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Leo Tolstoy, Louise Maude, Alymer Maude

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston
One of my all-time favorite novels. Most of all, I fell in love with the language in this book.

There's not really any way to spoil this novel, as so much is revealed in the first chapter. And, this book is driven by its characters and its language, rather than plot.

Their Eyes Were Watching God demonstrates the dual potential of language. Language may be used as an instrument of truth to express love, self-fulfillment, and honest emotions. Conversely, language may also be used as an instrument of deceit. In its negative sense, language may be used as a means to limit the freedom of others or, through gossip, to pry into others’ lives. Clearly, Janie Crawford, the novel’s protagonist, is affected by both aspects of language; though language often hampers Janie’s freedom, as she grows in confidence and maturity, she is able to overcome the negative language of others and to control her own use of language.

Hurston introduces the negative use of language early in the first chapter. When Janie returns to Eatonville after having left with a younger man, the townspeople assume and hope she is returning in defeat. Rather than wishing Janie well, the porch sitters wait eagerly to get the “dirt,” so that they may dissect Janie’s life and feel better about their own. Hurston provides an articulate description of the porch sitters’ motivation and use of language:
These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were one, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment. (2)

Gossiping gives the porch-sitters power. Janie, however, has learned a great deal during her life’s journey; rather than trying to hide her life and give the townspeople any opportunity to speculate on her life, Janie tells the simple truth. Significantly, Janie tells her entire story to her closest friend, whom she knows will be honest. Janie even encourages Phoeby Watson to repeat her story to the entire town. By revealing her life completely, Janie usurps the porch-sitters’ power. Janie is willing to give the narrative of her life to Pheoby because her trust in her friend is absolute: “You can tell 'em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat's just de same as me 'cause mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf” (4). Janie recognizes Pheoby’s language will be just as true as her own.

As Janie recounts her life, the oppression language has caused her immediately becomes evident. As a young girl of 16, a flowering pear tree “speaks” to Janie of love and fulfillment. When her grandmother (Nanny) sees her kissing a boy beneath the tree, she immediately calls to Janie and, in her speech, ultimately uses language to limit Janie’s world and freedom. Ironically, Nanny starts her speech by explaining how she always wanted to have a “voice”: “You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. You in particular. Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn't for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do … Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin' on high, but they wasn't no pulpit for me” (15). Despite Nanny’s own desire for language and power, her solution for Janie’s life takes away Janie’s voice and nearly destroys her. To ensure that Janie will have security, Nanny pressures her into marrying Logan Killicks, a man far older than Janie whom she does not love.

[While I don't think discussing the plot lessens your enjoyment of this book, there may be spoilers ahead.:]

Janie cannot communicate with Logan on any level, verbally or sexually. By the time Janie meets Joe Starks, his smooth-talking charm captivates Janie immediately. His language seduces her. Yet, Janie does not succumb completely; she realizes Joe Starks also falls short of the kind of love she envisioned at 16 when she was dreaming under the pear tree. Hurston depicts Janie’s hesitancy accordingly: “Janie pulls back a long time because he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he speaks for far horizon. He speaks for change and chance.” Janie sense of uncertainty, her intuition that something is lacking in Joe Starks, for all his sweet language, quickly becomes evident after she leaves with him and travels to Eatonville.

For Starks, language is power; language does not have to be truthful as long as it gets him what he wants. With incredible speed, Joe meets with the Eatonville townspeople and tells them what they need. Before Joe puts their needs into words, the townspeople had been relatively content. Joe’s words inspire awe but also make the townspeople feel small and ignorant. Janie soon realizes that Starks never stops talking and that his talk has only one purpose: to increase his power and self-worth. In many ways Starks’ treatment of the townspeople mimics the power tactics and condescension white people have often used to disempower African-Americans. Not surprisingly, Starks’ overpowers Janie the same way he overpowered the townspeople; Janie is forced to tie back her beautiful hair and remain silent while she works in the store. When the townspeople encourage Janie to speak, Joe makes Janie’s position clear: “Thank yuh fuh yo' compliments, but mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech- makin'. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home.”

Despite Janie’s seeming submission, she is less a woman beaten than a woman in hibernation; Janie is simmering. After years of Starks’ overbearing abuse, Janie chooses to talk again when Joe berates her for not cutting his tobacco properly, and—in front of all the people in the store—tells her she has become old and unattractive. Infuriated, Janie retaliates and tell Joe, “When you pull down yo' britches, you look lak de change uh life” (75). The remark stuns both Joe and all the men in the store. Not only has Janie fought back but also, in one powerful sentence, she crushes Joe’s manhood. After nearly 18 years of silence, Janie’s short speech defeats Joe entirely. Shortly before Joe dies, Janie speaks again and tells Joe of his cruelties and inadequacies. Unlike Joe, who liked the sound of his own voice, throughout their marriage Janie spoke when it was necessary and then spoke only the truth.

In contrast, Janie begins to speak a lot more after Joe’s death. Her re-birth is particularly evident when a stranger, a young man named Tea Cake, comes to town. Unlike Logan Killicks or Joe Starks, Tea Cake treats Janie with equality and delights in her conversation. Their romance stirs up the town gossips who immediately begin speculating that Janie is acting like a fool, that Tea Cake, a man 15 years younger than Janie, must be after her money, and that Janie should still be in mourning. Janie discounts the judgments of the porch-sitters, recognizing that their supposed concern masks their jealousy and self-righteousness.

When Janie leaves town to meet Tea Cake in Jacksonville, her re-birth is complete. Though their marriage is occasionally volatile, they speak the language of love. With Tea Cake, Janie has found the promise suggested so many years ago under the pear tree. Even working in the Everglades “muck,” Janie feels alive and is able to find joy and happiness despite her limited circumstances. Mrs. Turner, a smug “mulatto” proud of her light coloring and disdainful of the other people living in the “muck,” provides one of the few overt references to race. Mrs. Turner, impressed by Janie’s light coloring and “class,” tries to befriend her. Both Janie and Tea Cake recognize that Mrs. Turner hates her own race and speaks the language of hate, a philosophy Hurston depicts as follows: "Anyone who looked more white folkish than herself [Mrs. Turner:] was better than she was in her criteria, therefore it was right that they should be cruel to her at times, just as she was cruel to those more negroid than herself in direct ratio to their negroness.”

Following the aftermath of Tea Cake’s death, the trial, and her eventual acquittal, Janie realizes that she needs to go home. Her life has come full circle, and the love she has experienced with Tea Cake will remain with her as long as she remembers him. In part, she will keep his memory alive through language, just as she does when she tells Pheoby every thing that has happened. Throughout her journey, Janie has learned both the oppressive and the liberating power of language. Ironically, Hurston also felt the negative power of language. Although Hurston later received negative reviews for her use of language in Their Eyes Were Watching God, like her protagonist, Janie Crawford, Hurston preferred to tell it as it is. Deliberately, Hurston uses the nuances, rhythms and dialect of the African-Americans she portrays to preserve the richness of their language. Like Janie, perhaps, Hurston defied the mores of her culture and chose the language of truth and love over conformity.



adapted from a prior publication