Hurston’s Janie: Changing the Narrative of Black Female Protagonists

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In a novel replete with striking imagery, revealing dialect, and weighty themes, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God features an unprecedented protagonist whose integrity and will eventually carried her through three marriages and various instances of verbal- and mental abuse.  Though each husband has a distinct function in her life and in the novel, the manner in which each marriage concludes exhibits a slightly different facet of the main character, which escalates how female lead characters continue to abandon the long-standing gender roles and social expectations of black women, especially those in the American South.  

By characterizing a woman whose insistence of being respected by her husband leads her to shake free of her first marriage, Hurston introduces a character whose self-respect outweighs the apparent social norms of her time.  Logan Killicks was far from romantic. Their marriage was nothing short of an arrangement where Janie served far more as an employee than as an equal or a lover. Thus, as Janie is offering this stage of her life to Phoeby, the scant details focus solely on Killicks’ comparison of Janie’s apparent laziness to his “fust wife” who “never bothered [him] ‘bout choppin no wood nohow” as well as how Janie “done been spoilt rotten” (26).   In rapid-fire narrative style, Janie meets Joe Starks and shares their flirtatious tryst with Phoeby. During Killicks’ final scene, Killicks is described as overly tired–something many men in this book have in common–but Janie pushes forward with the notion of leaving him for someone else. He downplays her idea as a waste of time because “‘[t]’ain’t too many mens would trust yuh, knowin’ yo’ folks lak dey do” (30). Arguably, at that precise moment in her first marriage, Janie could envision her future with Killicks and more than likely resolved to leave him at the earliest opportunity and accept Joe Sparks’ offer.  This clearly demonstrates how Hurston intentionally clashed Janie’s self-respect with the complacency of black characters presented before her. T

Janie’s relationship with Sparks displays a new set of roles and opportunities for her.  As the wife of someone whose initiative and ability to build a black community is unparalleled by any other resident, Janie’s social status escalates, even though Joe never affords her the opportunity to speak publicly.  However, to say Sparks simply duped her into this marriage to legitimize his social status in a town full of strangers might overstep the truth. Both men so far had previously cooed rhymes to her, a gesture that Janie values and clearly wished had continued.  Like Killicks, any romantic feelings Joe held toward Janie are quickly suffocated by his selfish desire for power and raising the town’s level of respect for him.

Throughout the twenty years they were together, Janie rarely challenged Joe and settled into her slim pocket of the store and home while her husband enjoyed a career of being touted as a great leader.  When she did publicly confront his misogyny and attack his manhood, he shunned her by sleeping in a different room. Hurston describes this short phase of their relationship as the “sleep of swords” and directly challenges the hypocrisy of Joe’s insults: “Why must Joe be so mad with her for making him look so small when he did it to her all the time?” (81).  Here, Hurston launches from her predecessors’ descriptions of this imbalance and bullhorns to the reader that this uneven trajectory simply cannot continue as women struggle to achieve equality.

What is vital to the closing of this chapter of her life was how Janie maintained respect for the man who used her throughout her early adulthood.  Her loyalty toward Joe up to the bitter end of his life exhibits how Hurston sees women as respectful and selfless. Upon meeting Tea Cake, however, Janie is challenged by the townspeople because starting a new relationship after the passing of a husband is, to them, a clear sign of disrespect.  Janie refuses to fall into that social trap, however. By exhibiting a believable, multi-faceted woman in this novel, Hurston dispels the limited roles for black women and clearly instructs them to abandon these social norms and live the life they want.

Tea Cake’s selflessness is apparent by putting himself between the dog and Janie.  Later, she demonstrates reserve and respect toward her dying husband and even regrets how his illness is affecting her ability to tend to him (182).  In the horrifying moment of their final battle, Janie’s self-defense leads her to shoot her husband, which reinforces Hurston’s desire for women to balance altruistic loyalty and self-preservation.  The faceless, nameless jury excuses her from punishment, which also suggests that all of Janie’s actions–from escaping a slave-like marriage to Killicks to killing a diseased Tea Cake–have become universally accepted.  The fact that Janie has outlasted three men, two of whom succumbed to death, further emphasizes that women who strive for self-improvement while shifting out of the pre-established social norms can and will live much longer, fruitful lives.

 

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