Significance of Death in “Their Eyes were Watching God”
Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a beautiful novel about Janie Crawford’s search for love and identity. Her search for love and the realization of her identity is propelled by the death throughout her life. Janie’s entire growth is attributed to the death of her idols, ideals, and individuals. The presence of death should not be viewed as a curse, rather, it should be treated as necessary suffering that compels Janie to grow.
The very first death that Janie survives is the death of her grandmother. Nanny’s death is very purposeful to Janie. Her grandmother had lived a life of suffering. Throughout her (Nanny’s) life, she “had little control over her destiny.” (xvi) As a result, her beliefs about living a good life center around possession of money for reasons of security. In fact, she sees financial security to be the most important thing to look for in a marriage. Since she is the only guardian Janie ever had, the responsibility of raising Janie falls upon Nanny. And she teaches Janie the only thing she ever knew: a love for material possessions over people. As if the lessons aren’t enough, she imposes these principles onto Janie without impunity. Janie bears this burden against her wishes, alone.
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But Janie doesn’t entirely blame Nanny for her troubles. While the duo are at odds with each other at times, Janie understands why Nanny is adamant on protecting her. She tries to protect her in the best way she knows: through money. So, even when Logan Killicks is much older than Janie, and lacks an emotional aspect to his character, Nanny understands the toll it takes on Janie. Simultaneously, she also hopes that Janie falls in love with the man. The relationship in question is one bad case of tough-love syndrome. A loss of autonomy is a big deal for her but she refuses to defy Nanny out of her love for her grandmother. So, when Nanny finally passes away, Janie realizes that there are no consequences for not following her teachings since she wouldn’t disappoint her grandmother anymore. Even though the obligation is gone, Janie doesn’t just learn to love people overnight. Still, she realizes that she was free to live for herself.
Janie comes to terms with the shortcomings of Nanny’s views. After Nanny passes onto the afterlife, Janie comes to the realization that her grandmother had not been understanding her emotional needs. The strain put on their relationship had denied Janie consolation for her misery. Her wish of realizing her dream of love and emotional fulfillment was crushed under the weight of financial stability. While stability was important to both Janie and her grandmother, the cost that it came was unjustified in Janie’s views. She had never led an autonomous life. When Nanny finds her kissing a young boy, she punishes Janie for living9598466 Significance of Death In “Their Eyes Were Watching God” her fantasy. In the heated argument that follows, Nanny reminds Janie to behave like a woman, but Janie refuses to entertain the thought because “the thought was too new and heavy for Janie .” (12) Janie runs from the fight due to her distrust in herself. Nanny’s curfew over Janie and Janie’s acceptance of the powerlessness leads her down a path of compliance. Eventually, Nanny’s death marks the end of a philosophically autocratic era for Janie. There are neither physical constraints, nor ideological dependence. Nanny’s death causes Janie to think and act for herself for the first time. In order for this ideological salvation to take place, it is imperative that Nanny dies, or Janie will keep accepting outdated (in Janie’s eyes) lessons from her grandmother. Her philosophical accession is only possible through her grandmother’s death.
Her grandmother’s death also compels her to take a better man for herself. So, she decides to leave Logan Killicks, a man who only knew the language of money, for Joe Starks, a man of passion. By this point, Janie has grown considerably, but not significantly enough. She mistakes Joe Starks’ passion for romantic ambition. Jody is enchanted by her beauty when he first sees Janie. However, his infatuation with Janie doesn’t smell of love. Instead, Jody sees Janie as a placeholder or a trophy for his ambitious endeavor. Janie loses her voice again. Jody socially isolates Janie because he made her “uh big woman.” (46) More importantly, Joe makes her wear a head rag to conceal her hair, a symbol of pride for Janie. People have always complimented Janie for her beautiful hair, and yet, Jody prohibits her from letting down her hair, as if they are shameful. He religiously uses the tactics of body shaming and emotional manipulation to keep Janie in check. Since Joe wants to rule over the town solely and supremely, any questions about his methods challenge his power. However, when Janie does get to win a verbal fight, he resorts to physical violence to remind her who is in charge.
Joe successfully manages to plant doubt in Janie’s mind. She “accepts her position as Starks’ wife, becoming a speechless, protected possession.” (McCredie 4) Under Joe’s “protection,” Janie loses her autonomy completely until she is left with nothing to lose. In fact, Jody’s ruthless rule over Janie wore her down and “took all the fight out of Janie’s face.” (76) Jody’s actions don’t warrant a reaction anymore. Janie has grown stoic over the years. But every suffering reaches a point where it becomes insufferable. That point for Janie was when Jody kept insulting Janie about her appearance in order to make himself feel powerful and young. Janie finally snaps and spin the rhetoric back onto Jody. Her act of defiance surprises the customers and Jody but doesn’t free her from Jody’s rule.
However, time comes to her aid and claims Jody’s life. With Joe Starks on the death bed, Janie finds the courage to confront him about their relationship and history. Both Jody’s physical restrictions, and her distrust of her abilities come to an end. Janie feels a fresh breeze of freedom and basks in the glory of a new day. She is free to reclaim her hair as a symbol of pride, rather than humiliation. Jody’s death helped her reclaim her freedom. It provides opportunity for Janie to guide her life the way she sees fit. After 2 failed marriages, many years of servitude, and countless lessons, she is in possession of great wealth and freedom. Although she has fulfilled Nanny’s dream of financial stability, she still hasn’t fulfilled her “pear tree” of love hasn’t bloomed. Her love life remains contested for by many a young men who fancy not her person but her wealth.
With numerous suitors trying to woo her, Janie grows skeptical of their intentions. At first, they struggle to trust each other. However, Tea Cake manages to ensnare Janie with his love. The news becomes talk of the town and Janie is discouraged from pursuing the relationship. Janie, having understood that money doesn’t even make her happy, denies the town an opportunity to set boundaries just because Tea Cake lacks wealth. All she cares about is experiencing love and grow old together with Tea Cake. But she is still not an autonomously operating individual. However, Tea Cake allows her way more control than either of her previous husbands.
When the couple moves to Everglades, a field girl named Nunkie flirts with Tea Cake. Janie finds it difficult to cope with the feeling that she might lose Tea Cake to her. In a jealous rage, Janie hits Tea Cake. However, instead of a fight, the two end up making love. Janie has grown bold to a point where she can challenge Tea Cake’s actions. But their relationship isn’t perfect. Janie makes friends with Mrs. Turner who sees blacks as inferior to herself. One day she preoccupies Janie with her conversation and tries to persuade her that she should leave Tea Cake for her brother. Tea Cake overhears the conversation and doubts his worth. To recuperate from feelings of racial inferiority, he hits Janie in order to establish his dominance and fend off Mrs. Turner’s brother from eyeing Janie. McCredie writes that “by beating her, Tea Cake establishes a claim on Janie. He warns off intruders while assuaging his own jealousy as Janie had done the season before.” (5) I completely agree with her assessment. Tea Cake publicly comments, “Ah didn’t whup Janie ’cause she done nothin’. Ah beat her tuh show dem Turners who is boss.” (148)
Janie bears the beating. She recognizes the equality in her relationship with him. The beating doesn’t hold the same caliber it once did with Joe Starks. Janie has grown confident and found her voice. Her unresponsiveness wasn’t out of fear but out of a conscious choice to not respond. She understands their love for each other and refuses to let a small disagreement ruin their relationship.
During the hurricane, Tea Cake fights a rather large dog. Janie later describes the dog as “nothin’ all over but pure hate.” (167) The description and death of the dog is a significant detail in the novel. Tea Cake fought the dog of “pure hate” for Janie. He manages to kill it and save Janie from her doom. Even though he saves Janie from physical harm, more can be said about the dog’s death. In a way, the dog represents the hatred that Janie had been suffering from: from the society, and her own. Tea Cake kills both the physical and metaphorical beast, proving his love for Janie. He contracts rabies in the process. Through their journey and the dog’s death, Janie understands that Tea Cake would have protected her even if he knew the dog was mad. In the end, Tea Cake falls victim to rabies and starts to exhibit signs of mental incapacity to feel human. He grows paranoid and aims a gun at Janie. In order to protect herself and Tea Cake, Janie gives him three warnings, but he heeds none of them. When he is about pull the trigger the fourth time, Janie shoots Tea Cake to put him out of his misery and save herself.
Tea Cake’s death leaves emotional scars on Janie’s psyche, but she recovers. She is glad not because Tea Cake is dead but because he showed her how to live. Thanks to his egalitarian efforts, Janie recovers her voice, learns how to defend herself, and feels grateful for being alive. He was the bee to her pear tree of youth. But more importantly, his death forces her to make another breakthrough: she finally learns to love herself. Janie had been reliant on others her entire life. She depended on Nanny during her formative years, on Starks for sustenance, and on Tea Cake for love. She has reborn now through Tea Cake’s death. The argument that it wasn’t necessary for Tea Cake to die doesn’t have merit. Out of all the possible scenarios, Hurston chose the best one. It fits well with the blessing of death. It was imperative for her to kill Tea Cake to maintain coherence in the novel.
The suffering and deaths throughout the novel aid Janie’s growth and provides her with opportunity. In times when she begins to give up and become compliant with others’ wishes, death comes to her rescue. It’s difficult to imagine the novel having the same emotional strength if she were stuck with people making decisions for her. The presence of death was a necessary evil that Hurston beautifully used to drive the plot.