Their Eyes Were Watching God

“Y’all makes me tired.  De way you talkin’ you’d thinks de folks in dis town didn’t do nothin’ in de bed ‘cept praise de Lawd.” – Pheoby Watson

          Janie is the product of two generations of rape, one at the hands of a white “owner,” which would seem to be a further limitation upona  rural black woman of 1920’s America.  Hurston uses this to a different effect, however.  Janie, as an individual, is presented to the reader as relatively free.  After the passing of her Nanny, her only familial obligation is to herself.  Granted, she is married off  irrespective of her own wishes, but it sets her on a path of simultaneously painful and enlightening self discovery.  She ultimately leaves Logan Killicks, a man her Nanny didn’t want her to “have” so much as his “protection” (p. 15).  As she moves to Eatonville with Joe her attractiveness, perhaps elements of her “whiteness,” sustain her as a trophy wife to her ambitious husband and provokes the attention of the local men and women. She establishes herself as capable, even sought after in Eatonville. Yet she is stifled by various levels of patriarchy and misogyny, behaviors unequivocally fomented by centuries of emasculation bore by Negro men as slaves in America.  As her Nanny forewarns Janie in her youth, “So the white man throw down de load and tell the nigger man tuh pick it up.  He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it.  He hand it to his womenfolks.  De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.  Ah been prayin’ fuh it to be different wid you. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd!” (p. 14).  And upon meeting Tea Cake, it becomes different for Janie.  With Tea Cake she finds love, or at least something far more fulfilling than anything she had hitherto experienced.  And he does not completely “hand it to his womenfolks.” He works hard to realize his love for Janie.  They work in the muck together and have a satisfying life. The fact that Janie has to tragically kill her love would be less believable had he not been rabid.

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8 responses to “Their Eyes Were Watching God

  1. “A man is up a hard game when he must die to beat it.” (187)

    When I read this line towards the end of the novel, it seemed to me that Hurston had slyly put this into the mind of Janie as she sits contemplating her words during her questioning in court. The first thought that came to mind was slavery. Some of the Africans never even made it to the Americas because they refused to continue bound and chained, and death was their other option. When a runaway slave was caught on the run, death would seem more preferential to the alternative life as a subhuman. Yet in this post-Slavery novel, though these people are free in the loosest applicable meaning of the word, i.e. they’re no longer slaves but really have no property or money to back this freedom they now possess, so they’re forced to work for the same man who was previously their master for menial compensation. Although the line is a direct response to the fact that Sam was rabid and she needed to shoot him to save him, it also seems to be a commentary on the alternative to the lives that these people live and ironically that alternative is death. To comment on John’s idea of Janie’s being a product of rape and connect it with this idea that I put forth. Janie is the product of a physical rape, and all black people a more metaphorical rape, it’s this taking away of a people’s ability to fend for themselves for hundreds of years, which in turn works on their psyche, which is passed down for generations effortlessly keeping their minds in bondage and essentially themselves in physical bondage, since they lack the belief of true progress. Our protagonist is NOT this person, instead she’s taken her life into her hands, choosing an alternative that fulfills her life, sadly her love must be left behind with the shackles in order for her to enjoy this new found life.

    Aubria Ralph

    • Yeesh, Tea Cake not Sam, this is what happens when you’re reading Proust, Chaucer, Joyce, Derrida, and Barthes at the same time, you start mixing names up, haha, out of control

  2. darise15

    Janie finds freedom in her love for Tea Cake. In the passage when Tea Cake physically abuses Janie in a rage of jealousy, I read that freedom comes at a cost. Tea Cake beat her “Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession.” Janie gave up her home in Eatonville and her financial security to be with someone who allowed her to be herself and to experience life outside of a small town or running a general store. In exchange for being free from the mundane, Janie experiences love the way she dreamed about. But she also becomes Tea Cake’s possession. Although Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake does not have the same restrictions or limitations as her previous ones, Janie is still bound by the expectations of her man to reassure him that she belongs to him.

  3. Leah

    The blurb on the back cover says, “Their Eyes Were Watching God is an enduring Southern love story.” However, love is not defined in this book as happiness, or even joy, but instead as a series of tests and challenges, where only one can be victorious. Looking specifically at the scene on the front porch with Dave and Jim “fighting” over Daisy, it becomes apparent that love doesn’t have to do with how the person feels about you, but instead how many tests that person is willing to pass for you. “How much time is you willin’ tuh make fuh Daisy?” Daisy then is a prize, something to be won, not something to be loved and respected. A few pages later the conversation switches to whether a woman ought to be killed for disrespecting her husband or simply broken. “If dat wuz mah wife,” said Walter Thomas, “Ah’d kill her cemetery dead.” John mentioned Janie being the product of rape, and Aubria went on to add the metaphorical rape of the African American race, which takes away people’s ability to fend for themselves. I’d like to extend this idea to the women in this story. The women undergo a metaphorical rape that degrades and destroys them until they are no longer capable of having the dreams they once lived for. At the beginning of the story Janie describes love as that “under the pear tree” feeling, yet we see throughout the book example after example of the way men beat their wives into submission until this dream is no more.

  4. josephtruscello

    I am glad that John mentioned the impact that slavery played on African American women. Black men, after being brutalized and dehumanized by white “owners,” placed some of their burden. This mindset remained after slavery was abolished, not only because it is natural for such poisonous attitudes to regenerate over generations, but also because the black man had still not escaped emasculation at the hands of white people. Early in the novel, Janie is mistreated by black men who view black women as their possessions, and this mistreatment causes her to develop trust issues. Tea Cake surprises her because he treats her like a human being, when she had been under the impression that black men, by nature, looked at women as mere objects to be possessed. Trust is something that takes something that takes time for her to develop because of the way she had been treated in the past.

    • josephtruscello

      Just want to correct a typo. The second sentence should read as follows: Black men, after being brutalized and dehumanized by white “owners,” placed some of their burdens on black women.

  5. Sabrina

    To Darise and Leah’s points, Janie’s story is a love story, and yes it’s at a cost, but the story is not one of love between a man and a woman. As cliché as it may sound, it is more a story of self-love. She has to move from familial love (Nanny) through misguided attempts at romantic/heterosexual love (a clear hierarchy is set in these relationships) to finally finding peace on her own. Or perhaps more correctly, she finds love in black, female friendship. It’s a gradual process, and to return to the pear tree image that Leah references, she becomes the bee moving from flower to flower in order to create the meaning of love along the way.

  6. Jonathan

    Tea Cake and Janie’s relationship is far from perfect. For an obvious example his physical abuse. Also there is the scene where he leaves Janie alone to drink and gamble. But there is no doubt, as been stated already, that their’s is a relationship. There are compromises and imperfections and hard work in any relationship. Where the relationship falters in this book is when communication fails. When either Janie or Tea Cake are unable to express their feelings or emotions, there is tension or even violence. This confusion to complicated further when Tea Cake become rabid. At this point their communication completely breaks down to the extent that Janie kills Tea Cake. I believe this is a reenforcement of the strength and agency language is given by Hurston.

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