Their Eyes Were Watching God – Adjust, Adapt, Overcome: A theme analysis
"I have said that the soul is not more than the body, And I have said that the body is not more than the soul, And nothing, not God, is greater to one than one's self is, And whoever walks a furlong without sympathy walks to his own funeral drest in his shroud..." -Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Zora Neale Hurston, in dealing with the female search for self-awareness in Their Eyes Were Watching God, has created a heroine in Janie Crawford. In fact, the female perspective is introduced immediately: "Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly" (1). On the very first page of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the contrast is made between men and women, thus initiating Janie's search for her own dreams and foreshadowing the "female quest" theme of the rest of the novel. Detailing Janie's quest for self-discovery and self-definition, Hurston celebrates Janie as a role model for all by communicating her understanding of life's true meaning.
In finding life's true meaning, Janie underwent self-definition or what today is called self-actualization:
In 1954 an American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that all people are motivated to fulfill a hierarchical pyramid of needs. At the bottom of Maslow's pyramid are needs essential to survival, such as the needs for food, water, and sleep. The need for safety follows these physiological needs. According to Maslow, higher-level needs become important to us only after our more basic needs are satisfied. These higher needs include the need for love and 'belongingness', the need for esteem, and the need for self-actualization (In Maslow's theory, a state in which people realize their greatest potential) (All information by means of Encarta Online Encyclopedia).
It is ironic that a black female
author of the late 1930's was able to write a novel exemplifying this very theme, well before its time. Although Hurston had Janie endure three marriages and a slew of hardships, the novel's protagonist finally reached the pinnacle in human existence. She had been a part of the loving harmony she had witnessed so early in her childhood. Janie was complete.
Janie Crawford is a black woman who asserts herself beyond expectation, with a persistence that characterizes her search for the love that she dreamt of as a girl. After witnessing the symbiotic relationship of a bee and a blossom, it dawned on her that there is much more to life and love than she had previously imagined. Soon after this enlightenment, Janie meets a young boy, Johnny Taylor and she allows him to kiss her over the fence. However, Janie's grandmother, Nanny also witnesses this kiss.
As a former slave, Nanny's idea of marriage is influenced by her social status. Back to the years of slavery and the years after emancipation, African-Americans couldn't get too much
freedom, if any. Their white masters treated the African-American women as goods. In the social echelon of things, they were at the bottom of the society. In turn making them the "mules" of the world (14). Slavery had anchored Nanny's mind; she believed that the best thing that could happen to an African-American woman is to marry a man that she can depend on, a marriage that can provide protection. Nanny felt that Johnny Taylor was not that type of man because a trifling youth like him would ruin Janie's life. That is why Nanny had chose someone who is respectable. Because Janie was born as a free child, Nanny felt she didn't have to experience life the same way she or her mother did. Notwithstanding Janie believes that she should fulfill her own dream by marrying a man that she loves, and she disregards the importance of material wealth.
After hearing her grandmother's thoughts, Janie understands the societal status that her life has handed her, yet she is determined to overcome this somehow. Yet Nanny is determined to have Janie marry a more reputable man. "So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don't tote it. He hand it to his womenfolk's. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see," opines Janie's grandmother in an attempt to justify the marriage that she has arranged for her granddaughter (14). This excerpt establishes the existence of the inferior status of women in this society, a status that Janie must somehow overcome in order to become a heroine. This societal constraint does not deter Janie from attaining her dream.
The man her grandmother had arranged for Janie to marry is Logan Killicks, a respectable black man with financial security and a plot of land, who fit Janie's grandmother's view of the perfect marriage. However, after the first few months of her marriage to Killicks: "… she [realized] now that marriage did not make love. Janie's first dream was dead, so she became a woman" (24). Logan had
It is now apparent that Janie is not afraid to defy the expectations that her grandmother has for her life, because she realizes that her grandmother's antiquated views of women as weaklings in need of male protection even at the expense of a loving relationship, constitute limitations to her personal potential: "She hated her grandmother. . . Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon " (85-86). Despite her pre-arranged marriage, Janie is not afraid to follow her instincts, even when this means leaving her first husband to marry her second - without a divorce. "Janie hurried out of the front gate and turned south. Even if Joe was not there waiting for her, the change was bound to do her good" (31).
With her second marriage it seems that Janie's dream has come true. She thinks that her prayers are answered when she first sees Joe Starks. In fact, she felt as if he were "a bee for her bloom" (31). Joe was a respectable looking man that seemed as if he didn't belong in "colored" skin. It was no surprise to the reader that Janie left the "ole skullhead" for the much more appealing Joe (13). Tragically, Janie soon realizes that Joe is not the "bee" she was looking for. She saw that he had only wanted her for her looks and nothing else. He kept her away from the entire world for fear of someone stealing her away. She was not allowed to talk on the porch with the other townsfolk, and after a man commented on her hair, she was forced to cover it. She never realized just how tied down she was by him until after a funeral the town had for a mule. After that incident, Janie begins to respond to the treatment with Joe's own medicine. After commenting about Janie's sagging behind, Janie rebuttals by denouncing Joe's manhood. This defiance is what seems to have caused Joe to die. Without the respect of his wife, or the townsfolk for that matter, he had no reason to live. Almost immediately after Joe dies, "she. . . let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there" . Symbolically this releasing of her hair represents Janie letting her "self" escape from the masquerade she had been living.
At this point in her life, Janie has decided that she no longer needs to please one person. Yet, she still seeks the love that she has sought since she was a girl. Ironically she finds it in the most implausible of places. Vergible Woods, not only younger than she, but also not as wealthy as her former husbands, has a certain romantic appeal. When she leaves with a younger man the gossip that follows throughout her small town makes references to her family's troubled past with marriages and men. But Janie, after the death of her second husband leaves her a widow, does not slow her pursuit of her dreams in the least.
"Ah done lived grandma's way, now ah means tuh live mine" (109). Janie's continued quest for the perfect love and ultimate happiness would not last long. Finally, she finds happiness with Vergible, or as he was known, Tea Cake. This means so much, because she has decided to go through with it on her own. According to Hurston "[Tea Cake] could be a bee to a blossom - a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took… He was a glance from God" (101-2). With her newly found happiness and freedom Janie's transformation is nearly complete.
Tragically the ending is not a happy one. Even though, Janie has discovered her "true-self", and is living up to her own potential, she still has an "Achilles heel". That crutch she so desperately depends on is Tea Cake. Two years after the day Janie and Vergible became man and wife; a rabid dog, in their flight from a hurricane, bit Tea cake. Tea Cake refused treatment because he felt well and didn't think anything of the dog. Sadly, three weeks later, Tea Cake fell ill with rabies. During one of his diseased fits, he became convinced Janie was cheating on him, and attempted to shoot her. Janie was forced to kill the man she so desperately needed to save her own life.
When she returns from her journey, after Tea Cake dies she has truly reached the pinnacle of human existence. She was now independent. She did not need anyone to be by her side, protect her, or encourage her to make her feel complete. She was independent and that was all the difference. By discovering the "two things everybody's got to do fuh theyselves," Janie's personal victory over oppression and the harsh rule of reality was epitomized (183). In relating her life as a "delegate in da Grand lodge, big convention of livin" to her friend Phoeby, Janie inadvertently begins her life as a role model for all seeking the culmination of Human existence (4). The two keys that unlocked life's secrets she believed were "people got tuh go tuh God, and they got to find out about livin' fuh theyselves" (183). Zora Neale Hurston closes off Their Eyes Were Watching God with one final, poignant image, reiterating the transformation in the heroine: "[calling] in her soul to come and see the splendor of her life" (184).
Hurston has portrayed a female
character as an emergent heroine, a creator of her own destiny, and one who has mastered the journey for self-awareness. Says Mary Helen Washington in the Foreword of Their Eyes Were Watching God, "for most black women readers discovering "Their Eyes" for the first time, what was most compelling was the figure of Janie Crawford - powerful, articulate, self-reliant, and radically different from any woman character they had ever before encountered in literature." Janie Crawford is defiant; she defies men, but most importantly, she defies our own preconceived notions of what the role of an African-American woman should be in modern literature.
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