Zora “liberating freedom”. As a young teenage
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God recounts the story of Janie’s experiences with spiritual enlightenment and individuality; through her relationships with characters in the novel. Hurston shows her growth by incorporating themes of power, control, and respect to effectively show Janie’s relationships with Nanny, Killicks, Starks, and Tea Cake to demonstrate how these meaningful connections impact identity and development. As Janie had always had a huge level of respect and dignity towards Nanny, who had taken care and raised her since Janie’s mother ran off, it is her first relationship that truly suppresses her self growth. It is because Nanny had always felt the need to care for Janie as she worries for her well-being, having been through slavery she understands the vulnerability of being a black women.
Her concern can be seen through the dialogue between she and Janie, for instance when Nanny explains to Janie that she has worked hard to purchase a house to that Janie would no longer be subject to harassment by her fellow classmates and that her motivation in marrying Janie off to Killicks would ensure that Janie wouldn’t end up being used as a “work-ox” (16) or a “spit cup” (20) by white or black men that she chooses to marry. Surprisingly, Nanny’s determination to shelter Janie from oppression ends up being the first oppressor of Janie’s individuality that we see in the novel. Nanny pushes her idealized image of security, through marriage, onto a teenage girl whose current desire in life is anything but security in search for a “liberating freedom”. As a young teenage girl who had just come to the realization of her sexuality under the pear tree, Janie spends much of her time wondering about nature and love as well as the meaning of life, and as to how she fits within them. Here, Janie sets her eyes on the “horizon” although not actually described as being a physical place, is a destination that will ultimately bring her a sense of fulfillment and happiness, through harmony with the natural world around her, and understanding of her inner self, what she wants and not what others want of her. Janie backs from Nanny’s insistence that she marry Killicks and live off of him.
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As to what women should do, and when she does, we see that Janie’s respect for Nanny is what gives Nanny control over Janie’s own decisions. And although, Nanny doesn’t have complete control over Janie in the way that Killicks, Starks, and even Tea Cake later will; it is apparent that Nanny’s words have some power and influence over Janie even after Nanny has died which causes Janie to hesitate before running off with Joe Starks (29). Janie puts aside and temporarily sacrifices pursuit of her “horizon” out of respect for, and trust in, her grandmother, and with the hope that love for Killicks will follow in their marriage. Later in the story, Janie will realize that she hates her grandmother for stunting the pursuit of her dreams by creating the life that she had wanted of her. During the start of their relationship, Killicks and Janie have had shared respect for each other, while Killick’s respect for Janie only takes form when he needs her to do something for him- washing his feet before bed, rather than “true love” and having feelings for each other, Janie’s respect for Killicks takes the form of passivity, Within the first months of their marriage, Nanny has passed away, and after a year, Janie is still not in love with Logan Killicks. Her first dream dies as she realizes that marriage does not make love, and so Janie transforms from a daydreaming girl into a women (25). It becomes clear to Janie that Killicks will never be able to help her in her journey to the “horizon”, and because Killicks is not able to bring Janie the sense of fulfillment that she seeks, Janie has no more use for jim and loses any remnant of respect for him that she once had. Killicks fails to acknowledge and show respect to Janie’s individuality when he reveals Janie’s shortcoming in comparison to his previous wives work ethic; this points out that Janie is not who he wants her to be (26).
I feel at this point in the novel, Janie’s sense of independence is not developed enough for her to defend her individuality, as she herself believes that her “place” is in the kitchen just as Killicks place is in the fields working (31). Killicks does little to challenge Janie’s resignation of her “place” as a woman, except in insisting to Janie, “You ain’t got no particular place. It’s wherever Ah need yuh” (31).
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston makes it apparent that respect will eventually empower others. When Janie’s mutual respect for Killicks dwindles and disappears as she discovers who she wants to be, do does Killicks’ power over Janie. Killicks’ lack of power in their relationship shows Janie’s fearless refusal to be Killicks’ workhorse and attendant. Killicks desperate attempt to control Janie’s love for him, or lack of love manifests into verbal abuse, through which he tries to cut down Janie’s sense of security in herself by telling her that there aren’t “no mo’ fools” who would be willing to work and feed Janie, especially after her attractive body loses its youthfulness and looks. Janie however, many times uses her voice to stand up to Killicks. One instance, it seems that she still holds some power over him is when Janie threatens to leave Logan saying “S’ posin’ I wuz to run off and leave yuh sometime” (30) which Logan feels genuine fear and anxiety but doesn’t know how to express it, as in societal norms, it is usually the man that dominates the women. It is interesting as it seems that in their relationship, Janie has more power and control over Killicks; as her words and actions would send Killicks into fits of “resentful agony” (31) and make Killicks react despairingly that he ends up threatening to kill Janie but seconds later cry in front of her (31-32).
Janie leaves Killicks not on the fact that she can take care of herself, or even that she is in love with Starks, but that Starks will make her happier than Killicks will. The ending of Janie’s and Stark’s relationship, therefore, marks not only Janie’s growing sense of self-sufficiency, but a small increase in self-growth in the sense that she has a clearer idea of what is is looking for in love. Janie begins her relationship with Joe Starks with excitement and admiration. Janie is immediately attracted to Starks because he offers “change and chance”, and speaks for “far horizon” (29). In other words, Joe Starks is all that Killicks is not. He a rich, fastidious man with ambitious plans for the future, while Killicks is content with working on his farm his whole life, and like Nanny believes that Janie’s role as a woman is fanning herself on the front porch, rather than behind a plow and working (29). However, the sometimes narcissistic Joe Starks ends up being the representation or embodiment of abuse and power.
The moment that he and Janie arrive in Eatonville, he begins walking around the town in his fine clothes and sophisticated words, in order to impress the townspeople (47). Everything that Jody does, he does in consideration of how it will improve his status among the townspeople. Because he walks and talks with so much pride, the townspeople quickly come to respect Starks, but then the townspeople’s respect only furthers empowers him “Ah means tuh put muh hands tuh de plow heah, and strain every nerve to make dis our town de metropolis uh de state” (50) in which the crowd applause afterwords. Starks also begins to exert a huge amount of control over Janie and refuses to acknowledge her individuality. At the ceremonial lighting of the lamppost, Joe refuses Janie the chance to make a speech in front of the townspeople, and the narrator lets us in on Janie’s first feelings of reluctance within her relationship with Jody (42) but also how he restrains her own opinions. He sees Janie as a vital accessory to his impressive and “showy” image, and cares only that this image is upheld. “I am the mayor and you are the major’s wife” (60) Jody drills into Janie’s head over and over again.
When he notices other men admiring Janie’s long dark hair, Starks makes Janie tie it up and keep it out of public sight, but is too prideful to admit his jealousy (55). Now Janie takes great pleasure in her distinctive head of hair, so when Starks insist that she hide it underneath a “head rag” it may seem that he is further suppressing Janie’s individuality. At this point, Janie seems to be living in her own private world, with an underdeveloped sense of how to relate to people around her. Her relationships with those close to her were characterized by by anxiety as sometimes she feels men can be empowering but Janie has an overwhelming desire to reveal her own unique personality and liveliness to create what she wants for herself and feel a sense of pride about it.
At one point, Jody hits Janie because her dinner did not satisfy him. This is his first act of physical abuse towards Janie. Consequently, Janie develops an “inner and a outer self” learning to separate the two, and so she begins twenty more years of obedience or “bowing to the outside of things” (72). The next time Joe hits Janie is the only time, until his death, that Janie does let her inner and outer selves mix, when Janie uses words as a weapon to embarrass Joe in front of the townspeople. This is one of the rare occasions where Janie has power over Joe.
Joe, feeling the momentary loss of power, strikes Janie hard in the face and she falls on the street. This event marks the end for Janie and Jody’s relations. Joe puts Janie in her “place” as wife of the great Mayor of Eatonville and moves out of their bedroom, and Janie will not let her inner self rise up again for quite a while.Again, we see the relationship between respect and power. Even though Joe continues to abuse her, Janie continues to show respect towards him through obedience, therefore empowering Joe and allowing him to continue controlling Janie’s “outer self” . As the same time, Jody fails to respect Janie’s identity outside of “Mayor’s wife” as as a result Janie has no power over Joe and surrenders any aspect of control she has within the relationship.
Until Joe Starks is lying on his deathbed does Janie allow her “inner self” to rise up and find its voice again. When it does, Janie tells Joe that all her grievances that has bottled up for twenty years, walling to witness Joe’s refusal to listen to her, to acknowledge Janie as her own person rather than another one of Joe’s properties (85). Yet again.
Huston shows us how words can empower. Janie’s newly risen voice empowers her, while Joe realizes that no matter how much he tries to control and townspeople and Janie, he stands no chance against nature’s course; his illness which will inevitably lead to his death. As his sense of power and control over Janie and his life deteriorates, Joe comes to the end of his life. Janie burns her hated head rags and her inner self is symbolically set free (88).Although now that Janie had finally found her voice, she has not yet become comfortable in her independence. She feels lonesome in Joe’s house and thinks again of the horizon, desires again for self-fulfillment she is looking for, though it is not Tea Cake himself. Tea Cake and Janie have mutual respect for each other when it is shown that he doesn’t fit Janie into any certain criteria nor does he want her to become “somebody” as Nanny.
Killicks, and Starks did. Rather, Tea Cake encourages Janie to explore her new skills. For instance, Tea Cake finds it absurd that Janie does not know how to play checkers, but Joe Starks considered checkers to be a man’s game (95). Tea Cake teaches Janie how to shoot a gun, something that in her forty years of life that Nanny, Killicks, nor Starks ever considered (127). In short, Tea Cake stimulates Janie’s self-growth by playing and laughing with her while Nanny Killicks and Starks viewed Janie as an object to reform. Tea Cake and Janie simply for who she is, not for who she can be to him.
To an extent, Tea Cake does exercise some power over Janie. The most significant example which can be found on chapter fourteen of Tea Cake’s authority over JAnie is when he beats her, not because she has done something wrong but because he needs to assure himself in his “possession” of her (147). Janie does not seem to mind, which can be interpreted as her willingness to be ruled over. However, Tea Cake’s beating of Janie does not take away from his love and respect for her, nor does it diminish Janie’s respect and adoration for Tea Cake. Tea Cake is not suppressing Janie’s personality when he beats her, Janie in all of her newfound individuality is willingly consenting to it, as to what it seems.
Therefore, it should not be considered that Tea Cake’s actions were an abuse of his power as it is not his “real character”Janie’s tangible relationship with Tea Cake comes to a dramatic and bitter end when she shoots Tea Cake’s sick body, in order to preserve her own life (184). Though Janie ends up alone at the end of the novel, she is content. She is satisfied because she has lived to see the horizon. Her pulling in of it “like a great fish net” symbolizes the harmony that Janie has achieved with the world round her which was so mysterious when she was a girl (193). Her contentment reveals that although Tea Cake was crucial in her self-growth and spiritual development, Janie does not actually need him in order to be happy, nor does she need anybody. Because Tea Cake, she has finally found happiness and security within herself. It can be said that in the end, Janie truly experienced the love that she had envisioned which revolved around the experiences and memories that came with Tea Cake. Janie had always thought and compared him to “The son of Evening Sun” being symbolic as the sun rises day after day, that life goes on, no matter how tragic yesterday was (189).
For Janie, Tea Cake’s memory will be as enduring as the sun, and that is all that she will need because ” Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”(1)Throughout Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God protagonist Janie goes through multiple “internal” transformations, each of them stimulated by the relationships she has with those around her.
By incorporating the the themes of power, control, and respect in her illustrations of Janie’s relationships, Zora Neale Hurston eloquently shows how relationships influence identity and self-growth and to find the love that she envisioned.