In Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, it is hard to see Janie or her interactions with her community as feminist. Whether Janie resides in Eatonville or the Everglades, her status as a black working class woman locates her at the very bottom of the social hierarchy. The men objectify her, her lover beats her, her community misunderstands her, and she fails to resist. However, if we look at the fragmented narration and Janie’s role as the principal narrator, a different view emerges about female agency. The narration switches between the first- and third-person perspective, and these perspectives, both separately and together, help to assert Janie as a narrator with authority and agency. As we look at Janie’s progression as a narrator and her developing voice, we see how she is capable of telling a story similar to the traditional front-porch tale that the men in her community tell. As Janie tells her story to Pheoby, she reestablishes her identity and the agency she lost as the protagonist.
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Their Eyes Were Watching God follows the life of Janie throughout her marriages. At the beginning of the novel, Janie is returning to Eatonville to tell her friend, Pheoby, her life story. The whole novel takes place within this storytelling frame. Janie leaves her first husband, Logan, for Joe (or Jody) Stark. Jody tempts Janie to go with him by explaining how he will dote on her and how his money will help them establish themselves in a new town. Jody takes Janie to the city of Eatonville, Florida where he becomes mayor. Jody makes it clear to the town that he and Janie belong to the middle class and are, therefore, worthier than the working-class population of Eatonville. Jody degrades Janie and silences her voice when she tries to vocalize her feelings in Eatonville. He passes away in Eatonville, and a younger working class man by the name of Tea Cake begins courting Janie. Janie falls in love with Tea Cake and follows him to the Everglades to work in the fields. Despite a singular incident when Tea Cake conforms to the Everglades’ society and slaps Janie, Tea Cake encourages Janie to express herself. After he dies, Janie returns to Eatonville and tells her story to Pheoby.
In Their Eyes, we see the significance of Janie not only narrating the events that happened during a lifetime, but also how she feels during the events. Janie clarifies this for us when she states, “‘tain’t no use in me telling you somethin’ unless Ah give you de understandin’ to go ‘long wid it. Unless you see de fur, a mink skin ain’t no different from a coon hide” (Hurston 7). While Zora Neale Hurston focuses the entire plot of Their Eyes around Janie, critics debate about whether or not Janie has the qualities necessary to be labeled a feminist. Many doubt that a plot in which the main character is unable to speak for herself can be described as feminist. Other critics, such as Alice Reich, Gordon E. Thompson, and Maria J. Racine discuss Janie’s female authority as the main storyteller of the novel, but mainly analyze situations where Janie is a character within the story, rather than its narrator. Ryan Simmons, a modern American literature scholar, distinguishes Janie’s worth as a community member versus her worth as a narrator when he asserts “Hurston values both self and community….Hurston is willing to sacrifice the possibility of attaining a coherent version of either, recognizing that, in a patriarchy, the coherence of one necessarily means the sacrifice of the other” (191). Simmons’s argument shows us that if Janie is going to be an active member of her community, then she cannot be a reliable narrator. If we only look at Janie’s silence when faced with alienation from her community we can’t read Their Eyes as a feminist novel. However, I believe that by looking at the point of view of the narration and how Janie establishes her storytelling platform with Pheoby, we can still read Their Eyes as a feminist novel.
I analyze Janie’s alienation in Eatonville and the Everglades to show the contrast between Janie’s weak actions as a protagonist and her authoritative voice after she returns to Eatonville. The men’s stories show how they view women as objects. The men also see Janie as Jody’s possession, rather than a person with her own emotions. During her time in Eatonville, Janie also faces exclusion based on her high social class. Janie’s excluded status within the town causes her to lose authority over how the townspeople portray and interpret her life. When Janie and Tea Cake move to the Everglades, Tea Cake develops insecure feelings about how the rest of the town views Janie. Tea Cake worries that they will assume Janie believes that she has a higher social status than the rest of the community because of her mixed race. Despite the authority that Janie progressively gains as she moves out of Eatonville to the Everglades, how Tea Cake views her mixed race excludes her from being an inclusive member of the community. While these instances show how Janie passively allows her society to silence her, she gains agency as she voices her opinions vocally while the omniscient narrator gives readers insight into the other characters.
The narration in Their Eyes switches back and forth between the third-person and the first-person perspective. The third-person narrator helps to represent Janie’s emotions at points when Janie is silent. The switch between the third-person narration and the first-person dialogue shows who has the authority to speak within the town, while the third-person narrator comments on those who are silenced. As Janie’s dialogue grows stronger and appears more frequently, Janie gains the authority necessary to return to Eatonville to tell her story.
Both of these modes of focalization work to present Janie as a narrator and allow for her to establish who will hear her story and which characters they will learn about. Through enacting these strategies, she becomes the authoritative narrator over the events in her life. She makes herself the subject of her story, reversing her role as an object of men’s gossips, fantasies, or stories. Janie bases her storytelling session on her trust with Pheoby, and through that trust she is able to show Pheoby, and the reader, her new identity and her transformation from the silenced woman the citizens of Eatonville perceived her to be to an empowered female storyteller.
Janie’s Alienation in Eatonville and the Everglades
The characters in the societies of Eatonville and the Everglades exclude Janie because she is a middle-class, mixed-race woman. Additionally, in Eatonville, the men exclude Janie and other women from their storytelling sessions. Because of this exclusion, the townspeople only observe Janie’s silence and make harsh judgments about her; they have not developed a relationship with her, as the reader has. Janie’s character progresses greatly as she moves from Eatonville to the Everglades, but the beating incident with Tea Cake shows Janie’s separation because of her skin color. Because Janie does not have relationships with the townspeople, Tea Cake fears that the townspeople will misinterpret his and Janie’s relationship and assume that Janie is the one with authority. Tea Cake feels he must assert his dominance to show that Janie’s mixed race doesn’t give her the power to control their relationship. In both patriarchal societies, Janie speaks as an outsider.
The men’s stories in Eatonville feature silent women who are included in the stories as objects for the men to lust after or win, rather than active characters with their own emotions. The storytellers only include women in the stories in relation to men. Few female characters have a significant role within the town or within these stories. These tales cast women as men’s objects of desire, reduced to their appearance and the social status it affords them. In Eatonville, Coker and Hicks, just after greeting Janie and Jody to Eatonville, discuss what getting a wife will require:
“It takes money tuh feed pretty women. Dye gits uh lavish uh talk.”
“Not lak mine. Dey loves to hear me talk because dey can’t understand it. Mah co-talkin’ is too deep. Too much love co to it.”
“You don’t believe me, do yuh? You don’t know de women Ah kin git to mah command.” (Hurston 36)
In this man’s vision, women want to listen to men speak, because they cannot comprehend “lavish” speech; the men believe they can use this speech and their money to earn the women—just as they would earn a prize. Jody earns Janie as he talks her into leaving Logan and gains her as a wife through his monetary power. The male storytellers in Eatonville do not consider the possibility of an active female voice. However, Janie’s abilities as a narrator contradict this message. After Janie returns to Eatonville, we see that not only can she understand what the men are saying, but can also speak in the same way, as we see in her storytelling session with Pheoby. Janie also goes against the logic in Coker and Hicks’ statements by choosing Tea Cake as her third husband. Their relationship is not based on Tea Cake fooling Janie with his words, or with his wealth, but purely on their emotional connection. Tea Cake has little money and the townspeople see Janie choosing him as illogical, because Janie is still wealthy from Jody, and they cannot see him as her provider. In this final section of the novel, Janie’s dialogue with Phoeby, which constitutes the main narrative, provides the only window to access her feelings and thoughts about her relationship with men and their surrounding community.
Like the women that Coker and Hicks describe in their story, the town perceives Janie as an object of discourse rather than a subject because of her lack of voice. Janie’s identity becomes convoluted as the text portrays two different versions of Janie: Janie as an object, displayed to the town as the docile and submissive wife, and the Janie who is secretly incredibly unhappy, who shares her emotions with only the readers and Pheoby. Without Janie ever speaking to him, Tony Taylor says that Janie “couldn’t look no mo’ better and no nobler if she wuz de queen uh England” (Hurston 42). In this example, Tony comments on Janie’s nobility, but only bases this observation on Janie’s demeanor and not on anything she has said or done within the community. The townspeople do not see the depth of Janie’s emotions, and she is so silent that it leaves them puzzled and incapable of understanding her as an individual. As the men discuss Janie and her relationship with Jody, one of them comments that “she sho don’t talk much. De way he rears and pitches in de store sometimes when she make uh mistake is sort of ungodly, but she don’t seem to mind at all” (Hurston 50). They see that Jody mistreats Janie, but accept it as normal behavior because Janie does not voice any complaints against it. For the men, appearances are truths, but readers can question the idea of blissful domesticity for Janie as they later gain access to her thoughts. The men’s stories show how they view both Janie and women in general. The tradition of swapping stories on front porches excludes women, which Their Eyes shows through Jody. The scene where Jody is named mayor reveals his perception about a woman’s alleged proper place. The men in town invite Janie to talk and Jody responds by saying, “mah wife don’t know nothin’ ‘bout no speech-makin.’ Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home” (Hurston 43). In this instance, Jody is clarifying for the community that Janie’s role does not include being a speechmaker or a storyteller. In short, there is no room for her in the public sphere. Jody’s silencing of Janie and relegation to the private realm of home as her rightful place shows his roles as a gatekeeper for patriarchy. As a result, Janie is excluded from her favorite parts about Eatonville. Anthropology scholar, Alice Reich, comments that these include “the gatherings around words, the speech-making, sermonizing, story-telling, singing and ‘woofing’” (Reich 165). The novel draws a picture of a storytelling town in which Janie wants to participate. Cheryl A. Wall, a Hurston Scholar, describes this pictures as “neither wholly public or private, it fosters free expression for blacks whose labor is exploited during the day. For women, however, it is not a safe space” (Wall 381). In this “safe space,” men are free to share their stories without worry of their social status and how these statuses affect their ability to interact with each other, but the same is not true for Janie. During this period, the town becomes the authority that frames and interprets who she is and what she represents.
While the men’s low social status gives them more opportunities to bond with fellow workers, Janie’s high social status prevents her from forming relationships with the townspeople. The townspeople only experience Janie as the dutiful wife, and when Janie does voice her opinions to Jody, they find it random and incomprehensible. The town does not hear Janie’s emotions in the same way that the reader and Pheoby do. Both the reader and Pheoby get to know Janie’s most complex emotions, experience the struggles with her through her first-hand account, and look at the whole story from Janie’s perspective. Meanwhile, the townspeople only get to know her through her limited interactions with them. Soon after Janie meets Jody, he locates her within a hierarchy: Janie is the upper class, and everybody else is below her. He states, “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” (Hurston 29). While the naïve Janie only sees how Jody wants to dote on her, this foreshadows how he wants her to appear to the townspeople of Eatonville; she is a prize for them to gaze upon. Simmons argues that Jody “purposely sets himself and Janie apart from the other Eatonville residents by displaying material possessions, such as expensive cigars and a fancy chair” (184). We hear the narrator’s interpretation of Jody’s distinction when the narrator states, “he didn’t mean for nobody else’s wife to rank with her. She must look on herself as the bell-cow, the other women were the gang” (Hurston 41). This class differentiation affects the townspeople both during Jody’s life and afterwards when Tea Cake courts Janie. Janie comments that she “soon began to feel the impact of awe and envy against her sensibilities….She couldn’t get but so close to most of them in spirit” (Hurston 46). Janie only recognizes her inability to connect with the townspeople through the third-person narrator, rather than vocalizing this thought to the townspeople. Without voicing this thought publicly, she is unable to transcend the demarcation line Jody had drawn between the townspeople and herself. Janie remains an outsider within her community because of her inability to overcome class differences, and does not begin to do so until she voices her opinions in the Everglades, rather than sharing them exclusively with the reader.
Because the townspeople feel rejected by Janie, they are unrestrained with their gossip about her, and Janie is unable to shape the narrative about her own life in Eatonville. After Janie stands up to Joe in the store, Pheoby tells Janie that people around town have been saying that she poisoned Joe. Pheoby tells Janie that the rumors have “been singin’ round here ever since de big fuss in de store dat Joe was ‘fixed’ and you wuz de one dat did it” (Hurston 82). The rumor that Pheoby is referring to only begins circulating after Janie stands up to Joe’s oppressive comments to her in the store. The town misinterprets Janie’s reaction because she has not told them about her unhappiness in her relationship with Jody. They see this instance as a random outburst, rather than Janie’s true emotions that she has been repressing for many years. As readers, we are not as surprised by Janie’s frustration with Jody, because we know how stifled she has felt with him.
The town misunderstands Janie when she finally stands up to Jody, and similarly, they misunderstand what they see of her relationship with Tea Cake. While many of the townspeople’s judgments focus on the age difference between them, the main objection stems from their class difference. As the town identifies Janie solely as Jody’s widow, they see her relationship with Tea Cake as a crime against Jody, even though he is deceased. The townspeople never questioned Janie’s marriage as a means to climb the social ladder, but they believe this is the motive behind Tea Cake’s courting of Janie. This shows a double standard in how the Eatonville community in Their Eyes views a man marrying outside of his class. They use Tea Cake and Janie’s class difference as a reason to criticize their relationship without spending a significant amount of time with them. Sam Watson shows this point when he states, “Tea Cake can’t do nothin’ but help her spend whut she got. Ah reckon dat’s whut he’s after. Throwin’ away whut Joe Starks worked hard tuh git tugether” (Hurston 111). Despite the townspeople’s previous complaints about how Jody treated them, they still defend his class hierarchy, which locates them and Tea Cake at the bottom and, therefore, categorizes them as unworthy of Janie’s attention. Jody is still able to earn authority with the townspeople after his death because of the voice he had within the community. Even though Janie is still alive and living in Eatonville, she cannot earn this authority without first earning a voice. Her position as the outsider gives her a chance to establish how she tells her narrative—including whom she includes in her narrative and how she decides to portray them. Toni Flores, a woman’s studies scholar, explains how Janie’s position is advantageous when she argues, “when the writer has both known and claimed a way of life whose center is not one of the dominant centers of power… [they establish] a real grounding for a new edifice.” (53) Through Janie’s outsider status, she gives Pheoby an objective interpretation of the town.
While Jody and Janie’s social status afford them a certain social standing in their community, Tea Cake values Janie’s race with a similar significance; this value causes Tea Cake to beat Janie out of fear that the townspeople will misinterpret her views about race. Tea Cake beats Janie after a series of events involved with Mrs. Turner, a woman of a lighter skin color similar to Janie’s, who sees both of them as higher class than the rest of the black community. The narrator states, “[Mrs. Turner] didn’t cling to Janie Woods the woman. She paid homage to Janie’s Caucasian characteristics as such” (Hurston 145). Mrs. Turner sends her brother to woo Janie, and Tea Cake responds to the situation by beating Janie who is not the instigator of this courtship. Tea Cake’s first reaction to this situation is not vocal communication, but physical violence. Janie does not have control over Jody’s wealth, or how he defines her as a person of high social status. Similarly, Janie does not have control over how Tea Cake views her race or how the people in the Everglades see her based on her light skin color. Despite Janie’s vocalization in the Everglades, Janie is silent after Tea Cake beats her. Tea Cake is fearful because he is unable to control how their society views Janie’s mixed race. Tea Cake recognizes that Janie is viewed as an outsider of the black community because she is half Caucasian. Janie and Tea Cake are unable to vocalize their feelings when faced with the threat of exclusion from their co-workers in the Everglades. Janie does not defend herself against a man that she loves, Tea Cake. As Tea Cake sees the amount of time that Mrs. Turner spends with Janie and hears the statements she makes about Janie marrying someone else, he understands that the townspeople are going to view these same occurrences and make assumptions that Janie views her skin color in the same way as Mrs. Turner.
Tea Cake is afraid of the power that Janie can gain by being half Caucasian (a power that he can never earn). Tea Cake cannot control that Janie may have more advantages than he does because of her lighter skin, but he can position himself as superior in physical strength, reversing a racial hierarchy through a gendered one. Janie’s lighter skin grants her authority with the white community—causing Tea Cake to assert his authority over Janie with violence. While the other men of the Everglades beat their wives to assert their masculine dominance over them, Tea Cake beats Janie because of his own insecurities about the agency that Janie could have through her race. Janie has the capability of becoming a “greater value in white society” than Tea Cake because of the cultural connection she has to white society with her mixed race (Racine 289-290). While Janie remains silent throughout this section, Tea Cake confesses that he beat Janie not for something she has done, but rather to “show dem Turners who is boss” (Hurston 148). While Tea Cake allows for Janie to speak in the Everglades, and does not silence her in the same way that Jody does, he clarifies through the beating that Janie is his to control. Leif Sorenson comments on Janie’s difficult position; she is “caught between a white world that is not hers and a black world from which she has become alienated” (20). Tea Cake is unable to explain Janie’s relationship with Mrs. Turner to the community, and therefore, beats Janie to assert his power and show the townspeople that Janie’s mixed race is not a threat to him.
Janie’s silence shows how her love for Tea Cake keeps her from voicing her opinions, which causes her to lose agency as both a character within the story and as a narrator of the story. Jody also beats her during their marriage; however, after Tea Cake beats Janie, we do not have access to her thoughts. A Hurston scholar, Maria J. Racine, explains the significance of times when Janie is physically abused when she asserts, “the scenes [where Janie is beaten] also expose Janie’s recognition of her lack of communication with her husband—her lack of voice” (289). Janie is unable to voice how the incidents make her feel to either husband and is unable to gain her voice when challenged with domestic violence.
Focalization and Agency
The narration in Their Eyes alternates between the characters’ dialogue and the unnamed narrator’s point of view. These perspectives, both separately and through their alternation help to assert Janie as a feminist character who has the agency and authority necessary to tell her story. The third-person narrator acts as another representation to express, support and validate those emotions. As the narration switches between the first- and third-person perspectives, it shows who has vocal authority. As Janie becomes closer to becoming a storyteller, her dialogue grows more frequent and she gains the agency to vocalize her emotions.
To show this progression, the third-person narrator speaks for Janie when she is unable to speak for herself in society. The narrator gives us insight into Janie’s emotions and presents Janie’s perspective as the central one for the novel by consistently depicting Janie’s emotions; while only sporadically giving us insight into other characters. This narrator tells the readers about Janie’s desire to assert her agency. The narrator states that Janie’s “image of Jody tumbled down and shattered” (Hurston 72). By telling us that Janie “was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen,” the narrator foreshadows Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake—a relationship that helps Janie to gain a voice (Hurston 72). The omniscient narrator explains Janie’s emotions when she is in Eatonville and usually only switches to give the perspective of the other characters when Janie is able to speak for herself; because of this consistency, we can read this narrator as another representation of Janie, rather than an outside, unnamed observer. Racine comments on the fragmentation of the novel when she states, “Janie’s consciousness and the narrator’s consciousness fuse into one” (283). The narrator also enables Janie’s transition from a character within her own story to being the authority of the story.
The narrator, acting as a representative of Janie, makes Janie’s ability to narrate her story more significant as she reveals Janie’s previously stifled desire to tell stories. The narrator comments on Janie’s passion for storytelling when she states, “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” (Hurston 53-54). Many critics agree with Robert Stepto, an African-American narrative scholar, that “Hurston’s curious insistence on having Janie’s tale…told by an omniscient third person, rather than by a first-person narrator, implies that Janie has not really won her voice at all” (166). However, through the narrator, Janie develops her relationship with the reader when she is unable to form relationships with members of her society.
As the narrator helps to form this relationship, she also validates Janie’s emotions by coming from a separate point of view from Janie’s personal perspective. This second authority allows readers to see the value of Janie’s emotions to the novel, rather than just to Janie personally. The third-person narrator functions as a device that asserts Janie’s feelings as facts for the reader, rather than just how she feels as a character. We know that not only does Janie believe the emotions, but the unnamed narrator does as well. By the end of the novel, Janie sees her life “like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches” (Hurston 8). This quote shows the objectivity that Janie gains by the end of the novel as she looks back on her life. Janie’s life is significant to not only Janie and Pheoby, but also important to readers because the narrator acknowledges the significance of Janie’s emotional changes in the novel and how she progresses as a character.
Janie’s voice develops greatly during her time in Eatonville, but Tea Cake’s act of domestic violence silences her. The town interprets this horrific incident as the norm of their society, and the narrator reveals this perspective to us. Readers hear Janie’s distress when Jody slaps her, but do not hear a reaction with Tea Cake. If we accept that Janie’s love for Tea Cake keeps her from speaking out against his beating, then we can see her as a more unrestrained narrator during her time with Jody because readers receive more insight when Jody beats her than when Tea Cake does. The difference is in how she expresses herself during these two beatings. She is silent when Tea Cake beats her, but with Jody, we hear her opinions through the third-person narrator. Janie has already shared with the readers her feelings about being objectified and mistreated by men. This insight creates sympathy for Janie and for the fact that she lives in a culture where the women view a less severe beating as more desirable than to the beatings that their husbands give them.
As the narrator shows us the townspeople’s reactions to Janie’s beating, we see a society where physical violence is acceptable and even desirable. The narrator describes the townspeople’s reactions and the mentality surrounding the incident: “the way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams” (Hurston 147). Both the men and the women see the slap as something desirable, both in the way that Janie responds and in the way that Tea Cake delivers the abuse. The town views the “slap as a socially acceptable expression of possessive love and authority” (Racine 289). The omniscient narrator challenges this social acceptability. The narration is centered around Janie in all sections except this one. As readers, we have already vowed ourselves to Janie having a voice, and because Janie is silent in this section, we blame Tea Cake for the beating and the society for condoning it. We see the difference between Janie’s beating and the beatings that many of the other women endure. The narrator describes Janie’s beating as “no brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss” (Hurston 147). While Janie takes the beating quietly, the other men in town describe how their wives attempt to fight off their husbands: “mah woman would spread her lungs all over Palm Beach County, let alone knock mah jaw teeth” (Hurston 148). This section illuminates how masculine violence becomes the norm and is then unsuccessful in silencing the feminine voice; we see this pattern as we observe the difference in Janie’s reaction the first time Tea Cake beats her and how the women react after years of getting abused. Tea Cake’s brutality becomes an anomaly because of Janie’s submissiveness to a sexist act.
The narrator signals times when Janie’s voice is silenced and she is unable to speak within her society. The third-person point of view gives us important insight into Janie’s emotions, but as Janie progresses as a narrator, she tells the reader her emotions through dialogue. However, when Janie returns to Eatonville at the end of her journey, the third-person narrator supports Janie’s dialogue, rather than replacing it. This switch allows for the text to offer two perspectives that both work towards the same principles: establishing Janie’s authority as a narrator and explaining Janie’s emotions to the reader. For example, at the end of the novel, the third-person narrator states, “here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see” (Hurston 193). In this example, the narrator is expanding on the authority of Janie and the significance of her narrative, both of which Janie establishes through her dialogue with Pheoby. Sandra Kemp, a feminist scholar, argues that fragmenting the perspective of a work helps to establish a character’s identity when she states that narration can become “an act of reconstitution” (107). Janie reestablishes herself as she tells this story, and doesn’t do so simply in one point of view, but shows the complexity of her story and herself through a fragmented narration. Both Janie’s perspective and the narrator’s support Janie’s agency as a narrator.
We see this agency come out in Janie’s voice when the third-person narrator establishes Janie’s vocal authority by describing the emotions of the other characters, rather than describing Janie’s. This switch shows that other characters are dependent on this narration, and Janie’s voice has become independent of the narrator; one of these characters includes Jody. The novel lets Janie speak for herself when she feels equal in her society, rather than resorting to the third person narration. Toni Flores, a woman’s studies scholar, argues that Hurston “rejects the usual models offered by the literary world of her time and takes the enormous risk of writing a novel not only about black life but also largely in black dialect” (Flores 57). Unlike the omniscient voice, the dialogues show us moments when Janie publicly speaks for herself. However, with Jody, Janie is unable to publicly voice her opinion. During one of the only times that Janie speaks in Eatonville, she states, “Jody, dat wuz uh mighty fine thing fuh you tuh do. ‘Tain’t everybody would have thought of it….You have tuh have power tuh free things and dat makes you lak uh king uh something” (Hurston 58). Just after this, the third-person omniscient narrator switches to giving readers the emotions of Jody. As Janie is able to state her opinion vocally, the narration takes this ability away from Jody, and he only gives his emotions through the narrator. As Jody stifles Janie’s voice several times throughout the novel, Jody grows more silent as Janie becomes more vocal, and therefore more powerful. After the narrator stops commenting on Jody, Jody tells Janie that she is not going to attend the ceremony for the mule (58-60), the very subject that she publicly spoke about. The authority goes back to Jody when the narrator begins explaining Janie’s emotions again. This passage shows that power remains with whoever is speaking rather than with the character that the narrator gives us insight into.
Janie gains this power as she develops her voice within her community in the Everglades and her marriage to Tea Cake. If we view the beating incident as an example of how alienation affects Janie and Tea Cake’s relationship, then we can still see how Janie’s voice develops in the Everglades, despite this incident. As Janie changes throughout the novel, she speaks more and is able to voice her opinions and emotions during her marriage to Tea Cake. As Janie’s relationship develops with Tea Cake, so does her public voice throughout the novel, allowing her to vocalize her authority. Flores comments on the switch from mainly third-person narration to dialogue when she states, “from the time Janie takes up with Tea Cake and takes on her own life, the story is related almost entirely in dialect. The rural black southern world has become not just object but subject; it is telling its own story, in its own words” (Flores 56-57). The novel reaches the point of “telling its own story” in the Everglades, and Janie does not consistently speak in dialogue until she is in the Everglades and her society accepts her. As Janie begins speaking more, the novel turns to the omniscient voice to give us details of the plot and to give the emotions of the other characters, whereas Janie’s dialogues shows us her emotions. In the section where Janie is jealous of Nunkie on the fields, Hurston switches back and forth from the first-and third-person point of view. Janie explains her emotions through the dialogue, while the narrator explains the plot: “She walked slowly and thoughtfully to the quarters. It wasn’t long before Tea Cake found her and tried to talk….‘You done hurt mah heart, now you come wid uh lie tuh bruise mah ears! Turn go mah hands.’ Janie seethed But Tea Cake never let go” (Hurston 137). The third-person point of view in this section describes the actions of the characters, but puts the emphasis on Janie’s emotions, which Janie vocalizes to Tea Cake. Reich discusses Janie vocalizing her opinions when she comments, “Tea Cake takes Janie to the Everglades where she finds a freedom she has never known….She joins the story-telling and is no longer silent.” (167). Janie is now in a society that does not exclude her, and she is with a husband who does not silence her. Janie is no longer fearful of the effects of participating in the dialogue of her society.
Janie’s Storytelling Platform
Instead of supporting the tradition of objectifying women within these front-porch stories, Janie defies it through telling her story to Pheoby, making herself the subject, rather than the object of the men’s desires. To see Janie as a feminist narrator, we must not define her by her actions, but instead, by her choice to explain them to Pheoby and the reader. We get to know Janie’s identity through the choices she makes as a narrator. Simmons supports this argument when he states, “For Hurston, language is not simply a method for communication; the process of articulating experience in words is a way of shaping, of making sense of, the self” (189). Janie is able to explain her new identity as a storyteller to Pheoby through the trust that she establishes with her. Janie determines that Pheoby will be the only one hearing her story and becomes the authority over every detail she includes in her story.
While men make women admired, controlled, or silent objects of their stories, Janie breaks this tradition by showing readers her voice as a storyteller. Janie’s storytelling session with Phoeby mirrors the male storytelling custom, but is from the perspective of a female. While Janie lacks agency as a married woman in Eatonville, she gains agency when she returns single and tells her own story. Despite her inability to defy Joe, she is the character that readers attach themselves to through her narration. During her time in Eatonville, Janie becomes Jody’s prize to show off to the rest of the community, rather than a character with a range of emotions and opinions. However, through Janie’s narrative she has “the possibility of becoming the signifying [subject], rather than the [object] of narrative” (Kemp 107). While in their stories, men only speak of women in relation to themselves, the opposite is also true for Janie’s story. While Janie remains silent as Jody’s wife, just before he dies, she tells him,
sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too….He told me how surprised He was ‘bout y’all turning out so smart after Him makin’ yuh different; and how surprised y’all is goin’ tuh be if you ever find out you don’t know half as much ‘bout us as you think you do. It’s so easy to make yo’self out God Almighty when you ain’t got nothin’ tuh strain against but women and chickens. (Hurston 75)
In this instance, Janie points out her main problem with how the men view women in Eatonville: their lack of acknowledgement of women; the men’s stories also exhibit this perspective. This is a significant moment for Janie because she is questioning male authority by stating that she believes God would question men equating their gender with intellect. Janie’s gender, race, and class keep her from earning vocal authority, and because of this, she ranks lower than the male storytellers on the Eatonville authoritative hierarchy. These challenges make it difficult for Janie to tell her story. Janie points out that it is very easy for the men to discourage those below them on this hierarchy. Those they discourage turn into figures with fluid identities within their stories, rather than active characters. Janie states that men should not be so sure that they understand women; this belief allows Janie to decide to tell a story that asserts a female perspective as the primary authority, which provides a solution to limited female perspectives in storytelling. Janie tells a story that positions the men’s opinions and emotions as secondary to her own. We hear Jody and Tea Cake’s dialogue with the other men in their towns, but the third-person narrator focuses mainly on Janie. We get to know both of these men through Janie’s opinions of them, and this perspective makes us sympathetic towards Tea Cake and critical of Jody. While a significant portion of the plot is focused on men and their interaction with one another, the female perspective drives the narration. As Gordon E. Thompson, an African-American studies scholar states, “Hurston’s storytelling is [to be] rendered gender neutral” (Thompson 757). It is not that Their Eyes is just a story that focuses on women as the subject, but rather she is using a woman’s perspective as the main authority of the story. Simmons acknowledges that it is not because of male influence that Janie becomes a storyteller when he states “no man can keep Janie safe—men can protect neither her body nor her voice—and therefore, if a successful narrative is to be achieved by Janie, it will be a result of her own decisions and actions, whether or not she makes them in the company of a man” (188). As Simmons discusses, if Janie is to achieve any agency, it is not going to be within patriarchal societies. It is through her decision to pass along her story.
Janie breaks away from the patriarchal environment and chooses only Pheoby as her audience, and through her trust in Pheoby, Janie distinguishes herself as a storyteller from the silenced character that she describes during her first stay in Eatonville. At the beginning of the novel, Janie refers to Pheoby as her, “kissin’ [–friend]” and that she is “talking to [her] from dat standpoint” (Hurston 7). During her first stay in Eatonville, Janie allowed the townspeople to interpret her choices while she remained silent. Janie establishes the difference with Pheoby by stating that she “don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ‘em nothing” and that retelling the story “tain’t worth de trouble” (Hurston 6). In this example, Janie differentiates her story from the gossip that is circulating in the town about her. Pheoby is the only other female, besides Nanny, who has a strong presence in the novel. The townspeople speaking about Janie’s personal life are either men or their gender is unnamed. Janie and Pheoby’s storytelling session is significant, because it is the only time throughout the novel when a woman trusts another woman with her personal stories, unveiling her emotions and vulnerability.
We see the impact of Hurston’s novel when we see women striving to produce their own stories, despite the social inequalities that they have to fight against to make their work possible. Kemp discusses the significance of female modernists’ writing and how their unique perspective is advantageous for telling stories. She states, “feminist modernists have glimpsed that lost domain where the object holds the subject at its gaze. Here we observe without interpreting…and reading and writing reform rather than transform the world around” (107). Janie shows flaws within patriarchal societies, and does so without asserting her feminism as the beginning of an unrealistic revolt against this society. While Janie is not able to overcome the sexism in her story, Their Eyes “is a novel not only about a woman but by a woman and, more importantly, from a woman’s point of view” (Flores 57). Hurston’s inclusion of African-American dialect within society shows that “she claims the validity and worth of black speech and asserts her own right to that speech” as she shows Janie evolve into someone who can speak up in society and go back to the society that excluded her to retell her tale (Flores 57).
Hurston shows us societies and men who objectify Janie and women in general, speak ill of those whom they do not understand, and feel discomfort about racial variance. More importantly, she shows us a female protagonist who is unable to overcome these challenges to speak up within her community. Janie retreats and allows for the narrator to tell her story, and while Simmons describes this voice as “disruptive in that it cannot be rendered useful to the community, unless the community changes its own attitudes and practices” (190), it allows us to see character flaws in the societies around Janie. Hurston shows Janie’s stifling relationship with Jody, and how Janie is able to earn most of her voice while with Tea Cake. Tea Cake’s insecurity about Janie’s race causes him to act violently and results in Janie’s silence. However, this instance excluded, Tea Cake encourages Janie to vocalize her opinions. Hurston shows how Tea Cake’s encouragement of Janie helps her to overcome gender boundaries and become a storyteller. Tea Cake’s encouragement shows that the responsibility to change a society’s mentality is dependent on not just one person speaking up, but others encouraging this speech as well.
Hurston fragments the narrations using the first- and third-person perspective. We see how these two voices work to support Janie’s emotions, and show us when she is strong enough to speak up in her society. This style allows us to see Janie as a character who evolves throughout her experiences. We see how a society can affect the speech of those who feel oppressed and how varying the perspective helps characters gain credibility and can give voices to silenced characters. Through these fragments and telling her story to Pheoby, Janie is able to unify “her life, her thoughts, her feelings, and her words” (Reich 168). Janie is able to establish her own identity as she chooses to tell her story to a trusted friend and shows that a woman can be the subject of a traditional front-porch tale. It is through Hurston’s structure that we get to know Janie’s inner thoughts, her limitations when faced with oppression, and her capability as a storyteller. Perhaps Hurston proves Janie’s capabilities most effectively when she shows us Pheoby’s reaction. Pheoby responds to hearing the story by saying, “Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie. Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo.’ Ah means tuh make Sam take me fishin’ wid him after this. Nobody better criticize yuh in mah hearin’” (192). Pheoby is no longer restricted by gender limitations that others established for her, just as Janie surpassed restrictions that held her back. Janie gains Pheoby’s full allegiance. Despite Janie’s silence throughout her tale, she still earns Pheoby as her defender by turning events in her life into a narrative. Hurston gives us a complex character capable of inspiring other women through her own courageous storytelling.
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