Culture

An analytical look into the feminist themes of Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

Photo by Mckenzie Heileman

In discussions of feminism, many forms of entertainment are accessible methods for which individuals may educate themselves. One of these forms of often accessible, but educational, methods are novels. 

For many critics, Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” originally published in 1937, is often praised as the epitome of a black feminist novel In reality, the text cannot support that claim. 

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” takes place in the 1930s and traces the life of Janie Crawford; her dreams, purpose, afflictions and many marriages. Through these details of her life, readers discover who Janie is. 

One critic, Jennifer Jordan, an associate professor of english at Howard University, shares the idea that Hurston’s novel is not what many other critics claim it to be.

“Janie Killicks Starks Woods never perceives herself as an independent, intrinsically fulfilled human being. Nor does she form the strong female bonds that black feminists have deemed necessary in their definition of an ideologically correct literature,” Jordan wrote. 

According to Jordan, the novel fails as a whole to satisfy Black feminist criteria. The text should not be regarded as a Black feminist text.  

“There has been a call for a literature in which women ‘have pivotal relationships with one another,’ achieve a feminine bonding, and arrive at ‘liberation through [their] sisters,’” Jordan wrote. 

[Photo of the book “Their Eyes Were Watching God”]
Photo by Mckenzie Heileman | The Arbiter

According to a Smithsonian article written by Max Peterson, “A few foundational principles do exist among black feminisms: Black women’s experience of racism, sexism, and classism are inseparable, their needs and worldviews are distinct from those of black men and white women, there is no contradiction between the struggle against racism, sexism, and all other-isms. All must be addressed simultaneously.”

Though the novel does address these -isms, it does not address them in a way where Black feminism could support its ideas. 

Two, among many, critics, Sally Ann Ferguson and Missy Dehn Kubitschek, in their peer-reviewed journal articles argue that Janie is written as a strong, independent, out-spoken feminist character who discovers herself through a self-fulfilled “quest” in a male-dominated environment. 

Even the summary found on the back of the book’s cover describes Janie as “fiercely independent,” though that is one of the central critiques of the book. 

The novel’s importance cannot be discounted, but the text needs to be recognized for what it actually is: a story of a woman reliant on the male-dominated environment that many critics claim she is independent of. 

Crawford, the protagonist of the novel, defines herself by her three marriages. She never allows herself the chance to be an independent person, unrestrained by the men in her life. 

“He [Jody Starks] wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it. So gradually, she [Janie] pressed her teeth together and learned to hush,” Hurston wrote. 

During her second marriage to Jody Starks, Janie learns to stop being outspoken. Not because she decided it herself, but because her husband forced her into it.

Janie learns this non-feminist behavior through her grandmother, who raised Janie. This learned behavior demonstrates that non-feminist ideas have been ingrained into the society that Hurston has created. This is the process of intersectionality, where Black women faced oppression for being Black and a woman simultaneously. If the two cannot exist together, it disqualifies this novel for being the epitome of Black feminism. 

“So de white man throw down de load and tell de n***** man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De n***** woman is de mule uh de world,” Hurston wrote. 

Not only does this statement illustrate racial inequality, but it also illustrates sex inequality. This quote displays the world in which Janie was raised. 

Though her thinking, actions, and words are a result of this created world, Hurston does nothing to develop and grow Janie’s character, as many critics claim she does.  

Without the world that Hurston creates in the novel, Janie is nonexistent.

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