What is the significance of Janie's hair in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston?
Janie's hair is a complex symbol in Their Eyes Were Watching God. It takes on its greatest significance when she is living in Eatonville as Joe Stark's wife. Joe is the mayor of Eatonville, and even though he and Janie shared a romantic, exciting love affair at first, once Joe gains the position of power in the town, he begins to view Janie as an object. He places her on a pedestal, so she will be out of reach of the townsfolk. Jane resents Joe for this, as she wants to participate in the community's "porch-talk" and get to know her neighbors. Joe also decrees that Janie's hair must be tied up; he is motivated by jealousy because Janie has such beautiful hair that it might attract male attention.
When Joe dies, one of Janie's first acts is to take down her hair and burn the head rags in which she was forced to hide it. The narrator writes,
Before she slept that night she burnt up every one of her head rags and went about the house next morning with her hair in one thick braid swinging well below her waist. . . . She would have the rest of her life to do as she pleased. (85)
The symbolic acts described in this passage are basically Janie's declaration of independence. Never again will she let a man control her body or her mind. Later, she meets Tea Cake, who treats her like an equal most of the time. Though their marriage is not perfect, Janie feels she has more power over her life while she is with Tea Cake. After Tea Cake's tragic death, Janie returns to Eatonville. When she comes home, her hair is again referenced as an important feature of her personality:
The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume. (2)
It is clear that Janie is her own woman; she is confident and does not care what the townsfolk will say about her or how they will judge her. She goes directly to her friend Pheoby's house to tell her life story, which makes up the novel. The book ends with Janie feeling at peace with herself and looking forward to living the rest of her live as an independent, content woman.
Janie’s hair is a significant symbol in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. It represents her independence and her femininity, and its covering and uncovering represent significant aspects of her journey.
When Janie enters her second marriage, she finds her husband, the ambitious Joe Starks, to be much more insecure and jealous than she had expected. Joe was pleased with Janie as his trophy wife, but he did not like the attention she commanded from others. In an effort to control her, he makes her wear a rag to cover her lustrous hair: “This business of the head-rag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. Her hair was NOT going to show in the store.”
For Janie, her hair is representative of her identity. She had dreamed of love in her grandmother's house and had married initially only to meet her grandmother’s expectations. She follows Joe and marries him as her own choice, and she is beginning to find herself when Joe decides to cover her up. It starts with the rag he forces her to wear, and then his jealousy turns into verbal and physical abuse. When Janie finally stands up for herself, in essence killing him with her words, she is finally free:
Before she slept that night she burnt up every one of her head rags and went about the house next morning with her hair in one thick braid swinging well below her waist.
With her hair finally out from under the rags, Janie’s period of confinement is over, and she emerges stronger than before.
Because Janie's hair is beautiful, her second husband Joe Starks makes her keep it wrapped, hoping she will be less attractive to the other men who sit on the porch of the store. With Joe Janie must hide her real self, being what her husband wishes her to be, presenting a facade to the town from whom she is somewhat alienated because of her position as mayor's wife.
When, at last, Janie is free of Joe Sparks, she goes with Tea Cake and "her soul crawled out from its hiding place." More self-aware, Janie wears her hair free as a symbol of the freedom of her soul.