[(essay date 1995) In the following essay, Chinn emphasizes the importance of God in Their Eyes Were Watching God, refuting the claims of other critics that His role in the novel is minor or unclear. Part of Janie’s journey to self-awareness, Chinn explains, is a move away from her community’s conception of God and religiosity.]
In “Jingo, Counter-Jingo and Us,” his “Retrospective Review of the Literature of the Negro: 1937” for Opportunity, Alain Locke refers to Zora Neale Hurston’s title Their Eyes Were Watching God as “magical” (10). Although he praises the novel as folklore, he faults it because “[p]rogressive southern fiction has already banished the legend of these entertaining pseudo-primitives whom the reading public still loves to laugh with, weep over and envy. Having gotten rid of condescension, let us now get over over-simplification!” (10). Locke’s one-paragraph dismissal of Hurston’s novel has been supplanted by the multitude of rich readings written in the last twenty years. But as recently as 1990, Rachel Blau DuPlessis refers to the title as “mysterious in its meaning, not easily glossed in relation to the body of the novel as a whole” (109), and in 1991 V. D. Dickerson says that the novel “prominently features God in its title, yet apparently obscures him in the text” (222).1 On the contrary, God is not obscured in the text but is presented throughout the whole novel. The inclusion of God in the title and the many specific references to God in Hurston’s novel reveal Janie’s movement from received ideas to individualism not only in her view of self but also of God.
Echoes of the title appear in the novel’s opening passage, which reveals Hurston’s understanding of traditional male and female roles. According to DuPlessis, “the absolute beginning of the book begins playing with the title materials and meanings by opening issues about words and the Word in relation to gender and racial power” (109). A man is “the Watcher” (9) who has the possibility of heading toward the horizon, while, for women, “[t]he dream is the truth” (9). Unnamed, Janie appears as a woman who “had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment” (9). This passage is puzzling to the first time reader who does not know about the hurricane that occurs late in the novel, but the notion that death comes unexpectedly and perhaps undeservedly is clearly suggested. Also implied is the idea that the dead blame others or God for their deaths. These dead judges are replaced in the first chapter by living watchers, the people on the porch who observe Janie as she returns to her house in Eatonville. Janie refers to them as “Mouth-Almighty” (16) and tells her friend Phoeby that she knows they are judging her. Their attempt to emulate God by judging is described as “mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song” (10). The final image ends this passage on an ambiguous note and suggests that this cruelty has achieved a kind of artistry perhaps because it has been practiced so often. After working as “tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long” (9-10), the people transform themselves into godlike judges, missing in the process, the narrator suggests, the intermediary stage—humanity. These judges imply that God too is a severe judge who causes death and destruction. This view of God produces the traditional view of women by which they judge Janie harshly. Hurston has subverted stereotypes, however, by moving from men to women to a specific, but unnamed, woman: “So the beginning of this was a woman” (9).
Although “[t]he porch [can’t] talk for looking” (11) when Janie passes, the men and women desire the power they feel when judging her against their traditional view of women. It is Janie’s physical attractiveness that arrests the speech of the men. Concentrating on her clothing, the women “took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance. It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day” (11). The women see beyond the exterior to Janie’s inner strength, but both the men and the women agree that Janie dresses and acts inappropriately. Even before recounting her story, Janie tells Phoeby how little understanding the Eatonville residents have of life: “They don’t know if life is a mess of corn-meal dumplings, and if love is a bed-quilt!” (17). These people look without really seeing or understanding because they are confined by stereotyping. According to Barbara Christian, “[Janie] sees [her life] as full and rich. It is essentially this message that she brings back to her community, that self-fulfillment rather than security and status is the gift of life” (59). The journey to self-fulfillment is, however, a difficult and complex one, bound to Janie’s and the community’s idea of God.
The novel refers to God most frequently as Creator, a view Janie retains even when her other ideas about God change. The initial reference occurs after Janie’s awakening under the blossoming pear tree. Watching the bees pollinate the blooms, Janie has become aware of what marriage can be. Her marriage, however, is nothing like she imagines it. Hurston places the first reference to the Creator God at this point in connection with Janie’s first important discovery about life. At the age of sixteen and less than a year married, “[s]he knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.” Because Janie feels connected to the natural world, she can still hope after the death of her first dream: “She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonder to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making” (44). Janie’s communion with creation allows her to look beyond her present life with her first husband, Logan Killicks. The possibility of building a new world for herself echoes the image of the power of the Creator God presented throughout Their Eyes [Their Eyes Were Watching God] and throughout the Old and New Testaments.
Eventually, the desire to build a new world for herself compels Janie to leave Logan and go away with Joe Starks. Janie’s second husband, whom she affectionately calls Jody, is connected to the God of Creation through his accomplishments and his own words. For Janie “he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon” (50). Janie knows that Joe does not fulfill the promise of the pear tree; but she intuits that she must travel in order to grow, and Joe is going places, first literally and then figuratively. When they reach the newly established Eatonville, Joe’s ambition and organizational skills help him to develop the town and become its mayor. Even the powerful mayor of Eatonville acknowledges the Creator’s power while at the same time wishing to increase his own. Joe calls God “De Sun-maker [who] brings it up in de mornin’ and … sends it tuh bed at night” (72-73). Before lighting Eatonville’s first street lamp, Joe says, “All we can do, if we want any light after de settin’ or befo’ de risin’, is tuh make some light ourselves.” He turns this civil ceremony into a religious one by emphasizing the religious connotations of light: “And when Ah touch de match tuh dat lamp-wick let de light penetrate inside of yuh, and let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.” Brother Davis prays; Joe lights the wick on Amen; and Mrs. Bogle sings, “Jesus, the light of the world” (73). As Sigrid King points out, Joe establishes himself as God by creating and naming buildings and by bringing light to the town (689). Additional evidence that Joe wants to be “the God-figure of his community” (Gates 206) appears in Joe’s speech. His repeated phrase “I god” (an expression he copies from his white employer in Atlanta), a variant of “By God,” “My God,” or perhaps “Egad,” establishes him as an authority, contributing to the “big voice” (48) that he has become. Sigrid King suggests that Joe’s use of this expression “ironically sounds as though he is naming himself God” (689).2
After Joe completes his role as Creator, however, he becomes a patriarch, a god of judgment, similar to the God of the Old Testament. Because his two-story house makes theirs look “like servant’s quarters surrounding the ‘big house,’” the townspeople behave as servants toward a master. Joe “had a bow-down command in his face” (75). Joe Starks is a god who sets himself, as well as his wife, above everyone else. He literally sits in “his high chair” (103) on the porch. His behavior is harder for the town to understand because he is not white (76). Phoeby’s husband, Sam Watson, who defends Joe because of all he has done for Eatonville, explains that they need Joe who has “got uh throne in de seat of his pants” (78-79). Like a god, he carries his power with him. Because “he’s uh man dat changes everything, but nothin’ don’t change him” (79), Joe remains at a distance above the community. The people have ambivalent feelings about Joe, but they still allow him to maintain his authority as mayor: “The town had a basketful of feelings good and bad about Joe’s positions and possessions, but none had the temerity to challenge him. They bowed down to him rather, because he was all of these things, and then again he was all of these things because the town bowed down” (79-80). Janie is as much a servant as the townspeople. To others, however, even to Phoeby, Janie’s situation, being married to authority and sitting on a high chair, looks like “heben,” but Janie says, “Ah felt like de world wuz cryin’ extry and Ah ain’t read de common news yet” (172). The hope Janie had felt because Jody “spoke for the horizon” (50) is not fulfilled when he bases his behavior on the white, patriarchal God of Judgment.
Even though Joe has forbidden Janie from participating in the “lyin’” sessions on the porch, she listens and learns as she develops her idea of herself and her God. Sam Watson and Lige Moss, who goads Sam whenever there is an audience, often dominate these sessions. One of the many arguments between them may be “a contest in hyperbole and carried on for no other reason” (99), but to Janie it provides an opportunity to question. Also, according to Kathleen Davies, the nature-nurture debate, an extended argument between Sam and Lige, “helps to justify the various acts of self-defense that Janie subsequently performs and the caution that goes with them” (152). Sam argues, “It’s nature dat keeps uh man off of uh red-hot stove” while Lige responds that “it’s caution.” When Lige asserts that children must be protected from hot stoves, Sam answers, “Naw it ain’t, it’s nature, cause nature makes caution. It’s de strongest thing dat God ever made, now. Fact is it’s de onliest thing God ever made. He made nature and nature made everything else” (101). Davies declares that “Sam clearly wins the debate, and his argument also implies an important spiritual foundation which links Nature and God” (152). A debate about human behavior is appropriate to Janie’s thinking at this point in her marriage, and she must question whether humans are born with certain gender or class differences. She does not agree with Joe’s views, “but she agreed with her mouth” (99).
In order to disagree with her mouth, Janie must use God to give her authority, something she has watched Joe and others do often. Janie has learned that “God, Nature, and women can be allies against misogyny” (Davies 152). In part because she has recently been berated by Joe for her inability to think, Janie speaks in defense of her sex after listening to the men discuss the merits of wife beating. In order to attempt to speak with authority, Janie copies a device used by Lige Moss, who often claims in his arguments with Sam that God has told him his information. Couching her comments this way allows her to say what she wants without interruption:
Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business. He told me how surprised He was ’bout y’all turning out so smart after Him makin’ yuh different; and how surprised y’all is goin’ tuh be if you ever find out you don’t know half as much ’bout us as you think you do. It’s so easy to make yo’self out God Almighty when you ain’t got nothin’ tuh strain against but women and chickens.These last words echo Joe’s earlier speech, “Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows” (110). Janie attempts to undermine his authority, but he asserts his superiority by telling her that she is “gettin’ too moufy” (117) and ordering her to get checkers. Janie is twenty-four and no longer “petal-open anymore with him” (111) when this happens. Not long before this, Joe had slapped Janie and
something fell off the shelf inside her. … She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be. She found that she had a host of thoughts she had never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about. Things packed up and put away in parts of her heart where he could never find them. She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.This important awakening provides both a reminder of the earlier awakening of the teenage Janie under the pear tree and a foreshadowing of Tea Cake, but her quest now assumes more spiritual dimensions because she recognizes a part of herself, both sacred and secret, beyond the sexual awakening of the earlier scene. In spite of this discovery, however, “[t]he years took all the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul” (118). Not until she is thirty-five can Janie speak on her own authority.
After years of suffering under Joe’s patriarchy and keeping her inside and outside separate, Janie is forced to speak for herself. Before this,
[h]er actions, as well as her dialogue, have been superficial. But the revelations and criticisms of the narrator fill in the deep structure for her and eventually give voice to her spirit. The closer she comes to recognizing and acknowledging her feelings, the more the spirit struggles to the surface. The conveyer of these emotions is the narrative voice, pushing itself to control the activity and the thought in the novel. Shortly before the death of Jody, Janie begins to recognize the existence of this spiritual force.When Janie does not cut a plug of tobacco exactly on the mark, Joe transfers his anger about his own aging to her: “I god amighty! A woman stay round uh store till she get old as Methusalem and still can’t cut a little thing like a plug of tobacco! Don’t stand dere rollin’ yo’ pop eyes at me wid yo’ rump hangin’ nearly to yo’ knees!” (121). For the first time, Janie faces Jody and tells him to stop confusing what she does with how she looks. Jody cannot believe that Janie is speaking so directly to him and accuses her of being crazy. Instead of backing down, Janie continues, agreeing that she is not a young girl but asserting that she is not an old woman either. Instead, she says, “Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah’m uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat’s uh whole lot mor’n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but ’tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big voice. Humph! Talkin’ ’bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life” (122-23). According to Henry Louis Gates, “when Janie Signifies [sic] upon Joe, she strips him of his hubristic claim to the godhead and exposes him … as impotent and de/masculated” (206-07). Only able to see his own loss, Joe does not understand what he has done to make Janie retaliate. His lack of understanding also includes a lack of self-knowledge; he cannot see that if he can be so easily destroyed, the nature of his power has always been questionable.
For Janie, however, assuming her own voice is crucial because of Hurston’s “allegiance to the power of voice as an instrument of the soul. In Hurston, this poetic dialect that carries symbolic ‘magic’ and creative potential is not a property of her male speakers. It is attached either to the spiritual creator (God) or to women” (Holloway and Demetrakopoulos 22). But as Sharon Davie says, “The exhilaration I have experienced in seeing Janie find her voice and use it to defend herself is tempered by an uncomfortable edge: my laughter seems to strut, like Joe, on a dead mule. Reversals of hierarchies, ‘winning,’ in that moment seem empty—like the sagging skin of Joe, the ‘Little Emperor’ of Eatonville, at the end of his life” (451). In fact, Janie’s subsequent behavior suggests that she too is uncomfortable with this reversal. Not afraid to sneak into his room uninvited, Janie hopes to reconcile with Joe. Speaking honestly but gently, Janie reveals her understanding of his character: “You done lived wid me for twenty years and you don’t half know me atall. And you could have but you so busy worshippin’ de works of yo’ own hands, and cuffin’ folks around in their minds till you didn’t see uh whole heap of things yuh could have” (132-33). When Joe dies, Janie pities him because “‘sittin’ in de rulin’ chair is been hard on Jody,’ … [He] had been hard on her and others, but life had mishandled him too” (134). Because of this sympathy and the community’s expectations, Janie gives Joe the funeral the mayor-postmaster-storeowner deserves. On the outside she conforms, but inside Janie has moved away from authoritarianism and its destructiveness toward sympathy and understanding.
Joe’s death liberates Janie but is also the occasion for much reflection and self-analysis. Despite his restrictions on her, Joe has shown Janie how to reach for the horizon. She has “been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people” instead of “things,” the focus for Joe and also for Nanny, Janie’s grandmother. To Janie, Nanny has taken “the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon … and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her” (138). At this point in her development Janie hates her grandmother even though she knows that her actions have come from love—or “mis-love,” as Janie calls it. Thinking about her desire for human connections leads Janie to the memory of discovering a jewel inside her that she wants to share with others. This jewel has its origin in creation,
[w]hen God had made The Man … out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but he still glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks makes them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.Because she cannot accept Joe’s idea of God—God as Master, the authority in a hierarchical world and because her two marriages have not been successful—Janie returns to the God of Creation for comfort. Now on her own for the first time and financially secure, Janie does not need to hunt for a companion because “she like[s] being lonesome for a change. This freedom feeling [is] fine” (139).
Although Janie is content with her position, Eatonville is not. She must combat the community’s idea of what women should do and be. The consensus is that “Dey needs aid and assistance. God never meant ’em tuh try to stand by theirselves” (139). Knowing that she is an attractive widow with property, Janie is not fooled by the suitors presenting their opinion as God’s. Now, “basking in freedom for the most part without the need for thought” (143), she returns to God as Creator as a metaphor for her hope of becoming whole.
Janie has learned much by the time Joe dies, but it is Tea Cake who has the most influence on her further development. He too possesses a kind of divinity, but he is godlike in ways very different from Joe. In spite of his inconsistent behavior, Tea Cake is the first character associated more with the New Testament God; he is more Christlike. In fact, according to Hurston’s biographer, Robert Hemenway, the model for his character was a young college student studying for the ministry. Hurston’s difficult relationship with this man is the basis for “the emotional essence of a love affair between an older woman and a younger man.” Hemenway also indicates that the two discussed religion at great length (231). According to Dickerson, “Tea Cake provides one of the most complex and perplexing perspectives on the God that the eyes in the title are watching. … [I]t is soon evident that he has the makings of a god. Janie herself exalts him because, like Yaweh [sic], he is what he is. … She sees in him, a Fisher king or a nature-god who can make the earth yield its treasure,” but he is also capable of cruelty (224). In The Signifying Monkey, Gates describes Tea Cake as someone connected to creation and truth:
[He] not only embodies Janie’s tree, he is the woods themselves, the delectable veritable woods, as his name connotes (‘Vergible’ being a vernacular term of ‘veritable’). Vergible Tea Cake Woods is a sign of verity, one who speaks the truth, one genuine and real, one not counterfeit or spurious, one not false or imaginary but the thing that in fact has been named. ‘Veritable’ … also suggests the aptness of metaphor. Hurston now replaces the figure of the tree as the sign of desire with figures of play.For Tejumola Olaniyan, Tea Cake “functions formally as the critique of patriarchy. He is not obsessively concerned with the acquisition of patriarchal power, property and privilege and he represents for Janie a possible avenue for equality and self-expression” (32). He is a teacher who is not an authoritarian. The evening they first meet, when Tea Cake teaches Janie to play checkers, “she [finds] herself glowing inside” (146). For the first time she shares herself as a jewel of creation. After Tea Cake’s departure that first evening, Janie watches the “moon rise. Soon its amber fluid [is] drenching the earth and quenching the thirst of the day” (151). The feminine moon’s quenching the earth foreshadows the way Janie will have her thirst quenched by Tea Cake, who radiates sunlight.
Being childlike also connects Tea Cake to Christianity. With him Janie can be spontaneous. Digging worms for an after-midnight fishing trip, she feels “like a child breaking rules” (155). He equates his spontaneity with evangelism, referring to himself as the Apostle Paul to the Gentiles (158). When Tea Cake is first honest with Janie about his feelings for her, she is “lit up like a transfiguration” (159). For a moment her spark shines through her mud. Fighting her feelings toward him,
[s]he couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.Now Janie can return to the pear tree, but the image has matured with Janie; pear tree, love, and God coexist.3
Just as Janie sees God in Tea Cake, he sees divinity in her. His strongest expression of love is: “Ah hope God may kill me if Ah’m lyin’. Nobody else on earth can hold uh candle tuh you, baby. You got de keys to de kingdom” (165). Later when Janie doubts Tea Cake’s love, he repeats, “[Y]ou got de keys tuh de kingdom” (181). Before their subsequent marriage, when Janie is explaining their relationship to Phoeby, she says, “If people thinks de same they can make it all right. So in the beginnin’ new thoughts had tuh be thought and new words said. After Ah got used tuh dat, we gits ’long jus’ fine. He done taught me de maiden language all over” (173). With Tea Cake as teacher, God is more connected to love than to power. This view is more consistent with Hurston’s own as “a philosopher who believes that personal and social happiness depends upon the practice of the central Christian virtue, love” (Love 58). Janie, however, must experience more difficult lessons in order to reconcile the God of love and the God of power.
Difficulties lead to Janie’s prayers that imply that God is up in heaven watching and manipulating situations at will. When Tea Cake stays out all night, she prays that he is not hurt but implies that it would be better for him to be hurt than to have deserted her. She also commands God that Tea Cake not love anyone else. Her final argument that her prayer be answered is that she has been lonesome and has waited a long time for someone like Tea Cake (180). This kind of prayer suggests that she and Tea Cake are not in control of their relationship. A week later Janie prays again, this time out of concern for Tea Cake when he is out gambling: “Please, Jesus, don’t let them nasty niggers hurt her boy. If they do, Master Jesus, grant her a good gun and a chance to shoot ’em” (188-89). Surely this request results from the stress produced by her love and concern, but Janie does not seem to recognize the inherent contradiction in asking Jesus for a gun. She does feel compelled to justify Tea Cake’s carrying a knife by saying he would only use it for protection. At this point in the story the only evidence to the contrary is Tea Cake’s one fight the night of the party. Therefore, his behavior suggests that he is more of a peace-maker than a fighter, another way he embodies the teachings of Christ in the New Testament.
Janie is learning that with this marriage come new values that emphasize freedom, altruism, and, most of all, mercy. Although these positive qualities dominate Tea Cake’s character, he also has to grow in his relationship with Janie.4 Even in his misdeeds, however, his actions are unselfish. The two-hundred dollars pinned to Janie’s dress is more money than he has ever seen, so Tea Cake “made up his mind to see how it felt to be a millionaire.” He uses Janie’s money to provide “[a] big table loaded down with fried chicken and biscuits and a wash-tub full of macaroni with plenty of cheese in it” (183), a kind of feeding of the multitudes. The food and a guitar player draw a large crowd for the all-night party. During the night, the people tire of the three songs the guitarist plays, and so Tea Cake uses some of the money to buy the guitar and provide new entertainment. While these actions do not excuse or explain his temporary desertion of Janie, they are unselfish acts. Tea Cake’s explanation shows that however unconventional his attitudes toward roles are, he is sometimes influenced by class distinctions. He knows, however, that he has been wrong to exclude Janie. Returning the next morning, he plays outside her door and sings, “Ring de bells of mercy. Call de sinner man home” (180), again putting their relationship in a religious context. Afraid of losing her if he exposes her to railroad hands and their wives, he explains, “’Tain’t mah notion tuh drag you down wid me” (186). Forgiving him, Janie asserts that she intends to share everything with him; this sharing allows both of them to grow. Commenting on their relationship, Joseph Urgo says, “What Hurston’s novel suggests is that there is nothing inherently (or politically) wrong with submission in sexual relations as long as the roles remain interchangeable” (52). Tea Cake, then, further uncovers Janie’s hidden soul. He even recognizes that she has given him a kind of immortality. Explaining why he needs no other woman, he says, “You’se something tuh make uh man forgit tuh git old and forgit tuh die” (206). At the novel’s conclusion Janie says, “[Tea Cake] wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking” (286).
On the muck when the hurricane comes, Janie and the community share the view of God as a controlling force. Using the plural in her title, Hurston suggests the importance of both the community and its idea of God to Janie’s development. The apparent ambiguity of the title—using the plural possessive and not the singular, suggesting a focus on the group and not the individual—does not reflect incoherence but Hurston’s originality and subtlety. As James Krasner notes:
Staring into a hurricane or into the thick darkness surrounding a divinity come to much the same thing, particularly when compared with the sort of metaphor-generating watching which Janie indulges in under the pear tree. To watch God is a dangerous and confusing endeavor, and to attempt to draw meaning from that watching is even more so. The chaos of nature cannot be made simplistically metaphorical.When the thunder and lightning increase, Motor Boat, who has been crap-shooting with Tea Cake, says, “Big Massa draw him chair upstairs.” Janie concurs with his appellation and says, “Ole Massa is doin’ His work now. Us oughta keep quiet.” Calling God “Massa” implies that he is not only white, but a slave master. Janie, Tea Cake, and Motor Boat turn from “asking the white folks what to look for through that door. Six eyes were questioning God” (235). When a lull occurs in the storm, Tea Cake asks Janie if she regrets leaving her big house with him and whether she would be angry with him if she were to die in this storm. She answers, “Naw. We been tuhgether round two years. If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door” (236). According to Sigrid King, here Janie “reiterates Tea Cake’s connection to the force she names ‘God.’ … For Janie, then, God is a name for what she has learned through her own growth and through her relationship with Tea Cake. God is the unexplainable force which is located somewhere beyond the horizon, the goal which Janie is constantly seeking” (694). Janie indicates God’s role in her finding of Tea Cake, her light, but she implies that she has some responsibility also. Perhaps she is remembering those difficult times they have encountered and survived.
Returning “with triple fury,” the storm “put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God” (236). Interpretations of the title passage vary; none, however, adequately addresses Hurston’s use of this line for the title. Dickerson suggests that Hurston’s quoting the title in this passage leads the reader to “expect this passage … to be one of clarification, illumination, and revelation. One would expect in a Tennysonian flash to have the significance of God in the novel made clear. Instead, an examination of the deity who becomes for the first time in the novel the focus of events leaves the reader his or her self ‘questioning God’” (225). Kathleen Davies suggests that using the title
emphasizes that it is God they are up against. … One of the primary messages of the storm’s voice, then, is a signifyin’ against the abuse of power, while the force of nature proclaims itself the ultimate power. … The “conquering” impulse of humans in general (and, underlying this, men in particular) is mocked and humbled.Karla Holloway interprets nature’s fury as a possible “lesson for Janie, who has been linked with natural imagery throughout the story and who needs to learn the potential strength of her own independence” (65).
Claire Crabtree provides a different but even less satisfying view in “The Confluence of Folklore, Feminism and Black Self-Determination in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” She states,
If folklore is simply one way for men and women to order and interpret their lives and environments, then the title, whose relevance to the book as a whole is not transparent, becomes more accessible. The eyes of the folk watch God and the elements for signs of safety and indications of where and how each one fits into society and the world.If this is true, then these people are either given no sign at all or very mixed signals. Crabtree’s additional explanation of the title is also inconsistent with the events of the story. She says, “The book’s title suggests that men and women, confronting ‘dark’ unknowns such as loss and death, create or recognize a force behind reality that makes sense out of it” (65). Certainly the characters recognize a force greater than themselves. But there is no suggestion that they are able to make any sense out of the death and destruction surrounding them. Looking to God does not stop the storm. In fact, immediately after the title appears in the text, the characters act, Tea Cake deciding that they should now leave and Motor Boat deciding to stay. No evidence presents these decisions as divinely inspired. Instead, Hurston suggests that rather than looking outside for God, answers, help, or strength, the characters need to find these inside because “[i]n terms of human standards of justice, the reward for directing one’s questions to God is capricious. Motor Boat, who declines to strive further for escape, survives in a house torn away by the on-rushing flood; Tea Cake dies when he seems to have been saved” (Pondrom 195).
Gay Wilentz provides yet another interpretation of the title. She states that “the title and the word ‘God’ incorporates [sic] a double, yet contradictory meaning: There is the God to whom we look for answers and pray for help and there is the other god, the cruel, false god who definitely needs watching” (286). This paradox may be true for the hurricane scene when Janie and the others look to God, but it is not true for the title because Janie’s subsequent experiences force her to adopt an even more complex view of God. The title passage, then, leads Janie and the reader to question the idea of God that has dominated the novel.
Janie questions the dualistic God when Tea Cake is bitten by the rabid dog and is dying. She realizes that he dies for her. Looking to God she questions,
Was He noticing what was going on around here? He must be because He knew everything. Did He mean to do this thing to Tea Cake and her? It wasn’t anything she could fight. She could only ache and wait. Maybe it was some big tease and when He saw it had gone far enough He’d give her a sign. She looked hard for something up there to move for a sign.There is no sign, of course, and Tea Cake will soon die because “God would do less than He had in His heart” (264). Janie does not take this as evidence that God does not exist or that God is cruel, but she does indicate that she sees God as choosing not to save Tea Cake. It is, however, the last time she refers to God as He, an indication that her idea of God has shifted from the traditional view—God is no longer “Massa.”5 Before the rabies destroys Tea Cake’s mind, he and Janie each give God credit for the good things that have happened. Janie says, “Ah jus’ know dat God snatched me out de fire through you. And Ah loves yuh and feel glad” (267). Tea Cake tells her, “God made it so you spent yo’ ole age first wid somebody else, and saved up yo’ young girl days to spend wid me” (268). Rather than being inconsistent with a God who gives no signs, their statements suggest the Creator God who has been present throughout the novel. If, as Sam Watson says, God created nature and nature created everything else, God is not to be blamed for acts of nature or humans. Because Janie and Tea Cake have struggled to make their relationship work, they know they are responsible for much of what happens to them. At the same time, they acknowledge that some things cannot be explained. Most of all, God is mysterious and human attempts to define God are often misguided.
The complexity and ambiguity of love, self, and God are intertwined at the end of the novel.6 One of Janie’s conclusions is a definition of love that “ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore” (284). By implication, Janie comes to hold the same definition for God: “God changes faces and places in the novel, and, in doing so not only tests the watcher’s powers of perception, but also reveals the breadth and comprehensiveness of Zora Neale Hurston’s spiritual vision” (Dickerson 227).7 Janie’s journey toward self and her journey toward God are concurrent. When she says, “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves” (285), she equates these processes.8 At the end, Karla Holloway asserts, Janie’s language matches the poetry of the narrator’s, “thereby asserting that the dialect, contrary to what her contemporaries in the fields of anthropology and linguistics were saying, could hold and communicate such abstractions, and, further, that this thought comes from the deepest levels of our complex consciousnesses. It appears when we allow our souls to speak for us” (59). In a letter to James Weldon Johnson in 1934, Hurston wrote that the black minister “was a poet, one who ‘manipulates words in order to convey to others the mystery of that Unknowable force which we call God’” (Holloway 87), and in Dust Tracks on a Road she says, “Mystery is the essence of divinity” (Holloway 93).
Their Eyes Were Watching God is Janie’s search for a definition of God, a search that ends with her looking inside where she finds no absolutes but rather a mystery that brings peace. Through the novel Hurston recognizes and, perhaps “celebrate[s], the myriad forms of God” (Dickerson 228). It is the love she finds with Tea Cake that makes this possible: “Love must be an end in itself, if it is to offer a sense of peace and illumination; it cannot be a means to another end or a symbol of power” (Pondrom 199). When the title appears within the text, “their” also includes Janie. But ultimately, while others are watching God outside of themselves, love allows Janie to turn her eyes inward, refusing to accept any traditional or stereotypical view of God any more than she accepts a traditional or stereotypical view of herself. According to Pondrom,
Hurston suggests that god is the name cultures give to that which they cannot understand. To fix one’s eyes on god is, by definition, to look into the dark. There will always be those things we do not understand, and, Hurston says, we will go on creating stories—myth, folk tale, literature—to confer meaning on the dark areas of our experience. If these explanations enable us to accept and affirm what life contains … they serve us well. If they persuade us to relinquish ownership of ourselves, they symbolically bring our deaths.At the end of the novel, Janie has learned to accept and affirm. She is a Creator—of words, of self, of God. Telling her story to Phoeby, Janie realizes that Tea Cake has not shown or told her what she has learned, but she does recognize his important role in her journey. In spite of her grief, she is able to forgive his friends for trying to hurt her. Earlier she did not possess the understanding to forgive anyone, especially her grandmother. Now she finds peace in her memories of Tea Cake, “with the sun for a shawl.” Not only does she remind the reader of Tea Cake’s connection with God, the Sun Maker, Creator, but she ends by “call[ing] in her soul to come and see” (286). Hurston’s title constantly reminds the reader that the idea of God, like love, is a “movin’ thing” (284).
1. Pondrom and Dickerson provide the most comprehensive views of the use of folklore and religion in the novel.
2. Johnson and Olaniyan see Janie as a Virgin Mary figure. Johnson says that Joe’s image of himself as God “forces Janie to retreat to virginity” (211), and Olaniyan describes Janie’s response “to Joe’s constant claims of godly stature” as “a gesture of revolt” (38).
3. Urgo asserts that “it is through the acceptance of the equation of power and vulnerability that Hurston’s characters catch the glimpse of God alluded to in the title” (41).
4. Krasner says that Janie “alters the framework of her story to transform Tea Cake from a perfect husband to a sacrificial victim” (124), but Ferguson’s assertion that “Janie has matured enough to know that even Prince Charming has feet of clay” (195) seems more accurate to me. Because Tea Cake is not perfect, Janie learns how to forgive him, even the one time her beats her.
5. While the last reference to God as masculine is only twenty-two pages from the end of the novel, I would also cite as further support Hurston’s use of men and women in the novel’s opening, a clear suggestion that Hurston was sensitive to gender-specific language, and the fact that much of what Janie understands at the end of the novel comes through her telling her experiences to Phoeby.
6. In Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston says, “Nothing that God ever made is the same thing to more than one person. That is natural. There is no single face in nature, because every eye that looks upon it, sees it from its own angle. So every man’s spice-box seasons his own food” (61).
7. Dickerson points out that the “juxtaposition of the religious promise of the title and the marital offering of the text is apt, grounded in and signaling as it does a correspondence between the idea of divinity and Janie’s relations with her husbands” (222). She acknowledges Old but not New Testament influences and does not connect the pear tree experience with the idea of God as I do. She also sees Janie as accepting “the communal vision of an inherited God” and concludes that “it is not so much God but vision that is at the core of the [novel]” (227).
8. Pondrom says that these two things are “living and dying” (197). Discussing the novel in political terms, Davie argues persuasively that Hurston uses the free mule story, the buzzard story, and physical imagery to emphasize “the limitations of a discourse of rigid hierarchies and closed categories” (454). And Urgo concludes, “As Janie illustrates in her story, self-conceptions, standards of judgment, and justice are not fixed but fluid, not stable but mutable and even contradictory” (53).
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