Gender roles, morality, society, language, freedom, love, life, and death Zora Neal Hurstons Their eyes were watching god covers a stark realism of life among the Negroes of deep South (Ferris 106) in a slender text that they deeply impress the one who reads. It is much a feminism bible of its era in that it occupies and reflects how females were treated back then, Hurston successfully illustrates these themes by presenting what it means to be human. Also, the novel is an effective vehicle for students to make value judgments which they can relate to their own life (Hausman 61).
Values that each character signifies inside the text not only represents personal issues but further to the problems of equality and human rights on our society. Therefore, this paper will aim to analyze its major three themes, gender, social class and vision in perspective from feminism which are more or less critical factor to proof whether Their eyes were watching god has successfully done its mission as a vehicle of feminist protest.
Critics often see only one side of the coin, since the novel tells both linear history in the Western tradition and a circular history in the African American oral tradition (Wolter 233). Therefore, is important to understand its historical background of both Harlem renaissance and influence of western culture to review how this novel was accepted and understood at that time. It is a beautiful, terrible tale, and well worth reading, for itself and for the picture it gives of a most enchanting period in American history (Pi 260).
It was a period of chaos, from the end of World war 1 all the way through the great depression that a considerable number of African-American writers came out with a great deal of brilliant literary works. And twoness which means a divided awareness of ones identity was one of the most important themes in the Harlem renaissance spirit. W.EB. Dubois, who made one of the most significant notions argues that blacks are always able to sense twoness: American and Negro, two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strings: two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. (Dubois) His vision for the active construction of Self and community rested on this dialectical tension between participation in the white world and in the black world (Blau 220). Twoness appears to be a delicate theme in the novel, it is demonstrated by Janies confused feelings over her own ideal lover and Logan who was an ideal husband in her grandmothers point of view as a slave.
Hurston supported Back to Africa movement unlike other Harlem Renaissance writers who were more likely to show positive attitudes toward communism, got aggressive comments from other major writers such as R. Ellison argued that this novel is the blight of calculated burlesque. To be specific, critics pointed out reasons such as language use inside her novel, description of a lifestyle that brings misunderstanding of African-Americans and so on. However, while recognizing Hurstons rejection of feminine stereotype, Hurston criticism has done little to examine her attitudes toward masculinity, underscoring instead Hurstons self-description as the eternal feminine and emphasizing the role of her heroic women in resisting patriarchy (Powers 231). Their eyes were watching god was definitely influenced by Harlem renaissance but only when it came to nowadays critics noticed that its themes and ideologies were far beyond the period. To say it again, what makes this novel remarkable vehicle for feminist protest is that timeless themes inside the text far extend beyond among the leading writers of the era.
Gender is one of the most prominent themes in this novel. It is obvious that each gender occupies significantly different roles all along the storyline. Women are not only regarded as inferior gender but their life is decided by their relationship with men in most cases. From that reason the serious study of discovering why Hurston highlighted marriage in her novel is required, Hurston tried to illustrate the inequality of gender that female can only get access to the authority only by marrying to powerful or motivated male. By that reason, females are oppressed by males to positions of dependent, suppliant, domesticity, as well as objects of desire. Males enforce these unreasonable standards on females by disregarding their opinions, controlling their behavior with notions of propriety, and disrespecting their outfit and sexuality. Whenever females try to act against those social norms and show characteristics that males used to have such as power, ambition and intelligence, they are disgraced as too manly and, unattractive. Males, in comparison were always showing dominant and violent features:
She wasn’t petal-open anymore with him. She was twenty-four and seven years married when she knew. She found that out one day when he slapped her face in the kitchen. It happened over one of those dinners that chasten all women sometimes. They plan and they fix and they do, and then some kitchen dwelling fiend slips a scorchy, soggy, tasteless mess into their pots and pans. Janie was a good cook, and Joe had looked forward to his dinner as a refuge from other things. So when the bread didn’t rise, and the fish wasn’t quite done at the bone, and the rice was scorched, he slapped Janie until she had a ringing sound in her ears and told her about her brains before he stalked on back to the store (72)
Janies husbands brutally abused her for minor reason in order to prove his power to acquaintance which unquestionably illustrates the theme of inequality between both genders.
The novel is seen as a vehicle of feminist protest through its exploration of restrictiveness of bourgeois marriage and through exploration of intraracial sexism and male violence (Jordan 108). Janies marriage to her three husbands may seem as a resist from deprived life of female who are suffering from all kind of violence and disrespect in their marital relationship. Gender discrimination between activities appropriate for both gender are strongly mentioned from beginning to first half of novel, as a possession, she is denied any self-defined goals and even the expression of her own opinions (Jordan 109). Observing such mistreats, I was able to identify Janie was a strong individual inside and outside. She was brave enough to violate typical gender stereotypes which were a groundbreaking idea for the period. Jaine escapes the marriage to Logan Killicks, which provides neither affection nor comfort (109). Also, it is interesting that her words and actions which was much likely to appear as a masculine figure was regarded as a threat to males. Through these descriptions, Hurston might intend to suggest that such gender constructions are ridiculous.
It is commonly observed a social phenomenon that hierarchy order of social class is highly related to ones material wealth. We show that an economic theory of endogenous preference formation can explain how a class-based society differs from modern society, how the capitalist spirit emerged among the lower classes, and why the aristocracy lost its primacy (Matthias Et al). As leading economist Matthias mentioned one might view this phenomenon as the nature of capitalism, however I contend that it is rather a result of males monopolizing the power and wealth which made female powerless and dependent being in our society. Therefore, this paragraph will aim to argue how did the author struggle to describe the rise of female status. Their eyes were watching god establishes a female voice of authority not only on the simple level of authorship (McCredie 25). This is another evidence that Their eyes were watching god showing rebellious attitude toward an unequal social class of females in perspective from feminism. Through the description of Janies attitude toward their husbands, readers can easily identify how Hurston struggled to raise up the female rights to balance in their social class. Janies survival and her ability to outshoot the sick Tea Cake as Hurstons proof of female superiority and dominance in a Darwinian world (Jordan 109). My argument is that regardless of how much material wealth did Janies husbands gave it to her, there is something more important than out looking substances. Respect of females dignity, right for self-expression and self-esteem is a true indicator for giving an equal social class to them, therefore such act like the autonomous decision of shooting her own husband may not be simply understood as a personal measure, but rather as a symbolization of feminine protest.
As an ideal directing point for the improvement of female status in our society, the author strongly appeals through three steps of defiance act of protagonist. Firstly, Diane Sadoff argues that Janie liberates herself by engaging a verbal battle with Jody (109). Back then, it was challenging for females to argue against males who showed an overall dominant position upon various types of relationships. Hurston started from such minor factor to prove female rights were gradually growing. Next step, during their argument Janie slaps him and he returns the blow. Hurston describes,
He paid me off then and there with interest. No broken bones, you understand, and no black eyes. I realized afterward that my hot head could tell me to beat him, but it would cost me something. I would have to bring head to get head .
Then I knew I was too deeply in love to be my old self. For always a blow to my body hand infuriated me beyond measure . But somehow, I didnt hate him at all . He went out and bought some pie and I made a pit of hot chocolate and we were more affectionate than ever. (257-58)
For a female, physically counterattacking male was considered reckless and unwise idea both in the past and present, however, Hurston tried to break the frame of prejudice in order to use it as the powerful evidence of female right expansion. Lastly, Hurstons personal attitude about violence in the battle of the sexes makes it unlikely that Tea Cakes death is a punishment for his treatment of Janie (110). Tea Cakes deaths rather helped Janie to focus on her ideal model for a true love. She might choose to take good emotions and experiences rather than sickness, misery, and racism. In Dust Tracks on a Road Hurston wrote claims she wrote Their eyes were watching god to embalm all the tenderness of passion for A.W.P, whom she gave up, she argues, he refused to acknowledge her career (Hurston et al 260). The ultimate goal for true equality, in other word rising social statue of female may represented by self-realization. From that reason, arguing, physically resisting and making autonomous decision to protect herself and manage to live fulfilling life can be interpreted as strong evidence of vehicle for feminist resistance.
What matters is Janies realization that her fate is linked to her vision, though the recognition will lead her astray until she learns effectively to interpret what she sees (Clarke 606). Janies conscious life starts with her vision of the pear tree, guiding her to sexual awakening. Feeling called to gaze on a mystery (Hurston 10), she observes an exposure in the bees and flowers. Janies kiss with Johnny Tayler was espied by her nanny and later greatly influenced Janies future. This vision, over Janies painful moments with Joe Starks, is eventually fulfilled by the time she fell in love with Tea Cake, who is more likely to panache rather than putting emphasis on others. Janie stated, Look lak Ah seen you somewhere, Tea Cake answers, Ahm easy tuh see on Church Street most any day or night (90). By refusing to admit any nervousness being shown, Tea Cake turns his vision from a directing important gaze into an individual introduction, interpreting himself by engaging inspection. As a result, Janie recognizes that he could be a bee to a blossom a pear tree blossom in the spring(101), a male who is able to authorize his initial vision. She acknowledges him with visible metaphors: He was a glance from God. This metaphor signifies Tea Cakes link to the visual; he recognizes the need of combining voice with understanding, commenting that Janie needs tellin and showin (102) to believe in love. However, Janie was not just simply looking for man who is able to fully understand her voice and vision, she rather needed to learn how to fully express herself from the oppression. Vision, which initially divides her from herself, must then provide the means for re-inventing a self, one in which racial identity adds wholeness rather than division (607). The answer for vision as a feminist protest includes her racial factors that shows as a visible sign of her whiteness and her blackness, the heritage of slavery and sexual abuse.
Title of the novel is emphasizing the prominence of sight and being an autonomous looker, watching god could be understood as active figure rather than a passive act. Furthermore, to analyze this phenomenon from the perspective of feminism, it could be understood as the illustration of active female status who values herself, which is close to the image of female on nowadays. For instance, Janie is trying to use vision to find god after knowing how to value in herself using vision
They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God (160).
Since Janie is able to see the light in the darkness, it signifies her braveness to not feat the death; independent spirit that is not relying on male beings; and moreover to the vision which enlightens the dark ages of female. Vision, often was suppressed and silence figure for female in the past had successfully became a Prometheuss fire for female right protest. Also accomplished its mission as a title of Hurstons novel, representing authors concern by the setting of an individual females way of life to attain self-realization.
Their eyes were watching God is an experiment that verifies multiple elements of female right movement through a realistic setting of a middle-class woman who struggles in between traditional requirement of gender role, social class and vision that one values during the lifetime. Significance of this novel working as a vehicle for feminist protest is that it provides diverse options to judge moral values that we have to make in life. Although Their eyes were watching god did not meet the standard of orthodox concept of black feminism that leading critics suggest, Hurstons text that inherits the spirit of protesting against the unequal reality of females is fully admirable. And furthermore to letting one concern about the importance of human dignity that can fundamentally remedy the severe limitations that one female experience:
It remains one of the great novels of black literature-a novel that is laughing out loud funny, that allows black people to speak in their own wonderful voices, and that portrays them in all their human nobility and pettiness (Jordan 115).
Therefore, I argue that Their eyes were watching god has shown evidence that is strong enough to prove it has successfully accomplished its mission as a vehicle for feminist protest.