Essay, Research Paper: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Literature: Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Neale Hurston's work provides the African-American community with a one of the
first literary symbols of racial health - a sense of black people as complete,
complex, undiminished human beings. Appropriately, Hurston's Their Eyes Were
Watching God, published in 1937, provides an enlightening look at the journey of
one of these undiminished human beings, Janie Crawford. Janie's story - based on
principles of self-exploration, self-empowerment, and self-liberation - details
her loss and subsequent attainment of her independence of her own reality, as
she constantly learns and grows from her difficult experiences with gender
issues and racism in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s grasp on the
reader’s imagination is demonstrated with her masterful use of imagery and
phrasing. Janie’s dialogue and vernacular carry the reader along with
seemingly innocuous pieces of vivid perception. In reality Hurston has put the
reader in such a position that they hardly realize they are ingesting something
deep and true. Their Eyes Were Watching God recognizes that there are problems
to the human condition, such as the need to possess the fear of the unknown and
the result of stagnation. Hurston does not leave us with the hopelessness;
rather, she extends a recognition and understanding of humanity's need to escape
emptiness. The truth of life, as with death that it is done alone and at the end
of it all there should be a sense of self with a positive resolve. Janie’s
search begins in her Nanny's yard, as Janie lies beneath the pear tree when;
"the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink
into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love
embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming
in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been
summoned to behold a revelation" (11). Janie's youthful idealism leads her
to believe that this intense sensuality must be similar to the intimacy between
lovers, and she wishes "to be a pear tree - any tree in bloom!" (11).
The image suggests a wholeness - as bees pollinate blossoms paralleling human
sexual intercourse - which Janie finds missing in her marriages to both Logan
Killicks and Joe Starks, but finally discovers in her relationship with Tea
Cake. After joyfully discovering an archetype for sensuality and love under the
pear tree at age sixteen, Janie quickly comes to understand the reality of
marriage when she marries Logan Killicks, then Joe Starks. Both men attempt to
coerce Janie into submission to them by treating her like a possession: where
Killicks works Janie like a mule, Joe objectifies her like a medal around his
neck. In addition, Janie learns that passion and love are tied to violence, as
Killicks threatens to kill her, and both Joe and Tea Cake beat her to assert
their dominance. Yet Janie continually struggles to keep her inner Self-intact
and strong, remaining resilient in spite of her husbands' physical, verbal, and
mental abuse. Janie’s resilience is rewarded when she finally meets and
marries Tea Cake, who represents the closest semblance to her youthful idealism
regarding love and marriage. Rather than self-destruct under the constant
realities of racism and misogyny she receives throughout her life, Janie
Crawford does the opposite at the close of Their Eyes Were Watching God. The
novel's final image states what Janie does throughout the story - taking her
difficult past in and growing stronger and wiser as a result of it. Author Zora
Neale Hurston believed that freedom "was something internal…. The man
himself must make his own emancipation" (199). Likewise, in her defining
moment of identity formation, Janie "pulled in her horizon like a great
fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her
shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and
see" (183). At the end of a novel focusing on self-revelation and
self-formation, Janie survives with her soul - made resilient by continual
struggle - intact. Janie’s grandmother was one of the most important
influences in her life, raising her since from an infant and passing on her
dreams to Janie. Janie’s mother ran away from home soon after Janie was born.
With her father also gone, the task of raising Janie fell to her grandmother,
Nanny. Nanny tells Janie “Fact uh de matter, Ah loves yuh a whole heap
more’n Ah do yo’ mama, de one Ah did birth” (15). Nanny’s dream is for
Janie to attain a position of security in society, “high ground” as she puts
it (19). As the person who raised her, Nanny feels that it is both her right and
obligation to impose her dreams and her ideas of what is important in life on
Janie. The strong relationship between mother and child is important in the
African-American community, and the conflict between Janie’s idyllic view of
marriage and Nanny wish for her to marry for stability and position is a good
illustration of just how deep the respect and trust runs. Janie has a very
romantic notion of what marriage should be. “ While Nanny’s idea of a good
marriage is someone who has some standing in the community; someone who will get
Janie to that higher ground. Nanny wants Janie to marry Logan Killicks, but
according to Janie “he look like some ole skull-head in de grave yard” (13).
Even more importantly to Janie, though, was the fact that the vision of Logan
Killicks was desecrating the pear tree. Nanny tells Janie, “So you don’t
want to marry off decent like . . . you wants to make me suck the same sorrow yo’
mama did, eh? Mah ole head ain’t gray enough. My back ain’t bowed enough to
suit you!” (13). After they have the fight over Logan Killicks, Nanny says
something, by way of an explanation of why Janie needs to marry up the social
ladder, that reveals a good deal about the reality of being an African-American
woman. She says “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can
see” (14). Janie, out of respect for her grandmother, went off to start her
role as a wife. Considering Nanny's dreams for Janie, why is Janie’s marriage
to Logan ironic? Nanny told Janie that black women were the mules of the world.
White men handed their burdens and their work to black men, who in turn gave
them to black women. Nanny did not want Janie to be anyone's pack mule. She
believed that financial security and respectability would save Janie from this
fate. She saw Logan Killicks as a man who could provide Janie with these things.
Nanny did not think love was at all important in Janie’s marriage. She even
admonished Janie for complaining that she did not love Logan after two months of
marriage. Ironically, Logan came to see Janie as a pack mule when he was
disappointed that Janie did not come to love him. When it became clear that
Janie did not return his affection, he tried to force her into the servitude
that Nanny feared. He planned to make her work in the fields at his side in
addition to doing all the cooking and the cleaning. He wanted to buy a second
mule so that Janie could help him plow the fields. Whereas Nanny disdained the
role of love in Janie’s marriage, the very lack of it on Janie’s part caused
it to fail. Janie's marriage to Logan Killicks was the first stage in her
development as a woman. She hoped that her forced marriage with Logan would end
her loneliness and desire for love. Right from the beginning, the loneliness in
the marriage shows up when Janie sees that his house is a "lonesome place
like a stump in the middle of the woods where nobody had ever been" (21).
This description of Logan's house is symbolic of the relationship they have.
Janie eventually admits to Nanny that she still does not love Logan and cannot
find anything to love about him. "She knew now that marriage did not make
love. Janie's first dream was dead, so she became a woman" (25). Janie's
prayer is her final plea for a change in her life. She says, “Lawd, you know
mah heart. Ah done de best Ah could do. De rest is left to you" (24).
Nanny's actions robbed Janie of the freedom to live her life on her own terms.
Janie did not want to marry Logan, but she did so because Nanny told her that
she would eventually come to love him. Ironically, Logan wanted to force Janie
into the servitude that Nanny feared. Also, he was disappointed that Janie never
returned his affection and attraction. If he could not possess her through love,
he would possess her by demanding her submission. At heart, his actions arose
from the fear that Janie would leave him. Janie's grandmother initiates
comparison between black women and mules, declaring "De [African-American]
woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see" (14). In addition, both
of Janie's first two husbands own mules, and the way they respectively treat
them parallels the way they treat Janie. Logan Killicks works his mule
demandingly; Joe Starks, having bought Matt Bonner's mule from him, puts it out
to pasture as a status symbol rather than using it. Janie's grandmother
initiates comparison between black women and mules, declaring "De
[African-American] woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see" (14).
In addition, both of Janie’s first two husbands own mules, and the way they
respectively treat them parallels the way they treat Janie. Logan Killicks works
his mule demandingly; Joe Starks, having bought Matt Bonner's mule from him,
puts it out to pasture as a status symbol rather than using it. It is through
the journey of her life that Janie realizes that she is living Nanny dreams
rather than her own. She also recognizes that with protection comes obligation-Killicks
feels he deserves to slap her around. With that discovery, she makes the choice
to escape with Jody. Janie's search for love is parallel to the human search for
meaning and what life consists of. There is no one answer, either of despair or
happiness. Hurston has portrayed a world of true individuality, where every
experience will end differently with each person. To paraphrase Hurston: Life is
not like a grindstone, but the sea. Hurston does not promise it will bring
happiness to all; she simply shows us the life of one woman who did end up with
happiness and contentment. Janie states: "If you kin see de light at
daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people that never
seen de light at all" (159). By imparting this philosophy to the reader
Hurston gives a direction to Janie’s journey and a powerful message to the
reader. Life experiences are universal in nature, while affected by race are not
unique to any one race. At the same time there is no set path. All anyone can
hope to achieve (or has control over) is the self and what feelings are left and
the end. According to Hurston, life is "all according to the way you see
things" (89). If one has the intuition to look out over the horizon and
dream, take a chance, acknowledge fear, he or she will be able to live life to
the fullest. Once well traveled there can be a impression of meaning and
substance that lives in the quite of one’s soul not in the recognition of
Hurston, Zora Neale . Their Eyes Were Watching God . New York :
HarperCollins. 1937
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