Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel written by Zora Neale Hurston in 1937. It is a story about an African American woman, Janie Crawford, her lifelong search for love and self-assertion.
In 1937, the times of the Great Depression, the novel did not get recognition as it gets today. Black people criticized the ideas presented in the story a lot. They said that Hurston had not underlined the real treatment of whites to South blacks. They argued that demoralization had not been described as it was in real. Only in 1970s, the book was rediscovered and began studied by students.
One of the peculiar features of the work is the form chosen by the author. Hurston begins and ends the story with one and the same setting and people. The major character, Janie, tells the story of her life to one of her friends, Pheoby Watson.
Her story is a kind of trip to Janie’s past life via a huge flashback.
To describe Janie’s story of life, the author uses a great number of metaphors and symbols. First of all, it is necessary to clear up what a metaphor actually means.
“In cognitive linguistic view, metaphor is defined as understanding one conceptual domain of another conceptual domain.” (Kovecses 4)
In the novel, there are three brightest examples of metaphors: a pear tree, the image of the horizon, and mules. Two first examples are about Janie’s dreams and hopes. Janie climbs the pear tree in order to see horizon. She wants to know what else is around her. She has a dream to make a trip and discover what is so special beyond horizon.
The third example of metaphor, a mule, is an image of African American’s status during the Great Depression. Hurston tries to underline the plight of African American workers by comparing them with the mules.
The image of mules also represents Janie’s life, her searching, and social status. Actually, mules represent Janie’s position in several ways.
With each stage of her life, Janie realizes more and more that her life is most like the life of an ordinary mule.
When Janie is a child, her grandmother, Nanny, usually compares black women and mules. She says: “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (Hurston 14). Nanny tries to explain her granddaughter how helpless the status of African American women in the society is.
Nanny does not see another way for good and free life for her Janie but a marriage. It is not that important to marry for love and happiness. Granny tells that love and happiness may come with time. A family is the very place where true love will appear. This is why Nanny finds a good option to her daughter.
Inexperienced Janie has nothing to do but obey her granny, and she agrees to get married with Logan Killicks, an old farmer who needs a wife to keep the house and helps on farm. She truly believes that in this marriage, she will find a true love and become really happy. Unfortunately, it was only her dreams.
Just like a mule, Janie is forced to work in the field with her husband. Janie continues to believe that working together, she can be closer to her husband. However, being closer was not the objective of her husband. The major purpose that Logan wants to achieve is his financial prosperity, nothing more. Janie cannot stand such attitude any more. The only way she sees is to leave her husband and start a new life. She desperately thinks that her new lover, Jody Starks, will help her.
They come to a new town, where Jody becomes a major. However, the situation does not change considerably. Now, Janie’s role is to be a trophy wife.
A situation with Matt Bonner’s mule can serve as one more example in order to find more connection between the life of the mule and Janie’s life.
Jody Starks tempted Janie with his money and burning ambitions. He made her fall in love with him and took away from the husband. The same thing happens with Bonner’s mule. He buys the mule and takes it away from Bonner just in order to make it his own property. This mule becomes one of the major themes for discussions. It is a centerpiece of the town as well as Janie (because she is a major’s wife).
“The association between the mule’s liberation and its release from the debt of slavery comments in interesting ways on Janie’s own life history.” (Joseph 146).
Janie feels sorry for that poor mule. Maybe, it happens because she compares herself with it. She also suffers from abuse and sneers of other people. She cannot get into a way of being a major’s wife, listening, and obeying to each word of her husband. Even though, she has a better job (now, she should not work in the field but in the office), she does not feel satisfaction. Such “golden cage” is not for her.
It is also very important to underline one more situation that happens with Bonner’s mule and Janie. When the mule died, Jody does not allow Janie go to the funeral. What are the reasons for such a decision? It is so obvious that the mule symbolizes Janie’s life. In this case, why does Jody allow the mule die and be eaten by the birds? Does he want the same destiny to her wife? Or, can it be that Jody wants to prove that even after the death, he can control the situation?
However, in any case, the mule’s death is a symbol of Janie’s freeing, at least, her soul. This death changes Janie in some way. Now, she is more or less ready to leave Jody and continue her searching of freedom and happiness.
There is one more thing that needs to be considered – the color of Matt Bonner’s mule. It was yellow. Yellow is referred to light-skinned African Americans, just like Janie Crawford is. Is it a coincidence or one more technique used by the author? Maybe, it is one more attempt to underline unbelievable resemblance of status of an African American woman and a working mule.
Of course, the way Hurston chooses to describe the status of working black women was a bit offensive. To represent the terrible attitude of whites to black workers, the writer picks out mules. These animals have to obey their masters. They have nothing to do but work all the time.
The major character of the novel, Janie Crawford, should follow the same way. She wants to find true love and become free. Unfortunately, her way is not that easy. Too many obstacles are on her way.
“Hurston’s heroine, Janie, progresses through a series of destructive relationships with men before finally choosing solitude and reflection as the resolution to her quest.” (Nash 74)
At the end of the story, Janie kills her true love. She has to do it in order to save her own life. Such a decision is one of the brightest evidences of her strengths and her only desire to survive and be free.
Zora Huston created the novel during the times of the Great Depression. These were the times when African American female writers were rather rare. Because of serious critiques and discontents of either whites or blacks, lots of her works were overlooked and even not published.
In 1970s, Alice Walker reintroduced Hurston’s works. She wrote: “Her best novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), is regarded as one of the most poetic works of fiction by a black writer in the first half of the twentieth century, and one of the most revealing treatments in modern literature of a woman’s quest for a satisfying life.” (Walker A. 6)
Zora Hurston described Janie as strong and courageous woman who never stopped her searching for independence and happiness. It was unusual for those times. The great majority of African American women could not demonstrate their characters and represent their own ideas. It was a risky step, and the writer was not afraid to take it. Her attempt may be justified as the book is really great and all the techniques are appropriately used.
Joseph, Philip. American Literary Regionalism in a Global Age. United States: LSU Press, 2007.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. United States: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Hemenway, Robert. E. and Walker A. Zora Hurston: A Literary Biography. United States: University of Illinois Press, 1980.
Kovecses, Zoltan. Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. United States: Oxford University Press US, 2002.
Nash, William R. Charles Johnson’s Fiction. United States: University of Illinois Press, 2003.