Janie Crawford is a captivating character in African-American literature and is studied as a symbol of strength, weakness, liberty, and restraint. Janie, the main character of Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Hurston, is a young African-American woman, desirous for more control of her life during a time when women had little to no say. Some literary critics deem Janie a hero of feminism because of this, but a look at the relationships that she has—with men specifically—proves that this is not always the case. Yes, Janie does find some independence in Hurston’s book, but she is tied to the brutal fact that she will always have the men in her life define who she is. Despite the little freedom that she gains at the end of the novel, Janie can only live life through the command of a male figure. She is not a hero of feminism, but is rather exemplar of weakness as her husbands essentially control who she can be.
Janie’s first relationship with a man is with her first husband, Logan Killicks. He is a man with “some ole skullhead in de grave yard” (Hurston 13), “his belly is too big… and his toe-nails look lak mule foots” (Hurston 23). Despite these unpleasing characteristics, Janie marries Logan to please her grandmother, who believes that he will provide for her and care for her. Unfortunately, Nanny is wrong and Logan is the opposite Janie’s idea of love and is controlling of Janie from the start. She is forced by his demands to stay in the house and work inside the house as well as outside on the farm and land as well. Janie’s breaking point comes when Logan asks her to “Come help [him] move a manure pile” (Hurston 30). When she refuses to help him with the task, he becomes enraged and promises to “take holt uh dat ax and come in dere and kill [her]!” (Hurston 31). Janie takes only a few moments after this death threat to decide that she needs to leave Logan as soon as possible. Although she left Logan, who was controlling her and expecting her to essentially do his work and her work, she does not escape to true independence yet. Instead, she gets into a much more complicated relationship. She runs into the arms of another man who she thinks can save her—a visionary and driven stranger named Joe Starks, whom she met by the road. The reason she leaves is because she believes that anything is better than staying with Logan, as Joe “did not represent sun-up and pollen, but he spoke for far horizon” (Hurston 28), somewhere far from where she was with Logan. Although Janie’s egress is a potential indication of strength, she falls right back into the same dark pit—a relationship with a man who is ultimately as controlling as Logan, and maybe even worse.
Janie’s marriage to Joe appears propitious at first, but it soon becomes evident that Joe intends to keep Janie in her place, a so called “woman’s place” (Hurston 40). For example, Janie and Joe go to the all-black town of Eatonville after they’re married, where Starks builds a store and is soon elected mayor for his forward ideas for the town’s growth. Speeches are being made by the new Board to celebrate his and the store’s inauguration when Tony Taylor requests that Janie say something as well. Jody immediately cuts in between and tells everyone that his “wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin’” (Hurston 40), and that “She’s a woman and her place is in de home” (Hurston 40). Janie is not given a chance to speak, and she soon realizes that she has no say in their marriage. It isn’t long before Starks is forcing her to work in the store and trying to control her every characteristic and her every move. He makes her speak, eat, sleep, dress, act, and essentially live the way he wants her to. He even becomes abusive as the years pass. The most tragic example of this abuse is when he hits Janie one day in the store, publicly humiliating her. For a long time, Joe has been humiliating Janie about being an old and dumb woman who should only listen and do for him, and the worst is when he insults her rear. Janie fights back for the first time in her life, leaving Joe “robbed of his illusion of irresistible maleness which all men cherish” (Hurston 75). Devastated, Joe “struck Janie with all his might and drove her from the store” (Hurston 80). He is so angry he abuses her, yet Janie still stays with him. She doesn’t seek help or stand up for herself, despite the years of public humiliation and verbal and physical abuse, and gives in to Joe’s control until Jody’s death, which is barely a heroic attribute.
After Joe dies, Janie lastly marries Tea Cake, and their relationship is pronounced by much more freedom and understanding between and of each other. Tea Cake even makes a few decisions with her, feeling that her opinion and input is as valuable as his. However, even with a more compassionate man, there are still moments where we see Tea Cake’s dominance over Janie. For example, Janie and Tea Cake spend one night together before their marriage, and Janie desires to make him breakfast the next morning, but Tea Cake insisted that she stay in bed and “wouldn’t let her get him any breakfast at all” (Hurston 107). Although this is a loving act, Tea Cake is the one telling Janie to do something. Another example of Tea Cake’s dominance is in the muck, a place where many people come to pick beans and make good money and memories. Mrs. Turner, a black woman with “Caucasian features” (Hurston 139), is constantly trying to get Janie married to her son. Out of anger, Tea Cake whipped Janie “Not because of her behavior… [but] Being able to whip her reassured him in possession” (Hurston 140). And despite being hit, “she never raised her hand tuh hit [him] back neither” (Hurston140). Though they have a relationship with much more love and freedom, Janie never gains true and absolute liberty of herself. Tea Cake is the one who chooses where they get married, where they should live, how they should make money, and whether or not they should stay with the threat of an oncoming storm. Janie’s marriage with Tea Cake is no doubt an improvement for her, but she doesn’t find true freedom until he’s gone.
Janie, despite the slowly growing freedom in her life, lives under the control of men and stays thus stays dependent on them rather than being free like she desires. Therefore, she is not an idol of feminism, but rather a weak woman with no will, living by her husbands’ wishes throughout her life. Her independence is always limited by men, making her one of the first protagonist female characters in literature, but also an antagonist of feminism.