Their Eyes were Watching God Discussion

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Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel decades ahead of its time. Zora Neale Hurston spares no detail in capturing the authenticity and ugly reality of the black woman’s experience, delivered beautifully through creative writing and compelling imagery. Through her character, Janie Crawford, Hurston describes the joys and the heartaches of life in the early twentieth century as a black woman in the Everglades. Janie’s experience with men and how they cause her great happiness and despair throughout her life resonates deeply with women of all ages who read Their Eyes. Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake is especially complex, and the context of their time period opens their unique partnership to further scrutiny of how it plays on larger thematic significances such as love, gender, and free will.

Tea Cake is undeniably Janie’s true love. Janie is tolerated by Logan, as she tolerates him. She serves Jodie, who only dominates and belittles her. However, she genuinely loves Tea Cake, and Tea Cake loves her back. He is the only one out of Janie’s lovers to embrace and encourage her self-expression. This is shown particularly during an intimate moment when Janie awakes to Tea Cake playing with her hair. She asks:

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“Why, Tea Cake? Whut good do combin’ mah hair do you? It’s mah comfortable , not yourn.” “It’s mine too. Ah ain’t been sleepin’ so good for more’n uh week cause Ah been wishin’ so bad tuh git mah hands in yo’ hair. It’s so pretty. It feels jus’ lak underneath uh dove’s wing next to mah face”” (Hurston 103).

This a pivotal moment for Janie. For the first time in all of Janie’s forty years, from being given away to Logan at sixteen years-old to being stepped on by Jodie for the next twenty, Janie’s pleasure is reciprocated. For the first time in her life, Tea Cake, a man, is playing with her hair, which she is previously forced to hide and tuck away. Janie’s first two lovers only call her and touch her because they want to, so she is surprised by Tea Cake meaninglessly playing with her hair for the pure fact that they both enjoy it. By Tea Cake responding he does it because it makes them both feel good, he is sharing Janie’s pleasure. He wants her to feel good as much as he feels good, which is a sentiment completely unfamiliar to her despite having married twice before him. This exchange of pleasure and consent repeats throughout the rest of Tea Cake and Janie’s interactions with each other, solidifying the modern notion of reciprocated love and empowerment. This is further supported by the fact that Janie’s hair serves as a phallic symbol throughout the story. Prior to meeting Tea Cake, Janie is always forced to tie up and hide her long, beautiful hair because Jodie is threatened by it and Logan is never interested in it. When Jodie finally dies, Janie wears her hair down and in a single, long ponytail, hanging down her back, solidifying the phallic imagery. Tea Cake embracing Janie’s hair is not a commentary on homosexuality, but rather a commentary on healthy masculinity and a man not being threatened by a woman’s sense of independence and identity, traits that are typically entitled to men and stripped from women. Of course, there is always a catch.

The unusually “equal” power dynamic between Janie and Tea Cake stops at a certain point, and the reader is painfully reminded that the two are still products of their time. The cruel reality that women of Hurston’s time faced becomes apparent when Tea Cake must prove his masculinity, and Janie suffers at his hand. Initially, Tea Cake teaches Janie how to shoot a gun until she becomes a better than he is. Most other men would beat Janie for being smug, thinking she must feel so high and mighty for excelling at white people’s sport. Yet Tea Cake is as jealous as he is proud of Janie, and he continues to water and nourish Janie’s soul where Logan and Jodie wear away at it. However, as easily as flipping a switch, when he feels threatened by Mrs. Turner’s brother coming into town to woo Janie, Tea Cake beats her, and, to the pain of the modern reader, Janie does not hold it against him because she understands him. It was a tactful and smart decision on Zora Hurston to include this exchange. It is an ugly truth, but a real one. No matter how loving or gentle a man can be, he can easily be as cruel and violent—and the first ones to to be affected by the fallout will be the man’s family. The woman will stay and forgive him because it isn’t her fault or his fault. It is jealousy’s fault, yet it remains Janie’s burden to bear. Essentially, Hurston is critically pointing out the flawed mentality of the people of her time in which men essentially controlled their women by claiming, “”I love you so much. If you didn’t go walking around looking like that, I wouldn’t be worried about other guys hitting on you,”” then proceeding to actually hitting the women.

Despite this unusual paradox, Janie does finally get to experience true love and free-will because she meets Tea Cake. If Tea Cake had never missed that baseball game, Janie would have stayed in the Everglades and either settled down out of necessity or lived having never experienced the (relative) freedom she experiences with Tea Cake. Janie is definitely liberated and empowered for a black woman in those times because of him. For example, she wears a blue satin dress he buys for her because “”Tea Cake Love me in blue, so Ah wears it. Jody ain’t never in his life picked out no color for me. De worl’ picked out black and white for mournin’, Joe didn’t. So Ah wasn’t wearin it for him. Ah was wearin it fo’ the rest of y’all”” (Hurston 113). While the townspeople criticize her for wearing such bright, vivid colors when she should be in mourning and wearing black, Janie argues that wearing black is just to comfort them, not her. Wearing the blue dress comforts her because she loves Tea Cake, and Tea Cake chose the blue dress for her, and she is done mourning Jodie for others.

All in all, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a literary treasure, and a personal favorite. Zora Neale Hurston’s authentic characterizations and realistic depictions of love and abuse make for an immersive and emotionally riveting experience. In a style emulating traditional African-American oral storytelling, Hurston takes the reader along with Janie on her journey to discover Tea Cake, and with him, discover true love, partnership, and freedom.”

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Their Eyes Were Watching God Discussion. (2021, Apr 08). Retrieved from