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Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

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The significance and symbolism of Janie's hair in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Summary:

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie's hair symbolizes her independence and strength. It represents her defiance against societal norms and expectations, particularly regarding race and gender. Her hair's natural beauty and the way she wears it reflect her journey toward self-discovery and empowerment.

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In Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, how does Janie's hair motif connect her gender and race?

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, one stereotype Zora Neale Hurston wants to put an end to concerns the inferiority of the African-American race, a stereotype that also makes African Americans look very vulnerable. As a woman, Janie has a double vulnerability because women are treated as just as inferior as African Americans and are, therefore, just as vulnerable. More importantly, not only is Janie a woman, she's also an exceptionally beautiful and desirable woman, something that Hurston captures through the motif of Janie's long, thick hair and curvy figure. Janie's beauty makes her even more vulnerable than the average woman. Yet Hurston strives to disprove Janie's vulnerability. Throughout the novel, though it takes her a long time and though she must undergo many hardships and abuses, Janie throws off the stereotype of vulnerability by finding her own independence.

The theme concerning the vulnerability of women, particularly evident in the cases of African-American women, is first expressed in the very first chapter through the thoughts of Janie's grandmother, called Nanny Crawford. Nanny has observed Janie grow into a beautiful woman and, when she sees Janie kissing Johnny Taylor, a man Nanny considers to be "trashy," she fears for Janie's protection. She knows very well that Janie is in danger of being mistreated, especially sexually mistreated. But more than that, as an ex-slave, Nanny has witnessed African-American women being even more oppressed than African-American men. Nanny uses an extended metaphor to explain the oppression commonly endured by African-American women:

... So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he hav to, but he don't tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. (Ch. 1)

Since Nanny fears for Janie's safety, she wants her to marry Logan Killick, a very successful farmer, as quickly as possible, a marriage Nanny sees as being able to provide Janie with "protection." However, once married, Janie does not feel as secure and protected in the marriage as she would wish to feel and leaves Logan for another man, a man who also turns out to be abusive. In her third marriage to Tea Cake, she finds true happiness, but even Tea Cake becomes abusive. When Janie returns to her hometown Eatonville, she returns ultimately defeated but happy--she is happy because she has found her true self and experienced the world. In experiencing the world and surviving the experience, she has proven that she is actually not weak and vulnerable; she is strong.

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In Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, what is the role of Janie's hair motif?

In Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, the protagonist Janie Crawford is described as having a super curvy figure and long, heavy waist-length hair that hangs down in either one "great rope," or braid, or multiple "long braids" (Ch. 1). The description of her hair is actually very fascinating because it can be difficult to make an African American's hair naturally appear that long. Due to the ultra curliness of hair, hair appears shorter than it actually is. What's also noteworthy is that, as a writer of the Harlem Renaissance, along with many African-American writers of the time, Hurston was very interested in breaking racial stereotypes. More importantly, a central theme in the novel concerns the relationship between all races and God--all races fall under the power of God, not just whites. Since Hurston wants to break racial stereotypes to unite all races under God, it can be said she used Janie's physical appearance, including her hair, to both break a stereotype of African-American appearances and to unite both white and black appearances under one character and, therefore, under one God.

Early in the novel, Janie is described as having a very full, "firm buttocks" and very full bust--the type of figure men take notice of. It's also the type of curvy figure that's not uncommon among African-American women and less common among white women. Hurston then couples Janie's figure with the description of Janie's "great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume" (Ch. 1). Since it is a bit unusual for African-American women to have waist-length hair, a more common trait in white women, Hurston is uniquely coupling a common physique for African-American women with a common physique for white women. The description not only breaks stereotypes of African-American women, it also unites descriptions of the two races into one character, which serves to develop the theme that all races are united under the same God.

One moment in which the theme concerning the relationship between all mankind and God is best illustrated is when Janie and Tea Cake are hit by the severe hurricane. The hurricane is so destructive that the wind is described as blowing in "triple fury"; the flooding is so severe "stray fish [were] swimming in the yard" (Ch. 18). The narrator further describes that "the wind and water had given life to lots of things that folks think of as dead and given death to so much that had been living things" (Ch. 18). As John K. Roth, editor of Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction, points out, the God Janie sees on the night of the hurricane and in the book in general is the terrifying and powerful God of the Old Testament (eNotes, "There Eyes Were Watching God: Christian Themes"). Hence, as Janie and Tea Cake stare out into this dark, devastating, destructive storm, they feel like they are watching the wrath of God, waiting to see what He'll do next, as we see in the following lines:

They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God (Ch. 18).

More importantly, no one is exempt from the power of the God they are observing, neither whites nor blacks. Hurston is showing us that all races are unified under the power of God.

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What is the significance of Janie's hair in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

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.

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What is the significance of Janie's hair in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

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.

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What is the significance of Janie's hair in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

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.

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What might Janie's hair symbolize in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

Janie's hair is a symbol of her strength and individuality. The prevailing social standards of the town dictate that it is unseemly for a young lady to wear her hair down. But Janie doesn't care; she'll wear her hair the way she wants to. In doing so, she is openly and defiantly asserting her individuality.

It's also notable that Janie's hair is described in almost phallic terms, illustrating how her strength as a woman transgresses established norms. For a woman to live life on her own terms is considered scandalous in this neck of the woods. Normally, it's only men who get to act this way. But Janie is different, and her assertiveness, as well as her rebellious free spirit, represent a serious threat to dominant social values and to Jody's masculinity.

Janie's hair is also straight, a characteristic associated with Caucasians. This notable feature of hers, a product of her mixed-race heritage, allows Janie to subvert not just traditional gender roles, but racial roles as well.

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What might Janie's hair symbolize in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

Janie's hair symbolizes her independence and identity. When she is married to Joe, Janie's body becomes a kind of threat—Joe, the mayor of the town, is afraid that Janie's beauty will attract other men and undermine his authority. For Joe, Janie's sexuality is dangerous and must be controlled. He exerts this control by making Janie cover her hair.

By submitting to his demands, Janie is not only ceding control over her body to her husband, but effectively conceding that her beauty, which attracted Joe to her in the first place, has become obscene and something shameful that must be hidden—or, worse than that, a kind of temptation that threatens the social structure of the town and Joe's position at the top of that structure. In covering her hair, Janie is made to feel degraded and less than her whole self.

This is why, after Joe's death, Janie immediately takes down her hair and burns her head rags. It is as if she is finally able to inhabit her own body again and be her own person. Her sense of freedom is palpable. She will "have the rest of her life" to wear her hair as she pleases or to love or be loved as she pleases.

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