Their Eyes Were Watching God Essays and Criticism
by Zora Neale Hurston

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Janie Stark's "Voice"

(Novels for Students)

Their Eyes Were Watching God is generally considered Zora Neale Hurston's most important piece of fiction. Hurston, a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, also published anthropological texts, including Tell My Horse, and an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Their Eyes Were Watching God was first published in 1937, and was quite popular, although some critics argued that she should have written a more aggressive protest similar to Richard Wright's Native Son. Although Their Eyes Were Watching God went out of print for several years, it came back into print during the late 1970s and has since remained a central text in many high school and college courses. In this novel, Hurston explores social and personal relations within black families and communities, while also examining issues of gender and class. One theme through which these issues of gender, race, and class are examined is voice. At several points in the text, Janie Starks, the protagonist, is prohibited from speaking, while at other points she chooses not to speak. Silence, then, is sometimes used as a tool of oppression and at other times as a tool of power.

During the course of the novel, Janie is married three times. The men differ from each other in significant ways, and each marriage helps Janie define her own desires and goals in life. Her first husband, Brother Logan Killicks, is chosen for her by her grandmother, Nanny, who recognizes that Janie is beginning to feel adult sexual desires, although Janie herself might not articulate her new longings this way. Because she has observed "shiftless Johnny Taylor" kissing Janie, Nanny believes Janie will soon act more dramatically on these desires and therefore urges her to marry a responsible and conventional man. Although Janie responds that Logan Killicks "look like some ole skullhead in de grave yard," Nanny arranges the marriage because she worries about Janie's future. Realizing she is probably close to death, Nanny reminds Janie that she "ain't got nobody but me. And mah head is ole and tilted towards de grave. Neither can you stand alone by yo'self. De thought uh you bein' kicked around from pillar tuh post is uh hurtin' thing."

Janie's first marriage occurs, then, despite her resistance. Because of her youth and the lack of options available to her as a young and comparatively poor woman, Janie cannot act on her own desires; she marries Logan Killicks because she seems to have no other choice. Although she hopes love will follow marriage, Janie is soon disappointed, for Logan grows more rather than less distasteful to her. He refuses to bathe regularly and soon suggests that Janie should help him with the plowing. He leaves to buy another mule, one that would be "all gentled up so even uh woman kin handle 'im." This scene is reminiscent of a statement Nanny had made to Janie earlier, that "woman is de mule uh de world." Janie, however, decides that she will not be treated as a mule even if she has to reject the values her grandmother has taught her.

Janie meets Joe Starks, who invites her to accompany him to a town made "all outa colored folks." Because Logan begins to insult Janie's family history, she decides to leave him for Joe, who initially seems more considerate and companionable. Soon, however, Janie realizes that Joe perceives her simply as his trophy. He will be mayor of the new town, and she will be nothing more or less than the mayor's wife. Although the townspeople congregate on the porch of Joe's store, where Janie often works as a clerk, Joe forbids her to participate in their jokes or storytelling. Those conversations, Joe suggests, are not appropriate for a woman of her class. Because Janie is once again deprived of her voice, she can never be fully a member of this community and instead must live in emotional isolation.

During her marriage to Joe, the mule again appears as a symbol. A man in their town, Matt Bonner, owns a yellow mule which he seems to be working to death. When Joe overhears Janie...

(The entire section is 6,288 words.)