Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston was published in 1937 amidst controversy as it went against the zeitgeist of the time that was all about exposing racial oppression through art and literature. Zora Neale Hurston rejected this outlook and chose to write a novel that centered on the growth and journey of an individual instead of focusing on the race problem like her counterparts. This paper draws from Hurston’s stand and takes an in-depth look at two of the main characters’ traits, roles, and development and their contribution to the plotline and the themes that Zora Hurston touches on in the book. The first step is introducing the characters and illustrating their traits through excerpts from the book to familiarize the audience with them and their importance in the book. This will be followed by an outline of the roles they play in moving the plot forward by bringing out certain themes through their actions or personalities or how they contribute to the growth of the characters they interact with, and finally a look at the changes they have undergone and how they have shaped them into who they are at the end of the book.
Janie Crawford is the protagonist of Their Eyes Were Watching God and the novel revolves around her journey in search of her identity, her voice, and spiritual enlightenment. She is strong, proud, and unaffected by people’s opinions but she did not always possess this strength or confidence and has gone through hardships in her life and the three marriages that have shaped her into the woman she is. Her role as the protagonist is crucial in pushing the storyline forward and in bringing out important themes that are explored in the novel. We learn of the role of a woman according to society when Nanny tells her: “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” indicating that a woman’s role was to struggle thanklessly and to bear it. She also showcases the importance of language by saying that talking, “don’t amount to uh hill uh beans” if it isn’t connected to the experience. Many incidents influence her growth in the text such as the recounting of the revelation she had at sixteen that awakened her sexuality and her desire for love and the perfect harmony she witnessed as the bees pollinated a pear tree, which shows her naiveté and innocence. The next moment of growth is witnessed in her first marriage when she learns that marriage doesn’t automatically turn into love and her first dream dies making her a woman and preparing her for her second marriage. She undergoes various stages of growth through hardship and love until she reaches the point of self-acceptance.
Tea Cake acts as the major stimulus for Janie’s growth and is the main reason she finds her identity and her voice. He comes into the picture after Joe’s death at a time in Janie’s life when she is cautious of men and of loving again but he is persistent in his courtship and wins her over with his fun-loving ways. He is fun-loving, egalitarian, and free-spirited and encourages her to live, with him she is happier than she has ever been and feels it is “the beginning of things”. His egalitarian outlook allows Janie to gain confidence and slowly she gains the strength and self-confidence we see when she returns to Eatonville. While in Eatonville he showed her how to play checkers and she was thrilled and experienced a glow inside because he didn’t think it was unnatural for her to not know how to play or want to play or make her feel unworthy of it. When describing her feelings she tells Phoebe that he has taught her the maiden language all over, meaning she felt young, free, uninhibited, and confident and this gives her the confidence to do what she wants and go out with him and have fun and do all the things she missed out on in her previous marriages. In Florida, she works in the mucks with Tea Cake and other immigrant workers and experiences a new kind of freedom and it is here she makes the final evolution into the strong confident self-assured woman we meet at the start of the book. When Tea Cake falls ill after being bitten by a dog, Janie shoots him in self-defense choosing to save herself and thanks him for the love and life she has shown him, then goes through the trial in silence before returning home to tell her story to Phoebe.
Janie and Tea Cake are two of the most important characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God in the way they bring out themes vital not just to the story but to the society as well both past and present. Janie takes a journey of self-discovery from childhood under the care of her grandmother discovering her identity in a white household and later in her three marriages and Tea Cake guides her in the last stage of her journey by supporting and eventually challenging her to become the woman she is. Zora Hurston’s focus on individuals is brought to light powerfully in the development of these characters and the lives they lead in the text.
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