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Through Janie’s growth from a girl so far removed from any identity that she doesn’t know her own race, to a woman strong enough to return to her hometown that wants nothing more than to revel in her miseries, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God shows that the only way to achieve fulfillment is to ignore society’s pigeonholing and concentrate on one’s own desires, all the while avoiding selfishness. This is highlighted as Janie moves through abusive relationships to one which finally allows her room for her own thoughts and dreams. The novel itself serves as a model for independence as it shuns the stereotypical makeup of black literature, focusing sparingly on black-white relations but instead magnifying the black female interior, implying that she has the power to control her own destiny.
The novel opens as Janie returns to her town the recipient of cutting remarks about her marriage to the younger Tea Cake. She walks right on by the porch-sitters, prompting this remark from one: “‘Don’t keer what it was, she could stop and say a few words with us. She act like we done done something to her. She de one been doin’ wrong.'” (3) Janie has clearly learned something from her journey, and that is to slough off criticism from those who waste “up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothing about.” (6) But Janie was not always so sure of herself. As a child she was called “‘Alphabet ’cause so many people had done named me different names.'” (9) To add to her identity crisis, she didn’t know she was black until she saw a picture of herself with white children: “‘But before ah seen de picture Ah thought Ah was just like de rest.'” (9) As a teenager curious about sexuality she watches a bee pollinating and thinks “So this was a marriage!” (11) Eager to experiment, she finds her bee in Johnny Taylor but her Nanny wants her to marry the “‘ole skullhead'” (13) Logan, revealing her selfishness and lack of care for Janie’s wishes: “‘So you don’t want to marry off decent, do yuh? You just wants to hug and kiss and feel around with first one man and then another, huh? You wants to make me suck de same sorrow yo’ mama did, eh?'” (13)
Janie leaves Logan and marries Joe Starks, an enterprising man who appears promising but is more restrictive and self-important than Logan was. His philosophy is shown as anything but feminist at a mayoral speech: “‘She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.'” (41) Janie’s sense of oppression in her all-black town doesn’t comes from a white man, but from her husband: “It must have been the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off of things.” (41) The final blow to Janie’s free will comes when Joe orders Janie to tie her hair up in the store they run, her main tie to sensuality. “She was in the store for him to look at, not those others,” is his selfish reasoning. Her struggle is useless, as Hurston writes, “Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.” (67) Joe’s deathbed commentary to Janie is quite ironic on the matter: “‘Dat’s ’cause you ain’t got de right feelin’ for nobody. You oughter have some sympathy ’bout ‘yo’self. You ain’t no hog.'” (81) Before he dies, however, Janie fights back: “‘And now you got tuh die tuh find out dat you got tuh pacify somebody besides yo’self if you wants any love and sympathy in dis world. You ain’t tried to pacify nobody but yo’self.'” (82)
Finally Janie meets Tea Cake, a young, brash man who is willing to do anything to make her happy. His different approach is emphasized when Janie refuses to buy groceries for herself, and he answers her with “‘You sells groceries for ordinary people. We’se gointuh buy for you.'” (104)
The marriage goes along well until Tea Cake gets sick after a rabid dog bites him while he protects Janie. In his rabid state he attacks Janie with a gun. She shoots him with a rifle before he can kill her, but her self-defense is not selfishness. Instead, “she was her sacrificing self with Tea Cake’s head in her lap.” (175) After her acquittal, in which she gained support from whites but received bitter looks from blacks, she overhears some men saying “”uh white man and uh nigger woman is de freest thing on earth.’ Dey do as dey please.'” (180) Though their meaning is terribly corrupted, Janie has emerged as a free soul, doing what she needs for herself and for her loved ones; at Tea Cake’s funeral she puts on no airs for any others: “No expensive veils and robes for Janie this time. She went on in her overalls. She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief.” (180)
Janie’s odyssey, told to her best friend Pheoby, ends with urging women to action: “”Course, talkin’ don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else. And listenin’ tuh dat kind uh talk is jus’ lak openin’ yo’ mouth and lettin’ de moonshine down yo’ throat?they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.'” (183) “Theyselves” is appropriate, because Janie doesn’t necessarily mean “each for himself,” but “all for each other,” a fitting conclusion as two friends talk, even more fitting as Janie “[calls] in her soul to come and see,” (184) once again underscoring the notion of self-identity.
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