What does Janie learn from her three marriages in "Their Eyes Were Watching God"?

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Through her three marriages, Janie learns that equality in marriage is not possible, especially for a woman dually limited by race and gender. However, when she is in her youth, Janie fails to understand this concept. It is only through three marriages with Logan, Joe, and Tea Cake , that...

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Through her three marriages, Janie learns that equality in marriage is not possible, especially for a woman dually limited by race and gender. However, when she is in her youth, Janie fails to understand this concept. It is only through three marriages with Logan, Joe, and Tea Cake, that Janie comes to understand her own power as a woman.

As a young girl, Janie first senses the power of equality under the ideal image of a pear tree, where nature gives itself to Janie and she offers herself in return. She observes equality when the pear tree provides the bees with nectar and, in return, the bees pollinate the tree’s blossoms: “She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her…So this was marriage!" Through the “alto chant” of the bees, and the “panting breath” of the breeze, the pear tree’s “inaudible voice” speaks of equality and freedom beyond social burden. Janie listens to the pear tree and comes to understand that through voice, nature achieves equality. Janie longs for this equality as she watches the flies “tumbling and singing, marrying and giving in marriage." She unconsciously identifies voice with equality and then furthers this concept by linking the ideas of equality and marriage together. Thus, Janie unknowingly formulates her concept of spousal roles; marriage should be an equal exchange between a man and a woman. Unfortunately, Janie fails to recognize that her race and gender place her in an inferior position where equality is restricted.

Janie soon realizes that the role of wife exists as a societal convention that pushes the woman’s status below that of her husband. Pet names place the woman in a subservient role and emphasize the authority of the husband. For example, Janie continually calls her first husband, Logan, by the name “Mist’ Killicks,” which reflects the word “master,” and reaffirms his dominant role within their relationship. Aware that he holds a higher social status than Janie, Logan places her in the mule role. He literally attempts to make Janie work with a mule and a plow to help with his “bought and paid for sixty acres." Like a mule, Janie’s submission to the request of physical labor is required.

Symbolically, Logan treats Janie as his mule with naming conventions such as “LilBit." This name likens Janie to a child, but also ties her identity with the mule; a bit is a part of a bridle, used to reign in an animal, such as a mule. Logan uses the name “LilBit” to assert dominance over Janie and reign over her, rather than letting them be equals. Janie recognizes the inequality of this marriage, which fails to comply with the voice she hears under the pear tree. Instead, Logan dominates the power of naming and subjugates Janie to inferior roles.

Janie experiences a “feeling of sudden newness and change” as she abandons her marriage with Logan: “The morning air was like a new dress. That made her feel the apron tied around her waist. She untied it and flung it on a low bush beside the road and walked on." Janie leaves Logan in search of the equality she experiences under the pear tree. However, she soon learns that her new marriage with Joe will similarly fall short of her "pear tree" ideal.

Throughout most of their marriage, Janie refers to Joe using the loving nickname Jody, holding onto the belief that he may still be the “bee for her bloom." As Joe’s dominance continues, though, Janie learns to separate her ideal husband from Joe Starks. The almost interchangeable names of Joe and Jody play different roles in the life of Mrs. Mayor Starks. The name Joe describes a harsh, unmovable man who refuses to allow anyone to impact him. Janie uses the name Jody when she refers to the loving, caring many she met and ran away with.

Joe’s power increases in the town of Eatonville, and Jody’s image becomes blurred until finally “Jody, no Joe” becomes “ten immensities away." Jody ceases to exist for Janie and her oppressed role once again emerges. She is left no more than a “rut in the road." Janie realizes that she has “plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels." This image confirms the hierarchal structure with Janie lying at the bottom submissively enduring the beatings of the wheels, or those at the top of the hierarchy.

One way Janie becomes a “rut in the road” is through Joe’s store, where she is expected to uphold Mayor Starks’s image of femininity. On the opening day of the store, Joe instructs Janie to dress up and act accordingly because “she must look on herself as the bell-cow, the other women were the gang." As in the case of the mule, Janie is forced into an animalistic identity and robbed of her own. Through the act of naming, Joe separates himself from Janie as he assumes a higher social position and leaves her as the “bell-cow” at the bottom of the hierarchy. Interestingly, although Janie assumes a rut-like place below Joe, she adopts a higher social position than the rest of the townspeople: “The wife of the Mayor was not just another woman as she had supposed. She slept with authority and so she was part of it in the town mind. She couldn’t get but so close to most of them in spirit." Joe’s authority marries Janie to his identity and separates her status from the townspeople.

After Joe’s death, Janie becomes a wealthy and powerful widow within the town of Eatonville and the townspeople expect her to re-marry into a higher class, thus rising to society’s standards. Janie subverts these expectations by choosing Tea Cake, a man who does not possess property or wealth but instead embraces Janie’s identity as a woman. For example, when they first meet Tea Cake invites Janie to play checkers, something Joe would never approve of.

Janie recognizes that, unlike all the other men in her life, Tea Cake does not seek to dominate her identity. She finds herself “glowing inside. Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play." Instead of attempting to saddle Janie into the mule role or degrade her through naming devices, Janie’s marriage to Tea Cake comes closest to the equality she envisions underneath the ideal pear tree: “He could be a bee to a blossom – a pear tree blossom in the spring." Whereas Janie describes Joe as not living up to her pear tree ideals, Tea Cake is directly compared to the tree, proving that he comes closest to its equality.

While her marriage with Tea Cake comes closest to Janie's ideal of equality, Tea Cake still dominates the relationship. Thus, killing Tea Cake exists as a crucial action that leads to Janie’s liberation and achievement of agency. In the midst of sickness, caused while saving Janie from the rage of a mad dog, Tea Cake’s jealousy once again arises. Unable to rationalize, Tea Cake attempts to shoot Janie with his pistol. She stands ready for defense with a rifle:

The pistol and the rifle rang out almost together. The pistol just enough after the rifle to seem its echo. Tea Cake crumpled as his bullet buried itself in the joist over Janie’s head…It was the meanest moment of eternity. A minute before she was just a scared human being fighting for its life. Now she was her sacrificing self with Tea Cake’s head in her lap…Janie held his head tightly to her breast and wept and thanked him wordlessly for giving her the chance for loving service.

Janie defends herself instead of submissively allowing Tea Cake to dominate her life. Through experience, she learns that taking action leads to agency and the empowerment of the self. Although Janie does not want to be the actor in this scene, she realizes there is no other choice. Symbolically, Tea Cake’s dominant action threatens to kill Janie’s identity, voice, and future.

Instead of allowing this domination to occur, Janie becomes the actor, taking the final step towards agency. Janie then admits her “sacrificing self” identity and wordlessly thanks Tea Cake for “giving her the chance for loving service.” The words “sacrificing” and “service” imply that Tea Cake controls the relationship and Janie submits to a servant-like role. With his death, Janie steps out of her servant role and thanks Tea Cake “wordlessly.” Janie understands the power of voice and now demonstrates that she controls its uses. Through the silent act of thanks, Janie makes the choice to silence her own voice, while allowing it to achieve an effect.

Ultimately, Janie through her three marriages, Janie learns that agency is a process that expands through the progression of life and matures through experience. Alice Walker illustrates this development in an essay on Zora Neale Hurston’s life: “It is only later, when the pain is not so direct a threat to one’s own existence, that what was learned in that moment of comical lunacy is understood. Such moments rob us of both youth and vanity. But perhaps they are also times when greater disciples are born” (Looking for Zora, Walker). Walker describes a reflection of experience, which is exactly what Janie undergoes. At the time of the experience, actions are limited and identity threatened. Later upon contemplation, those times of “comical lunacy,” or past indescribable moments, are understood.

Janie’s journey illustrates this point; later, in contemplation, Janie recognizes that racial and gender limitations stifle agency. She reflects on her status and decides to separate herself from the given mule identity and seize control of naming conventions. She follows the “inaudible voice” of the pear tree to discover her identity. Finally, Janie subverts the male-dominated power structure and comes to a comprehensive understanding of agency, which allows her to transcend the social hierarchy. Janie stops caring about how society views her status or allow words to affect her. Janie’s achievement illustrates that while it may not be possible to completely disassemble gender and racial limitations, subversion of the power structure can occur on an individual basis.

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Janie's first husband is Logan Killicks. In this marriage, Janie learns that love is the foundation of a strong marriage. Without mutual love, there can be little motivation to remain loyal in a relationship. Unfortunately for Janie, her marriage to Logan is brokered by her grandmother without any thought to this crucial ingredient for success. Instead, Nanny's first concern is for Janie's safety and financial security. 

Janie also learns another lesson from her marriage to Logan: To have a happy and enduring marriage, a couple must share similar worldviews about life. Unfortunately, Janie and Logan harbor mutually exclusive attitudes about gender roles. While Logan expects his wife to live at his beck and call, Janie prefers to leave the hard, physical labor to Logan. 

“You don’t need mah help out dere, Logan. Youse in yo’ place and Ah’m in mine.”

“You ain’t got no particular place. It’s wherever Ah need yuh. Git uh move on yuh, and dat quick.”

Janie's next marriage is to Joe "Jody" Starks. Joe is romantic, ambitious, and a shrewd businessman. Janie is immediately attracted to Jody's confidence and tenacity. Unlike Logan, Joe is resourceful and self-possessed. After moving to Eatonville, Jody purchases two hundred acres of land, builds a store and post office, and becomes the town's mayor. Janie is happy, but as time progresses, she begins to realize that her new husband has little regard for her opinions or desires.

Jody is focused on being the most powerful man in Eatonville, and he expects Janie to act the part of a proper society wife. Like Logan, Jody also harbors entrenched notions about a wife's proper role in a marriage. Janie submits to Jody's imperious nature for a time but discovers that she is miserable because of it. In this second marriage, Janie learns the importance of honesty. Until now, Janie has had no practice in articulating her concerns. Her habit has always been to submit to those in authority over her. Prior to marrying Jody, Janie had submitted to Nanny and Logan.

As her marriage with Jody progresses, however, Janie becomes less and less enthused about submitting to her husband's emotional abuse. Yet, she is at a loss. With little experience in articulating her needs, Janie has few emotional resources to bolster her courage. Eventually, however, Janie's anger spills over, and she finds herself mercilessly berating Jody about his diminished virility. Even though Janie and Jody never really reconcile their points of contention, Janie comes to understand the importance of being authentic in a marriage. She also learns that Nanny was wrong about social status and financial security being the key reasons to marry. Janie discovers that she wants more out of a relationship.

Janie's third marriage is to a man named Vergible Woods/ Tea Cake. In this relationship, Janie learns how to trust herself to a man. Because of Tea Cake, Janie learns that a fulfilling relationship based on mutual regard and passion is possible. Later, after shooting Tea Cake in self-defense, Janie muses that the memory of Tea Cake's love will always sustain her. As long as she can feel and think, the "kiss of his memory" will give her peace and abiding hope. Through her third marriage, Janie learns that marital bliss is possible when all the right ingredients for happiness are in place.

 

 

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Each of Janie's three relationships helps her to grow into the self-actualized woman whom we meet as she walks back into the town of Eatonville in Chapter 1 and endures the questions and gossip thrown at her by the porchtalkers.

From Logan, Janie learns that love and marriage cannot just be arranged and suddenly happen as her grandmother believes and that, alternately, one must work and devote a great deal of attention to make a happy marriage.

With Joe, Janie has her first opportunity to apply the lessons she has learned from Logan. Unfortunately, Joe is far more interested in his own "big voice" to ever take the time to listen to Janie's wishes and aspirations. From this, Janie learns that in order to build a happy marriage, both individuals must stand on equal footing and be willing to sacrifice for the other.

It is with Tea Cake that Janie finally realizes her "love dream." In this relationship, Janie and Tea Cake treat each other as equals, they listen to one another and treat one another as equal partners. It is through this relationship that Janie becomes self-actualized and--although this last relationship ends tragically--is able to fully live her own life.

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