Updated: Feb 26
The timeless tale of a woman finding her voice...
The first time I read Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, it was my first summer session in undergrad at the end of my freshman year. I knew I wanted to be a literature major, but I wasn't sure if my fervor for reading would stick through college, or if it was just a childish whim I used to indulge in on a regular basis.
Summer sessions weren't easy. Most of my friends were laying out on the beach or traveling to some place I could only dream of going, meanwhile I was stuck in a library all day as I crammed 18 credit hours into six weeks. During the last week of my summer session, I was assigned Hurston's classic in one of three English classes I was taking. The sheer enjoyment and reinvigoration that I experienced from reading this book not only made that intense summer worth it, but it also confirmed that reading wasn't just a hobby, it was a passion.
What sets Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God apart from most other novels is not only her ability to use language and repetitive settings as a method to propel the reader’s emotions, but also her ability to clearly and deliberately define each character.
After each character is introduced throughout the novel, we are given inquiries as to who they are, what they’ve been through, and who they long for. The two characters who are most thoroughly depicted are the two first characters introduced to readers in the novel; Nanny Crawford and her granddaughter, Janie Crawford. Nanny is extremely dedicated to Janie, and although at first it seems like the two characters are very different, readers come to learn that they both share an innate desire to be valued.
While Nanny was not given the opportunity because she was a slave, she has high hopes that Janie will have the chance to reach her “horizon”; horizon being a strong motif throughout the course of the story. Nanny and Janie both have a voice, but they both long to have a life where they are allowed to speak their minds and be respected for what they have to say. This desire is carried throughout the entire novel, and whether or not one of them will attain their horizon is one of the most compelling themes in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
As the story progresses, we learn that Nanny's dying wish is for her beloved Janie to strive for a better living. While Nanny is dying, she begins to tell Janie a long story about how Janie’s mother ended up losing her voice because she was raped and never recovered from the trauma. Nanny discusses how she herself didn’t have a whole lot of opportunity to speak because she was a slave, but she “raked and scraped and bought dis lil piece uh land so you wouldn’t have to stay in de white folks’ yard and tuck yo’ head befo’ other chillum at school” (19). Nanny wants Janie to marry Logan Killicks, the most well off black man in their town. Janie is afraid to because she does not love him, and that’s when Nanny begins to tell her that love is not that important. After she tells Janie her story, she says that she sacrificed her life in hopes that Janie could live better. Part of the road to a better life is taking opportunities when they’re reachable, and marrying Logan Killicks guarantees a more comfortable life for Janie. We begin to discover that in a vicarious manner, Nanny hoped that she had paved the way for her granddaughter’s voice.
After Nanny dies, Janie seems to accept this idea merely because they were her grandmother’s last wishes. We know this because one of Nanny’s last sentences is, “And Ah can’t die easy thinkin’ maybe de menfolks white or black is makin’ a spit cup outa you” (20). So, Janie convinces herself that married couples grow to love each other, and she goes on to marry Logan. What's interesting about this part of the story is it forces you to ponder the circumstances of each character and how it shaped them. Nanny doesn't believe love is important because she lived a life where she had little to no choice over what happened to her. This lack of choice is the direct cause of her poverty-stricken life. She sees Janie's ability to have a choice as the one thing that came save her from the same fate, and she sees Logan Killicks as the one person who can care for her. What readers experience; however, is that guilting Janie into marrying someone whom she did not love, nor wanted to marry, is stripping Janie of her voice, and continuing the cycle she so desperately wanted to circumvent.
Not only was Logan unromantic, but he was also neglectful, never paying much attention to Janie, and never making her feel wanted or cherished. She felt oppressed with him. She didn’t believe that she was reaching the horizon that she so longed for. This longing is introduced in the first few lines of the novel and is followed up with the belief that “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” (1). Janie has this belief that the distant horizon has “every man’s wish on board” (1). With this idea being Janie’s driving force, she begins to flirt with a man by the name of Joe Starks. She runs off with him and they get married, but he turns out to be more of a chauvinist than Logan could’ve ever dreamed to be. Joe would get upset when Janie tried to state her opinion. He’d say “She’s uh woman and her place is in de home” (43). He’d get offended when people came to him and said “Yo’ wife is uh born orator, Starks. Us never knowed dat befo’. She put jus’ de right words tuh our thoughts” (58). The times that Janie went too far or humiliated Joe, he’d hit her. For this reason, she begins to hide her voice. She adapts to his idea of life and represses her own thoughts. Her desire to connect with that horizon slowly dwindles away. Her hope to “find them and they find her” (89) seems all but dead, but then Joe dies of old age, and in walks Tea Cake, Janie's soulmate.
Tea Cake is, in fact, perfect for Janie. He is her ideal mate not only because he can give her a better life financially, as Nanny wanted, but more importantly, he gives her the space to spread her wings and use her voice. The first day they met, he asked her if she wanted to play checkers. In the past, Joe would’ve never wanted her to play checkers because he believed women didn’t have the intelligence or the right to play. Janie was taken back that “Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play” (96). She ended up beating him and he said “Yuh can’t beat uh woman” (96).
The times that Janie spent with Tea Cake made her feel “like a child breaking the rules. That’s what made Janie like it” (102). Tea Cake was allowing Janie to be who she wanted, and her horizon suddenly seemed attainable once again. His romanticism also made her feel like she was worth something. He’d tell her “Nobody else on earth kin hold uh candle tuh you, baby. You got de keys to de kingdom” (109). He’d tell her this repeatedly, and it eventually she started to believe it. Tea Cake gave her confidence.
One of my favorite parts of the entire story is when we learn that Janie is a better shooter than Tea Cake, but rather than being humiliated by it, he loves her more for it, beaming with pride over her prowess. Tea Cake loves to show Janie off, expressing elation over her intelligence and talent. Readers come to learn that the traits which angered her other suitors are the very traits that made him fall in love with her.
Towards the end of the novel, readers see Janie begin to recognize that she is finally getting what she always wanted in life. Janie says, “Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine” (114), and in this moment she confirms that while Nanny's wishes for her were noble, her idea of how to attain them were not pertinent to her circumstances.
While there are many unexpected twists and turns towards the end, we are left satisfied seeing that Janie is finally at peace. Not only did she find love, but in Tea Cake’s love she found her voice. For a large portion of the novel, Janie blamed her Nanny for the misfortunes in her life. Janie had no love in her first two marriages and she believed that Nanny’s dying message was the root cause. In the end though, Janie arrives at the very same place that Nanny wanted for both Janie and herself. Janie’s desire to be valued and respected was achieved; “she pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net” (193); and she called upon her Nanny Crawford to bear witness, as “She called in her soul to come and see” (193).
The final line in this story is one of the best closing lines in American literature, in my humble opinion. Hurston writes passionately and evokes an emotion that is raw and carries throughout the book's entirety. Oddly enough, if you remove the circumstance and time period of the novel, its message is one that we hear so often, even today. The desire for women to find purpose, to share their opinions, to tell their truths, that is a wish in the horizon of many. What Hurston shows us is that each woman's path to their success is different, and there isn't necessarily a right or wrong way, so long as one finds the happiness they are searching for.
Tidbit: There is a plethora of cover art for Hurston's classic. I love this last picture because it so clearly depicts the brilliant, final line of the novel.