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Over the course Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie resides in several communities, each of which play an important role in the story, and serve as essential influences on Janie’s life. At different stages in her life, Janie lives with her Nanny, in Eatonville, and in the muck. The presence of these different communities in Hurston’s writing contributes to Janie as a character, and also enhances the story by playing the part of either antagonist or protagonist.
Until Janie reaches her late teens, she lives with her grandmother in a community inhabited by black and white people. This community only serves as an antagonist to Janie, who does not seem to fit into the society in any respect. Race plays a large factor in Janie being an outcast, as she is black, but has lighter skin than all the other black people. As a child, Janie does not even realize that she is actually black until she is pointed out in a photograph among a group of white children. After growing up confused about her identity, Janie struggles with conflicting thoughts about love and marriage. As a young adult, Janie envisions a pear tree that represents love and the relationship she desires: “I want things sweet wid mah marriage” (24), says Janie, who wants to marry someone she loves, and wants to spend her lifetime with that person. When Nanny sees that her granddaughter is becoming a woman, she tells Janie that at this point in her life, she must consider marriage. Nanny worries for Janie, and forces upon her the idea that marriage does not have to be about love. According to Nanny, Janie’s first priority is to find a husband that will be able to provide for her own security. This pressure from Nanny leads Janie to marry Logan Killicks, who owns a respectable 60 acres of land. Janie is not one bit attracted to her husband, who she believes is one person that “was never meant to be loved” (24). Janie “knew now that marriage did not make love,” and she realized that her “first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (25). These thoughts are the main reason why Janie’s life in this community represents her broken dreams. Janie’s life with Logan only adds to her collection of miserable memories in the early stages of her life, as her unattractive and dull first husband treats her like she is his property. For this reason, Janie runs away with Joe Starks shortly after meeting him, hoping that this man can provide for her while also giving her a life that is closer to her dream.
Upon her arrival in Eatonville, Janie begins a new chapter of her life, which she shares with her new husband Jody. Jody quickly becomes mayor of Eatonville, establishing that he and Janie make up the higher and wealthier social class in this black community. It immediately becomes obvious that the small town of Eatonville revolves around the group of “porch sitters,” whose recreation is gossip. Janie becomes a popular discussion topic among the porch sitters, who are jealous of her and find satisfaction in showing antipathy towards her for her differences in class, gender, and race. As the Mayor’s wife and companion in “the big house,” Janie is regarded as somewhat of an authority figure in Eatonville, and she “soon began to feel the impact of awe and envy against her sensibilities” (46). Janie is aware that she is a common topic of gossip among the town’s porch sitters, but she goes about her life without letting any of this get to her. Unfortunately, once Janie is settled with Jody, she finds dissatisfaction in the way that she is now forced to live.
After years of being completely controlled and publicly picked on by Joe, Janie reaches her boiling point and decides to snap back, making fun of Joe while other men of Eatonville are present. The devastating comments take away Joe’s manhood, and hurt him more than ever. At this point, he basically ends his life with Janie, and although they continue to live under the same roof, Joe never talks Janie and hardly ever even sees her. Even when Joe becomes fatally ill, he refuses to see Janie, and never forgives her for what she has done to him. Janie is left well off after Joe’s death, and is now free in many aspects of her life. Without many of her previous obligations, Janie continues to run the store in Eatonville, carrying out a life that she is content with. At this time, the emerging friendship between Janie and Phoebe Watson becomes apparent. Phoebe actually leaves the group of porch sitters to accompany Janie. Janie becomes close to Phoebe, and the reader is able to see that Janie has made perhaps her only true and lifelong friend. When Janie meets Tea Cake at the store and their romance begins, she is finally part of a relationship that resembles her first dream. Still represented by the now faint image of the pear tree, this dream had been growing more and more distant as her life progressed. The people of Eatonville are skeptical about Janie getting into a relationship with Tea Cake so quickly following Jody’s death, and they question whether she ever felt grief when her husband died. Phoebe even advises Janie not to make her love for this new freedom obvious, as “folks will say [she] ain’t sorry he’s gone” (93). Janie now finds that at this point in her life she is freer than ever, as she possesses love, money, and friendship for the first time. Although Janie has her share of bad experiences in the town, Eatonville can be seen as a protagonist because the community allows Janie to acquire these feelings and possessions that she has never had before.
When Janie leaves Eatonville in able to be with Tea Cake, the couple soon settles in the muck. Although Tea Cake takes Janie to work with him in the fields during the day, Janie is happy with her life in the muck, and enjoys having fun with Tea Cake. The couple’s house attracts guests on a regular basis, and they even become friends with some Bahamian workers. Janie’s experience in the muck also shows the reader that she truly loves her new husband, and will do anything to maintain their relationship. This is seen when Janie does not refuse Tea Cake’s beating, which serves as his means of establishing control. Janie’s time with her husband in the muck is cut short because of the devastating hurricane and the events leading to Tea Cake’s death following the disaster. When Tea Cake’s rabies leave him with little hope of survival, Janie continues to love him more than anything in the world; “Ah loves him fit tuh kill. Tell me anything to do and Ah’ll do it” (177), Janie tells the Doctor. Although Janie’s life in the muck results in the death of Tea Cake, the community continues to represent the type of life similar to Janie’s dream. As long as Janie’s memories of her life with Tea Cake in the muck continue to live, so will Tea Cake’s spirit. “He could never be dead until [Janie] herself had finished feeling and thinking” (193). It is because of this that the muck can be seen as a protagonist in the story of Janie’s life.
In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie’s experiences in each of the communities, the muck, Eatonville, and the environment in which Janie spends her early life, all impact Janie as a character in both positive and negative ways. Overall, communities play an important role in Janie’s character development throughout Hurston’s novel, serving as both protagonists and antagonists.
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