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Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, utilizes a struggle W.E.B. Du Bois describes as “double consciousness” to chart the journey of Janie Crawford into selfhood. In “The Souls of Black Folk,” Du Bois describes African Americans as both gifted and cursed with “two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings” because of their race. Hurston’s text applies this theory, not to the struggle of finding selfhood within the demands of two differing races, but to the struggle of a woman searching for selfhood amidst the differing demands of society and herself. Early in the novel, Janie plays roles that others expect her to play, rather than fulfilling her own desires. This disparity between her needs and her actions creates a division in her, leaving her with two selves: the self who follows society’s expectations, and the self with its own desires. Janie’s journey toward selfhood reveals itself in the gradual dissipation of the submitting self, and the emancipation of the inner one.
The text first establishes the division between Janie’s two selves when Nanny discovers Janie kissing Johnny Taylor. In her heart, Janie wants to be a “tree in bloom” and feel “the love embrace”(11). Her soul cries out to “struggle with life”(11) and release her newfound sexuality. Nanny however, feels this is “harm and danger”(13) and wants to save Janie from it by marrying her “off decent”(13) to Logan Killicks. Nanny’s phrase, “marry off decent”(13), indirectly conveys to Janie that she must conform, marry, and shun her sexuality in order to be acceptable. The word “decent” suggests that sexuality is indecent, improper, vulgar, and unacceptable. Even though Janie’s inner self disagrees with this interpretation of sexuality, Janie acts according to it. She feels that marrying Logan Killicks would be “desecrating the pear tree,” but she doesn’t “know how to tell Nanny that”(14). At this moment, Janie divides into two selves. One self submits to Nanny’s belief that sexuality is base and wrong, and agrees to marry Logan Killicks. Her other, unrealized self, continues to long “to be a pear tree”(11) and embrace her sensuality. The fact that Janie cannot and does not convey this desire to Nanny shows her inability to assert her selfhood. In additions, her behavior shows that she values the demands and beliefs of others above her own.
In her marriage to Jody, Janie puts her husband’s desires above her own, but she finally becomes aware of the self within her that struggles against her submissiveness. Jody “want[s] her submission”(71) so he can force her into a “high chair” and have her as a symbol of his own greatness. He prevents her from participating in talks on the porch and other community events because he says she is above “dat mess uh commonness”(60). At first, her submissive self relents to the demands Jody makes. In order to cope with his desires, “she [doesn’t] change her mind but she agree[s] with her mouth” (63). For a while, she “learn[s] to hush”(71) about her own desires and play the role that Jody and the town expect of her. However, unlike with Nanny, Jody realizes that she “knows uh few things”(71) herself, and does not have to mutely submit to Jody’s beliefs as if they were more valid than her own.
In addition, her many disagreements with Jody cause her to realize that she has “an inside”(72) where her forbidden desires and ideas lie. She discovers that her “inside”(72) contains “a host full of thoughts she ha[s] never expressed”(72). This discovery marks a turning point in Janie’s development. The realization brings her into “double consciousness,” where she recognizes the divide between how she behaves for her husband, and how she longs to behave. Because of this new awareness Janie attempts to fight “back with her tongue”(71). She “thrusts herself into [a] conversation”(75) and she verbally humiliates Jody. These courageous outbursts are signs of the struggle within Janie to overcome the outer “show of humbleness”(80) and submission she has been displaying.
Even though Janie attempts to assert her selfhood by beginning to vocalize her desires, her behavior after Jody’s death reveals the continuing influence of others’ expectations on her. On the inside, Janie feels like “rollicking with the springtime”(88), but on the outside she displays a facade of “expensive black folds” and a “starched and ironed”(88) face for the benefit of the town. Her behavior shows that others’ expectations continue to dictate her actions. Despite becoming aware of her inside self and the things it desires, she remains divided. She has not achieved the confidence to make her outer self match her inner feelings.
With Tea Cake, however, Janie begins to follow her inside self more often than she follows the dictates of society. She ignores the fact that the town begins to “notice things”(110) and continues to do whatever her heart tells her to. She goes to “baseball games and huntin’ and fishin”(112) even though others judge her, because she has always wanted to do these things. She has never wanted to “class off”(112), it was her other self who submitted to Jody’s expectation that she disdain such activities. She “quit[s] attending church” and “she goes sashaying off to a picnic in pink linen”(110) even though Jody has only been gone for nine months. Significantly, she does not experience guilt for wearing spring colors instead of mourning ones because she realizes she “wasn’t wearin’ it for [Jody]” she was “wearin’ it for de rest of”(113) the town. This realization shows Janie’s growing awareness of her motivations. She starts to believe that her own desires are valid and possibly more significant than the desires of others.
Despite all of Janie’s progress with Tea Cake, her lack of freedom from her submissive side is revealed when Tea Cake “slap[s] her around”(147). The fact that Tea Cake “beat her to show dem Turners who is boss”(148) and Janie accepts it, suggests that Janie still experiences the sensation W.E.B. Du Bois describes as “always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.” Janie accepts the beating, and even parades it around as a display for the others. She shows them what they expect to see. This incidents suggests that Janie accepts herself enough to “listen and laugh and even talk some”(134) with everyone else, but because she continues to live by others’ expectations she has not completely let go of her second, submissive side.
If selfhood is the ability to value one’s own interpretations of life above others’, to accept oneself enough to follow one’s heart and not the dictates of society, then Janie exhibits true selfhood not with Tea Cake, but during and after her conversation with Pheoby. She arrives wearing grubby “overhalls,” but manages to keep “walking straight”(2) past the porch, whom she knows sits “in judgement”(1) of her. Despite having all eyes on her, she does not react to their open-mouthed stares. She does not change her direction or behavior to suit their expectations. Likewise, after she relays her story to Pheoby, she invites her to “tell ’em”(191) all her story. The reader knows Janie has confidence in herself, because she has complete confidence in the story that is the embodiment of her. Since she accepts the story and agrees to display it unaltered to the judgmental crowd outside, then she also accepts herself. Janie’s submissive side, who would want the story to suit the neighbors’ expectations, has been conquered by Janie’s true self.
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