“Their eyes were watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston
The novel “Their eyes were watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston takes a prominent place in the American literature as a brilliant example of African American and women’s literature.
Written during the period of the American history of Ku Klux Klan movement and oppression of the black culture this novel is highly praised nowadays as a literary work of the Black culture.
The novel under analysis is devoted to the portrayal of finding inner self by the main heroine Janie Crawford. The artistic message of the writing is closely connected with the notion of a journey of the main character. The plot is based on the narration of the life journey of Jane Crawford. The writing is devoted to the portrayal of the personal changes and growth of the main protagonist.
The life journey can be roughly subdivided into the stages of Janie’s marriages. The life believes and attitudes of each life stage alter under circumstances and influence of the three husbands’ attitude towards Janie.
The initial important part of the narration which is symbolic is connected with Janie’s beholding of the blooming pear tree and the bees. The blooming pear tree is associated throughout the whole life of Janie with true love and marriage.
The symbol of a pear tree which represents Janie’s life reveals the inner wishes of the heroine for marriage and happiness. Janie has always dreamed of a being a pear tree in blossom. Hurston writes
“Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.” (Hurston, p.12)
The life journey of the main heroine is connected with the search of this state of a blooming tree. She eventually finds it in the marriage with Tea Cake. Despite the fact that Tea Cake is a gambler he makes Janie feel like a pear tree in blossom. Even though there relationship of the main heroine and her third husband, Tea Cake had its ups and downs, Janie Crawford finds her true love.
From the point of view of the notion of journey life of Janie Crawford is immediately associated with the three husbands. The three marriages of the main protagonist represent three different attitudes of male representatives of a society.
Thus, the first husband who was chosen for Janie by her grandmother represents the practical attitude towards the functions of a wife. Logan Killicks considers Janie only as a domestic helper who has to bear the burden of hard work at the farm. Killicks is not interested in having a partner or a lover but a worker.
As such kind of marriage does not go in line with Janie’s ideas of a marriage she starts another life with Jody Starks.
Starks’s attitude towards functions of a wife is that of being a trophy wife who has to support the powerful position of a husband. This attitude reflects the common perceptions of the female role in the society. Despite the fact that Starks becomes a respected person in Eatonville, he is unable to regard his wife as an intelligent person. Jody Starks is sure that his wife has to support his image of a mayor and a successful businessman. He deprives Janie of the opportunity to socialize and taking part in social life. Starks is reassured in absence of intelligence of women, their inability to act reasonably. Jody Starts makes a lot of sexist claims concerning the great difference of men who are smart. Janie disagrees with this statement by the men "don't know half as much as you think you do” (Hurston).
Janie’s life choice after the death of Starks is connected with her longing for true love. Despite the fact that Janie is financially independent and is surrounded by well-to-do men she makes a choice to leave Eatonville with a gambler. Driven by her childhood dreams of true love in marriage Janie will have to feel the pain from the loss of her husband. The final of the love story about Tea Cake is tragic. Having survived in a hurricane Janie is rescued from drowning by Tea Cake who is bitten by a rapit dog.
As a result a heroine will have to kill her husband in self-defense.
Finally, the decision of the heroine to return to Eatonville is presented as a final point of her life journey. The arrival of the protagonist to Eatonville by a ship which is portrayed in the opening chapter of the novel is symbolic. The attention of the reader is drawn to the character of Janie Crawford from the first pages. The key artistic message is to reveal the life story of the main heroine full of dreams which were defeated but did not die, defeats, fear and tragedy.
The narration of the novel is done by the main character and the author. Consequently, the reader penetrates into the inner world of the heroine. Janie Crawford tells the story of her life to her friend so that she could render her narration to the others. It is necessary to stress though that the narration of the main character resembles that of a monologue.
The narration is done in the form of a frame. The novel opens up with the author’s words followed by Janies telling her life story to her friend Pheoby. The ending of the novel is done from the author’s perspective. At the same time despite the fact that the main character presents chronologically correct narration, it is not a first-person narrative. The third-person point of view is used for the author to take over the narration.
The novel represents the development of cognition of the main heroine. Janie opposes authoritative and unjust attitudes of the first who husbands. Killicks who treats Janie as an infant and a helper is unable to make her submissive. Jody Starks who is sure that women are devoid of male mental abilities is afraid that Janie can gain support. Subconsciously Starks understands that Janie has right to disobey him and has capable to gaining the leading role.
“Their Eyes were watching God” is a prominent example of the personal growth of the main character. Cognition of the inner self is done by the main heroine in her narration. Through narration the protagonist finds the way to inner self which can be qualified as a final key moment of her life journey.
There is an argument that narration which is done from the author’s perspective and the first person one represent two opposing visions of life. Ryan Simmons states that Hurston juxtaposes the two narration in order to make statement against models of authority. The narrative voice of the author represents the model of authority. The narration used by Hurston is innovative as it makes up the so called “ideal narrative” which is created in order to change both the reader and the main character (Simmons, 2002)
The significance of the novel did not come overnight. The authors of Harlem Renaissance did not praise the writing high when it first appeared. Thus, the critic of New York Times points out to the commonness of the novel by writing, "It is about Negroes... but really it is about every one, or at least every one who isn't so civilized that he has lost the capacity for glory." (Tompkins, 1937)
The rediscovery of the novel was only in the 1970s and 80s with the establishment of the contemporary black literature. The popularity of the novel is undisputable as it has been reprinted in several editions. Additionally, “Their Eyes were watching God” is characterized by the special narrative technique. Thus, Virginia Heffernan states that "narrative technique, which is heavy on free-indirect discourse, lent itself to poststructuralist analysis" (Heffernan, 2005)
The central artistic message is vividly delineated at the beginning of the novel. The author draws reader’s attention to the image of ships. The ship represents the life wishes and life journey of a person. Hurston stresses that some dreams come true while the other do not.
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men” (Hurston, p.3)
Further, it is claimed that the memory is of no importance for women but dream will never die. By stating the women act in accordance with their dream which remain forever, Hurston emphasis the fact that dreams of the main heroine is the central driving forth of her life journey. The writing is centers primarily on the disclosing of dreams and longing of Janie. Through narrating the story of her life to her friend the main character wants everyone to know her hopes and dreams which will never die.
“Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly” (Hurston, p 3)
The concept of love is connected with the life journey in the novel. Hurston presents the image of the life journey and the searching of love by writing,
“Then you must tell 'em dat love ain't somethin' lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore”
The reader can easily understand the artistic message that is that life is immediately connected with searching for love but each time it is found the expectations are more likely not to be met.
The novel “Their eyes were watching God” takes an important place in the African American literature as it reveals the life journey of ordinary woman with the emphasis of her dreams and hopes. There is a symbol of a ship on the horizon as it represents the arrival of people to America with all their hopes and wishes for future life.