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In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie is encouraged to develop her own personality throughout the book, and she is forced into constant movement down roads after being abandoned by her grandmother and her three husbands. This movement allows her the opportunity to explore and form her ideas and voice in solitude. These external variables cause her to look inward and not depend on others as a source of survival. When she finally comes to terms with her influence, she stops fleeing. She realizes that her voice can be heard no matter where she is.
Janie’s grandmother and primary caretaker, passes away when Janie is only seventeen years old, this is the rudimentary cause of her flight. In counseling and pacifying Janie, Nanny says that she wanted to “throw up a highway through the wilderness” for her, so that “she [Janie] would expound what Ah [Nanny] felt” (15). Nanny knows that she will be unable to reach a point of freedom to exhibit her own voice in her lifetime, nonetheless this goal is crucial; consequently, she feels that by passing on her stories of slavery and strife to her granddaughter, Janie will accomplish what she has always strived for, and she too will be free. Although Nanny does not feel that she was able to construct a “highway”, in effect, she does give Janie at least the direction of one. Nanny forces Janie out of the ‘cocoon’ when she is sixteen years old, this enables Janie to be exposed to different types of husbands, allowing her to freely conclude that some do not suit her needs. Had she been older, the narrow mind set of her Nanny to remain in one place, even if unhappy, would have been too incorporated into her own unconscious for her to overcome. Nanny also serves to inspire Janie to proceed in the way she does, saying “your grandma done been long uh few roads herself” (23). Janie transcends her grandmother’s ideas — those familiar “roads” her grandmother has walked. Nanny’s ideas, however, are no less important, as they need to be in place in order to allow Janie the opportunity to surpass them.
Janie’s relationships with Logan and Joe are a continuation of the journey she is sent on by her grandmother. The two are obstacles that threaten her self-assurance, pride and strength by pushing her to be a subservient wife; she must surmount these to eventually proclaim her voice in the world. Janie first asserts her voice when she decides to leave Logan “even if Joe [is] not there waiting for her… the morning road air [is] like a new dress” (31). Janie realizes that for her to be recognized as an individual with personal tenets she must move her life along the road, the new freedom of thought she attains is so wonderful that it feels like a new garment. She flings her old apron “on a low bush beside the road,” (31), declaring to herself that she will be shrouded in her ideas, not those of others that stray or sit passively beside her road to freedom. In this instant, she actively decides to move on, not simply towards another man. Although this is only the first step, it shows her willingness to become a self-sufficient woman. After taking this action, however, Joe, paradoxically, becomes a more acutely negative version of Logan; he reprimands her, saying, “git yo’ mind out de streets and keep it on yo’ business” (66). What this quote demonstrates is that he is trying to exercise ultimate control over Janie, even to the point of keeping her locked up — immobile. Roads and streets symbolize her ideas and voice, in telling her to keep out of “de streets” he is attempting to take these things away from her. The fact that Janie, even if she externally appears to give in, keeps her mind on the streets, is an illustration of the strength she holds within that allows her to evolve. Streets symbolize her attraction to concepts such as people, community and culture which are larger than herself, as a street is more formal, more heavily traveled upon and usually bigger than a road; these concepts give rise to the texture of her voice. When Joe is on his death bed, Janie verbally expresses her comprehension that he “ain’t de Jody [she] run off down de road wid” (82). She realizes that she has become stagnant and must keep in movement or become discarded as her apron was. This attitude places her in a position to be open to someone like Tea Cake who will come and take her away.
Tea Cake focuses all of Janie’s unguided energy by presenting her with knowledge and experiences which enable her to take this intensity and transform it into her own ability to verbalize. He exposes her to “dirt roads so rich and black that a half mile of it would fertiliz[e] a Kansas wheat field” (123). Tea Cake presents her with an opportunity to experience the world, to feel it, and go down the roads that she had only observed. Her ideas which had been malnourished are “fertilized” by his ability to bring her away from the town in which she is stuck and to a more creative environment — the muck, where Janie is surrounded by “pianos living three lifetimes in one. Blues made and used right on the spot. Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour” (125). These are all signs of life, the community and richness of black culture, in which Janie has desperately wanted to partake. Tea Cake must take her away from the town where their leader, Joe, “is like a hog dying down in the swamp and trying to drive off disturbance,” (81). Joe got stuck in the swamp (strayed from her road) and died there, trying to bring Janie down with him, “he didn’t want her to stay young while he grew old” (73). Joe so monopolized her physical movement that her thoughts became her only passage, “now and again she thought of a country road at sun-up and considered flight. To where? To what?” (72). Janie’s life had been structured and planned by Nanny, Logan and Joe to the extent that she would not have known where to seek her freedom without Tea Cake’s guidance. Tea Cake acts as her tour guide to the world, showing her “where” and “what” is available.
While Tea Cake is the one to reverse Janie’s muteness and enable her to assert her existence, it is necessary that he die in the storm in order to again place Janie in solitude so that she can attain self-reconciliation. Tea Cake doesn’t die in the actual storm, though the novel suggests that his “time [had] come” (151), which according to Janie is the point that people are destined by God to pass on. This is in order to allow Janie the chance to verbally express her love to Tea Cake and to care for him while he is sick, to pay back the debt she feels she owes him for helping her to travel down her road and assert her voice. When he is sick, with his head in her lap, she tells him “dat God snatched [her] out of de fire through [Tea Cake],” (172). Appropriately, this well articulated gratitude is a result of Tea Cake’s encouragement for her to be an individual. At the end of Janie’s story, she is sitting “combing the road dust out of her hair” (183). She has finally developed herself and gotten her ideas “out”. Her movement has ended. For the rest of her life she will be able to process and enjoy her independence and voice.
Although Janie had three husbands, she never became a mother. If Janie had borne children, they would have tied her down to a specific place, hence squelching her voice by terminating her journey. In addition, the concept of giving birth and rearing children is the classic definition of womanhood; Janie must move beyond this concept by asserting her womanhood in unconventional ways. Janie demonstrates a more individual, solitary vision of what it means to be a female. Janie also needs to make an impact on the world. Traditionally, this is done by having children and passing one’s beliefs through them, as her grandmother did with her. Janie shows that she is able to transcend this by making an impact on the world through different venues. By telling her story to Phoebe, who will then pass it on to her neighbors and friends, Janie will live on as a story, not simply in her children’s’ fading memories and physical features. Her contentment does not depend on the acceptance of any male character in the book, similarly, it does not rest on a child, she will not allow it to rest outside of herself. Janie “pull[s] in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pull[s] it from around the waist of the world and drape[s] it over her shoulder” (184). Sitting, wrapped in her memories, experiences and voice as the horizon represents all roads and where they all lead to, she no longer needs agitated movement away from where she is; “here [is] peace” (184).
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