Domination and hierarchy based on gender, class and/or race arises repeatedly throughout Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. It may occur through the actions and beliefs of one person over another, or through those of an entire group over another group of people. Select three specific passages or scenes in the novel that detail the uses and abuses of such power. Analyze each in depth, and describe what their purpose might be within the novel as a whole.
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Through Nanny’s speech to Janie at the beginning of the novel, the reader learns Janie inherits a history of domination. During her early life, she was raped by her slavemaster, and his wife threatened to destroy her and her child, Leafy. Later, after Nanny struggled to put Leafy through school, Leafy was raped by her white schoolmaster. Nanny’s awareness of this horrific reality, and her determination that Janie avoid similar pain, forces her to exert her control over Janie’s early love life.
Later in the novel, Tea Cake beats Janie in order to demonstrate his possession of her in front of the other men. Janie falls in love with Tea Cake precisely because he treats her as his equal--unlike Jody, who infantilizes her while putting her on pedestal--and this beating stands in sharp contrast to their early relationship (working in the field together and celebrating their good fortune.) Tea Cake beats Janie out of frustration and fear, given that Ms. Turner, their neighbor, has suggested that Janie might prefer a lighter-skinned man to him. However, the beating is also very public--the other men in the Everglades comment on Tea Cake’s luck, since Janie’s skin shows the bruises, and the women are jealous that Tea Cake dotes on Janie after he beats her.
You could also look at one of the novel’s last scenes, in which white men force Tea Cake to bury the bodies of the black hurricane victims in a mass grave, while the white victims are given preferential treatment. This scene, along with Janie’s early realization of her skin color, shows the threat of persecution and racial violence- an overwhelming presence in post-slavery Florida, which, in the safe haven of Eatonville, was tempered by the community’s black leadership.
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