Analysis of Janie From Novel Their Eyes Were Watching God
While slavery in the United States is over, Janie realizes that her position as a black woman leaves her in confines that her male counterparts are no longer bound to. Her femininity was what filled her childhood and her first hopes of a future, but in this new America, Janie’s elevated social class, her age, and her inner confidence cannot help her navigate the nation’s dark thirst for power over women. Nanny, who grew up as a true slave, raises Janie in the belief that she can find a husband and live a life of easy conversations on the porch and acres of wealth. Janie’s coming of age is a dreamy experience of blossoming pear trees and a first kiss in the garden.
All of these childhood illusions, combined with a new rush of black empowerment are practically unattainable for black women, as Janie Crawford comes to discover in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. For a young black girl growing up in the wake of slavery, Janie Crawford’s childhood is dreamier than most, with the white landowner dressing her “up in all de clothes her gran’chillun didn’t need…[and a] hair ribbon” (Hurston 9). She is at first blissfully unaware of the strong racial divide within her own country, not recognizing “dat dark chile as me” (9). Janie’s ascension into womanhood appears to foreshadow a similar trend, “with kissing bees singing of the beginning” of her future (11).
Her first kiss is the end of era, however. Perhaps the most striking line that encompasses black femininity in the novel is Nanny’s understanding that the black woman “is de mule uh de world” (14). Throughout the novel, this statement becomes evident, as each black woman is continuously forced to retreat into the background and forced by her husband to work.
Logan complains greatly about Janie’s lack of initiative to join him the fields, when her life is already occupied with the societal pressure to clean his house, make his food, and care for him. Because Janie is unable and unexcited to take on yet another responsibility from her husband, Logan believes that she “done been spoilt rotten” (26). The idea that she could be a black woman free of her responsibilities is apparently impossible; according to Logan, she thinks that’s she’s “white folks by de way [she] acts” (30). A life with a “cityfied, stylish dressed man” like Jody Starks who was “a seal-brown color but…acted like” he was white is what Janie believes to be an opportunity to break free of old identity (27).
Her years with him in Eatonville prove to be even more oppressive as Joe is firm in his belief that “she’s uh woman and her place is in de home” – or behind the desk of his shop (43). These stereotypes are dangerous sources of oppression for a woman who was raised to believe that she could have it all. Janie matches her hopes for true love with dreams of elevating her social status.
The idealized past time of white women across the South is lazy gossip and people watching on the porch, symbols of wealth and relaxation. Jody’s own source of power as an educated and resourceful black man is what leads Janie to believe that she is “not just another woman as she had supposed…[and she] slept with authority” (46). Her apparent social power is derived from Logan’s “often-mentioned sixty acres,” Jody’s position as mayor and developer of Eatonville, and the luxury of the home that they share (21).
However the men and women that surround Janie nevertheless succumb to the societal standard that black women cannot have such power. Nanny’s analysis of the relationship between black men and women seems to be correct – “he hand [the load] to his womenfolks” (14). However, her prayers “fuh it tuh be different wid” Janie die with Nanny, as Janie spends the rest of her life attempting to establish herself as an individual of high class while staying loyal to her husband (14). She ends up caught in a limbo between the world’s inability to give her the higher respect she desires and to connect her with the lower class.
As mayor’s wife, she is “the bell-cow, [and] the other women were the gang” (41). Not only are the women of Eatonville referred to as little more than a collective group – and Janie is compared to a complacent, working animal – but also a bizarre power structure is created. Unnecessary competition is fueled by Jody’s insistence that “nobody else’s wife…rank with her” (41). Later in the novel, Tea Cake won’t let Janie accompany him on his gambling trip because “dem wuzn’t no high muckty mucks…dem was railroad hands and dey womenfolks” (124). There is no true social power that Janie is allowed to hold other than the reputation of the man she is married to.
After Jody Starks’ death, Janie still cannot escape his immense shadow despite her valuable life experience. She continues to be known as “Mrs. Mayor,” and the town of Eatonville cares about nothing except her dedication to grief. Teenage dreams of falling in love were not satisfied by neither Logan nor Jody, and her sudden fascination with Tea Cake distracts her from a painful reality; woman, much less black women, were rarely given the respect they deserved. Being almost fifteen years senior to her new lover does not make her any less of a slave to his desires.
Tea Cake’s carefree attitude and charisma is an almost taunting reminder to the reader that he has the freedom to express his opinion. His decision to let Janie be an independent woman around him first appears as a romantic gesture, but truly it should not be Tea Cake’s right to allow Janie’s personal expression.
As their relationship develops, the topic of her age is continuously brought into the conversation, and there are moments in which Janie appears as almost a mother-like figure towards her husband, which serves to highlight his youth and her life experience. When he wakes up in pain in the middle of the night, she soothes him with the idea that she will “bear de pain ‘long widja,” referring to him as “honey,” “baby,” and “sugar” (174). Despite their obvious age difference, “Tea Cake would not let her go with him” as he hangs out with his younger friends and gambles (154).
He insists that “Janie is wherever Ah wants tuh be” (148). His ability “to whip her reassured him in possession” (147). As their marriage progresses, Tea Cake becomes even more of a symbol of the nation’s toxicity towards Janie’s identity. Not even her wisdom in age can free her from the shackles of marriage – because in Tea Cake’s eyes, their marriage evolves into little more than a symbol of his power to objectify her. Janie’s inner dialogue adds to the depth of the novel, and her oppressed expressions make clear that her thoughts are the only thing that is not a slave to society and to the men in her life.
Qualities that she takes pride in such as her beauty seem to become invisible. She attracts Jody by making “her heavy hair fall down,” yet days after their marriage and arrival into Eatonville, the men notice that “dat ‘oman ain’t so awfully pretty no how when yuh take de second look, [and] ‘tain’t nothin’ to her ‘ceptin dat long hair” (27, 38).
Logan stops “talking in rhymes to her” and reduces her physical power by searching for a mule “all gentled up so even uh woman kin handle ‘im” (26-27). The hope that her Nanny raised Janie in is cause enough for her to not completely repress her opinions and emotions. Throughout the novel, she makes casual references to her self-confidence, a power that everyone seems to ignore or forget. She mentions to Logan, “S’posin’ Ah wuz to run off and leave yuh sometime” (30). J
anie feels a rush of anger when Jody denies her the right to make a speech for town, hating how he “spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything” (43). The momentous ending to Their Eyes Were Watching God sees Janie in the ultimate moment of empowerment. “Tea Cake, put down dat gun,” she yells as she thrusts a rifle in the direction of her deranged husband (184). Her “first dream[s] are dead, so she became a woman,” but the spark of fire within Janie never dies as she experiences the constant frustration of a society that seems programmed to silence her (25).
Janie’s entire life is symbolic of the gendered and racial oppression in early 20th century America. Her internal dialogue proves that she was not blind to her oppression, but rather unequipped to face a nation that wished her back into the chains of her ancestors. Zora Neale Hurston uses her main character in Their Eyes Were Watching God as a catalyst for discussion about the assumed power that male figures take. Janie Crawford is unafraid of her desire for love, passion, comfort, and youthful freedom.
She is often forced to repress these dreams and remains unable to express her social status of the relative wealth and power of Jody Starks, her superior age to Tea Cake, and her internal desire for rebellion. Nanny experienced the physical and mental strains of real slavery and raised Janie in the hopes that her life would be different. Of course, Janie is no true slave, but she cannot be truly free in a world that denies her every right because she is black and because she is a woman.