Zora and Janie - a comparison. About the life of Zora Neale Hurston and the fictional character Janie in her novel "Their Eyes were watching God"

Seminar Paper, 2001

10 Pages, Grade: 2 (B)



0. Introduction / Preface

I. Home
1. Zora Neale Hurston
2. Janie

II. Families, friends, lovers and marriages
1. Zora Neale Hurston
2. Janie


IV. Glossary

0. Introduction / Preface

It is quite often assumed that there is a connection between a writer's very own life and the thoughts and actions of characters in their fictional work, which seems to be obvious as very often parallels in experiences, settings and historical or political backgrounds in autobiographies and novels, for example, can be found.

In this paper I will deal with these parallels in regard to the life of Afro-American writer Zora Neale Hurston1 and Janie, the main character in her novel `Their Eyes were watching God' with focus on setting and character.

At first I am going to focus on what might be called home for Zora and Janie. I will deal with the town of Eatonville, which is the birthplace of Zora and later becomes part of the setting in "Their Eyes were watching God". With regard to what the term home itself means, I will also elaborate on the different places Zora and Janie used to live in and on the aspects of what a home makes.

Janie and Zora herself seem to have a lot in common and it seems as if the writer makes Janie experience some of the things she experienced herself, so I will focus on this connection between writer and fictional character more detailed in regard to their families, friends, marriages and relationships to other people, which will be dealt with in Chapter II.

In the end I am going to summarize what I have written about so far and give a final conclusion on the theory of parallelism between writer and character in regard to the analysis of the connection between Zora and Janie.

I. Home

There may be a lot of definitions of home. The DCE2 gives four different meanings, which are divided into sub-sections and added by common phrases and proverbs. The term home might be connected with very different meanings and emotions by each of us, and as it is not possible for me either to speak to Zora nor to Janie personally, I just have a vague suspicion of what might have been home for the two of them.

I.1. Home - Zora Neale Hurston

"Like the dead-seeming, cold rocks, I have memories within that came out of the material that went to make me.

Time and place have had their say."3

As no other place Eatonville, Florida seems to have had the most formative influence on Zora during her whole life. She was born and raised there for the first years and the town later became part of the setting in "Their Eyes were watching God".

Nowadays the town of Eatonville still honors Zora by arranging an annual `Zora Neale Hurston Street Festival of the Arts and Humanities', which program contains a lot of events dealing with topics of humanities, including theatre and dance performances, readings, workshops and of course an exhibition on Z.N. Hurston and her Eatonville roots.

I think that it is not absolutely necessary to deal with the historical and political roots and the development of the town in detail. What is more important is the fact that Eatonville was the first incorporated Negro community in the US, which was self- governed by the Afro- American inhabitants without being planned. Zora's father John once was elected mayor of the town and the place nowadays is still governed by the laws written by John Hurston. So there naturally is a connection between Zora and Eatonville as her father was one of those men who built and formed the town in the beginning of the century.

For Zora herself Eatonville was the place of her carefree and happy childhood, where she and her family used to stay in a house with a large garden, in which the family's food was grown. This garden seemed to be of a huge sentimental value to Zora, because wherever she stayed longer than a year, she used to plant a garden of flowers and vegetables, maybe in memory of her family's garden in Eatonville.

With regard to one of the definitions of home given in the DCE, Zora's home should have been the house she used to live in with her family, the school in Jacksonville, then the different houses of relatives and friends, the house of the Baldwins in Baltimore where she stayed during her time in high school, and all the places she used to live in during her life. It seems too simple to say that home is the place where one lives. Maybe it is the place itself which is meant with this definition, but in the case of Zora we cannot speak of home as a place where she lives, but as a place where her roots, heart and soul are. Eatonville has formed Zora during her childhood and maybe that is why the town is special for her, and it became part of the setting in "Their Eyes were watching God" later. The house where she used to live in with her parents is definitely not anymore part of home for Zora when she returns to Eatonville after her stay in Jacksonville, as we can see in her autobiography ("So I came back to my father's house which was no longer home")4. The house seems to be too much connected to the people who used to live in it, and when Zora returns to Eatonville after her stay at school in Jacksonville and parts of the family were not living there anymore, the place had lost the important aspects of security and familiarity that once made a home out of it.

What seemed to have had impressed Zora quite a lot during her childhood was the front porch of Joe Clarke's store in Eatonville where the men of the town, and on Saturdays even the women, used to exchange the latest gossip and stories. As a child she always wanted to listen to that `adult talk' and used to listen when she was sent in and out of the store. The front porch and the porch sitters, i.e. the men and women sitting there all day and talking, later became part of the setting in "Their Eyes were watching God".

Zora said about herself to have been a wandering person, not staying in one place too long. To me it seems as if she felt home, which means comfortable among other things according to the DCE, in some places where she used to live, for example in New York or Baltimore, whereas the place itself was less important, but the circumstances like friends and work seemed to play a bigger role.

On the one hand Zora was a person who never had a fixed place to live in for a long time, and it seems to me as if she was on the way all her life, looking for a place she might call home with all distinctive features home implies, like security, familiarity and safety. But on the other hand she remarks herself that her roots and the material that has formed her can be found in Eatonville, her birthplace (see above, p.4).

I.2. Home - Janie

The fictional character Janie was raised by her grandmother Nanny in a small village in the Western parts of Florida. Her Nanny at first had a house in the backyard of the white family she used to work for. It is an important part of Janie's childhood that her Nanny's employer always supported Janie and her grandmother, whether it was of material worth or mental support. Because of this Janie was better dressed than the other black children at school and became an outsider in class, what made Nanny decide to move in an own house with Janie, so that she might not feel or seem to be better than the others. With the help of her employer Nanny was able to buy a house with a small yard that Janie liked a lot. What is obvious is the fact that Janie had a special relationship to the plants, especially a pear tree in her Nanny's garden. Just as Zora describes in her autobiography, she felt the tree communicating to her. Janie had the feeling that the tree had called her to come and spend her time beneath it, whereas Zora mentions in "Dust tracks on a road" that the tree was speaking to her, although when she was not catching the words. To me it seems as if Zora transferred her own childhood memory into the story of "Their Eyes were watching God", and this memory is deeply connected with the feeling of home in the sense of a place to feel free and secure and worth spending time at.

I have dealt with the town of Eatonville quite a lot in chapter I.1., when I focused on home in regard to Zora. Eatonville is part of the setting in the novel and the question is, what things and parts of the town have impressed Zora that much, that in her eyes they are worth becoming part of her fictional work, and in how far might the town have been a home for Janie?

The difference between the two of them is, that for one of them Eatonville is birthplace and deeply connected to the family, whereas for the other one the town is becoming a place to live in. One could even say that in the case of Zora Eatonville implies her roots, history and memories, whereas for Janie the town is kind of a symbol for a new start, without family and old friends, but with her second husband and the power to begin a new life. There are some parallels that can be found when comparing the real Eatonville with the (more or less) fictional town in the novel.

One of the places that seemed to have had an influence on Zora was the front porch of Joe Clarke's store, and it is not only the place that was transferred from reality to fiction, but also the name of Joe Clarke is very close to the fictional shop owner Joe Starks, but I will give further details about the connection between real persons and fictional characters later on in chapter 2. The front porch of Joe Stark's store in the novel is like in Zora's autobiography a place where men and women meet to exchange gossip and the latest news. The front porch was for Zora an interesting place and she always tried to listen to what the adults were talking about, but she was still a child and too young to take part in the conversation. Janie was in a comparable situation, because although she was old enough to participate in the conversations, her husband Joe did not want her to.

So for both women the front porch is a place of great interest, but unattainable to take part in. It would be easy to say that Eatonville became the home of Janie, because of the long period of time she used to live there during her marriage to Joe Starks, but in fact it is the town where Janie is honored and respected, because of the dominance her husband spread around the place. Janie was part of Joe, and therewith she was part of the town's founder, mayor and most successful businessman. There is no more connection to the village she used to live with Nanny, like friends or family. Everything Janie owns is in Eatonville, and maybe that is the reason why she returns to the place after Tea Cake's sudden death.

Whatever can be interpreted to be the home of Zora or Janie, it is obvious that the town of Eatonville, whether it was fictional or real, plays a big role in the life of both women. They both spend some very formative years in the place and both have memories within that have had an influence on their whole life that came after.

Maybe Eatonville was not the one and only home for them, but it was a place that left its marks.

II. Families, friends, lovers and marriages

We all try to be surrounded by those people we like and love the most. We all like to be loved and re-liked by those people that are most important for us, and we all want to spend as much time as possible with family, fr iends, lovers and husbands or wives. We all are looking for love and respect during our life.

Of course not everybody sees the family as the most important people to look after and care for. Some people do not have contact to relatives, but care like nobody else for their friends. Some people do not think positive about marriages, but might have one lover after the other. I like to have a closer view to the relationships Zora and her fictional character Janie had to their families and friends, and I like to find out in how far lovers and marriage used to play a role in their personal stories.

II.1. Families, friends, lovers and marriages - Zora

Zora was born to John Hurston, a carpenter and Baptist preacher, and Lucy Potts, a former schoolteacher5, and she grew up with seven brothers and sisters. She had a special relationship to her mother who remarked that Zora had a disposition like hers ("Zora is my young'un, and Sarah is yours."6 ) and maybe that is why her daughter was specially and closer connected to her than to the rest of the family. Like I already pointed out in chapter I.1. on page 5, her mother was deeply connected to what was home for Zora. So it is not surprising that Lucy Hurston's death was kind of a traumatic experience for the child, especially because she was asked by her mother to reject two folklore traditions, which were that her head should not have been moved away from the pillow, and the mirror and clock should not be covered. As Zora was still a child during that point of time she was not able to fulfill her mothers wish and lived with a feeling of guilty all through her life.

As long as she lived Lucy Hurston always wanted to give her children the chance to "jump at de sun"7, which means she wanted them to reach out for something high and extraordinary, and she was always there to help her children's fulfill - in contrast to Zora's father who saw his children's, especially Zora's life more realistic or better pessimistic. He was a powerful man, who left Alabama and came to Eatonville in order to begin a new life in a town of exclusively colored people. His wife followed to the village a year after he settled there and the two of them started a new life. They bought some land, built a house and planted some acres to feed their forthcoming family. This all sounds very much like the story of Janie and Joe Starks in "Their Eyes were watching God", who I will deal with more detailed in the second part of this chapter. Nevertheless it is quite possible to compare John Hurston to the fictional character of Joe Starks, as they both were elected mayor of Eatonville, whether it was in reality or in a written piece of art, and they both left home to start a new life in Eatonville, where they were as successful as never before in their lives. For Zora it seems as if her family played a big role in her life as long as she lived in Eatonville with her parents and the other seven children of Lucy and John Hurston. This means as long the family life was okay, she felt home and secure in and with her family. But in the moment her mother died and she was sent to Jacksonville, she started to see other people as attachment figures.

Like her fictional character Janie it seems as if Zora was searching for real love all her life, and the first person she found warmth and support with was Herbert Sheen, whom she met at college and who became her husband soon after they first met. The marriage is divorced in 1931 after four years, what is not really surprising as Zora herself says in "Dust tracks on a road" that she was full of doubts on her wedding day. By the way, this is another parallel to Janie, who did not love her first husband Logan Killicks either, but in contrast to Zora had no choice whether she wanted to marry or not. In the case of Zora it was her own will to marry and become the wife of Herbert Sheen, whereas Nanny wanted Janie to get married against her will. However, both marriages were fated to fail before they even started. Zora some years later met what she called herself "the real love affair of her life"8. The name is not fully ment ioned in her autobiography, all we know is the shortened form P.M.P. This man was the one who was able to make Zora feel like not just being in love, but even more than that, as she says "I did not just fall in love. I made a parachute jump."9 This love affair can be seen in parallel to the love of Janie and Tea Cake, because Zora was in the beginning of her forties when she met this man, who was at that point of time graduate at City College in New York. So the male-female roles were the same as in the novel. The woman is much older, successful (in what way ever) and has money, which the man is not interested in, but loves her like nobody else ever did and never will again. It is for Zora and Janie the one and only love, in the way they thought it would happen and what they were searching for. Just to complete, I have to say that Zora married again in 1939 a man called Albert Price III and the marriage got divorced in 1943; but the relationship that is worth being dealt with is the one to P.M.P. because of its deepness and true love. Unfortunately the relationship did not last because of different point of views they had in regard to marriage and career, and in how far a woman might connect these two things.

During her vagabond life Zora met a lot of people and there are some that should be mentioned as friends, although some of those were in her life just for a short period of time. As it would be too much to deal with everybody in detail I like to focus on a group of people Zora spent a lot of time with during her New York years, and who are of course mostly writers or artists of the Harlem Renaissance. Zora was part of different literary circles where she met people like Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer and Fanny10 Hurst, who was a successful and popular writer at that time and offered Zora a job. The women's strange relationship is described very detailed in chapter 13 of Zora's biography as well as the friendship that connected Zora and Ethel Waters, a spiritual singer. It seems as if the friendship to Ethel Waters was special to Zora because she had to work for it, and it was not given as granted. Zora tried to contact her and to get her know personally, but it took quite some time until a relationship and friendship had been built.

It might be asked in how far it is necessary to give names of Zo ra's friends and tell under what circumstances they learned to know each other. What is more important is the attitude Zora had towards friendship in general, which is the following:

"I am grateful for the friendship of Fanny Hurst and Ethel Waters. But how does one speak of honest gratitude?

Who can know the outer ranges of friendship?

I am tempted to say that no one can live without it.

It seems to me that trying to live without friends, is like milking A bear to get cream for your morning coffee.

It is a whole lot of trouble, and then not worth much after you get it."11

II.2. Families, friends, lovers and marriages - Janie

In contrast to Zora Janie did not grow up with her parents and she had no brothers or sisters. She was raised by her grandmother, who is called Nanny in the novel, because it is the name the white children she looks after call her. For Janie Nanny is the only person in life who cares for her as a family usually would, and for Nanny Janie is the only person she has to care for and look after. Both of them need each other as they are all the family they have. Janie's mother (Nanny's daughter) Leafy was raped by the town schoolteacher and got pregnant with Janie. Janie 's father did not want to have anything to do with the child and the mother, and not too long after Janie was born Leafy left home, so that Janie never got to know her parents.

Nanny always tries to do the best for Janie and maybe she even wants to fulfill in her granddaughter what she has hoped for her own life, and so she gives Janie everything she can. When Nanny realizes that Janie gets interested in love and relationships to men, she makes her marry Logan Killicks, in order to prevent that Janie might have the same destiny her mother had. From Nanny's point of view it is quite normal to marry in order to be financially secured, even if there is no love. That is why she chooses Logan Killicks, who is much older than Janie and not really attractive, but has a 60-acre potato farm.

Logan does not play a bigger role in Janie 's life and once she has left him he is not mentioned anymore during the novel. What might be important is the fact that Janie leaves him because she is looking for a real and everlasting love, which she thought to have found in Joe Starks. She leaves the farm to marry Joe and to go to Eatonville with him. Joe Starks is a powerful and straight man, and he pursued his aims with great ambition. He does not see Janie as an individual person, he should love and care for, but as one more accessory that surrounds him. The fictional character of Joe Starks is very much similar to the character of Zora's father, John Hurston, as I already pointed out in chapter II.1. on page 9. It is open why her father had such a strong influence on Zora that she transferred the distinctive features of his personality into her novel.

Obviously Joe was not what Janie was looking for, and he even tried to control his wife when he was dying. To me it seems as if he never accepted her the way she really was and she never had the chance to speak for herself. Just when he died, Janie got the possibility to stand up for herself and start living the life she wanted to.

Just as Zora Janie found her true and only love in a man, who was much younger, and it is often assumed that P.M.P. was the pattern for the fictional character of Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods. Tea Cake came to Eatonville while Janie was still in her mourning period, and they become friends quite soon. In contrast to Joe Tea cake soon expressed his true feelings for Janie and was able to understand what kind of love Janie was looking for. Although the porch sitters did gossip, Janie left to the Everglades with Tea Cake and they both experience a wonderful time together working on the "muck".

In contrast to the porch sitters the new friends Janie makes there, which are mostly migrant farm laborers living from day to day, have a marked sense of care and concern for friends or members of their group. Janie felt good among those people, and her life was what she ever dreamt of because she could be with Tea Cake.

Tea Cakes death was a hard thing to deal with for her, and although she was not dressed in traditional mourning clothes, she expressed her grief by wearing her working trousers in memory of Tea Cake and their time spent together. Some time after her husband's death Janie returned to Eatonville, where she met again her friend Pheoby Watson, who seems to be the only person to me, that was still there for her and having an ear without judging before hearing what happened. She brought Janie something to eat and listened to the whole story of what had happened in her life so far. The fact that Pheoby brought Janie some food and just listened to her story, for me is a simple gesture, but shows the understanding Pheoby brought up for her friend and a natural willingness to be there for Janie.

At this point of time, Pheoby is the only person Janie still had, but with knowing this she was able to look into her own future without sorrow, because she definitely knew she had a friend to trust in.

III. Summary

With my work I so far showed a lot of parallels and similarities in the lives of Zora and Janie, and there are lots more. I just gave a short overview and focused on the most obvious ones. But still it is not easy to say why all these parallels are there and what role the places and people did play in Zora's life.

When thinking about it, it becomes clear that a writer would not mention or transfer people and places into fictional works, if these were not of special importance. One may ask those writers who are still alive in how far and why their novels or poems are autobiographical and which characters have a pattern in reality, but for those who are death the question of why may be never really answered satisfactory.

In this case a lot of similarities can be found, and there are possibilities to explain those vaguely, but even after a quite unmistakable case like the comparison of Zora and Janie, I have to admit that it is very hard to give a hundred percent judgment about what is adopted from reality and what is pure fiction.

It even gets harder to differ from reality and fiction when this connection between author and fictional character is generalized, like the statement that every piece of literature contains some autobiographical features. It is a big question often and again and again discussed in literature classes, in literary magazines and among experts, but I think this question may never be answered in general, and if we are honest, each of us has to admit, that it often is wha t makes a book, novel or poem interesting: Not to know whether it is all fiction or implies a touch of reality and truth.

IV. Glossary

The sources are listed in order of importance.

HURSTON, ZORA NEALE. Dust tracks on a road:An Autobiography. New York: HarperPerennial,1996

HURSTON, ZORA NEALE. Their Eyes were watching God. London: Virago Press, 1986 HOWARD, LILLIE PEARL. Zora Neale Hurston. Boston: Twayne, 1980

AWKWARD, MICHAEL (ed.). New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God (The American Novel). Cambridge University Press, 1991

HURSTON, ZORA NEALE. I Love Myself When I Am Laughing...&Then Again When I Am Looking Mean And Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. New York: The Feminist Press, 1979

Source on the internet: http://zora.i.am


1 In the following the name of Zora Neale Hurston will be shortened into Zora.

2 Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English. Second Edition. Berlin / München, 1987

3 HURSTON,ZORA NEALE. Dust tracks on a road:An Autobiography. New York: HarperPerennial,1996 (p.1)

4 HURSTON,ZORA NEALE. Dust tracks on a road:An Autobiography. New York: HarperPerennial,1996 (p.84)

5 HURSTON,ZORA NEALE. Dust tracks on a road:An Autobiography. New York: HarperPerennial,1996 (p.303)

6 see above (p.14)

7 HURSTON,ZORA NEALE. Dust tracks on a road:An Autobiography. New York: HarperPerennial,1996 (p.13)

8 see above (p. 207)

9 HURSTON,ZORA NEALE. Dust tracks on a road:An Autobiography. New York: HarperPerennial,1996 (p.205)

10 The name's spelling varies in different sources; I adopted the form Z.N. Hurston uses in ,,Dust tracks on a road";

11 HURSTON,ZORA NEALE. Dust tracks on a road:An Autobiography. New York: HarperPerennial,1996 (p.202)

Excerpt out of 10 pages


Zora and Janie - a comparison. About the life of Zora Neale Hurston and the fictional character Janie in her novel "Their Eyes were watching God"
Ruhr-University of Bochum
Women of the Harlem Renaissance
2 (B)
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ISBN (eBook)
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Zora, Janie, About, Neale, Hurston, Their, Eyes, Women, Harlem, Renaissance
Quote paper
Sandra Schemel (Author), 2001, Zora and Janie - a comparison. About the life of Zora Neale Hurston and the fictional character Janie in her novel "Their Eyes were watching God", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/105782


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