July 1, 2008
First published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Nora Neale Hurston typifies a bildungsroman novel (a coming-of-age novel of one’s early years which explores the development of the character). Appropriately, this literature is often called Black literature because the text deals with Black culture. The story concentrates on the protagonist Janie Crawford (a beautiful, middle-aged, self-assured Black woman) and her three husbands: Logan Killicks, Jody Sparks, and Tea Cake. The setting of the story takes place in rural Florida, roughly in the 1930s.
The story begins with a fairly young and stunning Black woman returning to Eatonville, Florida after being gone for a long length of time. Janie Crawford, somewhere in her 30s or early 40s, walks into town with filthy overalls (something the women take satisfaction in); the local residents know her and they all take notice as she strides her way home. The men gawk and admire her beauty, gaping at her gorgeous physique, while the women gaze with contempt. Obviously jealous and bitter, the women on the porch begin to bad-mouth and gossip about her after she enters her residence, speculating that her younger man left her after using all of her money.
Because Janie does not stop and talk to them when she returns, they take offense and depict her mannerism as rude and standoffish. What makes the women more resentful (and envious) is her physical beauty – especially her long, straight hair. As the women continue to take joy in berating her, Pheoby Watson – Janie’s best friend – sticks up for Janie and criticizes the women for their mean-spirited comments. She excuses her presence and heads to Janie’s home, bringing with her a platter of food for Janie.
Pheoby reveals the gossiping speculations of the women, which Janie finds humorous. As they converse, Janie tells her that she has returned without Tea Cake because he is gone – but not gone in the way that the women on the porch speculate. Pheoby does not grasp what she means, so Janie agrees to explain it to her. This is where Janie’s story begins as she recounts it to Pheoby; however, Janie is not the primary narrator but does serve as a narrator. Tea Cake, in fact, appears at midpoint to the latter. Moreover, the novel begins at the end of the story.
Janie’s first husband comes by way of her grandmother, a grandmother (Nanny) that plays mother and father since birth, because her parents were absent. When Janie turns sixteen, she takes pleasure in the fruitful springtime by sitting under a blossoming pear tree. At such young age, Janie begins to show her sexuality and kisses a local boy named Johnny Taylor, which gets her in trouble with her grandmother. Nanny witnesses her behavior and decides to marry her off to a much older man named Logan Killicks who she does not know. Janie obviously disagrees with her grandmother and says she does not want to marry. However, Nanny assures her that marrying Logan, an affluent middle-aged farmer, will bring security before she dies.
Janie gripes and begs, “Please don’t make me marry Mr. Killicks,” but her grandmother tells her it’s for her own good. Still dissatisfied, Nanny tries to convince her by recounting her difficulties in the past. Born into slavery, Nanny had a painful upbringing and was raped by her master; this rape produced a child named Leafy (Janie’s mother who she never meets). When the master’s wife realized that Leafy had gray eyes and straight hair, she knew her husband fathered Leafy. Angered with what she knew, she planned to sell off Leafy and have Nanny violently whipped, but Nanny escaped into the swamps with her child before such malicious act was carried out.
Thereafter, Nanny found work with the Washburns, her employers after she became a free woman. Nanny envisioned a better life for her daughter Leafy, but all hopes were shattered when Leafy, at the age of 17, was raped by her schoolteacher – a rape that brought Janie into the world. After her rape, Leafy’s behavior soured: She stayed out all night and intoxicated herself with liquor. In due course, Leafy ran away, leaving her daughter Janie with her mother.
With Nanny’s convincingness and retelling her past experiences, Janie makes comfort with her grandmother’s viewpoint of marriage, even though she says she could never see herself loving Logan. Nanny argues that love will come after marriage. Since old folks know the best, Janie takes the advice to heart. Subsequently, she marries Logan in Nanny’s parlor. The marriage is huge and jovial, but the marriage is not. Two months later, Janie visits her grandmother and says she does not love Logan and finds him ugly. Nanny scolds her and claims she is unappreciative of his wealth and status. Moreover, she tells Janie to hang in there and love will eventually come. Sadly, Nanny dies a month later.
Within a year of the marriage, Janie still has no love for Logan. The marriage is practically nonexistent and Janie’s happiness is absent. Logan wants Janie to partake in manual labor, so he leaves to purchase a mule for her to work in the farm. While he is gone, Janie sees a stranger, well-dressed and attractive, strolling down the road. His name is Joe Sparks, and he catches Janie’s attention immediately. She flirts with him and finds out that he comes from Georgia, and has grand plans to build and run a new town in Florida. She learns about his great ambitions and finds him interesting (especially his eloquence and objectives), unlike her husband.
Besides having no attraction to Logan whatsoever, Janie’s feeling for another man should raise no question, because her husband represents an uncaring and nasty man. He is simply rude and represents an authoritarian: formulating rules in which she has to comply with. Whenever he needs her aid, she has to be there to assist him quickly. When he talks, she has to listen and do what he utters accordingly. Logan’s disrespect is evident when he wants Janie, a woman, to carry chopped wood into the house.
His words are as follows: “If I can haul the wood here and chop it for you, look like you ought to be able to tow it inside.” He continues with his outlandish comment: “My first wife never bothered me about chopping no wood no how; she’d grab that ax and sling like a man. You done been spoiled rotten.”
Shortly after that altercation, the disrespect of Janie continues when he calls her from outside to help move a pile of manure. This call for help takes place when Janie is in the kitchen, cooking and preparing him a meal. But to Logan, it does not matter and he makes that very clear: “You don’t take a bit of interest in dis place. ’Tain’t no use in foolin’ round in dat kitchen all day long.” This clearly shows the sign of an inconsiderate soul. After his cries for help, she replies: “You don’t need mah help out dere, Logan. Youse in yo’ place and I’m in mine.” She could not have said that any better, but he has a comeback and thinks otherwise: “You ain’t got no particular place. It’s wherever Ah need yuh” (31).
Janie and Logan fight constantly and every day, so she finds comfort and happiness with Joe Starks. As Joe gets familiar to his new surroundings, he and Janie converge secretly each and every day; they become so close that he informs her to call him Jody. He takes her breath away and impresses her with his grandiose dreams. With Jody, her dream for real love blossoms. After two weeks of secret romance, Jody asks Janie to leave her husband and become his wife.
That same night, Janie and Logan carry out their normal relationship through argument. He belittles and slurs her for not helping him with the farm work, and Janie fires back. Obviously tired of the constant arguments, Janie threatens him by saying she will run away. Morning arrives and the argument continues about working in the farm. As expected, Janie’s threat of leaving him becomes a reality, going to her new man Jody, meeting in a prearranged time and place. Janie and Jody quickly get married before sundown and embark on their journey to the new town.
When they arrive to the new town, Eatonville, Florida, they realize its small nature which occupies a few shacks. Jody asks two men, Lee Cooker and Amos Hicks, to see the mayor, but there is no mayor. Jody begins to talk to the townspeople and realizes how undersize the town is, so he buys two acres to add to the existing fifty acres. The ambitious Jody then announces that he will build two structures: a store and a post office. He calls a town meeting and shares his plans on how he will beautify the town. Even though Tony Taylor is the chairman of the assembly, Jody does all the talking. His plans to have a store and a post office become a reality with the help of Coker and Taylor, two men he employs to build the structures.
With Jody’s money and power, he immediately becomes mayor of Eatonville. At the ceremony, held at his store, Taylor asks Janie to make a speech on behalf of her husband, but Jody precludes her from speaking. He rudely claims that speech-making is not for his wife to make. In Jody’s own words, he states: “Thank yuh fuh yo’ compliments, but mah wife don’t know nothin’ ’bout no speech-makin’. Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home” (43). This comment angers Janie, but she says nothing.
With mayoral power, Jody continues to makes advances to Eatonville, but the townspeople are bothered by his condescending and bossy treatment. Not only do they look at Jody differently, but they start to look at Janie differently (by way of jealously) because she had it all; that is, a powerful man, an intricate new two-story house, and elaborate things. The townspeople begin to feel like Jody is taking pride in their lower class status by showing off his wealth, especially when he buys a spittoon for Janie and himself. Moreover, Jody forces a man, Henry Pitts, out of town for stealing a load of his ribbon cane, which bothered the townspeople. Jody’s mannerisms quickly make the people throughout the town dislike him, precipitating their relationship to grow apart. The gossiping by the townspeople about Jody and his wife begins, wondering how Janie could stay with such an overbearing and condescending man.
The townspeople’s criticism is right on point, because Jody represents a tyrant; he is a domineering man and Janie takes the full brunt of it – verbally, mentally, and physically. In fact, he treats his wife like trash, similar to a slave. In their store, Jody forces Janie to tie her long/beautiful hair and keep it in a rag, afraid that men will be attracted to her if she keeps it out. Janie hates managing the store but finds enjoyment from the stories the men partake in outside of the store. When Janie tries to join in the fun, Jody tells her to not interact with “trashy people.”
Janie’s marriage is clearly problematic at this juncture of the text. In truth, Jody is ten times worse than Janie’s first husband Logan. When he first arrives in the novel, he seems like a decent man with his enticing goals, his smooth-tongue, and his overall presence. He literally charms Janie. However, that charming man is nonexistent after marriage. Embarrassing her in the public eye, battering her flesh into submission, speaking to her like a child, and all the negatives are prevalent; she endures a lot of pain. He constantly belittles, disrespects, and treats her like the surface he walks on.
One day, Jody gets into an argument with Janie in the store about a misplaced bill and belittles Janie about its whereabouts: “Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows.” Such statement shows that he does not see her as an equal, but as an animal that needs order. His following comment is equally disrespectful by implying that she lacks intelligence: “When I see one thing, I understand ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”
Jody takes his mistreatment of Janie a bit further one day during dinner by hitting her. This beating, happening seven years after their marriage, occurs because Jody feels the dinner is badly done and distasteful. As Hurston inscribes, “He slapped Janie until she had ringing sound in her ears and told her about her brains before he stalked on back to the store” (72). During their marriage, Janie’s love for him declines tremendously, but this incident shatters every piece of love she has for him.
Later in the day, she shows her anger while at the store when overhearing the men on the porch taking pleasure in berating and talking badly about women. No longer can she hold in her anger nor her tongue; she speaks out and rebukes the men, telling them that they know nothing about women, etc. Jody quickly jumps in and tells her to quiet her mouth (“You getting’ too moufy, Janie”) and “fetch” him a checkerboard.
With passing years, Janie’s deplorable marriage affects her mental state, making her view herself as unattractive. She also realizes Jody’s unattractiveness because he looks old, something Jody realizes himself. His body droops and lumps; more apparent, he has problem moving around. To make Janie ignore his appearance, he tries to play with her mind by attacking her age and appearance. But she is not stupid and understands that this is a ploy to make her believe that she too is in a similar position of ugliness and old age, but that is not the case. As Jody’s health continues to worsen, he verbally attacks her more viciously and frequently. One of his verbal attacks, happening at the store in the presence of many, causes Janie to lash out by attacking his sagging body, stating it resembles “de change uh life.”
Her comment surprises the men on the porch, but it surprises Jody the most. Feeling disrespected, he violently hits Janie and drives her away from the store. But the damage is already done (thanks to Janie’s comment), and his reputation in the town decreases. Subsequent to that quarrel, they separate themselves in the house by moving to different rooms.
Jody’s health becomes dire. The townspeople gossip that Janie is causing his illness with poison, a rumor that her best friend Pheoby tells her about. However, the rumor is proven wrong when Janie calls for a doctor to check his condition; the doctor ascertains that Jody’s kidneys have failed, which will soon cause his demise. Janie tells him about his ominous fate and he becomes sad. In a way, she feels sorry for him but takes the time to scold him, telling him how badly he treated her with his domineering and violent ways. He tells her to stop but she refuses. Shortly thereafter, Jody dies. She looks in the mirror, frees her hair from its rag-bondage, and realizes that she is still beautiful. She then yells out the window that Jody has died with a guise of grief.
Janie sends Jody off with an elaborate funeral. She carries a mourning face for the outside world but feels happy internally. The townspeople see only one major change: Janie publically begins to showcase her long hair. With her beauty and wealth, several men approach her, but she pays them no mind and rebuffs their advances. Not one suitor comes close in a timespan of six months. Janie is happy with her freedom and does not want to be tied down to another man. However, her mind changes when she meets a man named Vergible Woods.
She meets this stranger when he enters her store to buy a cigarette – and he begins to flirt and jokes with her. This flirtation precipitates laughter from Janie. He continues to flirt with her during a game of checkers. After playing checkers, they converse and she finds out that this stranger’s name is Vergible Woods, but he says that everyone calls him Tea Cake. They enjoy each other’s company and he helps her close up the store at night. Most important, he makes her laugh, something her prior husbands could not execute.
One week passes and Janie does not see Tea Cake, so she begins to think that he cares only for her wealth. When he finally comes back after a week, he jokes around which puts a smile on her face. They again play checkers; afterward, he walks her home where they sit on the porch, eating, drinking lemonade, and conversing. They meet regularly and frolic in romance, which does not sit well with the townspeople for two main reasons: 1. she stops mourning for her late husband too soon, and 2. such a high-profiled woman should not be dating a poor man like Tea Cake.
Her best friend Pheoby tells her to watch out for Tea Cake’s true intentions; she replies by saying that he is a good man. She then shocks Pheoby by disclosing her plans to sell the store, leave town, and wed Tea Cake. She keeps her word, leaving Eatonville for Jacksonville where she marries Tea Cake. Later, they settle in the Everglades where Tea Cake plans to work in the muck.
Tea Cake, Janie’s third husband, is clearly better than her prior husbands. He really loves Janie and gives her space to grow mentally. He has fun with her by showing her how to shoot a gun, a skill that she ultimately overshadows him in. They even go hunting together. Most important, Tea Cake truly makes her happy and charms her with jokes. However, in no way does he represent a perfect husband; at times, he even treats Janie like her prior husbands via abuse and his domineering behavior. Moreover, he is manipulative and sneaky.
One day, without Janie’s knowledge he takes $200 from her dress and spends it away on a big wild party he sponsors. When he gets back home, he promises Janie he will pay her back by gambling. He keeps his promise and reimburses her. Believing in his trust, she reveals the money she has in the bank. When he starts his work in the muck, he sneaks away and visits Janie at home because he “deeply” misses her. This causes Janie to go work in the muck with him to be together all day. But someday in the muck, Tea Cake has other plans when he goes missing, and Janie finds him play-wrestling with a stocky girl named Nunkie, causing jealously and anger.
This is not his only questionable behavior. His most awful behavior happens when he beats Janie, similar to Jody. Hurston makes it clear that his beating is not brutal, but he physically abuses her nonetheless: “Being able to whip her reassured him in possession…He slapped her around a bit to show he was boss” (147). Her physical abuse is noticed by many in the muck, for her flesh is marked by his hands.
Nonetheless, bad luck quickly comes their way via a hurricane while living in the Everglades. With the chance to leave before the storm hits, they decide to stay. When the storm hits, it causes a flood and they realize that it is best to leave. They swim in the flood, passing dead bodies, to reach higher grounds, but the rough water blows Janie away. Tea Cake goes after her and a dog, which starts to attack Janie, bites him in the cheek; he stabs it to death.
Four weeks later, Tea Cake’s head pounds with a headache. Janie calls a doctor and after his assessment, he tells her a devastating news: The dog that bit Tea Cake had rabies and saving him is perhaps too late. While Tea Cake health worsens, he becomes delusional and thinks that she is sneaking away to meet another man. Actually, she leaves the house to find medicine that may save his life. She tries to calm his speculation, but she also becomes afraid when he hides a pistol under his pillow.
In the morning, Tea Cake becomes irate and goes outside when Janie plans to leave the house again to see a doctor. While outside, Janie manipulates his pistol (making sure it goes through three empty chambers before reaching a bullet) just in case he plans to use it on her. Tea Cake comes inside, angrier than before and retrieves his pistol. He pulls the trigger and nothing happens. A scared Janie retrieves a rifle to possibly make him stop, but it does not work. Tea Cake pulls the trigger two more times, rendering nothing. Janie is left with no choice but to protect herself by shooting him as he attempts to fire again. A trial follows quickly, but she is found innocent. Thereafter, she sends him off accordingly with a grand funeral. (It is important to know that even though Tea Cake’s behavior was questionable, he serves as the catalyst that helps Janie find her true self.)
As a whole, during the writing of this piece, Hurston executed the novel amazingly and did a great job showing how men disrespect and mistreatment women. The cruelty stems from the belief that men are superior to women; therefore, women should cater to the needs of men because, according to some men, that is their role. Although the novel was written in 1937, the most prominent theme of abuse resonates today, because some men batter their wives (or girlfriends), view women as property, and believe that women are inferior beings. The novel falls under fiction, but it captures realism that can not be denied, for thousands of women are abused and murdered yearly. In fact, there are a great number of Logan Killicks, Joe ‘Jody’ Sparks, and Tea Cakes out there.
Even though Nora Neale Hurston is no longer living, Their Eyes Were Watching God has kept her name alive and will continue to do so, because it represents a classic, getting many accolades and precipitating a film starring actress Halle Berry as Janie. Both men and women should read this novel and form their own conclusion on what the text means to them; it’s a deserving piece of literature that is filled with reality – not to mention the poetic elegance rendered by Hurston.
In the beginning, this novel may be difficult for some, due to the characters’ dialect (i.e., Black vernacular) and how it is written, but it won’t be too long before the reader understands it. Their Eyes Were Watching God represents a notable novel, despite its controversial text regarding men’s abusive behaviors.