May 4, 2014
Janie’s Quest for her Horizon
“She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net” (Hurston 193). These words come from Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God when the protagonist, Janie, has at last achieved the harmony with nature and peace within herself she has sought from the beginning of the novel. Like any bildungsroman, Their Eyes Were Watching God showcases a pivotal moment in the moral development of the life of the protagonist. For Janie this moment is undoubtedly the time she spent underneath the pear tree as a young teenage girl. From this moment on, Janie searches for the perfect union of harmony she witnesses here in nature for her own life. In the end, though, Janie demonstrates her journey is an independent one,-focused on finding her own voice and is not dependent on any outside source. Janie’s moral development, and her search for her ‘horizon’ following this moment in nature can be traced by her use of language. Janie’s search for her own voice parallels Hurston’s use of language. By the end of the novel, Janie has developed a strong sense of self, in which she has come to not only find her own voice, but also learns the power of silence. By remaining silent in conspicuous places in her story, Janie shows the reader that having found her voice, she has the ability to control it as well.
In chapter 2, the moment Janie spends under the pear tree clearly marks the beginning of her spiritual awakening. Others, however, may find disagreement with this claim. In an unsigned publisher’s foreword, the author writes, “Janie’s conscious life had begun at Grandma’s gate. When Nanny had spied Janie letting Johnny Taylor kiss her over the gatepost she had called Janie to come inside the house. That had been the end of her childhood” (Hurston Reviews). This scene however, seems to only be a reaction Janie has immediately following her sexual awakening beneath the pear tree. This view in the foreword overlooks the importance of Janie’s newfound standard of sexual and emotional fulfillment. Indeed, underneath the pear tree, Janie witnesses a perfect union of harmony in nature. Janie sees “the thousand sister calyxes arch to meet the love embrace” of the male bee. Nellie McKay calls this moment Janie’s “awakening beneath the pear tree” that begins her conscious journey (McKay 58). In light of this, it’s easy to see how Janie is overcome with emotion and after witnessing this erotic scene, runs over to kiss Johnny Taylor. The erotic language found in this passage, such as Janie’s description “frothing with delight”, is suggestive of the naturalistic romanticism writing style we saw in Walt Whitman’s poem “Song of Myself.” The image of the embrace between the bee and the flower imprints itself in Janie’s mind and throughout the book she is reminded of this moment. Janie views this as an idealized vision of love- one in which there is reciprocity between the two partners. This moment must be the defining moment in Janie’s life because for the rest of her journey she is reminded of this scene and strives to find a relationship with reciprocal love.
We can now analyze how this moment in Janie’s life affects her development and her search for her horizon throughout the rest of the novel. After witnessing her ideal vision of a relationship, Janie begins her quest to find a partner who will give her the strength to find her voice. Unfortunately, Janie’s first two marriages only serve as roadblocks to her ultimate goal. With Logan, Janie finds neither the physical nor the emotional connection she is looking for. Therefore, when Jody Starks comes into town, Janie is dazzled by his ambition and power, which seem to radiate possibility and freedom. However, after twenty years with Jody, this marriage becomes equally, if not more, confining than the last. Janie’s quest to find her voice is stifled under her marriage to Jody as he tries to dominate everything around him. This can be seen in multiple ways; first with his insistence that Janie keep her hair tied up in a rag. Janie’s hair is a symbol of power- it represents her strength and individuality. Throughout the book, everyone is drawn to her straight, long, beautiful hair. However, Jody sees her hair as a threat to his power. In order to control Janie, and his fear that her hair could inspire lust in other men, he orders her to tie her hair in a rag. Another time we see Jody stifle Janie is during the ceremony when he becomes Mayor. When Janie is asked to give a short speech for the occasion, Jody immediately steps in, preventing her from doing so, and says wives shouldn’t make speeches. During this scene we see Jody literally being a hindrance to Janie’s own voice. Throughout this marriage, Jody tries to shape Janie into the type of woman he wants rather than the type of woman Janie wants to become. The mutuality in a relationship Janie wants is completely absent. During these chapters, Janie is constantly thinking back to her moment under the pear tree and realizes this relationship is an unfulfilling one that is not helping her progress toward her goal.
Henry Louis Junior Gates says Their Eyes Were Watching God is concerned “with the project of finding a voice, with language as an instrument” (Gates 197). Indeed, this statement is clearly demonstrated by the development of Janie throughout the novel. The narrative shifts from a third person narrator to a bias toward first person- signifying the awareness of self in Janie. For example, near the beginning of the book, when Janie meets Jody, their conversation is extremely limited. Jody is able to charm her by doing all the talking. This brevity foreshadows the problems to come in which Jody exerts his influence over her without leaving Janie any opportunity to grow. This is in stark contrast to Janie’s first meeting with Tea Cake. Here, several pages are dedicated to dialogue, showing the increased confidence Janie has in her own voice. A narrator is no longer needed as Tea Cake is finally allowing Janie to express herself. During their first meeting, he teaches her to play chess. Both of these activities, conversing and playing chess, grant the two partners equal status and Tea Cake is able to put himself on equal footing as her-something Jody was never willing to do. At last, Janie is able to experience the reciprocity in a relationship she has been looking for since experiencing it in nature underneath the pear tree.
There is much debate in the literary world as to whether Tea Cake is a vital component of Janie’s emergence as a strong, self-identified woman. However, upon reviewing Janie’s actions directly before, and after her relationship with Tea Cake, it’s evident that Janie could have found her voice with or without the help of Tea Cake. Critics like Nelly McKay argue, “That he was instrumental in showing her the possibilities of a life” and was necessary for “the subsequent full emergence of Janie’s voice and self” (McKay 61). Yet, as important as Tea Cake is to Janie’s development, he is not an indispensable part of her life. One great example of this is Janie’s reaction to Jody’s death. Lying on his deathbed, Janie knows that this might be one of the last times she will be able to speak to her husband. Having been stifled for twenty years, Janie finally has the courage to confront him- confessing her feelings and accusing him of tyranny. This outburst highlights the importance of language, as Janie appears powerful with her speech. During this scene the reader can see that Janie has already begun to find her voice on her own after realizing her perfect vision of love from under the pear tree was not being fulfilled from this relationship. Another example of how Janie is well on her way to finding her voice before Tea Cake comes from her long conversation with her friend Phoebe following Jody’s death. Here, Janie is able to powerfully converse without the interruption of the narrator and declares that she no longer needs the approval of others. Whereas in earlier chapters, the opinion of the town mattered a great deal to Janie, she has now gained the self-confidence to dismiss the gossip of the ‘porches.’ Lastly, the fact that Tea Cake is not a necessary component of Janie’s life is evidenced by the sad truth when Janie is forced to shoot him near the end of the novel. Janie’s decision to save herself rather than give in to the crazy, rabid, Tea Cake, who she once loved, highlights her newfound confidence and sense of self.
As Janie comes closer and closer to pulling in her horizon, and finding her voice, she is able to show the reader that she has completely mastered her voice. This mastery is shown when Janie remains silent. Critics argue however, that this silence on Janie’s part reflects weakness and that in the end, she truly never finds her voice. Critic, Robert Stepto argues, “Hurston creates the essential illusion that Janie has achieved her voice… but the tale undercuts much of this…because of its narration” (Awkward 19). Critics who agree with Stepto point to the times where Janie’s voice is curiously left out during crucial points such as during her trial. Stepto says that the use of the omniscient narrator “implies that Janie has not really won her voice and self after all” (Awkward 19). By the novels close however, this view is clearly mistaken. During Janie’s trial after the death of Tea Cake, Janie’s testimony is filled with almost entirely narration. Janie’s silence places emphasis on her ability to control her language. Earlier, her silence was a reflection of domination under Jody but now it reflects her ability to choose when and when not to speak. “Michael Awkward argues, against Stepto, that part of the point of the novel is Janie’s learning to dislike talk for talk’s sake” (Duplessis 107). This directly relates to a quote from Janie when she says “talkin’ don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh cant do nothin’ else” (Hurston 192). This shows that Janie understands the power of her speech. Clearly, Janie has at last found her voice and is now showing the reader that silence can also be a source of empowerment.
The moment that Janie experiences underneath the pear tree defines her ideal vision of love that she searches for throughout the rest of the novel. The marriages with Logan and Jody stifle Janie on her quest for her voice. Still, she is able to develop a strong sense of self by the time she meets Tea Cake who functions as a catalyst that pushes Janie to her goal. By the end of the novel, however, it’s evident that Janie has become her own woman with her own voice. Strong, and independent, at long last, Janie has found her horizon.
Awkward, Michael. “Introduction.” New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God (1990): 1-21. Literature Online. Web. 1 May 2014.
DuPlessis, Rachel B. “Power, Judgment, and Narrative in a Work of Zora Neale Hurston: Feminist Cultural Studies.” New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God (1990): 95-119. Literature Online. Web. 1 May 2014.
“Hurston Reviews.” People.Virginia.edu. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott Company, 1937. Web. 1 May 2014.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel. New York: HarperPerennial, 1990. Print.
McKay, Nellie. “”Crayon Enlargements of Life”: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God as Autobiography.” New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God (1990): 51-69. Literature Online. Web. 1 May 2014.