„Their Eyes Were Watching God“ - Analysis of the main conflicts and some metaphorical images of the novel

Hausarbeit, 2005

15 Seiten


Table of Content

1 Introduction

2 Their Eyes Were Watching God – The Novel
2.1 Women and Men
2.2 Emancipation
2.3 Black and White
2.4 Eatonville and the Everglades
2.5 The Tree Analogy
2.6 Religion
2.7 The Mule Analogy

3 Summary and Conclusion

1 Introduction

Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of a woman´s life. Protagonist Janie recapitulates her way from youth to her forties and shows the growing-up of a woman in the search for love. On the sideways Zora Neale Hurston points out the life of African-American people and their problems on the turn of the twentieth century until the 1930s. The objective of this paper is to point out the main conflicts and metaphorical images used in the book.

As the novel is to some extent a biography of a woman´s way to love the first to mention is the eternal conflict between men and women. Like a painter Hurston draws the traditional roles of the sexes and the contradictions of her time – a time of feminine emancipation in all aspects. Emancipation also plays a role in the obvious generation conflict personated in Nanny, Janie´s grandmother. Somehow incidental, but flashing now and then, and sharp in her observations Hurston works up the racial issue of black and white living together in the American society around 60 years after slavery has officially ended. These are the more general conflicts of the book, while within the story opens the conflict within the black community. A subtle comparison of the life in Eatonville and the Everglades – inseparable of course from the totally differing feelings of Janie in both places.

In the course of the novel Hurston uses strong, picturesque metaphorical language to describe the inner world of Janie´s thoughts and feelings. This paper can only give a few examples for these images. The tree image stands for her love life and sexuality - first in bloom when she becomes a woman. The mule stands as a symbol for the submission of women through men.

2 Their Eyes Were Watching God – The Novel

Zora Neale Hurston wrote the novel in 1937. Literarily the book has realistic traits e.g. contemporary vernacular dialogue, third person narrator. The structure of the novel is created by framing the narrative of Janie´s life throughout her present return to Eatonville. Although Janie´s friend Pheobe has to be of the same age, she tells her the story of her life like a warm-hearted grandmother reveals the wisdom of living to a child. Surely, the respectful distance and obedience that Janie experiences is influenced by her being Mrs. Mayor Starks, but she is treated by Phoebe with curiosity and admiration also because of her life experiences. This becomes most evident in Pheobe´s words “Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus´ listenin´ tuh you, Janie” after having heard the story. For the reader this clearly points out that this is not the story of an average black woman in the first part of the twentieth century. It makes the conflicts the novel deals with even more obvious and realistic.

Furthermore, although the novel is fictitious, there are many autobiographical parallels to the life of Zora Neale Hurston which also underlines the competence of writing about and the significance of the propagated concerns of an African-American woman´s life. This novel leaves the reader with few answers but considerably more questions regarding the author´s intention. It is one task of this paper to highlight some of them.

2.1 Women and Men

This novel is about the exploration of a woman´s love and life. From the moment Janie, the main character, “awakes” as a woman, her life is about finding the real love in a man. Hurston shows her way by describing all the inner feelings changing and outer manifested behaviour in this process. It is the choice for a third person narrator that makes it for the reader so difficult to separate the writers and the characters´ ideas in the course of the novel. But the first lines of the book are surely a fundamental, personal statement of Hurston on the general difference between women and men, not physically but by prospect. She writes:

“Ships at a distance have every man´s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don´t want to remember, and remember everything they don´t want to forget. The dream is the truth.”

At Hurston´s time most women are dependent of their men, while the other way around that is not a necessity. Emotional satisfaction is a gift one can not claim to get – in the particular time the book was written especially for economic reasons of surviving and social pressure from the community. The main character Janie is not querying this injustice and inequality in societal living of men and women. On her quest for love she just feels it.

Janie is thrown into marriage by the age of sixteen and with her head full of childish questions about love[1]. Like every teenager she is curious to find out about the arousing feelings in her young and beautiful body. She does not love her husband; the marriage is enforced by her grandmother. But Janie is willing to give that reasonable economical decision proposed by Nanny a try[2]. After little more than a year the young woman knows that marriage does not create love. Moreover, she feels physical discomfort about her husband’s body. Like in other conflicts of the story Hurston points out in an objective way the different variables that come together in that problem. The ethic injustice of marrying Janie to a stranger reinforces the superficial physical-oriented view of the inexperienced girl regarding love. This is made obvious by the complaining conversation between Janie and Nanny about her husband[3]. The reader at this point is not able to judge about these words as Mr. Killicks is only a literary sketch. Actually the reader is about to see the good and willingness in Janie because Hurston is always sympathetic with her protagonist. Janie is not blamed for her youthful thinking, she has just learned that marriage is not to make love but she gave it an honest try as on the end of chapter 3 turns out. “Janie´s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.”

The next man in Janie´s life is Joe Starks. Even though this relationship starts voluntarily, Janie is blended by the outside and driven by the inner force to change something in her life – what turns out to be a fault later when she is in a way carrying out her grandmother’s attitude. Joe is wealthy, good-looking and promising. And after some time of her being his “princess” she soon finds out that her husband has different ideas about love and marriage. Also Joe does not want a woman to love but to possess. In another way than Mr. Killicks he wants her to be what he tells her. She is Mrs. Mayor Starks and therefore has to be an epitome of womanhood like he imagines it[4].

Joe does not take Janie for equal to him and he shows it to her; what it means to be

the woman of a man[5]. Totally unaware of what Janie´s dreams might be he is about

to fulfill his own and he is convinced to do the best for her. He subjugates her, first for making his dream come true, later in his older and sicker days because she is someone weak on whom he can re-erect himself[6].

After Joe´s death Janie is in the position of a woman who does not need to submit herself to traditional gender roles because of her economic independency. Although she is not as naïve as in the beginning of her life she again puts her fate into the hands of a man. And again the man takes the part of thinking and sustaining in the relationship[7]. This time it is not only about traditional patriarchal views but about the masculine pride. Her agreement to Tea Cake´s statement can be seen in two ways. Firstly, Janie is in love with him and so she accepts this even though she knows things would be easier if they would just invest her money for a new start. Secondly, she is still not really free in mind about equality of men and women. It is for sure that Tea Cake shares the first way of thinking. He treats her with respect and love but within the borders of his thoughts about the relations between a man and a woman[8].

However, it is not clear how far Zora Neale Hurston´s own opinion about the equality in a heterosexual relationship reaches and it is obviously not the aim of the novel to instigate a feminist revolution. Nevertheless, between the lines regarding the relation of Janie and Tea Cake it becomes evident for the reader that Hurston may have acted another, more progressive, way in this situation.


[1] Chapter 3: “Did marriage end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated? Did marriage compel love like the sun the day?”

[2] Chapter 2: For Nanny marriage is not about love but about safety as “de nigger woman is de mule uh de world” and therefore should protect herself or be protected from faults caused by illusionary ideas.

[3] Chapter 3: “Some folks never was meant to be loved and he´s one of ´em. – How come? - ´Cause Ah hates de way his head is so long one way and so flat on de sides and dat pone uh fat back uh his neck. – He never made his own head. You talk so silly.”

[4] Chapter 5: “. . ., and he didn´t mean for nobody else´s wife to rank with her. She must look on herself as the bell-cow, the other woman were the gang.”

[5] Chapter 5: “It must have been the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off of things.”

[6] Chapter 7: Joe screams at Janie in public for doing something wrong in the shop. Hurston describes it: “It was like somebody snatched off part of a woman´s clothes while she wasn´t looking and the streets were crowded.” Later he strikes her for oral opposition.

[7] Chapter13: “Ah [Tea Cake] need no assistance tuh help me feed mah woman. From now on, you gointuh eat whutever mah money can buy yuh and wear de same. When Ah ain´t got nothin´ you don´t git nothin´”

[8] For that only two examples. The woman is still the one to make the man happy. In Chapter15 Tea Cake states: “You´se [Janie] something tuh make uh man forgit tuh git old and forgit tuh die.” The woman is still a possession. Chapter 17: “. . . he had whipped Janie. Not because her behaviour justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession.”

Ende der Leseprobe aus 15 Seiten


„Their Eyes Were Watching God“ - Analysis of the main conflicts and some metaphorical images of the novel
Freie Universität Berlin
ISBN (eBook)
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Zora Neale Hurston, Their eyes were watching god, metaphors, metapher, Janie, Nanny, black folk, harlem renaissance, conflict, analysis, eatonville, Starks, Tea Cake, storm, feminist movement, feminist, black women, colored, racism, race, slavery, religion, god
Arbeit zitieren
Andreas Schwarz (Autor:in), 2005, „Their Eyes Were Watching God“ - Analysis of the main conflicts and some metaphorical images of the novel, München, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/187498


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