Essay, Research Paper: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Literature: Their Eyes Were Watching God

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This novel, while poetically conveying a black woman's pursuit of true love,
seriously addresses society's ability to be judgmental and oppressive. Gender,
race, economic security, and social stratification share equally important roles
in the development of the main character, Janie. Hurston vividly describes how
each qualification specifically affects the character, although the racial
implications are much more subtle. This subtlety allows the reader to mistakenly
perceive indifferent or positive feelings towards the novel’s black community.
Hurston initially establishes the ideal unimportance of race by using Janie's
innocent childhood memory. Janie painfully recalls Mr. Washburn, who is the
father of the family with whom they live, abusively laughing at her belief of
being the same as his white children. She also remembers being teased by the
other black children for her clothing, which is better than others’ because
hers is the Washburn children’s old clothing. This recollection is multiply
used by Hurston. It capitalizes children’s acceptance of people for their
actions, which is surpassingly more believable than portraying adults with the
same feelings. It displays the dependence of black people on white people for
success. Finally, it instates the Washburn family as the representation of white
culture; accordingly initiating a negative undertone towards Janie’s
ethnicity. However, these prejudices and their undermining effect depicted
within the novel are soundly contrasted by Janie’s peaceful disposition at the
end of her narration. Hurston masterfully uses the emotional responses of the
black characters, specifically pertaining to successful and potentially
successful endeavors of Joe, as metaphors of society’s prejudice. The initial
astonishment of the black characters to Joe’s monetary holdings and
accomplishments deftly conveys this idea. Hurston again attaches a plethora of
meaning to these scenes. Joe is followed by the men from town, while going to
purchase the land, because they do not believe a black man could have money. His
house’s description, as overly opulent and making the others seem as
servant’s quarters, is parallel to the rich white men of other towns. He
faults the lazy black men for the town’s lack of development, portraying the
incapability of black men for leadership. He is revered by the town when he is
present, then slandered when he is no longer able to hear them. Despite being
freed from slavery, during the early 1900’s, black people’s lives are mostly
unchanged. The similarity between their work now as farmhands and formally as
slaves is an active personification of this theory. The only successful black
man is Joe. The other black characters either are sharecroppers or are menially
employed. This explains the contempt the two men on the porch have for Joe,
which is the same contempt that they would have for a white man. Black men
seldom had the opportunity, but more importantly the financial ability, to own
property. This makes wealthy and successful black men extremely scarce. White
men owned virtually everything. Therefore, Joe’s entirety equally represents
the dominating white man and the extremely unlikely black man’s success. Mrs.
Turner, while sharing Janie’s mixed racial background, speaks adamantly
against blacks. She insultingly and unsuccessfully suggests that Janie marry a
lighter skinned man than Tea Cake. The duality of Mrs. Turner’s perspective is
profound. Her attitudes exploit oppressive white sentiments, while
simultaneously expressing the effect slavery and continued oppression has on the
black community. She implies that black people deserve injustice. Not using a
white character to display these attitudes allows Hurston more tenacity in her
expression. Attempting to clean the yard after the hurricane, Tea Cake is
approached by two white men. His initial reaction is to run before they see him,
which he does not do. The men call him by the wrong name and coerce him into
burying the dead. This occurs within the emotional and tragic scene of loss and
devastation, making the power exerted by the white men easily overlooked. They
carry guns, a symbol of power, and insist that no coffin be wasted on the body
of a black person and that no white person be dumped in a grave. The value
society places on a black persons life is clearly made here. In the courtroom,
interaction between white people and black people is shown. However, throughout
the scene, Janie’s dialogue is conveyed by the narrator. Hurston implies the
unworthiness of Janie and of black people by Janie not speaking directly with
the jury, judge, and attorney. The reference to the 12 white men being annoyed
by the interruption of their daily routine simply to be the jury in a black
woman’s trial, express his how worthless Janie feels within society. This
fully explains her innermost and unconscious feelings. Though seemingly subtle,
Hurston emphatically describes Janie’s state of mind using this method of
exposing emotions. Despite these examples of injustice towards people, solely
because of their skin color, the novel does not portray Hurston as a bigot.
Without conveying an image of a racially accepting society and having Janie
realize that her happiness is dependent exclusively on her reactions to external
stimulus, the novel closes with positive feelings. The author places the
responsibility for personal happiness on Janie, and subsequently, the reader.

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