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Published: Thursday 31st of October 2013
Zora Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God follows a narration by Janie Crawford, a young woman who learns that life isn’t all that it seems to be. The novel is an example of the Bildungsroman genre, one that deals with a person’s formative years and spiritual education throughout their life. Janie goes on a journey of self-discovery to work out that people need to learn about life for themselves. This piece of fiction was voted as one of the 100 best English language novels by Time magazine in 2005 and still continues to be a seminal piece of African American literature to this very day.
Hurston presents several themes in her novel, for instance, love, speech and silence, gender roles and marriage. Hurson brings out the best of her themes through her character representations and does great justice to characters, like Joe Starks, who appears as the prototypical role for an American female. In the novel, Janie really desires a life full of greater purpose in this world and isn’t too concerned about how fellow white people or African Americans felt about her. The personal becomes political in Their Eyes Were Watching God and the story is very much about women’s self-empowerment, not about race issues as it is commonly misconceived to be.
Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God detail women and men with their own separate gender-based roles in society. Women are viewed very much as the opposite sex, meaning that they are portrayed based on their relationships with men, therefore marriage is an essential part of this story. Marriage serves as the one true social rank indicator – if one is married to the right man, then the couple advances up the social ladder. Hurston wants to bring home a message that women at the time were considered really important if they could marry a powerful and rich man. The novel portrays women as very much subservient sexual objects who are stuck with a lifetime of domestic chores, almost confined to the house where they’ve lived and the surrounding area. In complete contrast, men can do whatever they want and are freer, so they are often misogynistic. Men silence women and treat them without the dignity and respect that they deserve. When women exhibit any male attributes such as ambition, authority or intelligence, men look down upon them unfavorably and consider them to be unattractive, essentially confining women to the lives they have. Not only this, but the males try and engage in proving their masculinity by treating their wives in a controlling manner, bragging about this to their friends. The ones that can be the most dominant are the most favored by their male friends and the male part of society.
At the beginning of the book, Their Eyes Were Watching God the author introduces Janie as a young woman that graces her hometown of Eatonville with a joyous personality and inquisitive mind. Hurston wants the reader to know that Janie’s quest and her dreams are going to set the reader up for an exciting story ahead. As an African American young lady, Janie is on a quest for true love and wants to go out to find it wherever she can, regardless, of her status in society. Her love also extends to her love for civil liberty and freedom as is drawn out throughout the novel. Obviously, as an African American woman, Janie isn’t going to be able to have the same rights, freedoms, and liberties as other Americans have, yet she doesn’t let this lack of status hold her back in any way.
Their Eyes Were Watching God allows Hurston to reveal gender complications and issues as well as gender roles for African Americans in the 1930s. If you look at Chapter six, you can see the prime example of how females are being taken advantage of and forced into a submissive way of life. The character of Joe Stark’s tries to push Janie aside and doesn’t let her speak when she wants to, abuses her in their home and treats her in an undignified manner like an object rather than a person. Hurston introduces this dynamic early in order to show the reader that Janie understands she does not want this kind of treatment. Janie wants to grow and develop, so she needs to become free from reigns of misogyny and abuse, which she needs to escape this at all costs.
Hurston shows that Janie should be able to do whatever she wants in terms of having the same basic liberties and rights as others. All throughout the novel we see a strong desire for this, for instance, when Janie becomes frustrated by a white woman’s right to be able to perch up on her stool and relax, doing nothing. Janie isn’t allowed to do this because of her gender role and status in society. She becomes stressed about the inability to be able to relax at home and expresses a strong desire to abandon these cultural presets in order to go on about her own path, doing whatever she wants to do that will satisfy her personally. Janie does not find satisfaction with old-fashioned ideas about what women ought to enjoy according to the culture – she wants to have her own freedom to explore and do what she sees fit.
Unfortunately for Janie, Joe does not understand Janie’s desires and can’t grasp the idea that she desires her own personal freedom to do whatever she wants and to whilst also immersing herself in her own African American culture. Janie spends a lot of time with another character Tea Cake who seems to impress her in the way that Tea Cake partakes in simple pleasures that Janie has always been very fond of, for instance, storytelling, singing, fishing, and dancing. Throughout the novel, we, as the audience, are reminded of the stark reality that Janie and other African Americans at the time were bound to. This is, perhaps, most pronounced in scenes describing spouses being beaten by their male dominant counterparts if they even happen to do something as little as give them an unsatisfactory meal. Hurston does not spare the audience of any detail about the physical abuse that African American women had to endure during the time that the novel was set in. The novel reminds the audience of our need for women’s rights in today’s society.
Another key theme in the literature is the one of female representation as intellectually inferior to males. Hurston makes this patently clear throughout the novel, for instance, men are constantly believing that women need guidance in every aspect of their lives, including with their basic day to day needs. Men are under the impression that women are inferior and ignorant just because of their gender, so they need to tell women what to do all the time, reminding them of things they already know. All of these attitudes help to build the superiority complex of males as illustrated in this novel. One of the most harrowing examples of blatant misogyny and ignorance is when Joe likens Janie’s mind to that of a chicken or cow, believing that she needn’t share any knowledge with him or answer back in refutation to claims because chickens or cows wouldn’t do so either. As the novel draws upon Hurston’s own childhood, it’s good that the differences in attitudes between what men believed that time and what they do now is vastly different, yet people did think like this or along these lines. One can only imagine the pain and suffering that women had to go through during this period of American history, especially, the African American population.
Janie manages to free herself from the misogyny and oppression, escaping her role as the subservient woman which would be expected of her to fulfill otherwise. She begins to voice her opinion and reject the idea of speaking only when spoken to and by chapter six she proves a case to Joe that women’s views are extremely important and that men ought to take them into consideration at all times. Not only should Joe listen to what women should say but society should listen to what all women would like to say according to Janie. She makes the case for equality even stronger by bringing in the theme of spirituality, relating equality to the fact that God takes both genders into equal consideration when he speaks to people and carries out judgmental acts. None of God’s decisions favor either men or women, rather, men and women are equal in God’s eyes. This comparison would have been very stark in the reality of the time.
It is after chapter six that we begin to see the real Janie as a rebellious and ambitious character, standing up to the male leader of the town in a battle for equality and liberation. The change from passive to aggressive is a key theme in Hurston’s novel, shown by Janie’s new desire to make a difference, and her refusal to let men silence her in all cases. Janie becomes adamant that women’s rights and equality must now take the center stage, regardless of cultural and social expectations. Surprisingly, her new found attitude is even objected to by her own grandmother, so you can see just how set in stone and stagnant everything is because of cultural norms. Needless to say, Janie is disgusted by her grandmother’s attitude and the way that culture shapes the minds of all people in society. This novel reminds the audience of how ideas that are worth having about the world must transcend culture after all. It is no use to bow down to culture for culture’s sake.
Hurston is making the audience understand the role of pragmatism and self-determination in society. Even though Janie is uneducated, she wishes to become an educated person and she is determined not to let things get in the way of her ambition. Even though she is married and essentially bound religiously to her husband, she is determined to change and free herself from the metaphorical shackles and so hurries out of her front gate to turn south.
This novel provides the perfect depiction of a female heroine that evolves through her own adventurous attitude, determination, and the quest for self-discovery. Hurston intended this not only to be a novel about the roles of gender in society but also as an inspiration to people who want to break free and change the world in some way for the better. Hurston was certainly different in her attitude at the time but wanted to make a difference, even though, surprisingly, she regretted writing all of her books. Nevertheless, Janie’s character speaks to us more than anyone else could and should serve as a reminder of the role of gender in society, i.e. as a pushback to development and liberty.
Janie’s character is symbolic of many female struggling today in the way that Hurston’s perspective was important to her masterpiece, this is why the novel is so popular in today’s society. Around the world, more is needed to be done to empower women in all sectors of society and to remove oppression, just like Janie would have wanted things to be. It is not up to women to sit around and take the abuse of the patriarchy – this novel serves as a catalyst for activism and the desire to spread liberty throughout the world. It is not surprising that Hurston’s novel has been so well received amongst many feminists because it encapsulates the struggle that’s a lot of feminists can relate to first-hand. Obviously, things have come a long way since the tumultuous times of the post-war period in the United States, yet a lot of ideas in this novel still resonate in today’s Society, so it is still important to take on board what Hurston has to say via this novel.