Eyes Were Watching God

Janie Crawford’s Emancipation and Path to Self-Realization: A Gender-based analysis of Janie’s Characterization in Their Eyes Were Watching God

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The African-American heritage in the American society has experienced a long history of bondage to the slavery system, which created the divide between the white and black Americans in the country. Among those who first experienced this bitter history of bondage to slavery was the writer Zora Neale Hurston, who was known for her writings depicting not only African-American slavery, but most specifically, the plight of African-American women during this time of strife.

Hurston’s writings demonstrated the main theme of women’s bondage to the slavery system and a patriarchal society, be this society applied in the white American or African-American context. In the renowned novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Hurston centered on the life of an African-American, Janie Crawford, to demonstrate these two forms of power play and conflict within the history of African-American women. More than just an illustration of the life of African-American women in bondage to her society and race, “Their Eyes” is actually a chronicle of an African-American woman’s life: her path from being a “slave” to becoming emancipated just because she is colored and a woman in her society.

This paper discusses the themes of Janie Crawford’s emancipation from a patriarchal African-American society and her path towards self-realization as an African-American woman. The discussion and analysis that follow reflects the stance of this paper, which asserts that despite the tedious path towards self-realization, Janie’s marriage experiences of being subjugated by three men led to her eventual emancipation, wherein she was able to accept her being an individual and a woman. The road towards acceptance of her self was not easy for Janie, as she only began to feel her emancipation and self-realization only during her third marriage, with Tea Cake.

The transition from enslavement to emancipation had been an arduous journey for Janie. This kind of transition was necessary for the novel, as Hurston began building up the momentum of the story, starting from Janie’s simple yet already subjugated existence, to her eventual demise as a poor widow of Tea Cake, but a renewed woman at that. The opening lines of Chapter 3 aptly described this transition of Janie: “[t]here are years that ask questions and years that answer…Janie asked inside of herself and out. She was back and forth to the pear tree continuously wondering and thinking” (Hurston, 1990:21).

These lines reflected the turning point in Janie’s life, as she consciously chose to marry Logan despite the fact that she did not love him. Her marriages, in fact, act as symbols that highlighted her “maturity” and wisdom about life. Her marriage with Logan was the first step towards her attainment of emancipation, because she was able to realize and eventually get out of an abusive marriage, for all Logan wanted from her was her ability to maintain his house and accomplish household and even farming chores for him. Janie’s marriage with Logan was her attempt to discover whether, indeed, she is capable of eventually loving a man she did not initially love or not. Leaving Logan for Joe Starks affirmed that she remained a free agent, accountable only to herself and not to anyone else in her life.

Janie’s second marriage to Joe Starks showed further progress into her path to self-realization and eventual emancipation from subjugation to the men she married in her lifetime. With Joe, Janie did not feel the physical abuse and opportunist nature of a man; however, she felt emotional and psychological subjugation, subjected to Joe’s needs and wants as a rich and powerful man in Eatonville. Her wisdom as a woman who recognized the worth of love and respect more than money and power was echoed in Joe’s thoughts as he saw his wife lonely despite their success in life (62):

Joe returned to the store full of pleasure and good humor but he didn’t want Janie to notice it because he saw that she was sullen and he resented that. She had no right to be, the way he thought things out. She wasn’t even appreciative of his efforts and she had plenty cause to be. Here he was just pouring honor all over her; building a high chair for her to sit in and overlook the world and she here pouting over it!

This passage speaks about the patriarchal order that dominated Janie and her society. Joe speaks of his power and success as reasons that Janie should be happy about; he had no idea that what Janie was looking for was the feeling of being considered as someone’s equal — not just as the wife of an influential and wealthy man, subject to his whims and demands.

From Logan to Joe, Janie experienced a transition from being “a woman who is denied a sense of self to one who experiences emotional and economic independence and a sense of shared community when she claims her African-American heritage” (Nelson, 2000:262). She underwent different levels of maturity from each man and subjugation she went through. In Logan, she realized that she can aspire for better things in life than just being a housewife to a man who does not love her, but sees her only as an economic opportunity (i.e., as someone to maintain and keep his house and accomplish household chores). In Joe, meanwhile, she realized that economic security does not necessarily translate to her emancipation as a woman, nor does it bring self-actualization on her identity or individuality. However, from each of these two experiences, she ascended to aspire betterment in life, in a qualitative sense — that is, she sought quality life based on her happiness and ability to love an individual rather than economic security.

It was during her third and last marriage, this time with Tea Cake, that Janie received full emancipation and real self-realization. With Tea Cake, she was able to find the quality of life she was looking for. Although she was poorer with Tea Cake than she was with Joe, she never felt more independent, happier, and contented in her life when she married Tea Cake. However, the persistence of male dominance and patriarchy remained, with Tea Cake having the upper-hand in their relationship (147):

Some of these men made passes at Janie, and women who didn’t know took out after Tea Cake…Still and all, jealousies arose now and then on both sides…Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Nor because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss.

This persistence of patriarchy in Janie’s life did not become a detriment for her to achieve emancipation and self-realization as an African-American woman. If anything, she was able to fully realize her self-worth, for it is in her subjugation in her relationship with Tea Cake that she learned how to be in control of herself, and whatever submissiveness she exhibited in front of Tea Cake, it was a conscious effort to show him her love.

Analyzing the relationship between Janie and Tea Cake, Fisher (2003) identified Janie’s love as “self-crushing,” to the point that this love “compels her to defer to Tea Cake’s judgment supporting without regret his ill-fated decision…The consequences — a flood that nearly kills them both, the rabid dog bite, and Tea Cake’s illness — force Janie to draw upon inner strength she didn’t know she had…” (281). These are the circumstances that drove her to become more assertive and courageous than she was with her previous marriages. Thus, compared to Logan and Joe, Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake made her focus more on herself, by loving Tea Cake and being loved by Tea Cake in return. Her increased sense of self-worth because of her romantic relationship with Tea Cake made her consider the possibility that she can attain her needs and wants, and be able to control her actions and behavior in order to attain these needs and wants. In effect, in order to preserve her relationship with Tea Cake, she willingly let herself be subjugated by Tea Cake’s dominant nature.

On a bigger plane, Janie’s characterization in “Their Eyes” has a profound effect on the way African-American women viewed and regarded themselves during the post-slavery period. Through Janie’s character, Hurston was able to depict the image of the African-American woman who had gradually attained self-actualization through her experiences in life, specifically her history of being subjugated in a patriarchal society. As explicated clearly in Hubbard’s (1994) words, “[t]he end product of Hurston’s vision is the creation of a new black woman through a critique of the past. In looking back, Janie also looks forward to the day when American women of African descent will no longer be the mules of the world” (48).


Fisher, J. (2003). Women in Literature: Reading through the lens of gender. Connecticut: Greenwood Publishing.

Hubbard, D. (1994). The sermon and the African-American literary imagination. MO: University of Missouri Press.

Hurston, Z.N. (1990). Their Eyes Were Watching God. NY: Perennial Classics.

Nelson, E. (2000). African-American Authors, 1745-1945: Bio-bibliographical critical sourcebook. Connecticut: Praeger.

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