Zora Neal Hurston incorporated many of her real life experiences into her masterful work Their Eyes Were Watching God. Many instances of overlap from Hurston’s life into her novel were revealed through research into her biography. Hurston was headstrong and determined just as Janie was throughout the novel. Three notable similarities between Hurston and her novel were that she lived in Eatonville, Florida, she lost her mother at a young age, and she possessed youthful, infectious good looks.
A large portion of Their Eyes Were Watching God took place in Eatonville, Florida, where Hurston spent much of her childhood. Eatonville was the first self-governing all black town in the United States and Hurston moved there when she was just a toddler. Black citizens got to decide much of how the town came together and was run, and both Janie and Hurston had someone close to them who played a part in the building of Eatonville. Janie witnessed her husband’s influence on the town while Hurston witnessed her father’s. Hurston described the erection of Eatonville in her novel and Janie’s time spent there and by doing so, connected it to her own history and experiences.
Janie lost contact with her mother early in life, saying “she was gone from round dere long before Ah wuz big enough tuh know” (Hurston 10). Janie’s mother did not pass away, but apparently disappeared after a traumatic Janie’s grandmother tells her about. Hurston lost her mother in real life as well at the young age of thirteen. As Hurston experienced a life without her mother, so did Janie in her novel. This similarity is a saddening one, but it shows more correlation between Hurston’s real life and the ones she wrote down.
One last notable similarity between Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God is the possession of striking good looks held by her main character and Hurston herself. Janie’s looks were regarded repeatedly throughout the novel. In one instance it was said of Janie, “The men noticed her firm buttocks…the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume…her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt” (Hurston 2-3). Throughout all stages of Janie’s life, she remained an object of fascination and beauty. Hurston also possessed notable good looks herself. In fact, in order to qualify for free public schooling, Hurston, at the age of 26, subtracted ten years from her birthdate and passed as a decade younger than she was for the remainder of her life. Photographs of Hurston show that she indeed was beautiful, just as Janie was in her novel.
Love was one of the most prominent themes in Janie’s life. Her early life begins wrapped in her grandmother’s fierce love which eventually leads to her first marriage. Janie searches for love within her first marriage, but unable to find it she resolves to run away with her second husband, Joe. Her marriage with Joe did not result in the love she thought it would bring. Joe’s treatment of Janie squandered any hope of love the two could have shortly after their wedding. With Joe’s passing, however, Janie did begin to love and respect herself. It was only with Tea Cake that she experienced the love she had been searching for her whole life. It was in Janie’s third marriage that she was happiest and most content, and even with Tea Cake’s passing Janie continued to live on the with hope and peace that her love with Tea Cake had brought her.
Janie did not know it when she ran away with Joe, but when she signed the marriage papers she also signed away her identity. Throughout her years with Joe, he stripped away countless pieces of her identity. She was no longer herself, but Joe’s trophy wife. He wanted her on a pedestal for everyone in the town to look at. She was to be envied, not interacted with. Joe began this attack on Janie’s identity by telling her to wrap her trademark feature away, her hair. He then began limiting the activities she could participate in and the people she could interact with. She was just an object to Joe. Her mind held no value to him. Even as Joe was on his deathbed, Janie exclaimed, “You done lived wid me for twenty years and you don’t half know me atall” (Hurston 102). The gradual loss of identity and abuse Janie endured was hard to read. It was redeeming to see Janie reclaim her identity with Tea Cake.
Janie experiences many changes throughout her story and by the end of the novel is a very different person from the 16-year-old girl to whom we were first introduced. For the majority of Janie’s life, she was under someone’s rule. Whether it be her Nanny, Logan Killicks, or Joe Stark, Janie lived largely in submission. After Joe’s death, Janie experienced a strange freedom that she had never known. She reveled in her freedom and the newfound loneliness that she enjoyed. This growth allowed her to open up to Tea Cake and his love for her. She was able to push past much of the abuse Logan and Joe had put her through and live a new life. Janie changes for the better and learns to truly accept herself.
Janie’s marriage with Joe was the most hurtful relationship she endured. Joe constantly berated her, put her down, and insulted her. His words knew no bounds- especially in the presence of others. Joe would spitefully comment on Janie’s appearance or actions in front of others in order to push attention away from himself. His sexist attitude prevented Janie from doing countless things she wanted too. He was also jealous of Janie to the point he would not tolerate her wearing her hair down. Within her marriage to Joe, Janie’s spirit wilted and grew dusty. When Joe slapped Janie the first time, “something fell off the shelf inside her…it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams.” Janie suffered Joe’s mental, emotional, and physical abuse for 20 years, and even during the cold sweat of death he continued to fight her. It was only after Joe’s death and Janie’s budding relationship with Tea Cake that she began to shed the burden of Joe’s abuse.
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