Their Eyes Were Watching God Themes
The main themes in Their Eyes Were Watching God are love, identity, and race and religion.
- Love: Janie's understanding of love evolves over the course of her life, and her quest for true love leads her to defy convention and remain true to her own desires.
- Identity: The narrative traces Janie's development from a naive, romantic teenager to a strong, independent, woman who knows what she wants out of life.
- Race and religion: During the hurricane, Janie realizes that White people are not intermediaries between God and Black people and she comes to the conclusion that all people must face God as individuals.
Last Updated on April 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1959
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God charts the development of a Black American woman living in the 1920s and 1930s as she searches for her true identity.
Search for Self
Although the novel follows Janie through three relationships with men, most critics see its main theme to be Janie’s search for herself. She must fight off the influences of her grandmother, who encourages her to sacrifice self-fulfillment for security, and her first two husbands, who stifle her development. Her second husband, Joe Starks, has an especially negative impact on Janie’s growth, as his bourgeois aspirations turn her into a symbol of his stature in the town. She is not allowed to be herself but must conform to his notions of propriety, which means she cannot enjoy the talk of the townsfolk on the porch, let alone participate in it. After he is elected mayor, she is asked to give “a few words uh encouragement,” but Joe interrupts the applause by telling the town, “man wife don’t know nothin’ ’bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for her nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.” After this, Janie feels “cold,” realizing that by cutting her off, Joe has prevented her from deciding for herself whether or not she even wanted to give a speech. Throughout the rest of her marriage, Janie must bury her own desires to the point where she loses sight of them altogether. But after Joe’s death she feels a freedom she has never known.
When the young Tea Cake enters her life, she decides that she has done what Joe and the town have wanted her to do long enough, so she rejects their ideas for her future and marries a younger man. Her relationship with Tea Cake allows her to find herself in a way that had not been possible before. But some critics see Tea Cake as another obstacle to Janie’s development. In some ways, their relationship is conventional in the sense that Janie willingly defers to his judgment and follows him on his adventures. “Once upon uh time, Ah never ’spected nothin’, Tea Cake, but bein’ dead from the standin’ still and tryin’ tuh laugh,” she tells him. “But you come ’long and made somethin’ out me.” Statements like this have caused critics to question how successful Janie is at discovering her true self. Some see the ending as a reaffirmation that a woman must find herself on her own. By killing Tea Cake in self-defense, although she deeply regrets having to do so, Janie has come full circle in her development. She now knows who she is and has found “peace.” In the closing lines the narrator tells us, “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net,” indicating that she no longer has to seek for meaning outside of herself in the world; she has found it within herself.
Language and Meaning
Integral to Janie’s search for self is her quest to become a speaking subject. Language is depicted in the novel as the means by which one becomes a full-fledged member of the community and, hence, a full human being. In Eatonville, the men engage in “eternal arguments . . . a contest in hyperbole and carried on for no other reason.” These contests in language are the central activities in the town, but only the men are allowed to participate. Janie especially regrets being excluded, but “gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush.” But the dam of repressed language erupts when Jody ridicules her aging body in front of the men in the store. Her speech then becomes a weapon as she tells him (and everyone else), “When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.” By comparing him to a woman going through menopause, she attacks his manhood in an irretrievable way. Janie has gained her voice and in the process has metaphorically killed her husband, whose strength has resided in her silence and submission. Later, when Janie and Tea Cake are on the muck, Janie becomes a full member of the community, as signified by her ability as a speaking subject. “The men held big arguments here like they used to on the store porch. Only here, she could listen and laugh and even talk some herself if she wanted to. She got so she could tell big stories herself from listening to the rest.” At the end of the book, Janie’s return to tell her story to the town, through Pheoby, signals to some critics her reintegration in the community. Others, though, believe she is still excluded because she will not speak to them directly.
Race and Racism
Although there is very little discussion of relations between white and Black people in the novel, racism and class differences are shown to have infected the Black community. The supposed biological and cultural superiority of whiteness hovers over the lives of all the Black characters in the book, as Janie witnesses the moral bankruptcy of those who value whiteness over their own Black selves. Joe Starks is on his way to Eatonville when Janie meets him, because he is tired of being subservient to white people. He intends in an all-Black town to have power over others, a kind of power that is modeled on that of white men. He possesses a “bow-down command in his face,” and his large white house impresses the town because it makes the rest of the houses in town resemble “servants’ quarters surrounding the big house,” reflecting the housing arrangements of plantations during slavery. He also buys a desk like those owned by prominent white men in the neighboring town of Maitland and adopts behaviors which mimic the habits of middle-class white people. For Joe, success is measured by standards adopted from the white community, and as a result, he looks down on the townsfolk as “common” and even as his inferiors. One of the men comments, “You kin feel a switch in his hand when he’s talking to yuh.” Janie’s rejection of Joe’s feelings of superiority and his emphasis on attaining bourgeois respectability have led many critics to see the novel as a critique of middle-class Black people who had gained some prestige in the 1920s but had also lost their connection with the roots of the Black community, the folk.
This critique becomes more explicit in Janie and Tea Cake’s dismissal of Mrs. Turner’s feelings of superiority over dark-skinned Black people. As a fair-skinned and financially well-off mixed race woman, Mrs. Turner desires to separate herself and Janie, who is also mixed race, from the “black folks.” She tells Janie, “We oughta lighten up de race,” and “Us oughta class off.” But Janie responds, “Us can’t do it. We’se uh mingled people and all of us got black kinfolks as well as yaller kinfolks.” For Janie, there are no divisions in the Black community. She has moved easily from her high-class position in Eatonville to her life among the folk with Tea Cake, and together they have welcomed the Black workers from the Bahamas, who had previously been ostracized from the Black Americans on the muck. In addition, Mrs. Turner’s racist ideas are ridiculed by the narrator, who writes, “Behind her crude words was a belief that somehow she and others through worship could attain her paradise— a heaven of straight-haired, thin-lipped, high-nose, bone-white seraphs. The physical impossibilities in no way injured faith.” Racism and division within the Black community are finally revealed as not only ridiculous but as tragic, as a woman like Mrs. Turner is consumed by self-hatred, the inherent by-product of her disdain of Blackness. Only through a loving acceptance of all things Black can one become a full, healthy human being, as Janie learns.
Although the framing device of Janie telling Pheoby her story sets up the novel as Janie’s story, it is not told in the first person. Instead, a narrative voice tells most of the story, and there has been much discussion of whose voice this is. Claire Crabtree, writing in Southern Literary Journal, argues that it is “always close to but not identical with Janie’s consciousness,” indicating that the omniscient narrator, who knows more about other characters’ thoughts than Janie could know herself, is also closely aligned with the heroine. The narrator also uses free indirect speech at many points to convey Janie’s thoughts, another indication that the narrator and Janie’s consciousness are closely aligned. But Henry Louis Gates Jr., in his The Signifying Monkey, argues that the narrative voice “echoes and aspires to the status of the impersonality, anonymity, and authority of the Black vernacular tradition, a nameless, selfless tradition, at once collective and compelling.” The narrator, then, who speaks in standard English, while the characters speak in Black dialect, becomes, according to Gates, more and more representative of the Black community as it progressively adopts the patterns of Black vernacular speech. The narrative voice takes on the aspect of oral speech, telling not only Janie’s story, but many other stories as well. For example, Nanny’s voice takes over as she tells the story of Janie’s heritage, and the voices on the porch also take over for long stretches as their “arguments” tell the story of life in Eatonville. In essence, there are many storytellers within the larger story of Janie’s life, and many voices inform the novel.
One of the most unique features of Their Eyes Were Watching God is its integration of folklore with fiction. Hurston borrows literary devices from the Black rural oral tradition, which she studied as an anthropologist, to further cement her privileging of that tradition over the Western literary tradition. For example, she borrows the technique of repetition in threes found commonly in folklore in her depiction of Janie’s three marriages. Also, in the words of Claire Crabtree, “Janie follows a pattern familiar to folklorists of a young person’s journey from home to face adventure and various dangers, followed by a triumphant homecoming.” In addition, Janie returns “richer and wiser” than she left, and she is ready to share her story with Pheoby, intending that the story be repeated, as a kind of folktale to be passed on.
The Harlem Renaissance, which experienced its heyday in Harlem in the 1920s but also flourished well into the 1930s, was an outpouring of creative innovation among Black Americans that celebrated the achievements of Black intellectuals and artists. The initial goal of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance was to overcome racism and convince the white public that Black Americans were more intelligent than the stereotypes of docile, ignorant Black people that pervaded the popular arena. In order to do so, then, most of the early writers associated with the movement imitated the themes and styles of mainstream, white literature. But later writers felt that Black American literature should depict the unique and debilitating circumstances in which Black people lived, confronting their white audiences with scenes of brutal racism. Zora Neale Hurston, considered the most important female member of the Harlem Renaissance, felt that the writings of Black Americans should celebrate the speech and traditions of Black people. The use of dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God caused much controversy among other Black writers of the day when it was first published because many felt that such language in the mouths of Black characters perpetuated negative stereotypes about Black people as ignorant, but critics today agree that the novel’s celebration of Black language was the most important contribution Hurston made to Black American literature.
Last Updated on April 7, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 670
In The Sermon and the African American Literary Tradition (1995), Doland Hubbard has argued that African Americans were forced to redefine Christian experience to make it applicable to their particular experience in the United States. White Christians had argued that slavery was justified by the Bible and later that segregation and Jim Crow laws were biblically ordained through the stories of Cain and Abel and of Noah’s descendants. African American ministers, on the other hand, identified slave experience with the experience of Jews in Egypt, so that God working through Moses to free the Hebrew children was analogous to civil rights leaders working to bring equality to African Americans. Clearly, to Black Christians, God was ultimately even and square in his dealings with people—white, Black, man, woman, they were all children of the same father.
Hurston’s novel demonstrates this point long before the Civil Rights Movement, for what Janie learns in both her relationships and in her experience in the hurricane is that all must face God in the same manner. White people are not the ones who watch God and then tell African Americans what to do. All eyes watch God. Furthermore, Janie ultimately concludes that God sees each individual as unique: everyone has to go to God, she concludes. We may assume, therefore, that she is justified in learning to do the things that men do and also in defending her life at the expense of her lover’s.
In addition to being a God before whom each individual must stand, the God Hurston presents is overwhelming and terrifying in much the same way that God is portrayed in the Old Testament. The God that Janie and Tea Cake ultimately watch in the storm reminds the reader of the God who speaks in a whirlwind and who says to Job that he should gird up his loins and speak for himself. Hurston is unclear on the true nature of this God, reminding the reader that the Hebrews of the Old Testament were unable to say the name of God because God (or Yahweh, the name they substituted for God) was too big for them to know completely. Hurston’s prose even echoes the Old Testament when she describes death in these haunting words:
Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all day with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then.
The suggestiveness and ambiguity of these words echo the King James version of the Old Testament, reminding readers that God was to Adam a voice walking in the garden, that the void before the world was formed was “the face of the deep” on which God moved, and that God commanded Abraham to slay Isaac.
Hurston embeds in her novel a palpable sense of the wonder of God as well as the fear he and his world invoke. As the controlling image in the novel, the horizon is the place where one must go to know God, but even in knowing God, one does not understand fully the power of God. Along with the terror of death comes the power of sunrise expressed in these unforgettable lines: “She [Janie] knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making.” Ultimately Janie’s journey to the horizon and back is worth all it costs her in that she comes to know the unknowable in life. It is with this paradox that Hurston leaves the reader.