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Their Eyes Were Watching God Themes

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The complex interlacing of the themes of racism, sexism, as well as class in Their Eyes Were Watching God reports in large part for the novel’s affluence. Add to these themes those of love and mysticism, and the complexity of Hurston’s best known novel becomes obvious.

            Some 15 years ago, Barbara Christian, in Black Feminist Criticism, correctly observed that African-American women’s fiction frequently mirrors “the intensity of the relationship between sexism and racism in this country” (172). Christian notifies us that even though we may recognize this relationship “in terms of economics or social status,” we ignore to recognize its impact on individual self-expression. “To be able to use the range of one’s voice, to attempt to express the totality of self,” is a constant and “recurring struggle” in African-American women’s writing from the 19th century to the present day. This struggle under girds the plot, the character development, plus the thematic issues of Their Eyes. (Rose Parkman Davis, 1997)

            Nanny’s “text” at the commencement of the novel instructs her granddaughter Janie in what it means to be black, female, also a slave to the white world. It is to be a “spit cup,” for the white master to utilize for his sexual pleasure, and to be his mule of all work on the plantation. It is to be endangered with the whip by the white mistress for being sexually abused by the mistress’s own husband. It is as well to be threatened with the imminent sale of the newborn, gray-eyed, “yaller” child, the product of master/slave abuse.

Nanny’s text too has to do with the ensuing horror-filled flight from slave-owners in order for her to protect her child Leafy, who would turn out to be the mother of Janie. Janie herself, like her mother, was too born of a rape, this time by the black schoolteacher. Nanny’s persistence that Janie marry Logan Killicks, a man of property, is an effort to raise her granddaughter out of the mire of such abuse, to give her a life where she is both reputable and respected, where she will not have to be either a “spit cup” or a “mule” of the world.

            Paradoxically, Nanny’s statement becomes satisfied by both Killicks and Starks, themselves products of the racism that was essential to slavery. Killicks, most likely not much younger than Nanny, probably owns his 60 acres and a mule as part of the reparation given to Blacks at the end of the Civil War. Similar to his former white masters, Killicks determines to get more property, in addition like his former masters, Killicks as well will use “slave” labor—his wife Janie—to get better his financial status. With one more mule and Janie hitched to it, Killicks aims to augment his holdings and therefore his power. Starks is no different from Killicks; Starks’ plan is more determined and becomes more successful. Younger than Killicks, Starks has worked for white men and recognizes the supremacy one gains through material wealth. (Ebony, 2001)

            Starks sees Janie as an asset in his plan to turn into a big man. She symbolizes his “trophy” wife: an attractive, light-complected woman, a possession owned by Starks and put on display. She is the visual proof of his power; as Starks dominates her, consequently he dominates the town of Eatonville. Janie’s headrag, which Starks demands that she wears, is the kind worn by slave women as a visual sign of their status. Evidently Janie’s headrag signifies Starks’ supposed ownership of her.

When Starks slaps Janie for not cooking his dinner accurately, he does what innumerable slave owners had done to their black cooks on a bad day in the kitchen. Not merely is Janie punished for her supposed incapability to cook, she is as well punished publicly for thinking. When Janie reminds Starks that God talks to women and to men, Starks tells her she is getting too “moufy”; as he gets ready to play checkers with one of his cronies, he orders her to get the checkerboard “and” the checkers, entailing that Janie is too ignorant to understand both are needed so as to play the game.

            Starks’ continuous reiteration that Janie is old reveals just another effort to humiliate her at the same time that he shows his power over her. Inwardly filled with his own sense of lowliness in a world run by white men, Starks tries to deny Janie’s womanliness and her sexuality. Janie responds by turning his cutting remarks back on Starks. As she mentions, she is a woman, and he knows it. His sexuality, his masculinity, is extremely questionable; when his pants are down, he looks like “de change uh life” (123). While Starks strikes Janie a mighty blow, he never regains power over her. Certainly, his incapability to wield power over her—verbally or physically— shows the way to his death.

            Racism, ineradicably imprinted in the system of slavery, fueled and formed the foundation of white male economic aggrandisement; slave-owners controlled not merely black production however reproduction. Killicks and Starks symbolize the inheritance of such white oppression even as they perpetuate it among black people. Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods for the majority part appears to have in some way escaped such a legacy. But not entirely. He slaps Janie, just as Starks had, for the reason that Tea Cake fears he will lose her to someone lighter in color than he. Beating Janie assuages his fear, reassuring him that he retains “possession” of her (218).

Tea Cake overheard Mrs. Turner, herself light-complected, notify Janie that she could do better than be married to someone as black as Tea Cake. In brief, he beats Janie to let Mrs. Turner know who is “boss” and who is in “control” (220). Usually, though, he treats Janie as an equal, in ways that Starks never did; Tea Cake takes her fishing and plays checkers with her. Even though money and material goods appears of no consequence to either Tea Cake or Janie, yet paradoxically Starks’ money and property make possible Janie’s return to “her” house in Eatonville after Tea Cake’s death. (Thomas F. Haddox, 2001)

            Nor does Hurston permit readers to neglect the connection between class and racism. While Blacks were free of slavery, free to own property, also free to be mayor of a black town, in the white world Blacks counted for little. In Their Eyes, Blacks are not perceived so much as a part of the lower class, as they are beneath class consideration. For instance, after the hideous hurricane sweeps through the Everglades killing numerous people, black and white, Blacks are instantly pressed into interment service. Although the storm does not discriminate between class or race, white influence in Florida does: Blacks are buried separately from Whites. As Tea Cake ironically questions, do the guards think God knows regarding Jim Crow laws?

            Not merely Whites think they are better in both race and class; light-skinned Blacks are certain they are better to those who are darker. On the muck, Mrs. Turner, who runs a restaurant, chastises Janie for marrying such a black, low-class man as Tea Cake. Mrs. Turner mockingly remarks that Tea Cake must have had a great deal of money  for someone like Janie to marry him.

To the extent that Mrs. Turner is concerned, there are “too many” black people; the black race needs to become lighter to advance in the world. Not merely are black people ugly, in accordance with Mrs. Turner, they are as well stupid. Consequently, Mrs. Turner goes to white doctors when she is ill. Furthermore, Mrs. Turner attempts to disrupt Janie’s marriage to Tea Cake, advocating her to meet her brother, who has “dead straight hair” (211).

            Janie rejects Mrs. Turner, along with her self-hatred as well as sense of class. Nevertheless, Janie recognizes what it means to be “classed” off, as she was when married to Joe Starks. As Janie understands, Mrs. Turner shows cruelty to those she sees as inferior, simultaneously that she grovels before those who have supremacy over her. However, even Janie is not completely resistant to the idea that the world is separated into classes along the lines of race and economics; she calls upon a white doctor to assist Tea Cake when he suffers rabies. In addition to at the trial held after Tea Cake’s death, Janie obviously knows she have to select her words cautiously for the white legal institution controls life and death, mainly over those de-classed by race.

            For all the thematic power of such issues as racism, sexism, as well as class, the inspiration in Their Eyes Were Watching God remains love, together with its concomitant spiritual expression. When Janie as a young girl lies under the pear tree, she has a vision of love in what she distinguishes is its natural form: the perfect, pleasant-sounding marriage between bee and blossom. It takes Janie relatively a while for her to discover her “bee” man in Vergible Woods, and, even though not perfect, he is as close to bringing her into harmony with the world as one can find outside of Paradise.

There is no denying that Tea Cake is flawed; subject to envy and feelings of inferiority, he wants things his way and strikes Janie. Consequently also is Janie flawed; she too suffers jealousy and beats Tea Cake. Their relationship is not established on business, as were Janie’s first two marriages. As Janie puts it, she and Tea Cake are not running after “property and titles” (171). Their relationship remains all through the novel a “love game” (171). Tea Cake is a “glance from God,” just as she holds the “keys” to the kingdom.

            Thus far if Tea Cake is God’s glance, God can, in fact, take that glance away. The hurricane is as much a part of nature as the procreating pear tree. While Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog in the wake of the hurricane, Janie is saved. Therefore, even though the hurricane kills numerous people, it as well gives life to several believed to be dead. (Neal A. Lester, 1999)

            When Tea Cake is dying from rabies, Janie queries God: Was God paying notice to what was happening on earth? Did God “signify” for the rabid dog to bite Tea Cake? Conceivably the hurricane and the mad dog were part of some sort of cosmic joke, Janie thinks. Just as the people on the muck during the hurricane turned their eyes on God, watching for some kind of sign, consequently Janie watches for a sign. There are no answers to her questions, nor is there any indication from God. She finally thinks that God “would do less than He had in His heart” (264).

            The hurricane and Tea Cake’s subsequent death source Janie to reflect upon the meaning of her life with him and to assess the worth of their love. God may have taken back the glance that was Tea Cake, however through him; God had snatched Janie from a living death forced upon her by others. It is as if Tea Cake had been on loan from God to give Janie the “chance for loving service” (273).

            Janie and Tea Cake’s love brought them to the sunrise of a new day, a start, in which they had to form innovative thoughts and new words and bring them into play. From their love springs new life, surrounding the world, which is always new, always changing. Their love permitted for individual growth, transforming not merely Janie but touching others too.

When Janie tells her love story, Pheoby becomes dissatisfied with her old self and swears to change by going there, that is to love itself. To be completely alive, spiritually and physically, in accordance with Janie, is to know love, to go to God. God and love, in Janie’s text/sermon, are indistinguishable. Janie’s telling of her story rejuvenates her love and makes everything taste “fresh again,” as she remembers Tea Cake. When Janie pulls in the net of memory, it holds the whole world, a world made lively with the breath the very soul of life.  (Harold Bloom, 1987)




Ebony. The 10 Most Powerful Black Women; Magazine article; Vol. 56, March 2001

Harold Bloom. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God; Chelsea House, 1987

Neal A. Lester. Understanding Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Student Casebook to Issues, Sources, and Historical Documents; Greenwood Press, 1999

Rose Parkman Davis. Zora Neale Hurston: An Annotated Bibliography and Reference Guide; Greenwood Press, 1997

Thomas F. Haddox. The Logic of Expenditure in Their Eyes Were Watching God; Mosaic (Winnipeg), Vol. 34, 2001

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