Alice Walker depicts Zora Neale Hurston's work as providing the
African-American literary community with its prime symbol of "racial health -
a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings"
(190). Appropriately, Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in
1937, provides an enlightening look at the journey of one of these undiminished human beings, Janie Crawford. Janie's story - based on
principles of self-exploration, self-empowerment, and self-liberation -
details her loss and subsequent attainment of her innocence, as she constantly learns and grows from her difficult experiences with gender issues
and racism in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
After joyfully discovering an archetype for sensuality and love under the
pear tree at age sixteen, Janie quickly comes to understand the reality of
marriage when she marries Logan Killicks, then Joe Starks. Both men attempt
to coerce Janie into submission to them by treating her like a possession:
where Killicks works Janie like a mule, Joe objectifies her like a medal
around his neck. In addition, Janie learns that passion and love are tied to
violence, as Killicks threatens to kill her, and both Joe and Tea Cake beat
her to assert their dominance. Yet Janie continually struggles to keep her
inner Self intact and strong, remaining resilient in spite of her husbands'
physical, verbal, and mental abuse. Janie's resilience is rewarded when she
finally meets and marries Tea Cake, who represents the closest semblance to
her youthful idealism regarding love and marriage.
Another male figure playing prominently in Janie's life is the white man who
raped her grandmother; her lineage determines, therefore, that Janie will
look whiter than other black women. This fair complexion eventually attracts
the ambitious Joe Starks, yet also contributes to Joe's objectification of
Janie. Yet, outward appearances aside, Janie's identity takes shape in
response to the white male tyranny that made her own birth possible.
For example, Janie's husband Jody paints his house "a gloaty, sparkly white,"
(44) humiliates the citizens of Eatonville in similar ways as the white man
would, and forces Janie into the slavish servitude reflected by the identity-confining head rag he makes her wear (51). Yet, Janie fights Joe's
tyranny by telling him off just before he dies in Chapter Eight, then reclaims her own identity by burning up "every one of her head rags" (85).
Similarly, Janie encounters Mrs. Turner, Hurston's symbol of internalized
racism, who doesn't "blame de white folks from hating [African-Americans]
'cause Ah can't stand 'em mahself" (135). Again, however, Janie remains true
to herself as she continues to form her own identity by refusing to leave Tea
Cake and class off as Mrs. Turner suggests.
Rather than self-destruct under the constant realities of racism and misogyny
she receives throughout her life, Janie Crawford does the opposite at the
close of Their Eyes Were Watching God. The novel's final image states what
Janie does throughout the story - taking her difficult past in and growing
stronger and wiser as a result of it. Author Zora Neale Hurston believed
that freedom "was something internal..The man himself must make his own
emancipation" (189). Likewise, in her defining moment of identity formation,
Janie "pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around
the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in
its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see" (184). At the end of a
novel focusing on self-revelation and self-formation, Janie survives with her
soul - made resilient by continual struggle - intact.