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Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

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Discussion Topic

The impact of Janie's three marriages on her personal growth and the characteristics of her husbands in "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Summary:

Janie's three marriages significantly impact her personal growth. Logan Killicks represents security but lacks love, leading Janie to seek more. Joe Starks offers ambition and status but suppresses her voice. Finally, Tea Cake provides genuine love and equality, allowing Janie to find her true self and independence. Each husband influences her journey towards self-discovery and empowerment.

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How do Janie's relationships shape and change her in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

Janie's relationship with Logan Killicks is what ultimately makes her a woman. She knows she's grown up when she realizes that marriage doesn't create love; she doesn't love Logan, and she believes he doesn't love her. Instead, his expectations make her feel alone and disrespected. She doesn't see his expressions of care for what they are; instead, she is bored and lonely. The relationship helps her understand herself and what she wants. When she ultimately leaves him, she is a woman with a better understanding of love and her own desires.

Joe Starks is Janie's husband for a long time; in that time, he is more concerned with himself than with Janie. Though they live together as man and wife, she never feels the love she seeks from him. She mistakes his appreciation for her beauty as love for her; she thinks that he will give her what she needs. However, Janie is just a beautiful accessory to him. She tries to live in Joe's shadow. It doesn't work. Once he dies, she realizes that she needs to be the person she is rather than who a man wants her to be.

Tea Cake is the closest thing Janie has to true love. He wants her to grow with him and is willing to teach her the things she wants to learn. He doesn't see her as an accessory; he wants her to be herself and live the way she wants to. Janie is so sure that he's the kind of man she needs that she's willing to change her life and risk social censure to be with a younger man. Though he has negative qualities and can be cruel and abusive, she still loves him. Their relationship also shows her how strong she is, because she eventually has to kill him when his rabies-driven paranoia threatens her life.

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How do Janie's relationships shape and change her in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

Her grandmother, worried about her chastity, pushes Janie into marrying Logan Killicks, despite Janie's protestations about being of marriageable age. Killicks is unattractive and too old for Janie: "He look like some ole skullhead in de grave yard" (13). The thought of Logan "[desecrates] the pear tree," or spoils the pleasure of being a young woman in bloom, learning about her sexuality.

Marriage to Logan introduced Janie to the drudgery of being a wife, and teaches her that to be "respectable" she must be married. Her grandmother wishes to save her from what she deems to be the "unrespectable" fate of her mother, which is to "feel around with first one man and then another" (13). Janie learns that marriage does not always breed love and, in Logan's treatment of her, sees how men can take women for granted. Logan is never cruel, but he expects obedience as well as Janie's commitment to what matters to him—the cultivation of his farm.

Joe Starks is "cityfied" [sic] and has political ambitions. Though he charms Janie away from Logan's farm, it becomes clear that he is less interested in his wife as an individual than he is in his wife as a symbol of his elevated status as mayor. While on his death bed, Janie reminds him that, after twenty years, he no longer bears resemblance to the man she "[ran] off down de road wid," but is a man who "squeezed and crowded out [the room in her mind to] make room for [himself]" (82). She realizes with Joe that, sometimes, the person you love cannot accept you as you are. After Joe dies, she stops playing the dutiful wife—a decision that is indicated by her "[tearing] the kerchief from her head and [letting] down her plentiful hair" (83). 

Tea Cake is much younger, a fact which sets the town atwitter with gossip. Janie is indifferent because Tea Cake gets her back in touch with her girl self who dreamed of the pear tree. He reconnects her with her sexuality and gives her the love she did not have with her husbands. Though Tea Cake dies from rabies, her loss of the man has not diminished the power of her experience, which has made her more engaged with life and more engaged with herself.

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How do Janie's relationships shape and change her in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

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

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

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

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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In Their Eyes Were Watching God, what does Janie learn from each of her marriages?

Janie marries Logan Killicks shortly after she loses her virginity to a neighborhood boy named Johnny Taylor. For Janie, her discovery of her sexuality is an experience that she connects directly with the spring and the "blossoming pear trees." Her grandmother tells her that she has to marry someone "decent" (Johnny Taylor is poor, something we know due to the fact that he wears "rags") and suggests Killicks who, to Janie, looks like "an ole skullhead from the graveyard." Janie marries Logan because her grandmother, who is afraid that Janie will become promiscuous, tells her to. Janie figures that she will love Logan because a wife is supposed to love her husband. At this realization, the dream of the pear tree dies and Janie becomes a woman. Janie learns that her sexuality is not really hers alone and that she can only explore love and sex in the context of marriage.

While married to Logan, she realizes that she is unable to love him and that he is not very loving in turn. He uses Janie as one would use a mule, expecting her to work on his farm, chopping wood and shoveling manure, without complaint, as his previous wife did. Janie's marriage confines her to a life of servitude and thankless duty.

When Joe comes around, he appeals to Janie's sense of her beauty ("pretty doll-baby lak you") and her wish for something more in life. Joe does not want to "make a dog out of Janie," he wants to make a wife out of her. His offer reminds her of the sense of marriage that she had learned under the pear tree. Joe, who becomes the mayor of his town, tempts her with the things that he can afford to buy and the status that she gets from being the mayor's wife.

Then, like Logan, Joe begins to treat Janie like his property. The difference between this marriage and that with Logan is that, as she ages, she has less energy to fight against her circumstances. Joe fights for her submission and does not relent until he gets it and Janie, contrary to the instincts of her spirit, learns to accept this. However, her image of Joe "[falls] off the shelf inside of her," making her realize that he was never the man that she had thought he was, and that she spent years clinging to a dream, unrelated to the man to whom she was actually married.

On Joe's deathbed, she tells him how she feels, about how he spent their marriage trying to rule over her. She is angry, but not devoid of sympathy for how life had been unkind to him, too. She remembers her younger self, the one who had married Joe, and goes to a mirror to "look for her," gazing "hard at her skin and features." She sees that "the young girl [is] gone, but a handsome woman [has] taken her place." She lets down her hair again and sees that her "glory" is still there. Janie fulfills her duties as the widow of a notable man but uses her husband's death to resume living for herself.

With Tea Cake, she lives a life that is the antithesis of the one that she had with Joe, who put Janie on a pedestal only so that he could legitimize his rule over her. Tea Cake shoots dice and gets into knife fights with unsavory characters. He takes her to the Everglades for fun and to work in the fields. Arguably, with Tea Cake she experiences true love for the first time. She watches him sleep and feels "a self-crushing love," which causes "her soul" to crawl "out from its hiding place." With Tea Cake, she learns how to live on her own terms and not according to the expectations of others. She experiences a great love that does not occur in marriage and that has nothing to do with status. She is indifferent to what others say or think about her, for she knows that she lived well with Tea Cake and will continue to live well with his memory and with the knowledge that she has achieved happiness on her own terms.

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In Their Eyes Were Watching God, what does Janie learn from each of her marriages?

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, the protagonist Janie has three husbands who are all very different from one another.  Janie is not at all attracted to her first husband Logan Killicks; she is forced to marry Logan by her grandmother who thinks that Logan will provide a good life for Janie.  Janie goes off with him, but she is bored by Logan's ways and feels confined by his rules.  As a result, she leaves him and runs off with Joe Starks because he is exciting, and Janie feels like she will have an adventure with him.  She soon realizes, however, that Joe is incredibly controlling and he begins to treat her like she is his property.  Joe becomes harsh and abusive and kills Janie's spirit through the role that he expects her to play in life.  Janie does not have to leave him because he dies later on in their marriage.  Janie then meets Tea Cake and is happy with him because he treats her like an equal.  Tea Cake is not afraid to openly express his love for Janie.  He, however, is bitten by a rabid dog and himself goes mad, causing Janie to kill him in self-defense. 

From each man, Janie learns new things about herself and her identity.  In the beginning with Logan, she learns that she needs adventure in her life to cultivate her young spirit.  Thinking that she will get this with Joe, Janie has a hard time accepting that Joe wants other things in life and Janie tries to negotiate Joe's wants with her own desires.  Her spirit is rekindled with Tea Cake and after his death Janie is comfortable continuing on her own.

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What common characteristics do Janie's three husbands have in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

Building off of the previous educator's excellent response, particularly the first point, one could also argue that each man values Janie for her beauty and, due to internalized racism, also values her for her light skin and long, straight black hair. However, when she asserts her independence and spiritedness, each man perceives these qualities as threatening.

Janie's first husband, Logan Killicks, strongly desires her, though she's underwhelmed by him. After nearly a year of marriage, Janie notices that Logan "[has] stopped talking in rhymes to her" and "ceased to wonder at her long black hair and finger it." Instead, he expects Janie to help him with work on his farm, and she balks at his request. The narrator suggests that Logan has grown accustomed to Janie's youth and beauty, which likely drew him to her, and now expects her to fulfill what he perceives as wifely duties. When she refuses, he mentions that his first wife never had any problem with his requests, thereby implying that Janie thinks herself superior.

What Logan doesn't understand about Janie is that at this moment in her life, she wants to be cherished, not ruled. When Joe Starks comes along, he enchants her; but she will learn over the course of their decades together that he, too, is someone who values Janie first for her looks. When she "[thrusts] herself into [conversations]" with Joe and his male friends, Joe tells her that she's "gettin' too moufy." In this instance, Janie's spiritedness is an affront.

With Tea Cake, it seems that he appreciates the bolder aspects of her character, as well as her maturity. However, Tea Cake becomes insecure when it seems as though Janie is befriending Mrs. Turner, who discourages Janie's relationship with Tea Cake because he's darker-skinned. In a bid to keep Janie close through intimidation, Tea Cake hits her. This act indicates that Tea Cake believes, on some level, that Janie will agree with Mrs. Turner that she is too good for him because she is lighter-skinned.

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What common characteristics do Janie's three husbands have in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

Although each marriage is very different, I would argue that there are a few commonalities between the men.

  • Each man dominates Janie in some way. Logan sees her as another hand to help work the farm, and keeps her at home. Jody considers her almost like a trophy wife, and insists she wear her hair up. He also won't allow her to speak her mind. Tea Cake physically abuses her, and tells her it is so she'll know her place.
  • Each man is hard-working in their own way. Logan constantly works to keep his farm running. Jody builds up his business and becomes mayor of Eatonville. Tea-Cake works with Janie in the fields, and although he gambles and seems aloof, he does work to earn money for himself and Janie.
  • Each man helps Janie discover another aspect of herself. Logan awakens Janie to the reality of marriage, and his treatment encourages her to seek someone who will live up to her standards of love. Jody shows her that she has the strength to stand up for herself and claim her own life. Tea-Cake helps Janie discover what she really wants, & shows her that there can be happiness in life.

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