The novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston can largely be considered a work of resistance. Janie Crawford’s quest for fulfilment, freedom and autonomy, the development of her personal voice and the use of voice throughout the text, showcases the power of black people- particularly black women- to define their own futures and harness their voices. The text thereby offers a powerful resistive stance against the prevailing racial hierarchy of the time. This is achieved despite the historical context, wherein Janie’s behaviour is constrained by the limited opportunities afforded to black women in the early 1900s. Consequently, her ability to exercise her freedom is restricted to her choices regarding men.
Janie’s quest for autonomy and personal fulfilment is motivated by her cognitive freedom. Born in the aftermath of slavery, Janie is the first black woman in her family provided with the liberty to explore her own desires. This mental independence is illustrated through a solitary moment in which Janie marvels at the abounding nature in her backyard. The imagery of “the blossoming pear tree” is indicative of sexual awakening (Hurston, 1937, p. 42), and is an experience Janie links to the concept of marriage, remarking, “So this was a marriage!” (Hurston, 1937, p. 43). However, there is a deeper sentiment expressed in this scene, namely, Janie’s thirst for life and personal fulfilment. “She [wants] to struggle with life but it [seems] to elude her”, resulting in her searching her surroundings, “Looking, waiting, breathing short with impatience. Waiting for the world to be made” (Hurston, 1937, p. 43). Janie develops an intrinsic desire to continue her journey of self-discovery by embarking on “her great journey to the horizons” (Hurston, 1937, p. 130).
Conversely, Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, envisions Janie’s life in far more restrictive terms. Unlike Janie, Nanny lived the majority of her life as a slave and was denied the psychological freedom to “fulfil [her] dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do.” (Hurston, 1937, p. 48). Consequently, Nanny’s perception of success is defined by her exposure to white supremacy. In the same breath, Nanny remarks “de white man is de ruler of everything” whereas black women are condemned to being “de mule uh de world” (Hurston, 1937, p. 47). Unable to contemplate the autonomous role a black woman might hold in post-slavery society, Nanny marries Janie off to the wealthy Logan Killicks in an attempt to obtain for Janie the wealth and security Nanny herself was denied and, subsequently, secure Janie a higher social position through the emulation of white society.
Notably, Janie embarks on her quest for liberation through the rejection of the existence Nanny envisions for her in favour of her own definition of fulfilment. Although Janie attempts to reclaim her autonomy by leaving Logan for Joe Stark- a man she loves and hopes might enable her to rediscover the “pear tree”- her subsequent marriage ironically results in the embodiment of the life Nanny coveted for her. Janie expresses her dissatisfaction with this path to Pheoby, remarking that to Nanny “sittin’ on porches lak de white madam” seemed like the highest form of achievement but Janie felt as if she “done nearly languished tuh death up dere.” (Hurston, 1937, p. 156). Following Joe’s death, Janie abandons this restrictive existence and marries Tea Cake. Janie’s choice exposes her to diverse experiences such as travelling and voluntarily working on the bean fields. Although Janie’s choices result in a complete abandonment of the life Nanny prescribed for her, she thrives in this environment and feels as if “her soul [had] crawled out from its hiding place.” (Hurston, 1937, p. 171).
Janie’s discovery of personal fulfilment on her own terms offers an alternative avenue for resistance against the racial hierarchy. The novel was originally published during the Harlem Renaissance; a literary era geared towards the creation of a collective black identity through the artistic expression of black people (Bobo, 1998). However, the definition of a common black ideology was widely contested. Many scholars aimed to portray black society as refined and cosmopolitan in an attempt to argue for inclusion in white “civilization” (Bobo, 1998). Conversely, in her essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” (1928, p.2), Hurston describes what she believes to be intrinsic differences between white and black people’s natures. Hurston describes a scene where she becomes passionately enthused by a jazz performance, “I dance wildly inside myself; I yell within, I whoop”, whereas her white friend “sits motionless in his seat, smoking calmly.” Through Janie’s rejection of white society in favour of a life suited to her personal needs, Hurston continues the argument that black and white people have fundamentally different responses to life and, therefore, concepts of fulfilment. In this way, Hurston offers black self-determination as an alternative form of resistance from that conventionally assumed by black scholars.
As well as reinforcing the text as a work of resistance, the development of Janie’s voice is a crucial component in her journey towards autonomy. During her second marriage, Joe’s masculine prowess is rooted in his submission of Janie. Whenever Janie attempts to express herself, Joe undermines her stating, “You gettin’ too moufy, Janie”, (Hurston, 1937, pg. 115) and insults her intelligence, “You see ten things and don’t understand one” (Hurston, 1937, pg. 10). As a coping mechanism, Janie, “[learns] to talk some and leave some” (Hurston, 1937, pg. 116). However, in retaliation against one of Joe’s public humiliations, Janie insults him by stating, “’tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big voice” (Hurston, 1937, pg. 119) and declares, “When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life” (Hurston, 1937, pg. 11). By reclaiming her voice, Janie publicly emasculates Joe and, in doing so, is able to escape his restrictive influence. Janie is ultimately successful over Joe in that her comments encourage his physical demise, leaving Janie alive and financially secure. Furthermore, the depiction of a black woman triumphing over entrenched sexism by successfully reclaiming her voice, published against the backdrop of the gendered 1930s resistance movement, illustrates the need for black women to harness the power of their voices and resist subjugation.
Although resistance work is usually characterized by the overt presentation of racial injustice, Hurston criticizes this norm by declaring “I do not belong to the sobbing school of Negrohood” (Hurston, 1928, p. 2) and instead, uses voice as a literary device throughout the text to highlight and celebrate Southern, black experiences. Hurston’s use of unfiltered, Southern dialect provides her disenfranchised black characters with the opportunity to express themselves. The characters’ lilting cadences and consistent use of vernacular forces white readers to consider black dialect as worthy of contemplation, therefore inverting racial power dynamics. Conversely, the use of dialect serves to empower Southern, black readers by allowing them to identify with the characters and their experiences. Additionally, considering the novel is framed as Janie telling the story of her life to her friend Pheoby, the entire narrative is a consequence of characteristically black, oral tradition. By presenting the novel this way, Hurston elevates black culture- and therefore black people- to a status worthy of public consideration, consequently solidifying the text as a resistance work.
Nevertheless, the novel is constrained by the prevailing historical context. As a black woman in Florida in the immediate aftermath of slavery, Janie possesses restricted rights. Consequently, Janie’s ability to cultivate freedom depends largely on the opportunities presented to her by prospective partners. Indeed, she chooses her husbands based on her perception as to how they will help her on her “journey to her horizons”, unable to envision reaching them alone. Joe Stark offers an improvement on her first marriage in terms of sexual attraction. Janie hopes a life with him will mean “flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything.” (Hurston, 1937, pg. 65). On the other hand, Janie and Tea Cake’s relationship involves equal partnership and excitement, as they partake in enjoyable experiences together such as dancing and travelling (Hurston, 1937, pg. 152). Dependent as she is on her husbands, Janie retains a significant level of autonomy. Janie does not mourn Joe but inherits his money to become financially independent. Similarly, when faced with the decision to kill Tea Cake or save herself, she chooses herself and decides to live without him. Ultimately, Janie is able to rise above her constraints and achieve personal fulfilment, “Ah done been tuh de horizon and back” (Hurston, 1937, pg. 241). Janie also ends the novel single and completely autonomous, at great personal cost but mostly because of her ability to navigate her marriages and the constricting historical context successfully.
Evidently, Their Eyes Were Watching God can largely be considered a resistance text. Hurston’s depiction of Janie Crawford’s quest for fulfilment, freedom and autonomy argues for black self-determination in face of racial and sexist injustice. Additionally, the use of voice and development of Janie’s voice throughout the text illustrates the power of black society to triumph over discrimination. This is achieved despite the historical context, wherein Janie’s decisions are limited to the scope of marriage.
- Bobo, K. D., 1998. Searching For ‘The New Negro’: the Harlem Renaissance and Nella Larsen’s Quicksand. [Online] Available at: https://www.vanderbilt.edu/AnS/english/mwollaeger/KrisBoboPaper2.htm [Accessed 7 August 2019].
- Hurston, Z. N., 1928. How It Feels to be Colored Me. The World Tomorrow, p. 2.
- Hurston, Z. N., 1937. Their Eyes Were Watching God. s.l.:HarperCollins Publishers Inc..