The novel's action begins and ends with 2 judgment scenes: How correct are both groups of people in judging Janie?Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God

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karaejacobi eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The novel opens with a more informal scene of judgment while the novel ends with a very literal trial scene. 

The opening scene describes Janie walking back into Eatonville after having spent some time in "the muck," or the Everglades, with her husband Tea Cake. Before leaving town with Tea Cake, Janie had been married to the mayor, Joe Stark, and he had passed away. Joe mistreated her and put her on a pedestal where she was not to interact with others in the community. Therefore, Janie was isolated and her position bred resentment from the townsfolk. Janie's positive relationships are with Tea Cake and her best friend Pheoby Watson, whom she is on her way to visit when the book begins.

The first remarks of the townspeople indicate their resentment and jealousy. The narrator even says that "seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up for other times" (2). Because she was the mayor's wife, she was in a position of power, and the townspeople thought she was condescending. They look her over and immediately start judging her appearance. She is in overalls because of the work in the Everglades, and her hair is "down her back lak some young gal" (2). Before she met Tea Cake, she had to dress formally as wife of the mayor, and Joe also required her to wear her hair up in a scarf to hide it from other men. The gossip starts as the townsfolk wonder what happened to her money and to her young husband. Their judgment of Janie shows that they really do not know her as a person. The qualities for which they begrudge her were not true to her but were demands of her husband Joe. Luckily, Janie finds a sympathetic ear in her old friend Pheoby.

Janie proceeds to tell the story of her life and her three marriages to her friend and to the reader. Eventually, after she and Tea Cake go to the Everglades, tragedy strikes. A hurricane hits and Tea Cake is bit by a rabid dog while trying to save Janie. He goes insane and tries to kill Janie so she shoots and kills him in self defense. She is then put on trial for his murder. The judge is correct to find Janie not guilty as she was simply defending herself and the reader knows that what she did was an act of love and mercy. We understand how difficult it was for her to kill Tea Cake. Some people believe she should be guilty and disagree with the verdict, and the reaction is divided on racial lines: " . . . the white women cried and stood around her like a protecting wall and the Negroes, with heads hung down, shuffled out and away" (179). The black citizens feel she was not convicted because she killed a black man and not a white man; they feel black men are not valued in the community. Regardless of the validity of that opinion, the narrative suggests that Janie is not guilty of murder and that she acted in the right.

Ultimately, the reader is more sympathetic to Janie than some of the characters in the novel because we hear her story from her voice. We understand how she feels and why she takes the actions she takes. Therefore, she is often misjudged by characters who do not know her so well. 

mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Zora Neale Hurston's novel of self-discovery, Their Eyes Were Watching God, finds Janie Crawford returning to the town of Eatonville after having been acquitted of the charge of having killed her husband, Tea-Cake, who had shot at her in a crazed rage as a result of his having been bitten by a rabid dog. Still wearing the work overalls that she kept on even for Tea Cake's funeral, Janie walks the streets of her town without speaking to anyone and slams the gate to the house after her.

Her appearance in this town after some years awakens

...the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish.  They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs.  It was mass cruelty.  A mood come alive. Words walking without master; walking altogether like harmony in a song.

Only Janie's friend Pheoby defends her, accusing the others, 

"You mean, you mad 'cause she didn't stop and tell us all her business."

Clearly, as the narrator herself observes, "An envious heart makes a treacherous ear."  Janie's beauty and her still youthful appearance make her a target of the criticism of the women who have long envied her as the wife of mayor Starks. In addition, they notice that their men look at Janie with lust. The women's judgment of Janie is based upon her appearance and her former position in the town, which they in truth have envied.  Of course, being ignored by Janie as she walks the street furthers their spite.

In the other judgment regarding the trial of Janie after Tea Cake's death, there is also this envy of Janie's womanhood and beauty.  This time it is the men who express this envy:

"Yeah, de nigger women kin kill up all de mens dey wants tuh, but you bet' not kill one uh dem.  De white folks will hang yuh if yuh do."

"Well, you know whut dey say 'uh white man and uh nigger woman is de freest thing on earth.' Dey do as dey please."

The men feel resentment towards Janie because in their reasoning if a man had killed Tea Cake, he would have been found guilty by the all-white jury; self-defence would not have been a consideration in such a trial.  While there is some validity to this judgment by the men as it would, indeed, have been difficult in the historical context of the novel for a man to get a fair trial, the judgment for Janie was fair.  She simply defended herself against the crazed Tea Cake who fired three times with the empty chambers, and then the fourth time with a live bullet.  Because he and Janie shot simultaneously, Tea Cake had every intention of killing her.

The judgment of the men in the Everglades is unfair, but based upon actual experiences; however, the judgment of the townspeople as Janie traverses the street is completely unfounded.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God

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