist implications because she wants to be rescued. After about six months of peace and comfort, a young stranger comes to the store, and with him Janie finally experiences “the beginning of things” (107).
Tea Cake, a dichotomous figure, is the white knight who rescues the beautiful damsel, but more importantly he connects her to the rest of world, thus fulfilling her ultimate objective. It is not a coincidence that Tea Cake is a gambler and his first act is enticing Janie into a game of chess. Janie takes a huge gamble by selling her store and throwing in her lot behind this untested young man, but she’s willing to risk it all because “dis is uh love game” as she tells Pheoby who is understandably concerned (114). But Janie doesn’t know anything about games or love, and she certainly doesn’t love Tea Cake when she leaves Eatonville with him. Janie doesn’t feel what she regards as love until after they’ve married, and Tea Cake has been stabbed trying to win back money he has stolen from his new wife. This senseless melodrama is an indication of Janie’s juvenile understanding of romantic relationships. Though much is made of the age difference between them, they are well matched as both are profoundly immature. Tracy Bealer proclaims in her essay “The Kiss of Memory: The Problem of Love in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God” that Tea Cake is the “great love of [Janie’s] life” (311). Perhaps, but it’s a shallow caricature of love rife with petty jealousy, violent possession, and lusty infatuation. These are hallmarks of theatrical quasi-love but not real love. All this was secondary however, as what Janie most benefitted from was being out in the muck with the rest of her neighbors by day and coming home to a “house [that] was full of people every night” (133). Trading stories, gambling, and singing songs meant that Janie was finally connected to the rest of world. It didn’t matter that her relationship with Tea Cake was so deeply flawed because a happy marriage was never the goal; her goal was achieved when “she could tell big stories herself from listening to the rest. Because she loved to hear it…” (134). In the summer, when most of the other workers were leaving the Everglades, Janie doesn’t sit around to bask in the glow of dysfunctional marital bliss with Tea Cake; she goes out looking for new people and new experiences. When she eventually comes across the Bahaman people, with their lively music and dancing, she goes to see them every single night. Despite Tea Cake’s possessiveness, he doesn’t discourage Janie’s connection to the world at large which may explain why she doesn’t protest when he beats her; what Janie fails to realize is that this is a false dilemma, and the consequences are dire.
Though Janie is finally having the time of her life on the muck, she still has a deeply paternalistic relationship with Tea Cake as does he with white society, for which they both pay a heavy price. All the signs were there for them to see when the Seminoles, the animals, and even the Bahaman’s took to higher ground when it became apparent that a hurricane was coming. This was all laughed off by Tea Cake because he “ain’t seen de bossman go up” and “[white people] oughta know if it’s dangerous” (156). Tea Cake’s complete mental subjugation is on full display here; he is choosing to defer his safety to a group of people who have never had his best interests at heart. Worse than that however, is the fact that his reasoning is flawed as Maureen McKnight notes in her essay “Discerning Nostalgia in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God” by pointing out that “Tea Cake ignores the geographical fact that the white folks live on higher ground” (102). Tea Cake doesn’t need permission from white people to save his own life and Janie does not need permission from her husband to live her own life, but neither Janie nor Tea Cake are willing to advocate for themselves. Tea Cake defers to white people to do his thinking for him; Janie defers to her husband to do her thinking for her, and inevitably disaster ensues with Tea Cake contracting rabies and eventually dying in the melee. Hubris in white supremacy cost Tea Cake his life, it cost Janie her husband, and nearly cost Janie her freedom; the adventure was over for good, and Janie decided to make the long trek back to Eatonville to recount it all to Pheoby.
Janie returns to Eatonville not as a bereaved widow but as an immensely satisfied voyager because as she tells Pheoby, “[she has] been tuh de horizon and back” meaning she has had her grand adventure and lived to tell the tale (191). Janie finally has her own epic story to tell and she is the heroine at its center. In her narrative, Janie was the beautiful young ingenue who longed to see the world but was nearly thwarted by her cruel Nanny who shipped her off to waste away as the wife of a dull and odious potato farmer. She is rescued from a life of perpetual boredom by an ambitious but ruthless politician who turns out not to be her savior as he soon locks her away in an ivory tower. After many years her captor dies but she still needs to be rescued, and eventually she is by a handsome and exciting white knight. He whisks her away to a new land where they soon become the King and Queen of their own kingdom. But this bliss is short lived as a terrible storm ends the King’s life, and permanently separates the star-crossed lovers. It’s undoubtedly a tale for the ages, but it’s missing the crucial component of transformation. Janie has not grown in any meaningful way, and she never intended to. At no point does she try to express any unique ambition or dissenting opinion of her own. She merely latches onto the coattails of whatever man comes along and blindly follows him. She never stands up to anyone; she leaves Logan by slinking off when his back is turned, she waits around for Jody to die, and she shoots Tea Cake only after he’s descended so far into madness he doesn’t know which way is up. All those outcomes could have been avoided if she had exhibited even a tiny amount of self-advocacy. It’s tempting to explain it away by claiming that Janie is merely a victim of her time, but this is not entirely true. Her own Nanny had originally intended for her to get an education which would have allowed Janie to be independent and connect to the world on her own terms; Janie wasn’t interested, and that was her biggest mistake. Janie could have had a much more prolific adventure if she had been willing to come to her own rescue.
Bealer, Tracy L. “The Kiss of Memory: The Problem of Love in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” African American Review, vol. 43 no. 2, 2009, pp. 311-327,
https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/860144469?accountid=15152. Accessed 24 Nov. 2018.
Homer. “The Odyssey.” 800 B.C.E., Penguin Classics, November 1999.
Hurston, Zora Neale. “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” 1937, Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.
Kaplan, Carla. “The Erotics of Talk: ‘That Oldest Human Longing’ in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” American Literature, vol. 67, no. 1, 1995, pp. 115–142, www.jstor.org/stable/2928033. Accessed 24 Nov. 2018.
McKnight, Maureen. “Discerning Nostalgia in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Southern Quarterly, vol. 44, no. 4, 2007, pp.83-115, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/ docview/222240541?accountid=15152. Accessed 24 Nov. 2018.
Simmons, Ryan. “The hierarchy itself: Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the sacrifice of narrative authority.” African American Review, vol. 36, no. 2, 2002, pp. 181-193, https://login.proxy189.nclive.org/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/209800799?accountid=15152. Accessed 24 Nov. 2018.
Virgil. “The Aeneid.” 19 B.C.E, Bantam Classics, September 1981.