Their Eyes Were Watching God, a historical fiction novel written by Zora Neale Hurston in 1937, focuses around Janie Mae Crawford, an African American woman, and her evolution as a character. The story is told as a flashback by Janie to her best friend, Pheoby Watson. The novel begins with Janie returning to Eatonville and realizing that Pheoby is the only one there whom she can trust. Janie starts off by explaining how her Nanny raised her after her mother abandoned her, and how Nanny is conservative and therefore, she chooses Janie’s first husband for security reasons.
Janie also discusses her three marriages to Logan Killicks, Joe Starks, and Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods in detail and the hardships she had to overcome with each relationship. Her search for true love is very spiritual, as Janie appears to not be like the common African American woman at the time, who solely want a man that can provide money and shelter, not necessarily true love. Throughout her life, Janie tries to recapture her youth, while also trying to find a connection with the nature around her.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston portrays Janie’s quest for love through her desire for independence, her external beauty, and the social class struggles of African American women. Janie’s independence appears to be an influential motive when it comes to relationships and marriages. Janie’s first two marriages with Logan Killicks and Joe Starks do not provide Janie with the freedom she yearned for. Logan is her Nanny’s choice for her husband, due to the fact that he owned a sixty-acre farm and offered financial security to Janie. However, Janie had said over and over to Nanny that she did not love Logan.
Nanny kept saying that Janie would learn to love after marriage, as long as she waited for it. However, after several months, Janie doubts that she will ever come to love Logan, and she tells Nanny that “you told me Ah wuz gointer love him, and, and Ah don’t. Maybe if somebody was to tell me how, Ah could do it” (Hurston 23). Soon, Logan is taking advantage of Janie and putting her to work on the farm, which seems very unpleasant to Janie. Logan believes that Janie should be able to carry wood, chop wood, and plow the fields just as his first wife did.
When Janie decides to run away with Jody Starks, who says he is “uh man wid principles,” (Hurston 29) to a town run by blacks, she believes she will have a real romance and can carry out woman activities without being yelled at. However, Janie quickly learns that this is not the case. When Joe becomes mayor of the town of Eatonville and after he opens up a town store, Janie is constantly working the register and is not allowed to take part in community events. Joe also does not allow Janie to speak in front of groups of people or wear her long hair down her back.
Also, Joe is quick to show his anger towards Janie whenever she makes a mistake inside the store. When Janie gets tired of Joe’s controlling ways, she develops a feeling of resentment and just accepts whatever he tells her, knowing that their marriage is falling apart. After being married to Joe for nearly twenty years, she feels trapped and does not gain anything from him or his personal possessions. She cannot go out and be with the other women in the town because she has to work the store on her own each and every day.
It is not until Joe dies and Janie marries Tea Cake until she feels like has a sense of independence, is able to be happy, and she also learns what true love is. Janie Crawford struggles to express her beauty while married, which is very apparent with Joe Starks, who does not want other men to admire her long, brown hair. Joe believes that he should be the only who can enjoy the sight of her hair, which is not like most other African American women’s. Janie’s hair, which is a representation of her own power, appears to be much like that of a white person in texture, which causes many of the other women she meets to become jealous and envious.
Therefore, Joe forces Janie to wear a head-rag to cover up her hair while working inside the store all day. In fact, Joe believed that “she was there in the store for him to look at, not those others” (Hurston 55). This makes Janie feel as if she cannot express herself to the rest of Eatonville. However, many other men have already noticed how beautiful Janie is and one named Tony Taylor said that “she couldn’t look no mo’ better and no nobler if she wuz de queen uh England” (Hurston 42). Joe never actually told Janie that he was jealous when other men looked at her, but he does not have to for her to know.
Joe also attempts to belittle Janie and her appearance when he begins to assume that her looks reflect her intelligence. It is also obvious that Joe does not want to compliment Janie too much on her looks and beauty because then she might want to leave him for a better looking, younger man. Again, Janie feels free to express her beauty and is not required to wear her hair up all the time when she finds her true love, Tea Cake. Tea Cake makes Janie feel like an equal, and she does not have to be submissive to him.
Janie Crawford and other women living in the early 1900’s experienced several social class struggles not only because they were women, but because they were African Americans, too. Their Eyes Were Watching God aims to show readers what it was actually like for women and blacks who lived during this difficult time period. Even though slavery had been abolished before the novel was published, it still has an important historical impact on the Janie’s situation. Janie’s grandparents had been enslaved, which is primarily why her Nanny wanted her to marry.
She did not want Janie to end up alone and have to find a way to live on her own without the help of a man. Nanny was actually raped by her white slave master, and gave birth to Janie’s mother, Leafy. Nanny tried her best to give Leafy a decent life in Florida provided the circumstances, but Leafy was raped by her schoolteacher, who ran off after committing the crime. African Americans, especially in the South, were still treated as minorities and it was more difficult for them to find work and equality. Nanny even told Janie that “de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out” (Hurston14).
It is obvious with Logan Killicks and Joe Starks that women are not treated fairly and they are expected to be subservient to their male counterparts. Also, African Americans were not expected to live a lavish lifestyle like the whites. When Joe Starks bought nearly 200 acres of land from Captain Eaton in Eatonville, Coker said, “Ain’t never seen no sich uh colored man befo’ in all mah bawn bawn days” (Hurston 38). The whole town was shocked at Joe’s wealth because they would only expect a white man to purchase that much land.
Social class issues in the early eighteenth century made it difficult for African American women to carry on in their life as they would have hoped to. The main character in the Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Mae Crawford, finds a true love in Tea Cake Woods, who is quite younger than she. Janie’s journey to find a true love took her many years, but Tea Cake gave her the independence she longed for, allowed her to express her natural beauty, and made her feel equal with him. The social class problems of the early 1900’s were prevalent in Janie’s life, as well as her mother’s and grandmother’s.
Through three marriages with Logan Killicks, Joe Starks, and Tea Cake, Janie was able to realize what true love was, and that she did not have to learn how to love after marriage, as her grandmother had once told her. At the end of the novel when Janie decides to return to Eatonville after the unfortunate death of Tea Cake, the other women immediately recognize her because of her long, unique hair. They are very curious to know where she has been and why she chose to return, assuming Tea Cake had took all her money and left her with nothing, but she only shares her experiences with Pheoby.
Janie has learned several lessons in her life and knows that Tea Cake will always be with her as long as she is alive. Janie ends the flashback to Pheoby by saying that people “got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh themselves” (Hurston 192). Janie has learned that love is different for everybody, and not everyone thinks of it or finds it in the same way as others. Janie found her true love in Tea Cake, who revived her youthfulness and allowed her to express herself.