Their Eyes Were Watching God: Portrayal of Gender Roles and Black Women

Essay details

Please note! This essay has been submitted by a student.

Zora Neal Hurston’s critically acclaimed novel, Their Eyes were Watching God deals with various thematic concerns. The most prominent is the character Janie's journey of self-discovery. My essay will be looking at Janie's journey of self- discovery, and quest for true love. This growth of the heroine to some form of self-formation has been the dominant critical approach to the novel. (Bernard 2)I will briefly look at the position of the black woman during the set times to provide context to the heroin’s environment. The map to be used in this journey will be Janie’s relationship with men.

Essay due? We'll write it for you!

Any subject

Min. 3-hour delivery

Pay if satisfied

Get your price

It is impossible to talk about this novel without mentioning Hurston’s impact not only in the literary but Negro community as well. It is through this text Hurston challenges masculinity, oppressive social constructs and sexist expectations bestowed upon black- Negro women. While some critics have criticised Hurston's use of the third-person narrator, suggesting it undermines Janie's weight as a protagonist. However, I find Dr. Prasanta Kumar Phadi’s sentiments to be more truthful stating, “Hurston’s skillful repression of Janie’s voice never jeopardizes its significance… Third-person narration calls attention to Hurston‟s authorial voice, highlighting the importance of writing.” (Kumar Padhi 51)

Hurston’s style of writing translates to a purpose beyond the novel; it serves to communicate Janie’s story but also highlights Hurston as an author, and a female Negro author. According to Bell Hooks, 'So intensely, however, that readers are inclined to overlook Hurston’s concern with the construction of ‘female imagination’ and the formation of a critical space where woman’s creativity can be nurtured and sustained.” Thus in a sense, Hurston's writing challenges male dominance, norms and pushes forward the authority of the Negro woman as a writer and individual.

“She was severely criticized by black male critics for she did not depict the harsher side of black life in the South and made black southern life appear easygoing and carefree. However, we do get some glimpses of racial segregation displayed by the southern white man in the novel.” (Ahmad Bhat 31) I find male critics criticism of Hurston’s novel more about her gender and choice of topic. One cannot say she did not handle racial issues, however in a small section of the book but Their Eyes were Watching God as a text had a focus issue, Janie. By focusing on Janie, Hurston was focusing on the highly marginalised black woman thus one can see why male critics might have missed the point of the novel.

Their Eyes were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford, a young woman in search of love. It is through this journey not only she finds true love but her autonomy as an individual as well. “In Janie Mae Crawford, Hurston rejects nineteenth and early twentieth century stereotypes for women and creates a protagonist who though silenced for most of her life ultimately finds her own voice.” (Ahmad Bhat 31) One can say Janie’s search for herself started when she realised she was coloured, “So when we looked at de picture and everybody got pointed out there wasn’t nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor.”(Hurston 41) As she enters into womanhood Janie's journey takes form in her relationships with men. At sixteen her grandmother (Nanny) decides to marry off an unwilling Janie after catching her kissing Johnny Tylor. Without a voice of her own at that point in time, Janie cannot go against Nanny's authority.

Nanny’s reaction is understandable, having lived most of her life during the era of slavery. She desired a more respectful and protected life for her granddaughter. According to Littlefield, “Black women were important not only for their labor, but for their reproductive ability, a vital part of the slave economy; they were solely responsible for supplying the slave work force and, in many ways, these women were the most vulnerable and valuable group. Black women were a commodity as breeders, laborers, and concubines, but their motherhood was not separated from their slave status.” (Bounds Littlefield 56) Nanny's slavery days had conditioned her to look to the institution of marriage as salvation for Janie. Protected from the degrading realities faced by black women; abused by both white and black men and forced to produce children out of wedlock as young as twelve years old. (Bounds Littlefield 57)

Janies’s first marriage was to Logan Kellicks, an old landowner. As far as Nanny was concerned Kellicks possessed the power to secure Janie for life with his property. Kellicks version of marriage did not correlate with Janie’s idea nor Nanny’s vision of the iconic white porch. “Yet Logan treats Janie exactly like the black man in the folk tale. The life that Nanny wants for Janie is the life that she saw the plantation owner's wife had: “ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn't for me to fulfill my dreams of what a woman oughta be and do” (Kumar Padhi 49) Kellicks however, has no porch to offer Janie, he immediately puts new wife to work on his property.

He offers no warmth and treats the marriage like a business deal, Janie’s loyalty would be rewarded by inheriting his property. It is during this marriage, Janie realises what she did not want in a relationship. In so doing gaining a piece of herself and knowing herself. Kellicks need to exercise control over Janie categorised her as more of property to the old man. According to Mudasir Ahmad Bhat, “Her marriage to Logan Killicks sparks off her social and economic rise; however, her husband's chauvinism and abuse turns the marital bond into bondage.” (Ahmad Bhat 32)

Months into her marriage young Janie runs off with her second husband, Jody Starks. It is important to note that Janie did not leave Logan for Jody because of any material gains. (Kumar Padhi 49) But because Janie states, “the change was hound to do her good.” (Hurston 65) Jody provides Janie with a sense of adventure, intimacy and in a twist of events security that came with the white porch Nanny envisioned for Janie. Jody and Janie run off to the first coloured town in America, Eatonville which they together help grow. After Jody becomes mayor of Eatonville his public image starts to become important to him. Janie becomes a trophy wife he expects to succumb to any mould he chooses.

Jody saw Janie as an ornament in his empire, he refuses to see her as anything more. This perception he has of Janie is evident when Janie is asked to give a speech, which he responds to, “but 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 78). Janie feels suffocated by Jody’s demands, they seem to be designed to box Janie in the subservient role of wife. And more importantly, classing her off from the rest of the town which she was not allowed to socialise with.

However, when one is oppressed the react eventually, Janie’s free nature retaliates after years when Jody scolds her over cutting tobacco incorrectly in chapter 7. The exchange of words spirals into a public fight which Lige Moss comments, “Ah ruther be shot with tacks than tuh hear dat ’bout mahself,” to an insult coined by Janie. (Hurston, 119) Janie's words took a shot at Jordy's vain image which I believe equates to his ego, in return he reacts with violence as to assert himself. 'So he struck Janie with all his might and drove her from the store,' this action is done to put her back in her place. (Hurston, 120)

One can say it is from this marriage Janie starts finding her voice as she begins standing up for herself. Also, Jody's need to make them a ‘combo' so as to speak, parading an image evoked Janie's need for individuality. The conflict the couple has lasted till Jody's death which comes with a sense of liberation for Janie. Bhat states, 'That is why she feels a sense of freedom rather than of grief when her husband dies.” (Kumar Padhi 32) Janie is granted autonomy, a feeling she was denied by Jody.

“She and Pheoby Watson visited back and forth and once in awhile sat around the lakes and fished. She was just basking in freedom for the most part without the need for thought.” (Hurston, 133) Janie was breaking the social classing imposed on her as she reconnects with her friend and was appreciative of her new freedom. The friendship between Janie and Pheoby is an important part of her journey of self-discovery. This relationship, after Nanny's passing, was the only genuine female relationship Janie had, as the other women of Eatonville gossiped about her.

“This freedom feeling was fine. These men didn’t represent a thing she wanted to know about. She had already experienced them through Logan and Joe.” (Hurston, 131) From her marriages with Logan and Jody, from these experiences, Janie seemed to gain a better understanding of the kind of love she was looking for. “The young girl was gone, but a handsome woman had taken her place. She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there. She took careful stock of herself, then combed her hair and tied it back up again,” Janie was starting to find self-love as she closed the chapter on her second marriage. (Hurston, 128)

Tea Cake's appearance at this point resembles a turning point in Janie's life. Appreciative of her freedom and practicing self-love, she was ready to meet the love of her life, Tea Cake. The relationship between Janie and Tea Cake is vastly different from any other she's had with other men. It is described as a partnership and has more empowering adventures that cemented the couple’s love. “It was after the picnic that the town began to notice things and got mad. Tea Cake and Mrs. Mayor Starks! All the men that she could get, and fooling with somebody like Tea Cake!' despite the town's disapproval and gossip Janie was happy, she was finally living. (Hurston, 152) During this relationship is when Janie came into her own, confident and unapologetic. Since the beginning of the book she has been living according to the whims of authority around first with Nanny, then Logan and Jody as well. She became more self-aware and was able to speak her mind, “Jody classed me off. Ah didn’t. Naw, Pheoby, Tea Cake ain’t draggin’ me off nowhere Ah don’t want tuh go. Ah always did want tuh git round uh whole heap, but Jody wouldn’t ’low me tuh.” (Hurston, 152)

“However in the company of Tea Cake she allows herself to step out the tight boundary lines that she had been in while married to Joe Starks.”(Kumar Padhi 32) Tea Cake empowers Janie, he engages her in challenging activities like fishing and shooting guns. It is the first relationship Janie engages in that allows her independence while ongoing. Bhat states, “Janie and Tea Cake improvise a life together, negotiating the terms of their partnership and remaining open to change. Tea Cake empowers Janie in numerous ways, teaches her to shoot guns and encourages her participation in their social existence.”(Kumar Padhi 32)

I agree with this assertion completely, Tea Cake treats Janie like an equal ad refuses to take advantage of her inheritance from Jody. “Then Janie told him about the other money she had in the bank. “Put dat two hundred back wid de rest, Janie. Mah dice. Ah no need no assistance tuh help me feed mah woman. From now on, you gointuh eat whutever mah money can buy yuh and wear de same. When Ah ain’t got nothin’ you don’t git nothin’.” (Hurston, 170)

In Janie’s last relationship she was a partner, she was valued. Tea Cake proved Janie right in choosing him, she has doubts about him when she wakes up to him missing with all the cash they had. It is not to say Tea Cake was perfect but he exhibited sincerity towards Janie, a gesture she probably was not used to from a man. Tea cake even beats Janie when they live in the Everglades. Bhat stipulates, “Despite his equal treatment, in the beginning, Tea Cake does hit Janie to show his possession over her. Yet this did not by any means end her endeavours to rise as a free and independent woman.” (Kumar Padhi 33)

One would think the Everglades would be the end of Janie's journey, she had her true love and they lived and worked together in harmony for the most part. Characters like Mrs. Tunner express disapproval of the couple but it seems such reactions like back in Eatonville bring Janie and Tea Cake closer. In a morbid turn of events, Tea Cake is bitten by a dog while saving Janie in a storm. It turns out the animal had rabbis which now Tea Cake was suffering from and eventually dies from. Janie, in the end, has to be the one who shoots Tea Cake as the disease drives him to insanity.

The storm that attacks the Everglades can be said to have been the last stage in Janie’s journey, the storm itself mirrored the horrific death of Tea Cake which was in itself a storm for Janie. Janie being the one who had to pull the trigger on her beloved Tea Cake brought about a strength in her. Ironically Janie’s journey of self-discovery leads her back to Eatonville after losing Tea Cake. According to Padhi, “When Janie returns to Eatonville after Tea Cake‟s death, without him and without the ‘fine cloths’, she left with, she feels no need to justify herself to the community.” (Kumar Padhi 50) This lack of obligation to the town speaks volumes to Janie’s evolution. She holds her independence and new principles to heart, at the end of her journey Janie has found true love, her autonomy, and self-love. Janie only explains what transpired after her departure to her friend Pheoby, knowing she was the only one genuinely concerned about her well-being.

Hurston wrote about black women during a time when no one cared for this highly marginalised group. Hurston created new models for heterosexual attachment through the character of Tea Cake who did not feel the need to control or oppress. (Kumar Padhi 51) She asserted herself in the world of literature and the Afro-American cannon. Hurston's depiction of Janie's journey is universal to the possible journeys of all black women, thus the novel encouraged women of Hurston's time to undergo the same. Today still Hurston's message applies to black women of the present time.


  1. Ahmad Bhat, Mudasir. 'Their Eyes Were Watching God: Quest For Self-Discovery And Self-Definition'. International Conference On 'Recent Research Development In Environment, Social Sciences And Humanities', vol 4, 2017, Accessed 23 Oct 2019.
  2. Bernard, Patrick S. 'The Cognitive Construction Of The Self In Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God'. Clcweb: Comparative Literature And Culture, vol 9, no. 2, 2007. Purdue University (Bepress), doi:10.7771/1481-4374.1221.
  3. Bounds Littlefield, Marci. 'Black Women, Mothering, And Protest In 19Th Century American Society'. The Journal Of Pan African Studies, vol 2, no. 1, 2007, Accessed 23 Oct 2019.
  4. Hooks, Bell. “Zora Hurston: A Subversive Reading.” Moving Beyond Boundaries: Black Womens‟ Diaspore, ed. Carole Boyce Davis. Washington Square: New York Press, 1995.
  5. Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Harper Collins. Harper Collins Publishers.Web. 23 Oct.2013. (
  6. Kumar Padhi, Dr. Prasanta. 'Thematic Concerns In Zora Neale Hurston’S Their Eyes Were Watching God'. IOSR Journal Of Humanities And Social Science, vol 19, no. 9, 2014, pp. 48-52. IOSR Journals, doi:10.9790/0837-19954852.

Get quality help now

Prof Essil

Verified writer

Proficient in: Literary Genres, Books

4.8 (1570 reviews)
“Really responsive and extremely fast delivery! I have already hired her twice!”

+75 relevant experts are online

More Their Eyes Were Watching God Related Essays

banner clock
Clock is ticking and inspiration doesn't come?
We`ll do boring work for you. No plagiarism guarantee. Deadline from 3 hours.

We use cookies to offer you the best experience. By continuing, we’ll assume you agree with our Cookies policy.