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In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neal Hurston uses language as a tool to show the progression of the story. Throughout the novel, Hurston uses a narrative style that is split between poetic literary prose and the vernacular of Southern blacks. This style emphasizes Janie’s change from immature girl to mature woman, as she struggles to find her voice amidst the bustling throng of her already noisy life. As Janie gets older and wiser, the narration as well as Janie’s own voice change to parallel her own changes. Language and the control of it is Janie’s source of identity and empowerment.
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The first chapters of Their Eyes Were Watching God set the framework for how language is to be used in the chapters to come. The story begins in the third person, as a narrator describes the arrival of Janie Starks back to Eatonville. Here the style is full of metaphors, colorful language and other literary devices. Before Janie says a word, we hear the voices of the gossipers on the porch, foreshadowing Janie’s interactions later to come: “A mood come alive. Words walking without masters” (Hurston 4). When Janie begins to tell her story, the narrative style switches to long strings of monologue and dialogue, in the colloquial voice of Southern African Americans. The complicated web of changing narrative is representative of Janie’s complicated quest to find her voice. The two styles are not completely disjoint from one another, however, as the third person omniscient narrator often relates back to events or thoughts known only to Janie. In fact, the narrator is a character unto itself, as it seems to enjoy telling stories as much as any of the other characters, and has a personality of its own, with the only linguistic difference being the absence of the black dialect. This is evidenced in various colloquialisms peppered throughout the poetic prose, as in the second paragraph of the first chapter, where the narrator’s use of “now” at the beginning of the sentence serves as conversational filler: “Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget” (1).
The various characters in the novel use language to manipulate those around them, and to exert their will on others, though not entirely always intentional. Jody Sparks is the first such character to employ speech and language, or more appropriately the lack thereof, in his efforts to model Janie into his ideal woman. Jody never accepts Janie for whom she is, and effectively stunts her emotional and intellectual growth while they are married. The first instance of this occurs when Jody is elected as the mayor of Eatonville. The townspeople all call for Janie to make a speech on Jody’s behalf, but Jody refuses to allow her to speak, saying that he never married her for the purpose of making speeches and that “she’s uh woman and her place is in de home” (40). By not allowing Janie to speak in front of the crowd, Jody is not allowing her to express her own identity, and instead forces an identity upon her. For Jody, language and speech are the tools he uses to control.
For the people of Eatonville, language and speech are the ties that bind everyone together, and nurtures relationships. In chapter six of the novel, this is exemplified by Janie’s desire to listen to the various conversations of the inhabitants of the town. She longs for an identity of her own and a community where she is free to explore herself and others. She is unable at Eatonville to do so because of her husband’s strict hold on her. Janie learns for herself in chapter six that she was initially drawn to Jody’s power but it is his power that is restricting her. By observing the townspeople and their daily conversations, she realizes that there is a colorful world beyond the walls that Jody has set up for her. She starts to see that he is keeping her from this world of conversation when he “hustle[s] her off inside the store to sell something,” while he remains outside to indulge himself whenever townsfolk gather on the porch to share stories (51).
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As Jody’s body deteriorates, he draws attention away from his aging exterior by directing insults at Janie, yet another example of his using language as a tool to control her. Now that Jody is physically incapable of exerting his power over anyone, he must rely on this tool to preserve the imbalance of power he has over Janie. By insulting Janie’s appearance, he is attempting to recreate the world he lives in to look less like one where he is obviously dying. Here, in chapters seven and eight, Janie makes her first stand against the cruelty of her husband by speaking out in her own defense, when previously she was either too afraid or unable to speak. She fights back verbally against Jody, returning the insults that he fired at her and telling him to his face that she is a woman through and through which is more than she can say for him, thereby robbing him “of his illusion of irresistible maleness that all men cherish” (75). Now that Jody’s voice is silenced by Janie, his only rebuttal is violence, because he can no longer present himself as the pillar of his community. Janie finally finds her voice, and is able to break free from Jody’s rhetorical grip. It is no coincidence that Jody dies when Janie’s words are finally freed.
The death of Jody marks the beginning of a new stage in Janie’s development, as well as the entrance of a new love interest in Tea Cake. Tea Cake is dissimilar from Jody in that he treats Janie as if they were both on the same level, rather than one being superior to the other. Upon their first meeting, the two talk for a long while and even play checkers, a game that puts the players on equal footing, and a game that Jody never allowed her to play. Their first conversation contrasts from Janie’s first interaction with Jody in that instead of being charmed and overwhelmed by sweet talk, Janie and Tea Cake are both active participants in flirting with one another. The narrator steps in to describe Jody and Janie’s interactions after their first meeting, saying simply that “every day after that they managed… to talk,” while the conversations between Janie and Tea Cake are documented for several pages, hinting at the nature of the two relationships (28).
Previously, when Janie was still at Eatonville with Jody, her desire to join with the community in conversation was an emotional response to her being intellectually stifled by her husband. This is in contrast to Janie’s feelings toward community later on when she and Tea Cake start dating. Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake is more intimate than she previously experienced, and thus has no need for other forms of human contact. The community of Eatonville is resentful of their relationship precisely because of this; it cuts them out of the equation, as it were. Janie is able now to dismiss the petty gossip that pervades throughout the town because she is more secure with herself. Janie’s growth as an individual is further explored in her conversation with Pheoby in chapter twelve. In the dialogue between the two, Janie articulates complex ideas and can express emotions that she could not express prior to her being with Tea Cake. Instead of saying outright that she hates her grandmother, as she did in chapter nine, Janie is now able to reason that Nanny’s point of view was a result of her harsh upbringing as a slave.
It is interesting to note that all Janie’s epiphanies about life take place through conversation, as her journey to find her own voice and her journey to figure out who she is are one and the same. We see clearly that she is growing into someone she likes, and that Tea Cake is helping her get there. When describing her feelings towards Tea Cake, Janie tells us that “he done taught me the maiden language all over,” essentially giving her the power to speak and thus form an identity for herself (102).
Much later in the novel, the act of not speaking again shows a display of power, but this time the roles are reversed. Instead of Janie being silenced and thus losing her identity as with Jody, Janie chooses to react to Tea Cake’s abuse of her in chapter seventeen with self imposed silence. Rather than a show of domination or repression from another, Janie’s silence in chapter seventeen reflects within her certain strength. She no longer needs to express herself verbally to be an individual, and uses her own silence as her own tool for herself. With the beating inflicted by Tea Cake, Janie chooses to allow her body to be abused for the sake of the pride of the man she loves. This point in the novel serves as the climax. Here we have Janie’s transformation into the woman she has journeyed so long to become, as well as the destructive hurricane.
For much of the second half of the novel, Janie’s voice finds its way onto the page more often than the narrators’, but at the trial, where Janie tells the story of why she killed her husband, her voice is mysteriously absent from the proceedings. Here, in chapter nineteen, the narrator simply summarizes what Janie says, rather than having her speak directly to the reader: “She talked… She just sat there and told and when she was through she hushed” (178). Even though she does speak at one point to address the jury, she does not speak to the reader. Following her silence to show her inner strength in the face of Tea Cake’s abuse, Janie’s silence at the trial indicates that she has finally achieved mastery over her own voice, and does need to speak in order to say what she needs.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a coming of age story for Janie, and her evolution as a character is expressed in the language used to tell that story. Throughout the novel, Hurston uses a split style narrative, switching back and forth between the third person omniscient narrator and the voice of the characters it describes. Through the back and forth between narrator and Janie’s voice, we see a gradual progression, from an immature girl who kisses boys just because to a strong and intellectually capable woman who has been to the horizon and back again. Ultimately, Janie becomes a woman because she is not afraid to be silent, and knows that sometimes the best way to communicate with someone is to say nothing at all.
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