Hurston introduced Janie Crawford, a strong, eloquent, and dramatic character whose life was best sympathized with by women or the inhabitants of farms and rural black towns. In addition, the author recounted the critical changes in the character’s life and Janie’s quest for self-identity. The woman changes throughout the story, her transformation enabling her to claim to be a strong female (Pritchard 19). Thus, it is significant to establish the gendered barriers that influenced Janie and the strength of her voice that she gained.
The Gender Stereotypes
During 1900 especially, women of African-American descent were considered the property of men in the United States, mainly in the South, in states such as Georgia and Florida. In her novel, Zora Neale Hurston recounts the problem of gender roles in the story of a young African American woman named Janie (Hurston 105). She was in an arranged marriage because of several characters, and in the story, sexism surfaces. At the novel’s beginning, it is evident that the roles of men and women play a significant role in the book (Pritchard 20). The author compares the wishes and dreams of men and women; accordingly, it becomes clear that women have to neglect their desires for men (Hurston 105). While using the sea as a symbol, she says that men can never control their dreams, just expecting them to materialize. Meanwhile, women, on the other hand, can take their lives into their own hands, sculpting them as they wish.
Janie’s story is narrated due to her marriage to three different men of highly varied backgrounds. Her autonomy is limited, as her grandmother told her when she was a teenager–a black woman is “de mule uh de world” (Hurston 47). Janie then survives two marriages as a submissive wife. She conducts herself as Logan and Jody dictate, considering their sexist, misogynistic views of women (Hurston 53). Logan does treat Janie like silt, ordering her to work in the fields and disciplining her for complaining and being “spoiled” (Hurston 32). Jody’s sense of masculinity is so toxic that he believes that women “does not think about anything” and that men should assume about them (Pritchard 20). He addresses Janie as an object and a reflection of his status, something beautiful to gaze at but never to hear. Thus, the element of race in Janie’s life provoked a negative attitude toward her. In the novel, the elements of race and gender are closely related because Jane was perceived not just as a woman but as a female of an inferior race.
Tea Cake abandons many harmful notions of masculinity and femininity and treats Janie as an equal. Although he is still possessive, he listens to her and validates her feelings. She experiences the love she has been searching long and hard for (Hurston 81). Through her complicated relationships with men, Janie becomes aware of the expectations placed on her as a woman. Janie gains the strength to fight the expectations that silence her, enabling her to find true love and gain peace by the novel’s end.
The Language and the Voice
The power of language and voice is another predominant element in the novel. The omniscient narrator narrates the story in the third person, but it is framed as a conversation between Janie and Phoebe, as a recollection of Janie’s life. Janie’s voice is often silenced at the story’s beginning, though readers understand her clear dreams through the narrator (Ghauri et al. 1013). Throughout most of the novel, Janie sacrifices her dreams to submit to the desires and opinions of others. Despite her intense disgust for the older man, she marries Logan because her babysitter wishes it. She endures years of abuse from Jody because she feels bound by his power.
Nevertheless, her growth is reflected in the way she uses language. Speech in the novel is synonymous with power, and when Janie finally confronts Jody, she realizes her strength. Jody told her that he was “aiming for a loud voice” and that it would accomplish “a big woman” (Hurston 92). He believed that women should never talk and that his status and voice would be enough for both of them. When Janie responds to him, she has successfully gutted and emasculated him publicly (Hurston 81). After his death, she experiences open communication and a true romance with Tea Cake. Their constant conversation allows her to find her identity and love simultaneously. As the narrative ends, Janie has found her voice and fully realizes autonomy with it.
A Character in The 21st Century
It is important to note that even in the 21st century, women are still fighting for the right to make decisions in their own lives. Janie could totally exist in today’s society because females now stand for equality and the ability to control their own lives. Even though men influenced her for a long time, in the end, she chose herself and her well-being. Moreover, if a woman could resist the patriarchal norms of society at that time, she could lead feminist movements today. In this way, Janie’s character and desire could be realized in today’s world, where discrimination based on gender and race is almost irrelevant.
Hence, the central theme in “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is Janie’s journey toward self-realization. It is difficult for a black woman to identify herself in a patriarchal society. The protagonist faced issues of race and gender, affecting the perception of women in society (Ghauri et al. 1013). She fell under the influence of men but eventually was able to reclaim her own voice in order to manage her life (Ghauri et al. 1013). Accordingly, Janie disrupted the basic standards of the time and was capable of self-realization.
Ghauri, Qasim Javed, et al. “Description of Subjugated Woman in ZoraNaele Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Feminist Analysis.” Studies in Literature and Language, vol.12, no. 6, 2017, p. 1013.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Eyes Were Watching God. Virago Press, 1990.
Pritchard, Katie. “Burdens from Men and the Wisdom of Women: Marriage and Feminism in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” URJ-UCCS: Undergraduate Research Journal at UCCS, vol. 12, no. 2, 2019, pp.19-25.