Lee is a Masters in Management graduate who has been working as a freelance writer and researcher since 2009.
Their Eyes Were Watching God (Hurston) is a novel written by Zora Hurston that centers on the character Jane "Janie" Starks. Janie Starks was a middle-aged black woman full of adventure and spirit. She has a much-defined view on what she wants for her life and she has been patient enough to achieve those goals despite the prevailing social norms. This reflection will outline the various social stigma and social restrictions that Janie Starks faced while trying to achieve the life that she dreamed of living and how she came full circle after her adventure. I will also analyze the various types of symbolism presented in the novel.
The story began with Janie Starks returning to Eatonville. With much gossip about her return, a previous neighbor, Pheoby, came to meet her and told her about the gossips. Janie only laughed and told her she didn’t care about what other people think but narrated her whole story to Phoeby nonetheless. She recounts that it was her grandmother, a former slave who raised her and that she never knew her parents. Janie's grandmother told her that she has high hopes for her that she did not want to see her be treated like a mule. Thus, when her grandmother sees her kissing a boy, she immediately decides Janie will marry Logan, a rich farmer who is much older than Janie. Logan was unromantic and very practical. She desperately tried to learn to love her husband, but that never happened. Logan thinks that Janie was a spoiled woman who should help him run the farm rather than be idle. One day, Janie had an encounter with a traveling suave man, Joe “Jody” Starks. He was ambitious and a smooth talker and Janie were easily mesmerized by his charm and wit. After many secret meetings and flirtation, Janie decided to elope with Jody and, after reaching the next town, married him. They came across a small town of black folks, Eatonville, where Jody wanted to make it big. With his street smarts and drive to be a politician, Jody soon became the mayor of the town and everyone looked up to him with respect. Janie was the envy of the other black women. They successfully owned businesses like the general merchandise store where most men would gather; the town's post office as well as lands. But Jody’s ambitions had devastating effects on their marriage. When Janie thought that they could finally live a life of adventure, after accomplishing so much, Jody realized that he was just getting started and wanted more. Each passing day, Janie became more and more discontent and their marriage soon started to crumble. After the breakdown of their marriage and the passing of Jody, Janie met Tea Cake; a much younger man, about 12 years younger than her. Tea Cake’s sense of adventure and carefree ways persuade Janie and reignite her passion for adventure. Despite the town gossiping about her, she married Tea Cake and with him, she was able to live a life that she wanted—life wherein she could feel loved and be loved, a sense of adventure and contentment, and living a carefree life. She moved to the Everglades with Tea Cake. During a hurricane, while trying to save Janie from a dog, Tea Cake was bitten and rabies soon consumed him and his brain. Janie had to shoot him to defend herself. She was tried for murder but soon acquitted. After that, she returned home to Eatonville where the story finally turned full circle.
Black Folks in a White Society
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a fictional story that tells a very realistic and non-fictitious perspective on the lives of the black folks, particularly of women. It was set during the time where black people are starting to be integrated into society after living a life of slavery. The story was set during the time when slaves have just been emancipated and are starting to create a life for themselves. But despite being emancipated, there is still a strong sense of discrimination and segregation against the blacks (Hudak 5-7). Black people would migrate and form bonds with old networks of friends and would form their own community. Some are sojourners and would only stay for the working season and would migrate back during the off-season (Phillips 128-129; Coulter 18-19). It was this social reality that inspired Hurston with the idea of Eatonville, a community of all-black folks and Everglades where black migrants would travel during the planting season for work. It was also a time where black men started to think like white men—they wanted to fend for themselves, live the lifestyle of affluence, and be an integral part of society. Jody was such a man. He saw the time to rise to power. Like other visionary black men during those times, Jody wanted to create a name for himself and influence others through entrepreneurship. Small black towns were starting to sprout and most black men with the mind for business started opening up small merchandise shops (Lee 1-2).
In a white community where blacks were segregated and treated as second-class citizens because of the color of their skin, being born a black female was a double whammy—not only are black women discriminated against by their color, but they are also discriminated against because of their gender. For Janie, this was shown throughout the story through her three marriages. Her marriages to both Logan and Jody failed because both the men treated her as if she was not their equal. Each assumed her place was in the house and her responsibility was to serve the husband. It also meant that she could not survive on her own. Her grandmother feared for her future and the only opportunity she saw for Janie to have a good life was to marry her to a well-off farmer
Janie also fell prey to the social stigma attached to an older woman marrying a younger man. Because of an old widowed neighbor who was ripped off by a younger man, Janie did not trust Tea Cake at first, even after they got married. Society frowned on this kind of love affair, believing that younger men were only after the older women’s money since most of these women were widows who were desperate to feel loved again.
Janie even felt that way after she found out that Tea Cake stole her money, and that she'd been foolish to believe that Tea Cake would marry her because he loved her. But she was proven wrong when Tea Cake returned and admitted that he had fallen into temptation after seeing that much money. Tea Cake ended up treating his railroad money for roasted chicken and macaroni and did not invite Janie because he felt that she would not feel comfortable with his friends. Janie forgave Tea Cake and told him that she wanted to enjoy whatever it is he likes doing and even trusted him enough to tell him that she has money saved up in the bank.
I believed that it was a test for Tea Cake because he vowed that Janie did not need to touch her savings because he will provide for her. Here, Hurston emphasized that age did not matter when it comes to love, that a younger man could fall in love with a much older woman.
The story also contained various kinds of symbolism that have made it even more effective in recounting the tale of a black woman living in a white society. Eatonville was symbolic of the aspiration of the black folks to live like the white people. They wanted to create a community that would mimic the social stratification of white people. Jody as the town mayor represents social status, power, and the aristocracy. This he showed through his vision of creating a community out of a small lot of black families. His drive to be respected and influential had given him the business acumen to create a name for himself. True to becoming an ‘aristocrat’, he forbid Janie from interacting with the ‘commoners’ and did not let her join in the merrymaking of the men outside their stores. Jody also ensured that he showered his wife with expensive gifts like beautiful dresses that white women would often wear to complete their pretense of aristocracy. These shows of power commanded influence and intimidation among other black folks living in their community.
The store was also symbolic. It symbolized the influence and power of Jody. The domineering presence of Jody in the life of Janie was symbolic of the store. Jody was the manager and Janie was the helper. Every time Janie does something wrong, she was made more aware of her incompetence and lack of knowledge, particularly during the time wherein a customer was buying a cigar and Janie cut the cigar the wrong way and Jody scolded her for not doing it right.
Another symbolism was the head rag that Jody forced Janie to wear. Janie's beautiful hair symbolizes her sense of adventure and passion for life. The head rag symbolizes the power of Jody over Janie and how Jody had effectively suppressed all this passion and flair for life by making her feel ugly and incompetent. Jody was afraid to lose Janie to other men so he forced her to hide her long beautiful hair under a head rag so that other men would not notice her as much. This was an effort to hide her beauty which makes Jody jealous. In a more symbolic tone, the head rag was a way of putting women in their place. That by belittling the women, the head rag symbolized the way women are tied up, restricted and controlled by society to hide the power of their true potential, of their capabilities. The head rag limits their ability by keeping them bound to their limitations by not providing the opportunity for self-improvement.
When Janie finally removed her head rag, it symbolized the innate realization of women to what she could be capable of. It allowed Janie to feel beautiful, to be free and independent after being tied up to the head rag that is her husband. It made Janie realized the various potentials and the power she now holds. It made her think again and unbound her to the social construct that Jody dictated on what she can and cannot do. Historically speaking, it could mean the realization of women’s right.
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Lastly, the checkers symbolize gender equality. Most men of Eatonville would gather on the porch of Jody’s general merchandise store to pass the time playing checkers. It was the pastime of men and though women were allowed to watch, nobody would play with them because the men felt that the women were not competent enough and it was not their place to play. When Tea Cake invited Janie, she felt very flattered because here was a man who saw herself capable of playing against men. In the same way, women are perceived during that time to have a lesser acumen in terms of intellect and technical knowledge. With Tea Cake inviting Janie to play, it meant that he was acknowledging the ability of Janie to compete in a male-dominated society.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a very good novel that uses fiction to tell a historical reality. It gives the viewer the story of how a young and energetic black woman refused to be defined by the prevailing social norms and social structure of her time. She was passionate about life and dreams about adventure. She did not find joy or comfort in achieving social status as what would most black women during her time would aspire. Instead, she dreamt of things that truly makes her feel more alive, to live a full life; of having to experience a sense of adventure, of being loved, and being content as opposed to pretense and abiding by the social dictum. She did not care what other people think of her, she wanted to live the life of her own. And to do so, she has to be patient enough to fully recognize her capacities and inner strength. It is only upon this realization did she finally found the joy and the love she was seeking for the longest time and the thing that she most desired--to love and be loved in return.
Coulter, Charles E. "Take up the Black Man's Burden": Kansas City's African American Communities 1865-1939. Missouri: University of Missouri Press, 2006.
Hudak, Heather C., ed. African American History Civil Rights Movement. New York: Weigl Publishers Inc., 2009.
Hurston, Zora. Their Eyes were Watching God. New York: Harper Collins Publishers Inc., 2000.
Lee, Maureen. Black Bangor: African Americans in a Maine Community, 1880-1950. New Hampshire: University Press of New England, 2005.
Phillips, Kimberley Louise. Alabama North: Afrian-American Migrants, Communit, and Working-class. Illinois: Board of Trustees University of Illinois, 1999.
Sukhveer kaur on August 24, 2018:
It will help me to study Zoora
lee custodio (author) on July 07, 2011:
Thanks Matt. but i must ask, why such strong negative emotion against the book?
Matt in Jax from Jacksonville, FL on July 07, 2011:
Good analysis, but I must admit that I despised this book.
lee custodio (author) on July 07, 2011:
hi madeline! yes, there are many ways to interpret and relate to her character. my academic reflection is just one of the many ways we could approach the book. Thank you for your wonderful insight.
Madeline Madison from Anywhere and Everywhere. Home-base in CT on July 06, 2011:
One of my favorite books. Although I agree with your analysis, I think it is a story that goes deeper. In ways, Janie represents women everywhere, not just black women living in a white world. Janie and I couldn't be from more different backgrounds, yet I understood her immensely. She is a timeless character that speaks to the big and the small.