Often times when readers pick up a novel they hope to take away from it some type of overall meaning or unifying message which drives the story forward. Traditional novels such as Richard Wright’s Native Son or Herman Melville’s Moby Dick have overarching themes: the struggle against oppression in Wright’s work and the classic conflict of good versus evil in Melville’s piece. Both of these novels have cohesive narratives which continually reference these themes, and readers can easily identify the intent of the authors through plot and character development.
Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God on the other hand does not have one unifying theme which drives the novel, rather it deals with many concepts such as gender roles and social mobility which propel the novel forward. The famed writer Richard Wright wrote a critique of Hurston’s novel titled “Between Laughter and Tears” claiming that the novel had “no theme, no message and no thought”, Wright is correct in some ways about the novel lacking one single identifiable message.
Rather the work as whole encompasses several topics and can be interpreted in different lights- this ends up being one of the work’s principle strengths. Zora Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford, a young woman on the quest to find love, a sense of personal identity and purpose in the world. Janie’s journey begins when her grandmother finds her flirting with a young man in her front yard. After chastising Janie for wasting her beauty on such a ‘low class gent’, her grandmother abruptly organizes her marriage to a prominent community figure Logan Killicks.
In her first marriage Janie gained economic stability but was unhappy, claiming that “she knew that marriage did not make love”(Hurston 25). When her stifling relationship with Logan became too much to bear Janie left him for an up-and-coming social climber named Joe Starks. Her second marriage began with good intentions and propelled Janie higher up the social hierarchy, her husband became the mayor of a small town and the pair accumulated lots of wealth. Despite her high social standing Janie again found herself in a loveless, stifling relationship.
She realizes that “most humans don’t love one another nohow, and this mislove was so strong that even common blood couldn’t overcome it… ”(90). This explains why she stays with Joe for twenty loveless years. After the death of Joe Starks, Janie meets Tea Cake. The pair travel to the Everglades to work in the fields alongside other migrant workers. Despite moving to a lower class in society Janie finally is able to feel happy and in love with her partner, she lives in a lively community and enjoys life in the Everglades with the migrant workers.
In Wright’s critique he argues that Hurston’s novel doesn’t reach beyond the “negro folk in their pure simplicity”. This is clearly not the case, we see Hurston develop ideas which encompass all of society and apply to both whites and blacks in the community. First and foremost she comments on the idea of social class, which becomes closely tied to the possession of material wealth. The text takes the reverse role of the traditional stereotype that wealth will bring happiness and stability to life, and widens the scope to apply to all social classes.
This is in direct contradiction to Wright’s assertion that the novel doesn’t reach out from the traditional roles of African Americans at the time. Janie is forced to marry her first husband at her grandmother’s insistence because Nanny believes that social status and worldly goods will bring happiness, Logan Kallick “Got a house bought and paid for and sixty aces right on da big road” (23). Nanny believes that this material stability and high social class is all that Janie needs to be happy claiming that “dis love”(23).
When Janie finds her loveless, albet economically fruitful marriage unsatisfying she leaves Kallcik for a social climber named Joe Starks. This demonstartes that economic success doesn’t provide a correspondingly happy life. In her second marriage Janie again climbs higher up the social ladder when Starks becomes the mayor of Eatonville. Her marriage brings her material wealth, a “big house” (47) and influence in the community. She claims that “she slept with authority so she was part of it in the town mind” (46).
Despite all of this Janie finds her life unfulfilled, she even says that “ambition is useless” (80) alluding to the fact that despite her high social standing thanks to the efforts of her husband, she was unhappy. After twenty years of another loveless marriage Starks dies and Janie meets another man named Tea Cake. Despite his obviously lower social standing the two fall madly in love and go to work in the fields together . Janie’s final partnership allows her to finally find true love in someone while also finding her own personal identity. We see Hurston’s argument about social class projected in several other ways also.
This is developed mainly through the inverse relationship of wealth and material happiness. The lower classes seem to enjoy more fun, we regularly see them all hanging out outside on the porch or talking by the storefront. They interact together in a lively manner, but because Janie occupies a higher social standing as the mayors’ wife she in not allowed to partake in the easygoing conversation. Hurston writes “Janie loved the conversation and sometimes she thought up good stories on the mule, but Joe had forbidden her to indulge. He didn’t want her talking after such trashy people” (54).
Janie was perceived to be of a higher class and thus intellectually superior and morally pure compared to the “trashy” people which Jody describes. This prevention of interaction between Janie and the townsfolk again demonstrates how the novel’s protagonist (Janie) shows the folly in trying to move up the social ladder. As a result of her attractive looks Janie gains a tremendous amount of social mobility. Her appearance, long straight hair and a fairer skin tone which give her caucasian qualities, coupled with an accumulation of wealth allow her to occupy (or seem to occupy) several social classes.
We see the townsfolk at the start of the novel confused as to where she belongs. “What she doin coming back here in dem overhalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on? –Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in? –Where all dat money her husband took and died and left her? –What dat forty year ole’ ‘oman doin’wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal? ”(2). The inhabitants in Eatonville are confused by Janie’s appearance when she arrives back in town. Her masculine dress and the youthful way she wears her hair down prevent the gossipers from placing her in a distinct social class.
Before she left Janie was the rich wife of the mayor, but then she ran off with a man with no social standing who was much younger than her. Janie’s actions defy social norms typical of a black woman at the time, contradictingWright’s critique that the novel follows the traditional pattern of African Americans. Through Janie’s social movements throughout her life Hurston aims to develop a larger point about social class and happiness. Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God also explores gender roles present in the South at the time.
Throughout history women have been defined by their relationship to men, this is why marriage is stressed in so many pieces of literature. Through a ‘good’ marriage a woman can gain stability and power through a partnership with a wealthy or ambitious man. In Wright’s critique of Hurston’s work he writes that “[her characters] swing the pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit”, meaning that he believes Hurston’s novel does not expand past the traditional roles of African Americans in society and remains confined by social boundaries.
If this were true than Janie most likely wouldn’t have left her first husband Logan Killick and the economic security which their marriage provided. Janie’s succession of husbands and the efforts of Nanny, Logan and Joe to put her in her place as a submissive and subservient wife continually fail. Nanny tries to convince Janie to marry Logan as a means of protection and duty as a woman, claiming that “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see”(14).
This is the first time gender roles really come up in the novel, and as Nanny points out marriage to Logan becomes a sort of duty which Janie is obliged to commit to because as a black woman she is the ‘mule of the world’, or lowest of the low and bound to accept what she can get. Logan Killicks had strong opinions about gender roles in marriage, he believes that Janie should work , he says “Ah kin haul de wood heah and chop it fuh yuh, look lak you oughta be able tuh tote it inside…. You done been spoilt rotten”(26).
He thinks that a woman should have to ‘earn’ her keep, Janie on the other hand thinks that her duty is to cook and clean and stay inside the house. In her first marriage gender roles were clearly defined for the pair. Joe Starks on the other hand has a completely different view of the role of women, he thought of a wife more as an object and claims that “A pretty doll-baby lak you is made to sit on de front porch and rock and fan yo’self and eat p’taters dat other folks plant just special for you” (29). Joe sees women as something to look at and own whereas Logan saw women as something to be utilized.
The exploration of the role of women is interesting because in both cases Janie rebells and fights against the norms. She leaves Logan to escape the loveless and burdensome relationship and then falls out of love with Jody after he begins to treat her like an object rather than an individual. We see Jody’s idea that he owns Janie again with his insistence that she tie her hair back. Hurston writes “This business of the head-rag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. Her hair was NOT going to show in the store. It didn’t seem sensible t all. That was because Joe never told Janie how jealous he was…. She was there in the store for him to look at, not those others”(55). Joe saw Janie as his possession and wanted to prevent others from seeing or even appreciating her beauty. He sees her hair as a threat to his dominance in their relationship. Janie’s hair becomes tied to both her femininity (again a gender role) and identity, and in an attempt to prove his masculinity Jody refuses to let Janie assert her identity by forcing her to tie her hair back in rag.
Finally, when Jody dies Janie’s first reaction is to “tear off her kerchief and let down her plentiful hair “(87). Janie’s act symbolizes her freedom from Jody’s oppression and from the constraints of traditional gender roles. This breaking away from male domination is central to the novel, and one of the main messages which readers can take away from the novel, again discrediting Wright’s assumption that the novel had “no message”.
Standing up for equality in marriage and rebelling against sexism is clearly the focus which Hurston hopes readers can take away from the novel. The novel ends on a rather happy note, with Janie telling Phoeby the story of her life and the two central messages that she has learned through her trying journey. Janie explains that “Ah’m back home again and Ah’m satisfied to be here. Ah been to the horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparison”(191).
Janie is explaining how she learned to live her life, and she goes on to explain how she thinks that people need to take an active role in their lives so they can ‘truly experience’ instead or merely staying home and idly gossiping The ideas which Hurston proposes in Their Eyes Were Watching God about social mobility and gender conventions speak to a wide audience and certainly reach beyond the constraints of negro social boundaries. Thus it can be said that Wright’s critique of Hurtson’s novel is narrow-minded and does not probe at the underlying ideas present in the novel.