Last Updated on April 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 703
Extended Character Analysis
Janie Crawford is the novel’s Black female narrator and protagonist. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a bildungsroman that follows Janie’s formative years, beginning in her youth. Raised by her grandmother, Nanny Crawford, Janie is a precocious, romantic teenager, admired for her lighter skin and beauty. As an adolescent, she is curious about love and sex. She first encounters sexuality when she witnesses a bee pollinating a pear blossom in Nanny’s backyard. Janie feels that she is experiencing a revelation; the bee appears to be “kissing” the pear blossom, and Janie feels an ecstatic connection brought about by the “marriage” of the bee and flower. Throughout the novel, her journey for love and marriage is framed by this image. As she grows older, she desires love, the kind she experienced under the pear tree, “with kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!”
Over the course of thirty years and three marriages, Janie’s character undergoes a transformation of self-discovery. Nanny worries about Janie’s well-being after she sees Janie kissing Johnny Taylor, a lower-class boy. Nanny then arranges for her to marry a financially stable middle-aged man named Logan Killicks, a successful farmer. Janie is repulsed by Killicks’s unattractive appearance, and Killicks simply considers Janie a domestic servant. Although materially successful, the marriage is devoid of love. Janie’s life with Logan forces her to realize that a marriage does not automatically create love. In this realization, Janie “becomes a woman,” as she has lost the innocent belief in love and marriage that her Nanny imposed on her. Janie then meets the charming Joe “Jody” Starks, and together they run off to Eatonville, Florida. Although loving at first, their marriage begins to deteriorate. Joe becomes a prominent figure in the city, even rising to the rank of mayor, but Janie cannot seem to find happiness. Janie finds that she lacks connection with the townspeople due to her position of authority as the mayor’s wife and Joe’s controlling nature. Joe belittles Janie frequently and forbids her from speaking out, meeting other people, or showing her hair—a symbol of her independence—in public. Unable to express her individuality and physically abused by Joe, Janie worries she is losing grasp of reality. She feels like she must hide her true self, because she is seen only for her outward appearance, a beautiful face to accompany Joe. After twenty years together, Janie’s anger finally emerges. As Joe lies on his deathbed, Janie expresses the emotional distress caused by the marriage and confronts Joe about his abusive treatment of her.
Janie mourns Joe for six months, but this is done perfunctorily. She feels liberated and happy now that Joe has died, she is moderately wealthy, and she can wear her hair as she pleases. Her newfound independence and happiness makes her attractive to suitors, but she prefers to be on her own. After two loveless marriages, Janie seems to have given up on love. However, she soon meets Tea Cake, with whom she has an instantaneous connection. He becomes her third husband. He reminds her of her adolescent vision of bees kissing a blossoming pear tree, and with him, she finds true love and happiness. Unlike her previous two husbands, Tea Cake allows Janie to seek and attain individual freedom, giving her a newfound sense of spirituality. Although the marriage ends when Janie is forced to kill Tea Cake after he contracts rabies, she retains the same values she found during their marriage. The memory of Tea Cake stays with her the rest of her life.
Through these three marriages, Hurston illustrates how Janie grows throughout the long process of self-discovery. During her first and second marriages, she is reliant, dependent, and fearful of speaking her mind and expressing herself. However, near the end of her second marriage, she learns to defend herself. During and after her marriage to Tea Cake, Janie finds the true love that she has craved since adolescence. By the end of the novel, Janie has become a beautiful, mature woman who has finally gained the spiritual fulfillment, self-sufficiency, and sense of personal achievement only attained through a journey of self-discovery.