Janie’s entire life is one of a journey.
She lives through a grandmother, three husbands, and innumerable friends. Throughout is all, she grows closer and closer to her ideals about love and how to live one’s life. Zora Neale Hurston chooses to define Janie not by what is wrong in her life, but by what is good in it. Janie changes a lot from the beginning to the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God, but the imagery in her life always conjures positive ideas in the mind of the reader. Janie’s life begins under the watchful eye of her grandmother.
Her grandmother has given up her own happiness to raise Janie and her mother. Right away, it is obvious that Janie’s life is going to be different than her grandmother’s. For starters, Janie has very different ideas about love than any other character. She may not be able to clearly define her thoughts, but the reader still sees that Janie’s ideas are romantic and full of sensuality. The first glimpse into the past that the reader sees involves Janie underneath a pear tree, watching the flowers bloom. The descriptive language (“From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom” 10) beautifully juxtaposed with complex thought (“The rose of the world was breathing out smell.
It . . . followed her. .
. and caressed her . . . ” 10) lets the reader experience the same feelings that Janie does, even though she is not yet old enough to fully describe them herself.
Janie’s grandmother is old and weak. She never had a person in her life who cared for her and truly wanted to look out for her well-being. As a result, she is frightened by Janie’s refusal to follow the mold, her refusal to marry for convenience instead of love. Janie’s grandmother describes herself as “a cracked plate” 19, showing that not even she has confidence in her own ability to be strong and weather adversity. Janie learns a very important lesson from her grandmother. Not a lesson to emulate, but one to avoid.
She does not want to be a cracked plate, she is tall and blossoming and can see what she wants in her life. She does not get what she wants with Logan Killicks, her first husband. Janie married Logan because her grandmother wanted her to. Her grandmother could not understand why she did not love him, as he had sixty acres of land. Janie did not love him, and describes him as “.
. . some ole skullhead in de grave yard” 13 and his house as “a lonesome place like a stump in the middle of the woods . . .
absent of flavor” 20. Janie’s eyes are still full of pollen dust, and she cannot get her perfect vision of love out of her mind. Logan makes her do menial chores around the house, and treats her like a beast of burden. She prays for the day when she will be delivered from the life of tedium that she lives.
She thinks that her prayers are answered when she first sees Joe Starks. In fact, she first sees him through a veil of her hair, and it is her long, luxurious hair that he is first attracted to. She thinks that he is “a bee for her blossom” 31. The initial description of him, “. . .
a cityfied, stylish dressed man with his hat set at an angle that didn’t belong in those parts” 26 immediately sets a firm image in the reader’s mind, so no one is surprised when Janie leaves “ole skullhead” and decides to marry Joe instead. She thinks that he represents the romantic ideal that she has been searching for. Soon, however, Janie sees that while Joe loves her beauty, he does not even see anything else that she has to offer. When people ask her to make a speech, he cuts her off, “taking the bloom off things” 41. He views her as an ornament, nothing else, and he makes her bind her hair so that other men won’t look at it. She never realized just how tied down she was by him until he dies.
As soon as he takes his last breath, “she . . . let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there” 83. With the releasing of her hair, Janie lets her soul out from behind the iron smile she has kept on her face to keep Joe happy.
At this point in her life, Janie has decided that she no longer needs to please another person. She is still looking for her perfect pear-blossom world, however. She finds it in one of the most unlikely places. Tea Cake is younger than she, poorer than she, and can offer her nothing but love.
Fortunately, all Janie needs is love. He doesn’t want to use her as a mule, or as an ornament, or as anything but a person to love. This is not to say that their life together is completely without its share of fights and arguments, but they are both willing to sacrifice everything for each other. Janie is “thankful fuh anything they came through together” 158, and Tea Cake calls Janie “mah wife and mah woman and everything else in de world Ah needs” 119. When she’s with Tea Cake, Janie allows her “soul to crawl out from its hiding place” 112, which is all she wants. Tea Cake’s death reveals as much about his relationship with Janie as his life did.
When he dies, Janie mourns in her overalls, because “she was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief” 180. Janie allows her friend to share her story, because she feels that she cannot tell it again. She doesn’t need to. Janie has lived her life and survived her journey. Zora Neale Hurston closes off Their Eyes Were Watching God with one final, poignant image; Janie “calling in her soul to come and see” 184 the splendor of her life.