Edification in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God

That Hurston ends Janie’s quest peacefully by returning her contentedly home can be construed as the final moralizing flourish that establishes the preceding story as edifying, for such an ending to such a tale fits the classic formulation of instruction: do thusly for this reward. After a formative journey, Janie achieves the typical wish of the tried and tired and arguably the acme of satisfaction attainable on this earth: self-contentedness, shelter, a close friend and enough materials on which to live. If the main character is ultimately rewarded, we may assume that the author finds that character’s behavior exemplary. Contrastingly, those stories in which protagonists either fail to address their tragic flaws or act reprehensibly and suffer for their wrongdoings can be seen as aiming to warn audiences from the temptations they outline by demonstrating their undesirable consequences. Hereby arises the suspicion that Hurston seeks to empower her audience to effectively mediate interpersonal relationships and constructively express themselves after Janie’s example. Hurston employs an undercurrent of interlocking symbols to this end. The structure of the story supports the interpretation of Their Eyes Were Watching God as a literary edification by demonstration: Janie moves sequentially along a string of progressively more desirable and complete intimacies, garnering from each knowledge which assists her later on. It is as if Hurston were offering up each available type of relationship for scrutiny and explaining the pitfalls of each: the lack of love with Killicks, the lack of respect and the overemphasis on money and status with Jody, and the risk inherent in attaching oneself to a noble vagrant with Tea Cake.

Janie’s retelling of her quest for identity is assisted and characterized by her association with the imagery of the earth. Throughout the story Janie exhibits an uncanny earthly intelligence, an intimate knowledge of the natural flow of life that seems to begin during her sexual awakening at the pear tree and ever after enlighten her with peerless intuition. It is this intuition which allows Janie to foresee the misery she will endure with Killicks, Jody’s impending death after she cuts him to the quick and ultimately the restorative love and pleasure she will share with Tea Cake. Her prescience is so sharp that she even anticipates that Jody is only partially more desirable than Logan; able to provide for her but not necessarily to sate her nubile urges: ‘Janie pulled back a long time because he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon’ (Hurston 29). Most importantly, this intuition allows her to see quickly through the various veils that society throws up simply because they are fashionable, thereby enabling her to defeat the defective but lingering social convention that would have her marry and stay with Killicks for security alone. It also allows her to forgo the materialism and false pretenses that Jody strains to maintain and to wholesomely engage, to her lasting enrichment, the culture that Tea Cake introduces on the muck. We see, for example, that Janie is not wholly onboard with Jody’s ostentatious opulence because she finds his gilded spittoons excessive. Having sampled with Killicks and Jody the two extremes of the system that bases relationships on financial and social status alone, Janie longs to flee the cramped, bleak store and the foolish rigidity it represents for the homely soil that spawned the pear tree that first awakened her to external possibility. She seeks to pursue the more fulfilling and meaningful goals which the experience of the pear tree symbolizes for her, namely a fulfilling and romantic relationship and a return to her roots. Therefore the muck is at least edenic in the sense that most of its inhabitants place little emphasis on social classes and seem to value one another for personal merit alone. For this reason they gravitate toward Tea Cake’s ebullience despite his less than savory habits and lack of verifiable status. They interact as friends and equals and all are welcome to participate in the festivities; a conviviality that Janie acutely missed in the stiff collared structure of Jody’s capitalistic hierarchy. Some might mistakenly assume Janie’s lifelong association with natural imagery (the pear tree, her would be custodial and thereby subordinate duties to Killick’s mule, and her eventual immigration to sharecroppers’ mud slops) to be primitivistic. Instead, Hurston is, in instructing through Janie’s example, recommending a return not explicitly to nature, but to those truest ideals which the timelessness of natural symbols embodies: honest exchanges between loved ones, the importance of sexuality to the satisfactory relationship, and the importance of not losing sight of one’s heritage when trying to assume new or advanced social positions, all of which criteria are satisfied by Tea Cake. Where Jody suppresses Janie’s participation, dehumanizing her into a trophy, Tea Cake invites it in offering to play checkers with her and taking her fishing. Where Jody is frumpy, money-bloated and repulsive, Tea Cake is delicious. Where Jody forces Janie to aspire to the same traditionally white values he himself chases in order to achieve influence: distance from the hoi-polloi, conspicuous consumption indicating monetary ascendancy, and the public castigations he inflicts on poorer citizens, Tea Cake brings Janie amongst her own people. In their company she becomes known for her storytelling (in her own dialect) and from them she derives the missing pieces of her conceptualization of her own culture. Summarily, the paradigmatic relationship that Tea Cake represents in this progressive narrative structure, in being presented finally and shown to be essential to Janie’s self-actualization, represents Hurston’s interpersonal ideal.

Simultaneously, Hurston’s striking treatment of one of the most natural functions of man and perhaps the only thing that differentiates humanity from lesser beasts, spoken and written language, draws attention to key points of discussion that a socially-conscious narrative should confront. These include the importance of conversation and storytelling to the preservation of cultural and racial identity (as we see in Janie’s participation in the verbal carnivals on the muck) and language and the privilege of speaking as empowerment, as we see most obviously in Janie’s relationship with Jody. Indeed, The ever industrious Jody synopsizes his life’s plans of astounding expansion and development and even a dominance approaching tyranny simply by stating that he wants to become “A big voice.” All of Hurston’s convictions as to the power of words are therein compressed. Vision and urbanity aside, Jody’s true intrinsic qualifier is his verbal facility which he models after the rhetoric of the socially dominant white man. Hurtson’s decision to render the entire story as Janie’s deeply personal recount told by mouth, by verbal kiss (with all of a regular kiss’s intimation of affection and trust intact) to her closest friend, Phoebe, can be seen as a rebellion against this linguistic charade. It affirms the supposition that Hurston is suggesting through Janie’s example the absolute necessity of the socially downtrodden to voice their grievances, or even to define themselves by verbally recounting their personal histories. Indeed, by relating her tale at length, Janie not only recalls to herself her own accomplishments while measuring her personal growth, but also offers hope and wisdom to the younger Phoebe. Phoebe may be seen as a character in whom a longing for freedom is stirring, as she has broken from the foolishness of the porch in order to live, even if only vicariously, through Janie‘s tale. This encapsulates one of Hurston’s hopes for her own narrative: the enrichment and empowerment of the audience through the spoken word of the experienced storyteller. It also suggests either Janie or Hurston’s reluctance to accede to the dominance to an assumedly more proper standardized english, because the triumphant Janie explains herself in her own tongue. Janie has, better than anyone else in the story, achieved the ultimate state attainable by living humans: happiness. She has done so without the domineering pretension of Jody’s mulatto English.

The crowning exhibition of the sort of transcendence that Janie achieves through her experiencing of life first hand while guided by this natural intuition is her self-satisfied return home. She does not deign to worry over the obloquy of the idle porch sitters and the desperation of the misguided to conform that they represent. The porch talkers are described as having been used as subhuman tools all day, while their outrage and indignation at Janie’s exploits affirm that she has egregiously crossed many social boundaries: “What she doin coming back here in dem overhalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on?” (Hurston 2). She walks past these chained fools proud of the attractiveness of her body; a display of liberation that is maddening to those for whom liberty is a dream they are almost too weary to sustain anymore. Janie’s self-directed emancipation, driven by her voracity for life and tempered by her natural intuition presents a stark contrast to those miserable members of the hive mind that rock on the porch. We are to be repelled by their self-defeating and cannibalistic misuse of language by which they would trap others and themselves into constrictive paradigms and by the viciousness with which they deride one of their friends in secret, especially when this whiny carping is compared to the richness of Janie’s dialogue. That ‘They passed nations through their mouths’ (Hurston 1) should make us prick up in pity. This hyperbole establishes the magnitude of the verbal power they are flexing and subsequently the banality they misapply it to establishes their waywardness. Nancy Chinn, in discussing Janie’s emancipating self-discovery, states:

“Echoes of the title appear in the novel’s opening passage, which reveals Hurston’s understanding of traditional male and female roles. According to DuPlessis, ‘ The absolute beginning of the book begins playing with the title materials and meanings by opening issues about words and the Word in relation to gender and racial power” (Chinn 1).

These traditional roles and the power of the spoken word are two things Janie has personally grappled with and therefore come to understand more deeply than those that have remained on the porch. Far from weakening Janie, their petty squeaks only demonstrate the close-mindedness of their speakers and are instantly drowned by the quality and the purely textual quantity of Janie’s “Big voice”. Janie’s rich narrative (and the self-discovery and freedom it represents) is one that the porch sitters have closed themselves off from by destructively using of language to affirm the presuppositions of the same social hierarchy in which they are peons. This is Hurston’s warning against the self-misrepresentation committable by those that do not truly understand the power of their own faculties of expression.

In all of these ways Hurston offers advice pertaining to several sociological concerns while asserting through Janie’s example and through the linguistic ideals she embodies the power of truth and its verbal expression to both overcome personal tribulations and seek identity. Additionally, she offers advice pertaining to the achievement of a mutually fulfilling relationship while offering warnings about societal confounders of such an effort. Hurston holds up finally in enticement and encouragement Janie’s ultimately happy (almost impossibly happy) homecoming in order to intimate the desirability of the path she prescribes. It is notable that the richness of Janie’s dialogue is derived from its diversity. Hurston’s recommendation is not strictly outlined nor is it to be followed to the letter. She seems to be suggesting that readers take some lessons from Janie’s exploits and go out to experience life boldly and in person while empowering themselves by self-assertion through self-expression.


Like Love, ‘A Movin Thing’: Janie’s Search for Self and God in ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’
Nancy Chinn
South Atlantic Review, Vol. 60, No. 1. (Jan., 1995), pp. 77-95.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: HarperCollins, Inc., 1998.