Roles of Race and Gender in Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

In “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Zora Neale Hurston explores the effects of race and gender on developing one’s identity. There is often a discrepancy between personal identity and the identity formed exogenously by members of society, which makes it difficult to develop a true understanding of oneself. In Hurston’s novel, Janie is able to move past the opinions others have of her and become the woman she wants to be, but not before she is subjected to the limitations placed on her as a result of being a black woman. Hurston’s symbolic use of the mule, a pear tree in blossom, and Janie’s hair illustrate the development of Janie’s womanhood and independence, as well as her ultimate triumph over her domineering husbands and the constrained society in which she lives.

Normally, when one thinks of race and discrimination, the focus is on one race putting another down. However, in some cases, members of the same race can be just as discriminatory and unsupportive of one another. Hurston explores this idea of inner-race discrimination in her fictional depiction of Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville serves as a way for black people to escape from the racism present in the rest of the United States (Patterson 34). However, this enclave of racial separateness is not lacking in discrimination. Upon the arrival of Joe Starks and Janie to the town, several members of the all-black community question Joe’s aspirations. One such member, Amos Hicks, voices his doubts by saying that “us colored folks is too envious of one ‘nother,” and that’s why any sort of progress is unlikely (“Their Eyes” 48). Furthermore, he says that though the common belief is that the white man keeps the black race from progressing, it is really the entire black community that keeps any one of its members from moving forward (“Their Eyes” 48). It is either the belief that the proverbial white man would not allow the black man to progress or it is being stuck in their oppressive past that keeps the black race from accepting any attempts by one of their members to advance in society.

In actuality, white people are rarely present in the novel. Much of Janie’s tale takes place in Eatonville, which is by its nature an all-black community (“Their Eyes” 35). The white people who are present tend to fade into the background, such as the women who make up “the white part of the room” during Janie’s trial (“Their Eyes” 223). The minute role of white people in the story parallels the inferiority of blacks in the rest of society during a time when racial discrimination was prevalent in the United States. During the early 1900’s, which is when this story takes place, slavery was nonexistent, but racial discrimination was running rampant throughout the country. Jim Crow laws were instituted in the South to make life difficult for black people.

Though white people are uncommon in the story, it is not unusual for the black characters to imitate typical white behavior. For example, Nanny wishes for Janie to act out the role of the white woman by marrying a respectable man (“Their Eyes” 20). Nanny felt the effects of the constraining view toward black women – she took care of a white woman’s children, a job that was typical for a black woman – and hopes that Janie will have a life free from burden. Nanny believes the black woman to be the mule of the world (“Their Eyes” 20). The mule motif factors heavily into the entire story and is used to demonstrate the burden that society puts on members of the black minority.

Not only is Janie black, but she is also a woman. Going back to Nanny’s metaphor, the white man orders the black man around, but the black man transfers his burden to “his womenfolks” (“Their Eyes” 19). This first mention of the mule sets the tone for the rest of the story; Janie is a mule in the sense that she must carry the burden her husbands place on her, but she is also beat down by the expectations placed on her by society. Nanny expects her to live an unburdened life, but each of Janie’s husbands in not content with maintaining this ideal (Meisenhelder 63). This is not just a story about racial discrimination; it also describes the plight of femininity, particular that of the black woman. The mule comes to represent female identity, in the sense that both mules and women must be controlled by their owners and husbands (Dilbeck 103). Matt Bonner, a member of the Eatonville community, is criticized for not being able to control his mule and ends up selling it to Joe (“Their Eyes” 70). Janie empathizes with the mule, because both she and it were subjected to a controlling master. Once Joe dies and Janie is free from that control, the mule motif does not reappear in the story, because Janie has been freed from her burden (Dilbeck 103).

Because Eatonville is an all-black community, Janie’s gender plays a greater role in how she is viewed by society. She, and often women in general, has the misfortune of being known only in reference to her husband. Rather than “Janie Starks,” she is called “Mrs. Mayor” (“Their Eyes” 56). Joe Starks is another character who mimics typical white behavior due to the absence of white people within the story. After working for “white folks all [his] life,” he’s ready to “be a big voice” (“Their Eyes” 35). Hurston paints Joe as a “false model of black manhood” by emphasizing his unhappiness to stay within his predetermined role (Meisenhelder 65). Tired of being ordered about, Joe adopts the persona of a white man, subjecting the black members of the community to his command. With a “bow-down command in his face,” Joe fosters economic growth in Eatonville, but mostly for his own benefit (“Their Eyes” 57). Rather than strive to improve the lives of his fellow black men, Joe continues the tradition of seeing black men as inferior, though from an economic standpoint. Because of this sort of oppression, the people of Eatonville debate over whether or not Joe should be able to boss them around; after all, slavery has ended and they have as much of a right to power as he does (“Their Eyes” 58). Still, it’s hard to rise above Joe’s control. The people of Eatonville are offset from the rest of white-dominated America, but they still experience economic inferiority.

Though Joe is himself a black man, he instead exhibits the traits of a white man; everyone else in society is beneath him, especially Janie. When in his presence, Janie compartmentalizes herself to better suit Joe’s expectations of her. She is forced to wear her long hair in a head-rag, because Joe tells her that it isn’t “sensible” to let it hang loose, when really he is jealous of the way other people admire it (“Their Eyes” 66). Janie’s hair becomes a symbol of her womanhood and individuality; it’s what makes her “stand out as independent and powerful” (Dilbeck 103). Her hair is a popular conversation topic, as demonstrated by Janie’s return to Eatonville at the beginning of the novel; the townsfolk talk about “the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume” (“Their Eyes” 4). Janie experiences a discrepancy between her public self and the woman blossoming within her. There is the carefree, independent Janie who lets her hair down, but there is also the Janie who ties her hair back in submission of her husband.

Hurston uses a blossoming pear tree to symbolize Janie’s transition from budding sexuality to womanhood. Before Janie became a wife to anybody, she was just a young girl who spent any moment she could lying beneath “a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard” (“Their Eyes” 15). As Janie explores her sexuality, such as by kissing Johnny Taylor and observing the pollination of pear blossoms, she develops a yearning for love and affection. Before Janie can hope to be loved by another person, however, she must learn to love herself. With Janie’s first husband, Logan Killicks, comes an image of “desecrating the pear tree,” so Janie knows that there is no love between them (“Their Eyes” 19). The pear tree metaphor is later used when Hurston describes Janie’s marriage to Joe Starks; Janie realizes that a husband must love and respect his wife, as a bee respects the blossom it pollinates (Dilbeck 102). It is only after Janie truly embraces her womanhood and individual spirit that she can let love – via Tea Cake, who appreciates every aspect of Janie’s character – into her life.

During Janie’s time with Joe, he puts her high up on a pedestal so that she is inaccessible to the other men who are pining after her (“Their Eyes” 66). When Janie is forced to conceal one of the greatest aspects of herself – her hair – she has no hope of flourishing under Joe’s domineering hand. After Joe dies, Janie goes to the mirror, sees the woman she has become, and tears the “kerchief from her head and [lets] down her plentiful hair” (“Their Eyes” 106). She takes in the image of her true self – wildly independent – but ultimately ties her hair back up again. This time, however, it is her decision to do so. With Joe’s death also comes the death of Janie’s submission to men. Janie “sent her face to Joe’s funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world,” because the burden given to her by Joe has been lifted from her shoulders (“Their Eyes” 108). From this point on, Janie decides to live for herself and embrace the power that lies within.

Just as Janie struggles to establish her true identity in the face of societal expectations, Hurston also feels, in “How It Feels to Be Colored Me,” that she is in possession of two selves. Hurston describes the difference between her colored self, which is how other people define her, and how she views herself. Hurston grew up in the all-black community of Eatonville, but she ventured out in order to attend college (“Colored Me” 940). In the outside world, she feels defined by her outward appearance, specifically the color of her skin. There are times when Hurston feels that she has no race; rather, she is just herself and is comfortable in her own skin (“Colored Me” 942). It is that version of Zora which Hurston wishes the world could see, and not the one that is defined by the labels placed on her by white society. Skin color has come to be used more as an indication of identity than as a simply physical observation, and there are times when Hurston does “feel discriminated against” (“Colored Me” 943). She goes on to say, however, that she does not let herself get angry; rather, she feels sorry for the people who do not try to get to know her for who she really is.

Hurston’s writing outlines racial issues – such as discrimination, its effect on gender roles, and the duality of self – in a way that highlights the conflicts present within a single race. She does not simply pit whites against blacks, as would be customary of the time period in which the story takes place. Hurston’s stance on inner-race discrimination and its effect on developing personal identity is refreshing in that it dispels the idea that discrimination only originates from people of other racial backgrounds. Though Hurston herself has felt discriminated against, she, like Janie, rose above the constrained views of the people around her and embraced the woman she knew herself to truly be. As Hurston describes it, the black woman is the mule of the world, but she also contains the power to throw down the burden placed on her by society and gain control over her life.


Works Cited

Hurston, Zora N. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Philadelphia: Lippincott Company, 1937. Print.

Meisenhelder, Susan E. Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick. Tuscaloosa: The University of Alabama Press, 1999. Print.

Patterson, Tiffany R. Zora Neale Hurston and a History of Southern Life. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2005. Print.

Hurston, Zora N. “How It Feels to Be Colored Me.” The Norton Anthology of American Literature. Ed. Nina Baym. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2013. 940-943. Print.

Dilbeck, Keiko. “Symbolic Representation of Identity in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The Explicator 66.2 (2010): 102-104. Web. 29 April 2014.

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