Their Eyes Were Watching God (J. B. Lippincott, 1937) loses focus when Tea Cake and Janie move to the “muck,” the Everglades, even though the writing in that section of the novel is at its best. They move to a marginal world where African Americans and Indians and people from the Caribbean and other parts of the world live together in a state of undeclared détente and cooperation. The hurricane that sweeps the swamp clean, causing damage and death, is the novel’s most dramatic narrative moment. It is as if the earth is wiped clean, and all the struggles Janie has confronted in the course of her life are washed away. This seems even more so when she is forced to shoot her husband Tea Cake to death as his rabies-induced madness threatens her life.
The novel does not end in any conclusive fashion. Janie finishes telling the story of her life. What the future might hold for her is unclear. A fellow reader suggested to me that because Tea Cake at one point in his illness bit her she is doomed to die of rabies. The novel doesn’t support this speculation, but it sheds little light on her future. It is as if with the end of her third marriage Janie’s life has come to an end, as if nothing else that would matter can possibly happen to her. Perhaps the point is that since Janie did find love with Tea Cake, she doesn’t need anything more—her life is complete, and therefore the novel which is the story of her life can satisfactorily end. This possibility is bothersome. There is irresolution, indeterminacy, in how the novel ends.
The flowering tree under which Janie sits and dreams early in the novel is a symbol and expression of her awakening womanhood, of her girlhood passing away. It’s a symbol of transition and transformation, of unfulfilled potential, of opportunity and promise denied. Another important symbol in the novel is the mule. Nanny tells Janie: "Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see."
Janie’s welfare within her society depends on her value as a marriage object. She is an attractive light-skinned young black woman, and these qualities make her a person of value, a thing, a commodity. From Nanny’s conventional viewpoint, Janie’s survival depends on her ability to find a suitable husband who can provide for her welfare. When Nanny sees Janie kissing the boy Johnnie Taylor, she quickly takes steps to marry her off to the farmer Logan Killicks, a man much older than she is. Protecting her value doesn’t mean protecting her virginity—if she marries, then her virginity will be lost, but within the confines of a condoned social institution, marriage, she will have a protected place. Janie expected to find love with her first husband, but she feels nothing with Logan, and he apparently either is not interested or is unable to give her the kind of love she wants. Instead, after a time, he begins to pressure her to do physical labor on his farm, to plow the fields. Killicks basically views Janie (as he would any wife) as a housekeeper and another hand to work around the farm—as a mule. Her ability to work is what makes her valuable to him. When the marriage falters, Janie runs off with the fast-talking Joe Starks, who treats her as a prized possession. She must play a particular social role in the project of his ambitions to become an important man in the life of the town of Eatonville. Starks doesn’t ask Janie to plow or carry heavy loads. Instead, he asks her to do nothing—she is Joe’s mule in a different sense--an appurtenance to his plans, an attractive wife, an agent of his schemes to become a wealthy and powerful man. She is supposed to embody respectability, and as a woman, she is not supposed to do much else.
Although he comes to her late in life, Janie’s third husband Tea Cake is the husband who gives her what she wants—love, respect, companionship.
The white man rarely plays a role in the events of the novel. Rather, those events occur in the world the white man has made, to which the black man and woman must accommodate themselves, in which they must make their way. Janie herself is the product of the world the white man has made. Her mother was the result of Nanny’s rape by her white owner on his way to fight in the Civil War. The world of African Americans in this novel is confined and limited. Poverty, few opportunities, hard labor, and difficult conditions are typical. Joe Starks’ ambitions, grand as they are, do not extend beyond the borders of Eatonville. Never does he consider intruding into the white man’s world. In general, the characters of this novel do not chafe against the boundaries imposed on their world by the white establishment. Instead they try to do their best to live and survive in the world that’s been provided to them. This failure by Hurston’s characters to rebel against their oppressed state helps account for some of the criticism the novel received when it was published.
Yet much of the value of this novel stems from its descriptions of how African American live in the rural small towns and farmlands of the early 20th-century South. Hurston brings her experience as a folklorist to bear in detailed and vivid descriptions of African American life.
One of the distinguishing traits of Their Eyes Were Watching God is the powerfully descriptive writing. The narrator describes Janie’s world through her own thoughts and evokes the people she meets through their rich and evocative language.