“Their Eyes Were Watching God”: Story Analysis
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a story by Zora Neale Hurston that captures the essence of society’s impact on relationships. Gender roles and identities define how individuals conceptualize love. Behavioral expectations and societal norms affect people’s worldviews and determine how they relate to each other. People’s perception of masculinity and its impact on power leads to a variety of challenges. The success or failure of marriages depends on the balance of power and the promotion of equality. True love demands that society’s preconceived notions with regard to the expectations and privileges associated with specific roles are shattered to facilitate the achievement of fulfillment and growth within relationships.
The novel begins with Janie Crawford’s return to Eatonville after a long time. The ensuring conversation with her close friend Pheoby frames the story. Janie explains how her grandmother raised her after she was abandoned as a baby. Nanny’s worldview has been warped by her experiences as a slave, and she is keen to marry Janie off as soon as possible. Her marriage to Logan is filled with misery, given that he treats her like a laborer.
She leaves him for Jody, who is obsessed with power and has no regard for her feelings. Janie finally takes a stand and rebels against the chauvinistic mayor. After his death, Janie meets Tea Cake, with whom she connects immediately. Their relationship faces challenges, but she genuinely loves him. An altercation turns fatal as she defends herself from his aggression. She is absolved of his murder, and she finally finds peace despite Tea Cake’s demise.
The Expression of Love
The idea that many forms of love exist has been used by psychoanalysts for many years. Erich Fromm posited that love’s four essential characteristics are care, responsibility, knowledge, and respect (Schwartz & Scott, 2017). The expression of love demands that a person hopes for the best for their partner and is quick to respond and perceptive of their needs. It is also vital to accept companions in spite of their shortcomings while being aware of their feelings, needs, values, and goals. However, love is a complicated process, given that finding the right person is challenging and may necessitate an inordinate amount of exertion. The complexity of love is demonstrated in the novel through Janie’s journey toward enlightenment.
The gender differences that are evident in the story require that women and men give each other things that neither possesses. Janie is on a quest to find herself, and she must overcome various challenges regarding society’s view of gender (Qashgari, 2018). Her experiences taught her that fulfilling and loving relationships must be based on mutual respect. This evident in her relationship with Tea Cake, who is aware of her needs and genuinely cares about her wellbeing.
They often “made a lot of laughter out of nothing” (Hurston, 1937 p. 142). As a result, Janie is elevated, and she experiences the equality that was missing in her previous marriages to Jody and Logan. The depth of her love for Tea Cake and his reciprocation of the same allows Janie to seek spiritual fulfillment. Their love transcends time and space, given that she is content despite being alone. Janie’s liberation from the unfulfilling relationships with Jody and Logan demonstrates why individuals must be acutely aware of their partner’s needs and goals.
Janie values personal growth and will stop at nothing to achieve this milestone. Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake allows her to achieve true fulfillment. She achieves enlightenment in addition to being independent and secure through experience. When speaking to her friend, she states, “Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there” (Hurston, 1937 p. 242). The bonds that bind her to Tea Cake are strong. She is inextricably connected to her surroundings, and even though she is separated from the love of her life, she does not feel alone.
The Abuse of Power and Patriarchy
Imposing one’s will over another is a defining feature of spousal abuse. Various theories view the balance between power and inequality as the root cause of violence in relationships (Schwartz & Scott, 2017). Reviewing the historical persecution of women by men provides insight into the intricacies of troubled marriages. Even though women have made valuable contributions to humanity’s civilization, the patriarchal tradition persists. Society, as presently constituted, condones and, in some instances, encourages the perpetuation of ideas of men’s control over women (Schwartz & Scott, 2017). This is demonstrated in the novel through Jody Stark’s embodiment of male superiority.
Jody is Tea Cake’s polar opposite in the sense that he is cruel, conceited, and has little interest in his wife’s personal attributes. His spitefulness is not the result of animosity towards Janie but an expression of his core values as he interacts with the world. He is overly dependent on the exertion of power and is only fulfilled when he has complete control over those around him. Jody must always be the voice of “irresistible maleness” regardless of the context (Hurston, 1937 p. 120).
He strives to maintain this illusion by exerting dominance over everyone. He focuses on building, purchasing, and bullying as a means of expressing his identity. He marries Janie because she fits into his grand scheme and serves as a means to an end. He even tells Janie “to dress up and stand in the store all that evening” (Hurston, 1937 p. 76). Her beauty and youth are assets he intends to exploit as he secures his position as mayor.
Jody’s obsession with power leaves Janie unfulfilled, given that she is viewed as an object without views or aspirations. The phrase “Ah always did want tuh git round uh whole heap, but Jody wouldn’t ’low me tuh” highlight’s her plight (Hurston, 1937 p. 154). Jody forces his wife to tie her hair, given that its phallic traits are a threat to his masculinity while its feminine attributes fill him with jealousy. Janie eventually fights for freedom, and her destruction of his sense of power obliterates his will to live. He is incapable of coping with the reality of having no true control over his wife. Jody’s belief that a woman is incapable of defining her own destiny is shattered by Janie’s willingness to subvert prevalent gender stereotypes that place men above women.
The Impact of Gender Roles on Relationships
Roles are a set of behaviors that are linked to a specific position an individual holds in society. Societal positions determine how people are treated, their relationships with others, and the means through which they conceptualize their identities. The expectations associated with specific roles are the result of the duties and privileges a specific status is thought to have (Schwartz & Scott, 2017). For instance, society expects fathers to be independent, dependable, and strong. As a result, they are obeyed and admired by others. Mothers are thought to be nurturing and must be provided for and shown affection (Schwartz & Scott, 2017).
These role expectations serve to condition behavior, facilitating the imposition of social order. In addition, they often promote the subjugation of specific genders and hamper individual growth. The impact of gender roles on relationships in the novel is demonstrated by Janie’s quest for self-actualization.
Society’s oppressive expectations make it difficult for women to grow as independent and self-assured people. Janie is antagonized by the multiplicity of rules others impose upon her. For instance, Nanny insists that she should marry for money rather than love. When talking to Janie about the subject, she states, “Ah wants to see you married right away” (Hurston, 1937 p. 45). Logan is adamant that she must help with the farm chores, while Jody is obsessively cruel and aims to dominate every aspect of her life. Tea Cake even resorts to violence in an attempt to assert some control over her (Hurston, 1937).
Janie’s experience with the flower and the bee serves as inspiration because she realizes it is possible to blossom. However, society’s structures and formalities fill her with doubt as she wonders what her life would look like should she achieve her goal. Her growth is exemplified by killing Tea Cake in self-defense. She realizes that living up to other people’s expectations is a futile endeavor. In essence, women can be self-reliant and strong provided they abandon gendered roles and embrace their true identities.
Relationships are an integral aspect of being human, given that people are social beings. Interactions are governed by a variety of factors, such as love which is defined as an individual’s capacity to care, respect, know and be responsible for their partner. The balance between power and inequality often determines the success of a union between a man and a woman. The lack of equality may result in subjugation or violence.
Societal expectations associated with specific roles craft the duties and privileges a specific status holds. As such, people’s behavior can be conditioned to institute social order while denying others the opportunity for growth. Janie is a role model in view of the fact that she subverts society’s preconceived notions with regard to gendered roles and expectations, which allows her to achieve fulfillment and personal growth.
Hurston, Z. N. (1937). Their eyes were watching God. J. B Lippincott and Co.
Schwartz, M. A. & Scott, B. (2017). Marriages and families: Diversity and change (8th ed.). Pearson Education.
Qashgari, S. (2018). Racism, feminism and language in Zora Neale Hurston’s their eyes were watching God. Arab World English Journal for Translation & Literary Studies, 1(2), 32–41. Web.