Although marriage is a significant theme in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, surprisingly little scholarship has been devoted to this compelling topic although much has been devoted to issues of sexuality and feminist issues within the novel. In the novel, Janie survives three marriages. The term “survives” is significant for two reasons. The first is that she survives two of her husbands in death, and the second reason is that Janie’s marriages present struggles that frequently threaten her emotional and even physical well being. In other words, she survives her marriages in the same way she would survive a hurricane. This is not to say, however, that these marriages were entirely negative experiences. During these marriages, Janie gradually emerges from girlhood into womanhood, from innocence to experience.
In Dolan Hubbard’s essay, “‘”. . . Ah said Ah’d save de text for you”‘: Recontextualizing the Sermon to Tell (Her) story in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,” he outlines the themes for each of Janie’s marriages,
(1) security and respect (Logan Killicks);
(2) excessive competition and overcompensation as a result of marginalization (Joe Starks);
(3) the sensualization of pain and pleasure (Tea Cake and life in the Everglades). (170)
In other words, Janie “gets” something different from each of her marriages, but the reason she marries is always the same: the hope of love.
In spite of Janie’s marriages and husbands being quite dissimilar from one another, there are numerous similarities among the men and the relationships. Each husband is chauvinistic in some way and each marriage degenerates into banality, or worse, abuse. As stated above, in each case, Janie seeks love. Sometimes she finds it; sometimes she does not. Most importantly, none of her marriages have significant negative impact to destroy her.
Janie’s decision to marry in the first place was not her own, but her grandmother’s. Since Janie’s mother is absent, her grandmother, Nanny, is Janie’s only source of matriarchal wisdom. Ironically, neither her own mother nor Nanny had ever been married themselves. Furthermore, Janie and her mother were not the offspring of loving relationships, but of rape. Before her own marriage, Janie had almost no role models for marriage, except for possibly that of the Washburns, Nanny’s employers. When Nanny insists Janie marry, Janie rightfully questions, “Whut Ah know ’bout uh husband?” (12). Unfortunately, Nanny is not able to answer this question satisfactorily.
Instead, Janie learns to understand marriage by observing nature. Janie becomes an earth-goddess archetype as she witnesses and blesses the marriages of bees to tree blossoms and tumbling flies in the kitchen. Because of her relationship to Nature, Janie’s story can be analyzed as a female quest in which she is both hero and heroine. In the introduction to the 1991 University of Illinois edition of the novel, Sherley Anne Williams notes,
Hurston’s sophisticated deployment of female archetypes, particularly the archetype of the green-world, that “special world of nature where women’s desires for authentic self-hood” are realized, the green-world lover, the erotic figure associated with the hero’s naturistic epiphany and her play on enclosure imagery place the novel firmly within a tradition of women’s literature. (xix)
Janie’s relationship to Nature or the green-world is significant in each of her marriages. Men come and go in Janie’s life, but Nature always remains her sensual guide.
The awakening to natural marriage under the pear tree preludes her sexual awakening as she immediately thereafter finds herself attracted to Johnny Taylor, a young man she had formerly disdained as “shiftless.” Because of Nanny’s negative view of sexuality, she interprets Johnny Taylor’s display of physical affection as “lacerating her Janie with a kiss” (11). What would seem to other to be an innocent kiss appears to Nanny as an act of violence akin to penetration, i.e., rape. When Nanny notices Janie’s emerging sexuality, she insists that Janie marry immediately and “marry off decent” (13) before her virtue is sabotaged by young men like Johnny.
Nanny’s insistence that Janie marry is ironic for two important reasons. First, since Nanny herself never married, she has little idea of what marriage is like and whether or not it would benefit her granddaughter. Second, Nanny does not believe that Janie can make it as a single woman in spite of the fact that Nanny herself has done a superb job of caring for herself and her granddaughter in spite of challenging circumstances.
What is more ironic is that Nanny’s reason for herself not having married is the same one that she gives to Janie to get married: protection. Nanny admits there were “uh heap uh times” when she could have married, but she claims that her reason for not doing so is because she “didn’t want nobody mistreating mah baby” (18). Instead, alone she made “de sun shine on both sides of de street for Leafy [her daughter]” (18). Rachel Blau DuPlessis notes this paradox in “Power, Judgment, and Narrative in a Work of Zora Neale Hurston: Feminist Cultural Studies”:
Social decency, straight paths, reductions of impulse all are the desired end: Janie, her Nanny decrees, must “marry protection” (14). Protection ironically takes the form of a man; self-sufficiency is not and cannot be a thought, although Nanny herself has . . . achieved it. (110)
By comparing Nanny’s argument for marriage to evidence in her own life as to the importance of marriage, it is hard to say whether she is being hypocritical or whether she regrets the choices she has made for herself. Whatever the case, Nanny does not want Janie to follow her lifestyle. Having not known marriage herself, but only the struggle of single parenthood, the concept seems ideal for her beloved granddaughter.
Nanny is not clear about what it is that marriage will supposedly protect Janie from, but to strengthen her argument Nanny offers her own narrative of her life as a slave as if to suggest that marriage would spare Janie from that kind of hardship. In this narrative, Nanny portrays herself as a victim, which is to be expected, but downplays her personal triumphs and tenacity in the face of trying circumstances. Nanny’s endurance of habitual rape from her owner results in the birth of her daughter, Leafy (Janie’s mother). When the slave owner’s wife sees that Leafy resembles her husband, she beats and terrorizes Nanny as if she were to blame for her husband’s infidelity. Since the slave owner’s wife is a threat to Nanny and her infant daughter, Nanny flees with her baby to live in the swamp. Nanny’s time in the swamp is a foreshadowing of her future granddaughter’s union with nature and swamp experience in the Florida Everglades. However, in spite of the swamp providing safety for Nanny and her daughter, she does not perceive Nature as a place of nurture and refuge, but merely as a lesser danger than the one she faced at the plantation.
In a metaphor of the natural word, Nanny claims that “us colored folks is branches without roots” (15). This statement shows that Nanny adheres to the patriarchal notion that familial lines are established by paternity and that a solid matriarchy does not make up for a lack of proper male parentage. To Nanny, marriage would ensure that Janie’s children would have the patriarchal roots that illegitimate birth cannot provide. By making this statement, Nanny’s diminishes the family legacy of Janie and other descendents of slaves as being inferior to that of those who come from “traditional” families.
After her marriage to Logan Killicks, a farmer who is much older than Janie and a widower, Janie consults Nanny for marital advice because she has no one else to turn to. Since she had little chance to observe how marriage should be, “Janie had had no chance to know things, so she had to ask” (20). Because of her lack of experience in the matter, Nanny has naive and unrealistic ideals of marriage that serve only to frustrate and confuse Janie. For example, “Nanny and the old folks” say that “[h]usbands and wives always loved each other, and that was what marriage meant” (20). Janie cannot understand why she does not love Logan Killicks, even after several months of marriage.
Nanny dies a short while after Janie’s marriage to Killicks knowing that this marriage had not brought the protection, love, and peace of mind to herself and her granddaughter that she had hoped it would bring. Nanny’s passing from life, however, does not mean that her influence on Janie does not continue. Janie still struggles with Nanny’s words even after her second husband dies and thinks about how “Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon . . . and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her” (85).
Not surprisingly, Janie’s marriage to Killicks does not last. Before they had even been married a year, romance, what there was of it, was gone from their marriage. Logan “stopped talking in rhymes to her” and “ceased to wonder at her long black hair and finger it” (25). He begins to compare Janie to his first wife who never complained about having to do farm chores. Janie learns “that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (24). In spite of having “become a woman,” Janie still exhibits traits of youthful girlhood. Janie’s first dream has died, but she continues to dream of excitement and romance. Even while doing menial chores in the barn, “springtime reached her in there” as it had under the pear tree not so long ago. Again, trees, iconic of the green-world, play a significant role in Janie’s romantic life as it is while enjoying the shade of an oak tree that she first encounters the dashing Joe Starks.
Janie resists the idea of running away with Joe at first, but soon realizes that life with Logan Killicks is nothing but a series of onerous farm chores and tedious domestic duties. When Logan insists that she leave making breakfast to help him move a pile of manure, Janie refuses. She returns to her cooking as if to lose herself in the minutiae of detailed domesticity. While carefully turning hoe cake and sow belly and brewing coffee, Janie realizes she is wasting her time. She leaves her still-cooking breakfast and bolts out the door to find Joe.
As Janie walks away from Killicks toward Starks she renews her alliance with the green-world. Before Janie becomes Joe’s bride, she spiritually “weds” nature as she had done under the pear tree many years before:
The morning road air was like a new dress. That made her feel the apron tied around her waist. She untied it and flung it on a low bush beside the road and walked on, picking flowers and making a bouquet. (31)
Later that day, Janie and Joe marry (1) and later watch “the sun plunge into the same crack in the earth from which the night emerged” (31). Like the beautiful sunset that seems to unite sun and earth as one, Janie and Joe’s marriage begins as an act of beauty and harmony. Like the sunset, however, darkness soon emerges from the Starks’s union.
“Joe didn’t make many speeches with rhymes to her” (32), as Killicks had once done, but Janie’s marriage to Joe begins to resemble her previous one in other ways. Joe becomes less romantic as politics and business matters become more important. Like Killicks, Joe not only loses interest in Janie’s beautiful hair, but makes sure that no one else takes an interest in it by insisting that she keep it tied up in a head rag. Even their sexual relationship deteriorates:
The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. . . . The bed was no longer a daisy-field for her and Joe to play in. It was a place where she went and laid down when she was sleepy and tired. (67)
This lack of affection is the result of Joe’s silencing Janie and forcing submission from her. As her grandmother had said, “[s]he must look on herself as the bell-cow” (39). Like a cow, Joe does not think Janie has anything to say and considers her purpose as purely utilitarian. Joe says, “Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves” (67).
The culmination of Janie’s animosity toward Joe comes when Janie, weary of Joe and his cronies’ braggadocio, declares to Joe, “When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life” (75). In spite of the harsh words between them, neither dislikes the other enough to leave nor do they feel hatred toward each other. After Janie’s verbal emasculation, Joe “didn’t really hate Janie, but he wanted her to think so” (77). Similarly, when Janie discovers that Joe is ill and that he thinks she is responsible, she confides in her friend Phoeby, “Ah’d ruther be dead than for Jody [Joe] tuh think Ah’d hurt him” (78). Janie does, however, hurt Joe during his last moments of life when she confronts him for his treatment of her. Joe dies without peace.
Janie’s first act of freedom from Joe is uncovering her head to let down her beautiful hair. She covers it again long enough to satisfy the community of mourners, but burns her head rags immediately after Joe’s funeral. Before long, Janie’s beauty attracts another suitor: Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods.
Tea Cake is a likeable character from the beginning. His charm, joie de vivre, and devotion to Janie are appealing and even his somewhat phallic surname, Woods, suggest that he will fulfill the desires that manifested themselves under the pear tree when she was young. Janie makes this analogy:
She couldn’t make him look like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom-a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God. (101, 102)
Unfortunately, Janie, like the blossoms and aromatic herbs, will be the one Tea Cake crushes.
Although Tea Cake is almost without question Janie’s “best” husband, he is anything but an ideal mate. Early in their marriage, he steals Janie’s money and gambles it away. He wins in back, but his involvement in gambling’s violent underworld threatens their safety and puts a strain on their relationship.
Tea Cake eventually becomes physically abusive. Like Joe, who had forced submission from Janie, Tea Cake believes, “Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss” (140). Instead of disapproval, Tea Cake’s friends remark that he is lucky to have a woman with fair enough skin to show signs of beating. Both men and women in the community are jealous about the way the Woods act so lovingly toward each other after his striking her. To complicate matters, Janie is not innocent of wrongdoing; she had attempted to beat up Tea Cake when she thinks he is having an affair with another field worker. The tussle does not end with a truce, but it does end with a sexual encounter-clearly indicating that, for this couple, love and violence are intertwined and almost indistinguishable.
Although Janie’s marriage to Tea Cake is more egalitarian than her previous ones, more often than not, Tea Cake makes most of the couple’s decisions. Although Janie has sufficient money to provide a comfortable living for both of them, Tea Cake insists on providing for Janie. On the surface, Tea Cake appears noble for not wanting to freeload, but he makes Janie adhere to a lower standard of living to satisfy his ego. It is his idea to move to the Everglades and his decision to ride out a hurricane endangers them both.
Dolan Hubbard notes that the decision to move to the Everglades is actually good for the Woods’ relationship because it is a shift away from materialism and an embrace of the natural world:
In a reversal of the romantic moment that we associate with fairy tales such as the Cinderella story, Janie and Tea Cake go to live in the Everglades, rejecting the finery and status of the mayor’s house because of their desire to know and love each other. (175)
Tea Cake, in spite of his many other shortcomings, cares for Janie’s emotional well being, something which Joe did not do. He is certainly misguided to think that physical abuse is normal and that it somehow strengthens their relationship, but the problem seems to be more of a cultural attitude as shown by that of their friends who consider domestic abuse normal and even beneficial to a relationship.
While trying to rescue Janie from rising flood waters during a hurricane, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog and contracts the horrible disease. Tea Cake’s death is similar to Joe’s because of his refusal to see a doctor at first sign of illness. The loss of Tea Cake is disturbing and heart-wrenching not only because Janie loves him, but it is emblematic of a change in her relationship with the green-world. After the devastating hurricane and the rabid dog, Janie can no longer trust Nature. In “Should Their Eyes Have Been Watching God?: Hurston’s Use of Religious Experience and Gothic Horror,” Erik Curren notes that Janie’s story changes “from optimistic quest to gothic horror” (18) in which Nature is no longer trusted friend, but formidable and unpredictable foe. Before the hurricane, Nature had been only kind to Janie, teaching her lessons of love. During the hurricane, for the first time, Nature became Janie’s enemy. Tea Cake attempted to defy Nature by dismissing its power, and Nature destroys Tea Cake as if to punish him for his defiance and to punish Janie for trusting him instead of her own natural instincts.
All of Janie’s marriages end by her own doing to some extent, and her marriage to Tea Cake is no exception. Although Janie kills the raging Tea Cake in self defense, the nature of the killing is sufficiently suspicious to bring the case to trial. Judgment is a significant theme in Their Eyes Were Watching God, so it should not come as a surprise that Janie eventually ends up on trial in a court of law. Janie fulfills her grandmother’s vision of “colored women sittin’ on high” (15), but certainly not in the way Nanny would have hoped. Fortunately, however, the verdict is favorable for Janie. The somber tone that the novel seems to have taken shifts back to a more positive one.
In another turn of irony, Janie’s societally-approved sexual encounters in marriage never produce offspring in stark contrast to the shameful rapes of her mother and grandmother. Again, it would seem Nature has betrayed Janie, or has it? Although Janie does not produce children, this does not mean that her life has been unfruitful. Williams makes this observation:
While Janie is not without a symbolic fecundity-in narrating her own life story to her friend, Pheoby, she gives us the fruit of her mind and in her own memories of love and light the fruit of her relationship with Tea Cake-unlike the pear tree, she bears no glistening or tangible fruit . . . . (xxiv)
Although Nanny could have had no way of knowing that Janie would never have children, the fact that she does not again reveals that Nanny’s fears were unfounded; it appears that Janie would have never suffered the struggle of single parenthood as her mother and grandmother had. Even though Janie is married and can bear children with complete social approval, there is surprisingly little pressure on her to do so. After Janie’s visit with Nanny and Mrs. Washburn shortly after her marriage to Killicks, there is little further discussion of childbearing. What also seems unusual is that none of Janie’s husbands seem bothered by her apparent infertility; none long for a son, which is what a chauvinistic male of the period would be expected to do.
After her second husband dies, Janie feels as if Nanny has put the horizon around her neck to choke her. Similarly, after Tea Cake’s death, she, like Nanny, takes hold of the horizon, but instead of putting it around her neck, she “Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder” (184). The horizon is still a burden to her, but not a choking one. As the novel states in the beginning, “women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget” (1). The weight of the memories of her marriages rests upon her shoulders where she can choose to discard it if she wishes.
By the novel’s end, Janie has made peace with her past and with the green-world. Her quest continues as she carries her memories with her; Tea Cake “could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking” (183).
1. There is no mention of Janie ever divorcing Logan and the possibility of doing so seems unlikely since she marries Joe the very same day. Yet no discussion is ever made of the Starks’s marriage being illegal or of Janie being a polygamist (polyandronist?).
Curren, Erik D. “Should Their Eyes Have Been Watching God?: Hurston’s Use of Religious Experience and Gothic Horror.” African American Review. 29 (1995): 17-25.
DuPlessis, Rachel Blau. “Power, Judgment, and Narrative in a Work of Zora Neale Hurston: Feminist Cultural Studies.” New Essay on Their Eyes Were Watching God Ed. by Michael Awkward. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1990. 95-123.
Hubbard, Dolan. “‘”. . . Ah Said Ah’d save de text for you”‘: Recontextualizing the Sermon to Tell (Her)story in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” African American Review. 27 (1993): 167-177.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper and Row, 1990.
Williams, Sherley Anne. Introduction. Their Eyes Were Watching God. By Zora Neale Hurston. Urbana: U of Chicago P, 1991.