Their Eyes were Watching God Analytical Essay

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The novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, written by Zora Neale Hurston is about the story of a young woman, Janie, her three relationships, and her struggle for achieving a full life. As a young woman with pre-existing ideals of the perfect relationship, she expects more out of her love life, but comes to realize that people must go about life in their own unique ways. Set in central and southern Florida in the early 20th century, the novel has come to be regarded as a seminal work in the Harlem Renaissance period (Historical Context).

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In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston argues that society’s views on marriage were at odds with the individual woman’s views as they are formed by outdated principles.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston argues that society views sex, status, and balancing the masculine and feminine desires are the basis of marriage. This can be seen when Janie was observing plants in her grandmother’s yard, where Hurston says:

“From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It Stirred her [Janie] tremendously… She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage!” (Hurston, 10-11)

This passage, from Chapter 2, Janie is observing some of the plants in her backyard after her “Nana” had seen her kissing Johnny Taylor over the gatepost. Sticking with the theme of gender and nature, Hurston sexualizes and personifies the pear blossoms and bees, noting the “snowy virginity of bloom” and the “love embrace” of the sister-calyxes as the Bee enters the flower, similar to sex. Hurston ties it all into marriage in this metaphor, stating that marriage is perfect harmony between two people like a pear tree and its pollinator. This therefore shows that Hurston believes that men and women have a fundamental desire to interact sexually in their relationships, as well as that society, represented by nature, views the ideal marriage as the perfect balance of masculine and feminine elements. Moreover, Hurston shows that masculinity views marriage in mostly as sexual manner, as is evident through the introduction of Janie’s character in the book. For example, Hurston stated that, “The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance.” (2). This section from chapter 1 is where the main character, Janie, is initially introduced; Hurston shows that the men, in this case, seem to lust after Janie for her prominent female features “firm buttocks” while the women seem to be jealous (“it was a hope that she might fall to their level someday”) of her working attitude (“muddy overalls”). The fact that the men noticed Janie due to her sexual features shows that masculinity views women mainly for one thing: their physical features. Being with a physically attractive woman is later shown to be a societal status symbol when Hurston speaks about how Jody and Janie grew apart, saying that “The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again.” (71). After getting married, the sexual spark between Janie and Jody disappeared (“the spirit of the marriage left the bedroom”), however, they still lived without conflict (“shake hands whenever company came in”). This was because Jody wanted to keep Janie married to him as her beauty is seen as a status symbol, as was noted in the previous passage as the men lusted after Janie while the women were jealous of her status as a result of being attractive. As a result, it is clear that society views marrying an attractive woman like Jody to be a status symbol, which can often times trump the need to have sex or a true emotional connection. In all, through the comparison between nature and marriage, the comments men and women had on Janie’s figure, as well as the way that Janie and Jody grew apart, it is clear that society views sex, status, and balancing the masculine and feminine desires as the basis of marriage.

On the other hand, Hurston argues that the individual woman views emotional compatibility and independence as the basis of marriage. The desire for emotional connection is seen in chapter 7 of the book, where Janie begins to feel as though she is beholden to Jody’s desires. For example, Hurston said that “one day she [Janie] sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending store and prostrating itself before Jody, while all the time she herself sat under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair and her clothes. Somebody near about making summertime out of lonesomeness” (77). It is important to consider that since Janie has been married to Jody (a man of considerable power in the town) for over a decade, and hasn’t received any emotional support from Jody at all, that she feels trapped with the same person. This is seen through the personification of the shadow of Janie, which is shown to be “prostrating”, or lying face down in submission to Jody. This feeling of serving Jody and being trapped by him arose due to their lack of emotional interaction, causing Janie and Jody to also cease all sexual interaction. On the other hand, she is physically sat comfortable under a “shady tree” in the summertime, showing that although they may be in a stable, safe setting, Janie as an individual is against the marriage due to its lack of genuine emotional interaction and independence. This is further highlighted when Janie speaks about how she was mistreated by Jody in chapter 9, where Hurston says that, “she [Janie] had been whipped around like a cur dog, and run off down a back road after things.” (89). This passage shows compares the way that Janie had been treated to a cur dog using a simile, which demonstrates how Janie was treated improperly by Jody as well as by her grandmother and had decided to chase material possessions (one of the reasons why she was drawn to Jody, a man of comparatively high stature and wealth). The fact that Janie is compared to a dog that had been whipped around shows that she was seen as beholden to the wishes of others, instead of acting based on her own feelings and desires. Considering that she would later leave Jody for exactly this reason – the lack of independence Janie had in the relationship – it is clear that the individual desires some form of independence in their relationship.

Lastly, Hurston shows that society’s views on marriage were formed as a result of the historical slavery period, and that they were outdated for the modern individual woman. This is especially clear in the end of the book, where Pheoby and Janie are discussing their relationships and Janie says that, “Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.” (191). Leading up to this section from chapter 20, the community decided to blame Miss Turner’s brother for the struggles that Tea Cake had leading up to his death and Janie and Pheoby were speaking about their romantic relationships as the community asked Janie to remain in town for a while. Janie also expresses her belief that love is different for every person through a metaphor comparing love with the sea, saying that it is “different with every shore”. It is clear in this passage that because the societal mold for what a relationship should be did not fit her personality and views on the matter, Janie felt like she was unfulfilled in her relationships in the beginning (before she met Tea Cake). This is especially clear when Janie commented about how her Grandmother’s views on marriage, shaped by society, didn’t fit her needs, saying that “”Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine” (114). In this section from chapter 12, Janie vents her frustration to Pheoby regarding how her Grandma’s perception about how a relationship should work differed from her own. This was mainly due to the difference in generations, which is evident in the following excerpt from when Pheoby speaks about how societal standards on love and marriage were formed due to the oppression of their community through slavery: Comment by Microsoft Office User: Slaves were forced to all be the same but nowadays there is more freedom for everyone and it is unrealistic to expect all people to behave the same now voluntarily Comment by Microsoft Office User:

“”She [Janie’s grandmother] was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam look lak uh might fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me – don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere.“ (114)

In this section, Pheoby and Janie were discussing Tea Cake’s kind hearted and liberal nature, contrasting it with the rudimentary beliefs that Jody and Nanny had on relationships. Stylistically, Hurston’s usage of allusions to history can be seen in this passage. The phrase, “She was borned in slavery time”, for example was used to justify why Nanny had a different outlook on what the ideal relationship was like for a woman. Nanny believed that idleness was freedom (“sittin’ on porches lak de white madam look lak uh might fine thing tuh her”) due to her working in slave labor, while idleness bored and restricted Janie. This explains the disconnect between the individual’s views and society’s views, as during the time of slavery, the ideal view of marriage was to let the woman sit back while the man had the most power. Considering that their society was no longer oppressed into fitting into one mold of being a slave, the new generation’s beliefs in individuality and freedom clashed with the older generation’s views on conformity of the woman to the man in marriage. Coupled with the fact that most men’s views on women (Janie’s first two husbands) were mostly related to their beauty, conformity, and status, it makes sense that the individual woman’s views on relationships would be at odds with society.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Hurston argues that society’s views on marriage, as based on sex, status, and the balancing of the masculine and feminine elements, were at odds with the individual woman’s views, that marriage was based on emotional compatibility and independence. Considering that the novel was written in a time period where society’s views on women and African-Americans were rapidly progressing (Historical Context), Janie’s struggle to keep a relationship despite the outdated views of her grandmother serves as a useful reminder to the differences of opinions throughout history.

Works Cited

  1. “Historical Context – Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Their Eyes Were Watching God, 2006,
  2. Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: First Perennial Classics, 1998. Print.
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Their Eyes Were Watching God Analytical Essay. (2021, Apr 19). Retrieved from