“Some people could look at a mud puddle and see an ocean with ships.”
‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston is a classic novel based on the events of Okeechobee, the disastrous hurricane of 1928. It’s Hurston’s acclaimed novel about a black woman’s quest for true love and agency. The way Hurston wrote Janie, the protagonist of her novel reflects a major part of what she feels about being a black woman. Her works are heavily inspired by downtown feminism and the growing traditional discrimination of black people. But more than that it narrates a story of a woman, who ventures tremendous ups and downs in attempting to improve her life for the better, yet in the end is trapped in the vicious cycle of life.
The novel explores traditional gender roles and the relationship between men and women. Each character displays an array of emotions and sufferings that made them the way they are.
But before diving into the story of Janie, let’s take a look at the person who made Janie come to life- Zora Neale Hurston.
Zora Neale Hurston was an American author, anthropologist, and filmmaker. She was born at the core of the racial struggle of the early-1900s American South. Zora wrote four novels and more than 50 plays and short stories over the course of her life. Out of all her works, ‘Their eyes were watching god’ remains a masterpiece to date.
Born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, Zora had a fairly decent life. When she turned 3, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida. In 1887, it was one of the first all-black towns incorporated in the US. After Zora’s mother died, her father remarried. There was a rumor that her father had an extramarital affair with his new wife when Zora’s mother was alive. After the marriage, she was sent to a Baptism boarding school but her parents eventually stopped paying her fees, and thus she was dismissed. However, she managed to get a degree in English Literature from Bowie State University. Zora initially worked as a maid and other jobs to pay her fees and livelihood.
Hurston traveled in the Caribbean and the American South and studies the local cultural practices to conduct her anthropological research about African-American and Caribbean folklores.
Zora’s short stories were often inspired by her African-American experience and racial division. As she was grown in Eatonville, most of her stories are set in the same town. Her works concerned her struggles as an African-American woman yet her novels went unrecognized by the literary world for decades. In her novel ‘Their eyes were watching god’, she creates literary fiction about how she views mules and patriarchy.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
The novel revolves around the life of Janie Crawford. She is an African-American woman in her late forties who recounts her life events to her friend. Her nanny was raped by her white enslaver and made her pregnant with Leafy (Janie’s mother). Her mother too couldn’t change her fate and she as well was raped by her white teacher giving birth to Janie. Living around rape survivors and oppressed black women of her community, Janie since a young age was warned about how she should lead her life and that she would be only secure after marriage.
Varying circumstances and her early marriage with a person double her age made Janie first witness the gender roles and the relationship between men and women. Her first husband never loved Janie and used her as a domestic helper rather than a wife. When she shares her sorrows with her Nanny, she in turn is told to compromise and stay.
Unhappy and lonely Janie decides to run away with Jody (Joe) Starks, who promised her a loving life. They moved to a new place and Jody was declared Mayor of the town. They were wealthy, however, Janie never experienced love once in her life. She was treated as a trophy wife by Jody and he forbids her from taking part in social life. For twenty years of their marriage, Janie has been treated as an object by her husband and experiences gender patriarchy of the upper class.
After Jody dies of kidney failure, Janie is left with all his wealth and is independent. She was surrounded by wealthy suitors however none captures her interest. Being unloved whole her life made Janie distant and thus she rejects everyone. Her heart is melted when she meets a young drifter and gambler named Vergible Woods, known as “Tea Cake”. He was the first man who treats her equally with kindness and respect. As Janie was older and wealthy, she first rejects him but gradually opened her heart. They were married and Janie for the first time in her life experienced being loved and equal to a man. Though her new husband was violent at times and physically abuse her, Janie has the love she always wanted.
But her blossoming life comes to an abrupt end when the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane hits her town. Tea Cake trying to save Janie from drowning was bitten by a dog and inherits rabies. He becomes increasingly jealous and unpredictable. When he tries to shoot Janie with a pistol, she in self-defense ends up killing her husband. After giving Tea Cake a lavish funeral, she returns to her hometown and the story ends where it started depicting the vicious cycle of life.
The issues raised in the novel are particularly a big topic for teenagers, but hopefully, there’s an absolute beauty in the message behind the story. A story about a young girl raised in patriarchy since a young age when she herself could barely understand the depth of the circumstances. It depicts the gender roles and divided relationship of men and women, how one is superior and the other inferior. Trapped in these continuous events makes Janie learn a lot about life but also gives readers a glimpse of broad emotions and a look at prejudice residing in our society.
The characters in the novel also have a different story to tell like her Nanny who experienced slavery firsthand, and both she and Leafy are attacked by white men creating a generation of rape survivors who barely come out of the trauma of racism and slavery. Thus the values the young Janie was grown in say that marriage is the ultimate destiny of the woman who wants stability in her life. However, her own experiences defy these values and make Janie rethink the whole perspective of life she’s been raised into.
Each marriage narrates the objectification of women and the role of masculinity. Black women, specifically, face greater oppression, as their own struggle for independence is confined with equality for black Americans as a whole. There’s a very important dialogue in the novel that reflects racism and women’s oppression firsthand.
“Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything…white man throws down the load and tells de nigger man to pick it up. He picks it up because he has to, but he doesn’t tote it. He hands it to his womenfolks.” – Nanny to Janie.
Throughout the novel, Zora displays how black women are devalued in society and marriage. It’s a book primarily based on racist society. The book today is a masterpiece but back when it was released, it didn’t create much sensation. Partly because the inbuilt racism in people didn’t let them understand the depth of patriarchy and partly because black literature at that time was too small to change people’s minds.
Zora Hurston herself was an anthropologist, thus her works always reflect African-American cultures and folklores. Her study of communities and how people react to such issues is a compliment beyond her books. During the 20th century, black culture was divided into tiny communities and confined to proximity. Thus, the stories echoing in the community barely find a voice outside, and Zora’s work too was one of that voice. Today, when the world is gradually changing, such masterpieces are coming to life and reclaiming their long-lost reward.