In Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, what is the role of Janie's hair motif? What is Janie's role in the world as Hurston sees it in her narrative?

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Tamara K. H. | Middle School Teacher | (Level 3) Educator Emeritus

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In Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, the protagonist Janie Crawford is described as having a super curvy figure and long, heavy waist-length hair that hangs down in either one "great rope," or braid, or multiple "long braids" (Ch. 1). The description of her hair is actually very fascinating because it can be difficult to make an African American's hair naturally appear that long. Due to the ultra curliness of hair, hair appears shorter than it actually is. What's also noteworthy is that, as a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, along with many African-American writers of the time, Hurston was very interested in breaking racial stereotypes. More importantly, a central theme in the novel concerns the relationship between all races and God--all races fall under the power of God, not just whites. Since Hurston wants to break racial stereotypes to unite all races under God, it can be said she used Janie's physical appearance, including her hair, to both break a stereotype of African-American appearances and to unite both white and black appearances under one character and, therefore, under one God.

Early in the novel, Janie is described as having a very full, "firm buttocks" and very full bust--the type of figure men take notice of. It's also the type of curvy figure that's not uncommon among African-American women and less common among white women. Hurston then couples Janie's figure with the description of Janie's "great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume" (Ch. 1). Since it is a bit unusual for African-American women to have waist-length hair, a more common trait in white women, Hurston is uniquely coupling a common physique for African-American women with a common physique for white women. The description not only breaks stereotypes of African-American women, it also unites descriptions of the two races into one character, which serves to develop the theme that all races are united under the same God.

One moment in which the theme concerning the relationship between all mankind and God is best illustrated is when Janie and Tea Cake are hit by the severe hurricane. The hurricane is so destructive that the wind is described as blowing in "triple fury"; the flooding is so severe "stray fish [were] swimming in the yard" (Ch. 18). The narrator further describes that "the wind and water had given life to lots of things that folks think of as dead and given death to so much that had been living things" (Ch. 18). As John K. Roth, editor of Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction, points out, the God Janie sees on the night of the hurricane and in the book in general is the terrifying and powerful God of the Old Testament (eNotes, "There Eyes Were Watching God: Christian Themes"). Hence, as Janie and Tea Cake stare out into this dark, devastating, destructive storm, they feel like they are watching the wrath of God, waiting to see what He'll do next, as we see in the following lines:

They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God (Ch. 18).

More importantly, no one is exempt from the power of the God they are observing, neither whites nor blacks. Hurston is showing us that all races are unified under the power of God.

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