Written by Lynn Domina, an author and instructor at Hofstra University for the Gale database, Literature Resource Center:
Their Eyes Were Watching God is generally considered Zora Neale Hurston's most important piece of fiction. Hurston, a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, also published anthropological texts, including Tell My Horse, and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Their Eyes Were Watching God was first published in 1937, and was quite popular, although some critics argued that she should have written a more aggressive protest similar to Richard Wright's Native Son. Although Their Eyes Were Watching God went out of print for several years, it came back into print during the late 1970s and has since remained a central text in many high school and college courses. In this novel, Hurston explores social and personal relations within black families and communities, while also examining issues of gender and class. One theme through which these issues of gender, race, and class are examined is voice. At several points in the text, Janie Starks, the protagonist, is prohibited from speaking, while at other points she chooses not to speak. Silence, then, is sometimes used as a tool of oppression and at other times as a tool of power.
During the course of the novel, Janie is married three times. The men differ from each other in significant ways, and each marriage helps Janie define her own desires and goals in life. Her first husband, Brother Logan Killicks, is chosen for her by her grandmother, Nanny, who recognizes that Janie is beginning to feel adult sexual desires, although Janie herself might not articulate her new longings this way. Because she has observed “shiftless Johnny Taylor” kissing Janie, Nanny believes Janie will soon act more dramatically on these desires and therefore urges her to marry a responsible and conventional man. Although Janie responds that Logan Killicks “look like some ole skullhead in de grave yard,” Nanny arranges the marriage because she worries about Janie's future. Realizing she is probably close to death, Nanny reminds Janie that she “ain't got nobody but me. And mah head is ole and tilted towards de grave. Neither can you stand alone by yo'self. De thought uh you bein' kicked around from pillar tuh post is uh hurtin' thing.”
Janie's first marriage occurs, then, despite her resistance. Because of her youth and the lack of options available to her as a young and comparatively poor woman, Janie cannot act on her own desires; she marries Logan Killicks because she seems to have no other choice. Although she hopes love will follow marriage, Janie is soon disappointed, for Logan grows more rather than less distasteful to her. He refuses to bathe regularly and soon suggests that Janie should help him with the plowing. He leaves to buy another mule, one that would be “all gentled up so even uh woman kin handle 'im.” This scene is reminiscent of a statement Nanny had made to Janie earlier, that “woman is de mule uh de world.” Janie, however, decides that she will not be treated as a mule even if she has to reject the values her grandmother has taught her.
Janie meets Joe Starks, who invites her to accompany him to a town made “all outa colored folks.” Because Logan begins to insult Janie's family history, she decides to leave him for Joe, who initially seems more considerate and companionable. Soon, however, Janie realizes that Joe perceives her simply as his trophy. He will be mayor of the new town, and she will be nothing more or less than the mayor's wife. Although the townspeople congregate on the porch of Joe's store, where Janie often works as a clerk, Joe forbids her to participate in their jokes or storytelling. Those conversations, Joe suggests, are not appropriate for a woman of her class. Because Janie is once again deprived of her voice, she can never be fully a member of this community and instead must live in emotional isolation.
During her marriage to Joe, the mule again appears as a symbol. A man in their town, Matt Bonner, owns a yellow mule which he seems to be working to death. When Joe overhears Janie quietly protesting, he forces Matt to sell the mule to him for $5.00, impressing his companions with his ability to satisfy his financial whims. Joe permits the mule to live the rest of his days in comparative ease, but when the mule dies, he forbids Janie to participate in the mock funeral the others hold. Similarly, although Joe doesn't want to work Janie like a mule in the manner of Logan Killicks, he has metaphorically “bought” her as a demonstration of his own power.
Once again, Janie must choose either to accept what seems to be her fate or to actively oppose it. When Joe attempts to humiliate her publicly, “Janie took the middle of the floor to talk right into Jody's [Joe's] face, and that was something that hadn't been done before.” She insults his masculinity, shaming him before the other men. After this, although Janie and Joe continue to live together, they live emotionally separate lives until Joe dies.
Janie's third husband's given name is Vergible Woods, although his nickname is Tea Cake. Most people cannot understand Janie's attraction to Tea Cake because he is neither conventional like Logan Killicks nor a middle-class businessman like Joe Starks. Rather, Tea Cake makes much of his money through gambling, and when he isn't gambling, he's often playing the guitar and planning a party. In addition, his complexion is very dark, at a time when some people (represented in this novel by the character of Mrs. Turner) believed that lighter skin was more attractive. Simultaneously, Tea Cake is several years younger than Janie, so some people suspect his motives. Yet Janie enjoys herself with Tea Cake more than she has with any other man. Tea Cake does not limit her to a particular role; he enjoys life and invites Janie to be simply herself. He invites her to play checkers on the porch as Joe never had, “and she found herself glowing inside. Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play.” Perhaps most significantly, “Look how she had been able to talk with him right off!”
The shift in Janie's character is demonstrated through several small changes. Although her luxurious hair is one of her most attractive characteristics, Joe had insisted she wear it bound up because he was jealous that other men might enjoy it. After Joe dies, she begins to wear her hair in a long braid. When she marries Tea Cake, she begins to dress in overalls rather than in middle-class dresses because she finds the pants more comfortable and convenient. She also begins to work in the fields after she and Tea Cake move to the Everglades, not because Tea Cake decides to treat her like a mule as Logan Killicks had or because Tea Cake fails to support her as a more “proper” husband would, but because she enjoys Tea Cake's company and the social interaction that occurs among the other workers. Janie hence achieves her greatest sense of fulfillment when she disregards conventional values and aspirations.
But the novel doesn't conclude with Janie and Tea Cake living happily ever after. During a hurricane, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog while attempting to rescue Janie from drowning, and he himself contracts rabies. As his illness progresses, he becomes increasingly paranoid and begins to distrust Janie's faithfulness. When he threatens to shoot her, Janie kills him in self-defense, though she had hoped he would die peacefully. Yet, even as Tea Cake dies, Janie desires to comfort him: “A minute before she was just a scared human being fighting for its life. Now she was her sacrificing self with Tea Cake's head in her lap. She had wanted him to live so much and he was dead. No hour is ever eternity, but it has its right to weep. Janie held his head tightly to her breast and wept and thanked him wordlessly for giving her the chance for loving service. She had to hug him tight for soon he would be gone, and she had to tell him for the last time.” This hour is like eternity for Janie, however, because its effects will be permanent for her.
Janie is tried for Tea Cake's murder. Although many of her black acquaintances are angry that Tea Cake is dead, the all-white jury acquits her. Critics have debated the significance of the trial scene, for Janie's testimony is summarized rather than dramatized. While some critics have suggested that this scene indicates that Janie has once again lost (or been deprived of) her ability to speak, others suggest that she now can choose when and how to speak. During the trial, Janie is deprived of a community, since the black male and female witnesses oppose her, while the people who compose the jury and support her are all white men. Perhaps her voice is silent here not because she is unable to speak but because communication necessitates a receptive audience.
Readers must not forget, however, that the entire novel is in fact spoken in Janie's voice. The novel is framed by two chapters in which Janie is speaking to her best friend, Pheoby, and the action or plot of the novel is the story she tells Pheoby. So although the point of view frequently shifts in the novel, from one character's perspective to another's, Their Eyes Were Watching God is, finally, Janie's story.
Domina, Lynn. "An overview of Their Eyes Were Watching God." Literature Resource Center. Detroit: Gale, 2016. Literature
Resource Center. Web. 12 May 2016.