Their Eyes Were Watching God Character Essay

Janie is a beautiful black woman with partially white ancestry. As a child, Janie is brought up by her grandmother, Nanny. Janie listens to her grandmother and marries a man of Nanny's choosing: Logan Killicks. Janie leaves Logan when she realizes that she doesn't love him. She runs away with Joe Starks, a man with huge dreams for the future. Unfortunately, instead of allowing Janie to develop her own voice, Joe squelches her individualism. After Joe dies, Janie finally finds Tea Cake Woods, and she discovers real love. When Tea Cake dies suddenly, Janie returns to Eatonville fulfilled and with memories to sustain her for the rest of her life. Janie's primary characteristics are her ability to dream and her ability to act on her instincts to find happiness. Through free indirect discourse, Janie shares the narration of the story with Hurston. Often her voice is so tightly interwoven with Hurston's that it is difficult to discern who is the narrator and who is the author.

Pheoby is Janie's best and only lifelong friend. Due to the responsibilities of her marriage, Pheoby is unable to adventure the way that Janie does. Pheoby represents the everyday person, the audience; just as Janie tells her story to Pheoby, Hurston tells the story to her reader. At the end of the novel, Pheoby tells us that Janie's story has made her grow ten feet taller and has encouraged her to go fishing. Hurston, through Pheoby, asserts her desire for the readers of her novel to be mobilized into action through Janie's story just as Pheoby has been.

Janie's grandmother is a former slave who represents the thoughts and fears of the men and women of the slave era. Nanny values wealth and security over anything else and too strongly encourages Janie to marry Logan Killicks because he possesses some land and a mule. Janie's first major triumph is to escape her grandmother's vision of happiness and recognize that she should seek her own type of freedom.

Logan is Janie's first husband. He is unloving and too old for Janie. He treats Janie as if she were a possession like his mule. He cares for Janie and is upset when he realizes that Janie will leave him for another man, Joe Starks, but is powerless to convince Janie that she should stay with him.

Joe is Janie's second husband. He is an appealing choice for Janie who admires his youthfulness and ambition. Joe runs away with Janie to Eatonville, where he becomes mayor. Hurston's criticism of Joe is that he seeks power through the same measures as slave-era whites did. He attains power by taking power away from others. He treats Janie badly, quieting her voice in order to make his voice heard more loudly. Between the Sears Roebuck street lamp, his big house which is literally white, and the golden spittoons, Joe's imitation of white people is farcical.

Tea Cake is Janie's third husband. He is twelve years younger than Janie. From Tea Cake, Janie learns how to love, about her cultural roots, how to live life in a natural way, and to find ways to have fun just living. Tea Cake is fun, adventurous, and spontaneous; he is a gambler and a musician. Although he is not a rich man, he proves to Janie that he can always find money if they need it, and they live off his income alone. Tea Cake is a natural leader like Joe Starks, but acquires peoples' admiration and trust just by listening to them, by laughing at their stories and jokes, and by playing guitar for them. Tea Cake dies from rabies as a result of saving Janie's life in the flood.

Leafy is Janie's mother. When Nanny was a slave, the master of the plantation repeatedly raped her. As a result, Nanny had a baby with blonde hair and gray eyes. When the mistress of the plantation saw the baby one night after the men left to fight in the Civil War, she told Nanny that she was going to whip her to death in the morning for having sex with her husband. Nanny ran away from the plantation and hid for months until the war ended. She named the baby Leafy because she had hid the baby in the moss of the forest. Leafy grows up with the Washburns just as Janie does. When Leafy is seventeen, her school teacher rapes her, and Leafy has a baby soon after. She becomes an alcoholic and runs away. Leafy's traumatic life convinces Nanny to force Janie to marry when she is very young.

Nanny is a nanny for the Washburns when Janie is a young girl. Hurston defied other black writers of her era by describing the Washburns as "quality white folks." The Washburns treat Janie like a member of their family. They dress her up and put bows in her hair.

Johnny Taylor is the first boy that Janie kisses. Nanny sees the kiss and tells Janie that she "is now a woman" and must get married to Logan Killicks rather than someone low-class like Johnny.

Hezekiah is a boy that helps Janie in the shop after Joe dies. He mimics Joe in a humorous way.

Annie Tyler is a rich widow who leaves her stable home to run off with a younger man. The younger man, named Who Flung, runs off with all her money soon after she marries him. Images of Annie Tyler haunt Janie early in her marriage to Tea Cake as she worries if she's made a mistake by entering into her risky new relationship.

Mrs. Turner is a mixed-race woman who hates her blackness and yearns to be white. Through Turner and the town's treatment of Turner, Hurston comments negatively on the people who turn away from their culture and try to be something that they are not. Turner is a much disliked character in the story; all of her "white" features are described as blunt and ugly. She has a weak husband and a weak son.

A young girl that flirts with Tea Cake, and whom Janie is jealous of.

A friend of Tea Cake's and Janie's on the Muck. In the struggle to escape the flood, Motor Boat decides to stay home in bed and sleep rather than to try to run to safety outside, as Janie and Tea Cake do. Ironically, Tea Cake and Janie almost die in the flood while trying to find safety, whereas Motor Boat stays safe by staying home.

Another noble white character in the novel, he tries to save Tea Cake from rabies. He also testifies on Janie's behalf in her murder trial.

Finding her Voice

Janie Crawford, the main character of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, strives to find her own voice throughout the novel and, in my opinion, she succeeds even though it takes her over thirty years to do it.  Each one of her husband’s has a different effect on her ability to find that voice.

Janie discovers her will to find her voice when she is living with Logan.  Since she did not marry him for love, tensions arise as time moves on and Logan begins to order her around.  But Janie is young and her will has not yet been broken.  She has enough strength to say “No” and to leave him by running away with Joe.  At this point, Janie has found a part of her voice, which is her not willing to be like a slave in her husband’s hands.

After Janie marries Joe, she discovers that he is not the person she thought he was.  He tells her what to do the same way Logan did, just a little bit more delicately by saying that it is not a woman’s job to do whatever he does not want her to do.  Throughout her twenty years of life with Joe, Janie loses her self-consciousness because she becomes like a little kid being told what to do by an adult, Joe.  She does it without even questioning herself, which is why I think that she loses the part of her voice that she has discovered by running away from Logan.  At times, she has enough courage to say no to Joe, but he always has something to say back that discourages Janie from continuing her argument.  But, in my opinion, Janie does not lose her will to find herself and it might have even become stronger because the reader can see that Janie is not happy with the way things are now and that she will probably want to change them in the future.

When Joe dies and Janie marries Tea Cake, she feels free because even though Tea Cake asks for her opinion when he does something and cares about her.  Since this is Janie’s first marriage where she actually loves her husband, she feels free and discovers many new things in life that she has not noticed before.  She becomes more sociable, wants to go places with Tea Cake, enjoys working with other people, and likes shooting game.  Although she never shot a rifle before, she becomes a better shooter that Tea Cake, and he respects her for that, which allows Janie to get back her self-respect which she had lost while being with her previous husbands.  In a way, Janie’s spiritual awakening begins when she lives with Tea Cake.

As the reader can see, Janie has a hard life where she has to struggle in order not to become inferior to her husband’s.  She succeeds when she is with Tea Cake, which also marks the time when her inner voice starts to awaken.  But not until after Tea Cake’s death does she realize that she has understood her place in life, or in other words, she has found her voice.

Finding her Identity

In the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, there are many lessons on a person’s search for identity.  Janie’s search for identity throughout this book is very visible.  It has to do with her search for a name, and freedom for herself.  As she goes through life her search takes many turns for the worse and a few for the better, but in the end she finds her true identity.  Through her marriages with Logan, Joe, then Tea Cake she figures out what is for her and how she wants to live.  So in the end, she is where she wants to be.

In Janie’s early life she lived with her grandmother, Nanny.  Nanny and Janie were pretty well off and had the privilege to live in the yard of white folks.  While Janie was growing up she played with the white children.  While she was in this stage, she was faced with much criticism and was called many names, so many that everyone started calling her alphabet, “’cause so many people had done named me different names.”  Soon she started piecing together what she knew of her odd identity.  Then one day she saw herself in a photograph and noticed that she looked different, that she had dark skin, and she said, “Before Ah seen de picture Ah thought Ah wuz just like de rest.”  From this point, Janie fell into somewhat of a downward spiral, setting her off of the path toward finding her own identity in society.  Finally when she was older Nanny saw her doing something under the pear tree that she thought were unacceptable.  Nanny quickly arranged a marriage between Janie and a well-off local man, Logan Killicks.  In this marriage Janie resisted.  She felt as if she was losing her freedom was well as her identity, she wasn’t Janie anymore she was now Mrs. Logan Killicks, and she was somewhat obligated to do what he wanted.  Not long into this marriage, Janie has had enough, and when the chance to go away with a smooth, romantic man, she takes the chance.

The man Janie left Logan for was named Joe Starks.  Joe was a smart man who started his own town, Eatonville.  In the beginning of her relationship with, Joe, she felt loved, something she never really felt while she had been with Logan.  At first, when she ran away with Joe, she felt as if she was finding her new identity, but all there was for her to find was a great maze not always heading her toward her new identity.  While she was with Joe she felt as if she had a position of subservience to Joe, he did not see her as an equal.  When Joe was nominated to be mayor, and the people wanted to hear from Mrs. Mayor Starks, Joe said, “mah wife don’t know nothin’ ’bout speech-makin’.”  What he was saying was that Janie wasn’t there for her smarts, she was there to be his wife, to beat for the show, to run the store and the post office, and most of all to be Mrs. Mayor Starks.  Throughout this marriage Janie as though she was losing more and more of her identity and freedom in this marriage.  By the end of the marriage, she did not have her kitchen and house work that she loved to do, and she had lost her name.

After the timely demise of Joe, another man came into Janie’s life, Vergible Woods, a.k.a. Tea Cake.  He was an unpretentious man without the status of high class, unlike Logan and Joe.  He was just what Janie had wanted.  Tea Cake gave Janie the freedom to do whatever she wanted.  He allowed her to play checkers and talk to whomever she wanted.  The name issue arose again in this relationship.  When Janie was with Tea Cake most of the people called her “Janie.”  By this time she had finally found her identity.  She was just an average person who wanted freedom and who didn’t always like having complete security.  In her marriage to Tea Cake, Janie finally had peace and love.  She wanted to do most of whatever Tea Cake was doing.  She did not feel any obligation to work with Tea Cake, she just wanted to.  So when she returned to Eatonville in her overalls, she had inside of her, true inner happiness and knowledge of her identity.

In this novel, Zora Neale Hurston shows many points on her view of a woman’s place in America in the twentieth century.  One of the points that she makes is that women need to search for their independent identity.  That women should not settle for a simple life of being put down and controlled by men.  If women are dissatisfied in a marriage they need to move on toward the things that do satisfy them.  She is also stating that women in the twentieth century can hold their own in life.  They should become equals of men in work, because they are not the stupid weaklings that should be forced to fill a roll of subservience to men.  Finally her last comment about women’s place in America in the twentieth century is that women can be independent and don’t have to lose their identity when they get married.

Janie had a hard time finding her identity.  Through her childhood, her marriage to Logan, then Joe, and then finally Tea Cake, Janie has always hoped to have an identity independent of anyone else.  Hurston’s model for twentieth century women is a very defined model.  One which holds freedom, an identity, and an equal level of stature to men, all of which Janie strived to have.  Overall Janie’s end identity is one that many women in the twentieth century strive to behold.

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