American experience during the early 1900s. Set in the all-black town of Eatonville, the novel also humanizes the lives of African Americans and sheds a light on the distinct cultural beliefs, values and lifestyles of black people, particularly women. Thus, the story explores the life of an African American woman, Janie Crawford and her journey to find identity beyond the conventional submissive and domestic roles that defined the character of many black women during this era. After a couple of failed marriages, she begins to discover her identity and finally finds the love of her life. Ultimately, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a colorful portrayal of one woman’s quest to find identity, love and freedom.
During the early 1900s, many marriages between were prearranged at a young age, and women did not have a choice as to who they wanted to marry. Marriages were usually based on financial stability of the man and protection for the women. Thus, Janie’s first marriage to Logan Killicks was prearranged by her grandmother. Janie’s mother left her when she was very young, so her grandmother raised her and supported her growing up. Living in an impoverished condition, the grandmother thought that it would be best to marry Janie off to Logan to secure her future. “If you don’t want him, you sho oughta. Heah you is wid de onliest organ in town, amongst colored folks, in yo’ parlor. Got a house bought and paid for and sixty acres uh land right on de big road” (Hurston, 23).
Thus, Janie was not in love with Logan when she married him. Their entire marriage was a conventional, patriarchal marriage where she was forced to stay home to tend to domestic duties while the Logan provided for the family. He was much older than Janie and their age really created a distance between them. Janie was still learning herself, and Logan just wanted a wife to settle down with and take care of his home. This led to a conflict between the two, which really damaged the marriage. “Long before the year was up Janie noticed that her husband had stopped talking in rhymes to her. He had ceased to wonder at her long black hair and finger it” (Hurston, 26).
But it wasn’t until Janie met Joe Starks, a rather wealthy, handsome black man, that she realized that there was more out in the world for her to see. When she decided she would leave Logan Killicks to live with Joe, she begin understanding the freedom she found in making her own choices and discovering her identity. “The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off. She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (Hurston, 25).
Thus, Janie was initially mesmerized by Joe Starks’ stature, masculinity and power. She fell in love with him and married him right away. “On the train the next day, Joe didn’t make many speeches with rhymes to her, but he bought her the best things the butcher had, like apples and a glass lantern full of candies. Mostly he talked about plans for the town when he got there. They were bound to need somebody like him. Janie took a lot of looks at him and she was proud of what she saw” (Hurston, 34).
But, after many years of being married to Joe, Janie begin to become depressed by the submissive, physical and emotionally abusive relationship that she endured in her marriage. Joe begin to belittle her and talk to her in a condescending way, and being a woman her opinion and voice did not matter. She felt lost and socially isolated from her friends. “So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirt 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” (Hurston, 71).
When Joe died, Janie felt, in a sense, that she had reclaimed her identity, and when she met Tea Cake she really became the woman she always wanted to be. Tea Cake was much younger than Janie, but he opened her up to look at the world in a whole new light. He understood her and allowed her to be her true self, and ultimately, and he didn’t demean her or make her feel less because she was woman like her last husband, Joe. “Cause Tea Cake ain’t no Jody Starks, and if he tried tuh be it would be uh complete flommuck. But de minute Ah marries ‘im everybody is gointuh be makin’ comparisons. So us is goin’ off somewhere and start all over in Tea Cake’s way. Dis ain’t no business proposition, and no race after property and titles. Dis is uh love game. Ah one lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine” (Hurston, 114).
The spiritual and emotional love they had for each other, lasted even after Tea Cake’s horrible death. “Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace” (Hurston, 193). Thus, she discovered her identity and learned the true meaning of love with Tea Cake. Essentially, Janie’s experiences with her past marriages helped her to discover her identity and womanhood, but Tea Cake opened Janie’s eyes to a love she never had, and it was with him that she found her freedom.