Eyes Were Watching God Summary and Analysis
Zora Neale Hurston’s most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was first published in 1937, but the characters she created and the situations they face are timeless, and still reverberate strongly today. Issues of love, control, and independence are common themes to all of humanity, and though both the author’s and the main character’s identities as African-American women highlight these issues, they in no way limit the impact of this novel on readers with a different identity. Instead, the depth and humanity with which the characters, especially the main character of Janie Crawford, are portrayed makes this novel speak to readers of all backgrounds. The yearnings of Janie to achieve her independence and some semblance of harmony with the world are things that all human beings can identify with. At times, the characters do seem somewhat larger-than-life, but this only helps to illustrate the points made in the book. Similarly, many of the plot points in the book seem slightly too convenient and unbelievable at times. The overall effect of these apparent flaws, however, is to render a much sharper picture about what it means to find individual power as a human being in a way that would not have been possible by more subtle means.
The book opens at the end of the plot, with Janie returning to the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida after burying her third and final husband (Hurston, 4). Dialogue is very heavy in this opening chapter, and in much of the rest of the book as well, yet Janie’s voice is not recorded for the first several pages. Instead, the narrator notes that “her speech was pleasant enough, but she kept walking straight on to the gate” (Hurston, 4). Though the reader does not yet know Janie’s story, she is immediately seen as someone wise and in control, especially amidst the chaos of the people surrounding her at her arrival. This makes an instant connection between her and the reader.
Janie is the character with whom I personally most identify in this book. Her struggles mirror my own in many ways. Her struggle to find and maintain her independence without shirking her true responsibilities reminds of the balancing act I walk in my family. Janie’s grandmother forces Janie to marry Logan Killicks, an older and relatively well-off farmer, in order to protect Janie from wrong turns in life. The way Logan treats Janie, as a commodity rater than a human being, soon convinces the her that life with Logan isn’t worth it, and she makes plans to run off with Jody Starks. One quote from the novel at this scene that really struck a chord with me is: “she turned wrongside out just standing there and feeling” (Hurston, 40). This quote is integral to the novel, and explains how Janie often feels when she is caught in a situation with no completely good solution. It is also something I can especially identify with, as being emotionally turned “wrongside out” by situations at lest as difficult as Janie’s in this scene is something that is all to familiar with me.
It was somewhat scarier to discover and admit how much I identified with Tea Cakes, Janie’s third husband, as well. Though she is married to Jody for over twenty years, she eventually admits to herself that the way he treats her — keeping her away from the social life in Eatonville, where the couple owns and operates a store that makes them quite wealthy, and generally controlling her life — is not right or acceptable. Janie feels that her “image of Jody tumbled down and shattered,” and she ends up berating Jody in front of the town (Hurston, 68). He beats her, and their relationship basically ends. Jody dies a few months later, while Janie is berating him for a second time. Many men are after her for marriage, but the roguish Tea Cakes is the man she chooses. Life with Tea Cakes is better, as Janie finally seems to have found true love; someone with whom she can live in harmony while retaining her independence. This turns out not to be entirely true, however, as in one incident Tea Cakes slaps her in public, not to be mean, exactly, but because “being able to whip her reassured him in possession (Hurston, 176). Though I do not like this part of myself, I can absolutely identify with such feelings — it sometimes seems like anger and even violence are the only effective ways to exert control over emotionally charged situations.
The major conflicts in the novel all have to do with Janie’s search fro two things: her independence, and someone she can share life with on her own terms. It is clear the she achieves the first goal, but her success in finding love and harmony is a little more unclear. Before she and Tea Cakes come together, the narrator explains Janie’s thoughts about what it means to be a human in harmony — God created man as something that “sung all the time and glittered all over,” and the jealous angels broke that stuff up into tiny sparks and covered them with mud, “and the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb” (Hurston, 96). This explains the difficulty of finding a connection with another “spark”; there is too much mud in the way with most people to make this an easy task.
This passage demonstrates the way that conflicts are often presented symbolically or metaphorically in the novel. The incident with the mule, which Jody buys to impress Janie because she feels sorry for it, symbolizes the way Jody treats and acts as if he owns Janie. There are many other examples of parallel symbols and metaphors throughout the book. Bt however the conflicts are presented, they are usually solved by Janie’s determination to change the situation. Her strength is the driving force in the novel, and though her solution is often to simply leave her problems behind, this is often the best choice, both in the novel and in life.
I have not gone through three marriages, nor was I raised by my grandmother, but I have experienced many conflicts similar to Janie’s. Dealing with an alcoholic father can often be like dealing with an ultra-possessive husband; he lashes out in anger when he feels like he is losing control, which is quite often. Like Janie, I have had to develop the strength to deal with this and protect myself and my siblings from his anger while at the same time carving out my own independent identity. Janie also deals with a lot of gossip, but decides that she doesn’t care what other people think — she has finally learned how to live life on her own terms, and explains her relationship with the poor and much younger Tea Cakes by saying with renewed empowerment, “Dis ain’t no business proposition, and no race after property and titles. Dis is uh love game. Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine” (Hurston, 108).
This is the most important lesson for living in the book. We cannot live for anyone else, not entirely, so to find satisfaction and fulfillment we must live for ourselves. This does not mean ignoring others, but rather helping them in ways the w are best capable without sacrificing our own identities. This message is as uplifting as the events of the book are depressing, which leads to a messy yet enjoyable tangle of emotions for the reader. I felt sad, frustrated, and triumphant at various moments in the book, and sometimes a combination of all three. Zora Neale Hurston’s great skill in Their Eyes Were Watching God is in creating characters that are simply too human not to be connected with. Janie’s story is one of growing wisdom, which I can only hope to emulate.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 1992.
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