Women's Freedom and Fulfillment in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston presents a vivid portrait of a woman who refuses to conform to the role and values that other people—including her grandmother, her husbands, and her community—attempt to assign to her. Throughout the novel, Janie’s desires conflict with the expectations of protective relatives, patriarchal partners, and gossiping neighbors who “s[i]t in judgment” (1), holding her to standards of gender, age, race, and class typical of the time. However, as time goes on, Janie increasingly refuses to conform. She comes to hate the grandmother who seeks to protect her by forcing her into a loveless marriage (89), to rebel against two husbands who demand obedience from her in exchange for security, and finally to defy the gossip of other townspeople who would have her behave as they believe a respectable, comparatively wealthy middle aged black widow should. Ultimately, the novel exposes a tension between the way that women (both then, and to some extent, now) are limited by societal expectations and the freedom that they deserve and need in order to achieve real personal fulfillment.
From an early age, Janie wants to experience life to the fullest. She sees her life as “a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone” (8) and she wants to experience not only the good and the comfortable, but also “to struggle with life” (11). This is a desire that her sheltered early life in her grandmother’s home does not fulfill and from which her grandmother in fact actively attempts to protect her (11-15).
As a former slave, Janie’s grandmother comes from a background of abuse and exploitation. Her daughter was the product of rape by a white master (17-8), and Janie herself was the product of rape by another black man (9-10, 16). Consequently, Nanny’s philosophy is that “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world” (14). As both she and her daughter were “used for a work ox and a brood sow” (16), Nanny wants a different future for Janie, one in which she is protected and provided for (23). Accordingly, she pressures her granddaughter into a loveless marriage to the older, financially stable Logan Killicks to ensure that this comes about before she dies. Additionally, when Janie is unhappy with the arrangement, she even berates her, first slapping her for protesting (14) and later harshly admonishing her for expecting love in the marriage, rather than simply safety and material comfort (22-4).
To Nanny, Janie’s unhappiness is inexplicable, or even selfish and ungrateful, because Nanny is the product of another time. For Nanny’s generation, basic physical safety was such a scant commodity for black women that she is incapable of envisioning a better future for her granddaughter than one in which she can “sit… on high” (16), above the dangers of poverty, abuse, and sexual exploitation. However, to Janie’s mind, Nanny had taken her potential—represented by the infinite horizon—and “pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her.” Rather than safety and material “things,” Janie would have struggles and experiences, to endow her life with meaning. Tragically, the result is that Janie posthumously hates her grandmother for her sacrifices and only becomes freer as a result of her death, rather than her loving care (89).
Once Janie’s grandmother has died, Janie comes to the full realization that her marriage to Logan Killicks will never be fulfilling and will never result in love as her grandmother had promised it eventually would. Accordingly, she finds an escape through eloping with a relatively handsome, ambitious older man named Joe Starks. However, from the outset even this relationship proves problematic. Although at their first meeting Joe denounces Killicks’s plan to use Janie as an additional laborer on his farm, it is not on the grounds that she deserves greater freedom, but because “A pretty doll-baby lak you is made to sit on de front porch and rock and fan yo’self” (29). This comment foreshadows the general trajectory of Janie’s second marriage, as Starks pursues his dreams to become a successful businessman, mayor of Eatonville, and a central figure in the community but expects Janie’s identity to revolve merely around passively obeying his commands and keeping to respectable company. When Janie does not readily comply with all of his expectations and demands, Starks takes to berating her, often in front of other townspeople. This tendency only becomes worse as Starks grows insecure about his own age and attempts to draw attention from it by criticizing Janie’s appearance instead. When Janie finally loses her temper and retaliates, the marriage is essentially over, with Starks assaulting her and then retreating to a private room in their home, where he refuses to see her until he is on his deathbed. There, Janie finally confronts her husband fully and honestly, summarizing the failure of their marriage by explaining that “you wasn’t satisfied wid me de way Ah was… Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for your in me” (86).
When Joe dies moments later, Janie is mostly free. In what seems to be relief, she lets down her hair from the kerchief he had always forced her to tie it in, and sees that, although older, she is still beautiful and still herself. However, one major constraint remains in the form of public opinion, and Janie shortly reties her hair and assumes the guise of a mourning woman (87).
It is only in Janie’s last marriage that she attains something of the freedom and possibility that she craves. Shunning the advice of friends and neighbors, Janie elopes with a younger, poorer man named Vergible Woods, but more commonly called Tea Cake. Although Tea Cake certainly has his flaws—including gambling (125) and jealousy (147-8)—and does not support her at the standard of living to which she had become accustomed, instead taking her to work as a bean picker in the “muck” of the Florida Everglades, Janie is vastly happier living with him. This seems to be because unlike her previous husbands, Tea Cake encourages Janie to participate fully in their life together. While this was not initially the case, with Tea Cake using her money to throw a party without her almost immediately after they are married, Janie is quick to let him know that such things are not to become a regular occurrence (124).
Living on the muck, Janie enjoys socializing freely with other working class black people, and Tea Cake never tells her that such company is beneath her. He even requests that she work side-by-side with him in the bean fields, not because he wants to profit from her labor like her first and second husbands, but because he misses her when he is away. No longer isolated from the world, from challenges, or from opportunities for growth, Janie even tells the apologetic Tea Cake that she likes working the fields, because it’s simpler than clerking at Joe Starks’s store and nicer than sitting at home alone (133). In addition to these big changes, Janie is also given many chances to learn and challenge herself. She learns to shoot guns, becoming a better marksman than her husband (130-1), and she begins playing checkers, a game that Joe Starks had always insisted “wuz too heavy fuh [her] brains” (96).
The novel presents this final marriage as providing the freedom necessary to Janie’s personal fulfillment and happiness. Tea Cake treats Janie as an equal, capable of working, playing, and shooting with him. This is in strong contrast to her relationships with her grandmother and husbands, who sought to control her, sometimes for her own protection and sometimes for their own personal gain or ego. In this last marriage, Janie is neither “de mule uh de world” (14) nor “A pretty doll-baby” (29), but a woman, fully free and capable “to struggle with life” (11) as she had always desired to.
It is this freedom “to struggle" that Janie most needed in her life, but that her grandmother and first two husbands seemed least able to understand. However, even at the tragic conclusion of Janie’s life with Tea Cake, the novel seems to underscore the importance of this struggle and self-sufficiency, as Janie is forced to save herself from her husband rather than be rescued by him. Although during the flooding of the Everglades, Tea Cake is able to save Janie from being savaged by a rabid dog (166-7), the animal’s rabies-infected bite later causes Tea Cake to assault her, forcing Janie to shoot him in self-defense (182-4). While undeniably traumatic, this episode seems to symbolize an important and empowering theme: that women need to “save” themselves. Throughout her life, Janie’s closest relations tried to shelter and control her, but it is only in middle age that she is able to find an equal partner, actively engage in life’s experiences, and ultimately face and overcome horrifying danger. As a result, she returns to Eatonville at peace with her life, no longer choked by her limited “horizon,” but “pull[ing] it in… like a great fish-net” (193).