Last Updated on April 14, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 641
Their Eyes Were Watching God appeals to readers of all ages because the primary conflict is so universal: the feeling of division experienced when the world (society, parents, friends) offers standards of happiness that do not satisfy the individual’s personal needs. Listening to Janie’s narrative, the reader realizes that life is not fair, as Janie suffers criticism from her first two husbands and the townsfolk in spite of her efforts to concede to their demands. In the end, Janie’s loyalty to her own needs makes her indifferent to the townsfolks’ comments. Likewise, young adults who are facing conflicting decisions can empathize with Janie’s original concessions to security and her ultimate decision to sacrifice security in favor of a loving relationship.
As one example of the hollowness of society’s standards of happiness, Zora Neale Hurston highlights the value ascribed to home ownership. As a child, Janie is taunted by her schoolmates because she does not live in her own home: she grew up in a small cottage erected in the yard of the white people who employed her grandmother. When she marries Logan Killicks, who provides her with her own home, she finds that it is isolated, “like a stump in the woods.” In a similar way, her second husband provides her with a new white house where she can sit on a high white porch. Yet, she finds that this larger house, with its elevated place in society, only isolates her all the more. In contrast, in her third marriage, Tea Cake and Janie live in whatever room or small house they can rent. Because Tea Cake’s personality attracts people to come into their house, however, Janie enjoys these fulfilling personal relationships much more than the lonely experience of owning her own home.
Clothes are another external status symbol that the author uses. Although Joe Starks wants his wife dressed in fine clothes, he advertises his dominion over her by making her wear a head rag, worn by enslaved people and, later, by older women. After his death, Janie declares her freedom by doffing her head rag. Janie’s feelings for her two dead husbands are also expressed in her clothes. After the death of Joe Starks, she wears expensive black-and-white dresses, the prescribed colors worn by a mourning widow. In contrast, after Tea Cake dies, Janie is so grief-stricken that she is totally indifferent to society’s conventions and wears overalls to his funeral.
Contrasting natural symbols are also used to devalue civilization’s artificial icons. The lyrical description of the bee carrying pollinating dust to the blossoms of the pear tree expresses Janie’s empathy with nature. This natural sympathy is emphasized when she luxuriates in the fecundity of the Muck.
Although Their Eyes Were Watching God is not a novel of protest against the unfair treatment of Black Americans, Hurston does satirize racial discrimination, both white people’s treatment of Black people and color discrimination within the Black community. After the hurricane, Black workers are instructed to put white bodies in coffins but Black bodies in mass graves. Tea Cake observes wryly, “Look lak dey think God don’t know nothin’ ’bout de Jim Crow Law.” The author equally criticizes Black people who attempt to emulate the lives of white people. For example, Joe Starks sees himself as superior to the other Black townsfolk. When he becomes mayor and financially successful, he builds a white house like those owned by white people. Another example of white envy is expressed in the character of Mrs. Turner, the Black wife of a restaurant owner in the Muck. She despises people with darker skin like Tea Cake’s and idolizes people with lighter skin like Janie’s. In contrast, Janie finds her freedom and independence in the company of those who enjoy their Black culture.