Love comes in all shapes and sizes. It comes in all colors and all forms. Sometimes it is innocent and fresh, but other times it is controversial and dangerous. Sometimes love has no words – it is simply feelings, scents and tastes. Janie from Their Eyes Were Watching God learned the hard way just what love is and is not. Some critics argue that the novel is a love story. I do not disagree, but I believe that it is more a story of self-love and Janie’s journey to find inner happiness and how the men in her life challenged or encouraged her pursuit.
Janie’s first experience with self-love is a very natural, simple love. Her experience under the pear tree is a symbolic, masturbatory self-discovery. She is drawn to the blossoming tree by inaudible sounds, by smells she could taste. She feels a connection to the nature of the growth from the brown stems to the virgin blooms. “She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand-sister calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Jamie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid” (11). This is Janie’s first real connection to sexuality. Her innocence and the naturalness of the pollination allow Janie to have a somewhat out-of-body orgasmic experience. While there is nothing overtly sexual about the act, there is also nothing overtly sexual about Janie before this point. The affair opened Janie up to a brand new physical and emotional response. She felt a reaction to an utmost inner and pure love that would not be paralleled in any of her later relationships with men.
Janie’s marriage to Logan Killicks is her first real relationship and she naively believes it will be full of love. However, very soon into their marriage, Janie realizes that what they have is nothing like what she had expected or hoped for. From the beginning of their match-up, Janie does not have self-love or romance in her relationship with Killicks. “The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off. She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (25). Janie had depended on her grandmother all her life and hung on her every word, and now, she was to depend on her husband. However, none of what she had been told or what she was experiencing was really bringing her happiness or increasing any of her self-love. She still had her love of nature, but she was unable to internalize it. She had been let down by everything around her and she was growing up quickly, all the while forgetting about her own happiness.
Janie seems to believe that the more affection others show for her, the more love she will have for herself. When Janie first meets Joe Starks, she is excited that someone wants her, and once again sees the good that is in her. “Janie pulled back a long time because he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance. She still hung back” (29). She was yearning for something new, but yet she knew it was not something especially natural. She yearned for something that would awaken the sense she had had under the pear tree years ago, and was awaiting the future when she could return to those feelings. While she was leaving Killicks for her own self-preserving intentions, she was also doing so simply because Jody was seemingly sweeping her off her feet. However, she would learn that he would not want to put her back on the ground and let her stand on her own two feet.
When Janie and Jody arrive in Eatonville, their roles become set in stone. He is the mayor, all authority and talk. She is the mayor’s wife – dutiful and envied. Janie spends all her time working in the town store, and Jody prevents her from partaking in any of the banter that occurs outside of it. His disconnect from Janie led to the unraveling of their relationship. Their love was once a daisy-field to play in, but as their relationship wore on, the blossoms began to shrivel. Earlier in their relationship, Janie stood up for herself and spoke out against Jody’s egotism. Slowly but surely, everything took a toll on Janie. She lost her fight, her spark, her inner-self. Jody had taken away her femininity. He made her wear a headscarf so as to not attract unnecessary attention to her sexuality. However, in doing so, he also made Janie forget about it as well. One day, Janie reached her breaking point, and found the cognizance to take away any and all of Jody’s feigned sexuality as well. After Jody gets mad at Janie for incorrectly cutting tobacco, he attempts to cut down her spirit by calling her out on her age. She retorts by degrading him in far less subtle terms. “Naw, Ah ain’t no young gal no mo’ but den Ah ain’t no old woman neither. 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 more’n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but ‘tain’t nothin’ bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life” (79). It is not until Janie takes away Jody’s power that she finds power within herself and can once again embrace everything that makes her beautiful.
While Janie did not maliciously wish ill upon Jody, his death did indeed change everything in her life. After his death, Janie burned all of her head scarves, but otherwise went about her daily activities as she had always done. She believed she would have the rest of her life to do as she pleased, and for the most part, she was right. In the meantime, Janie was trying to find her inner light, which all the muck of the world had dirtied up, and get it to shine. She wasn’t in any rush to find someone to replace Jody. In fact, the memory of him was still strong. The store was the only piece of her life that was bringing her unhappiness. For Janie to be happy, she had to make a life of her own.
It is as though every time Janie meets a new lover, she is taken back to a child-like innocence. When she firsts meets Tea Cake, most of her troubles float away. She is apprehensive to give her affection to a new man, but something is very different about this not so strange stranger. “She 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” (106). Janie was experiencing a love like she had never felt with a man before. She was hoping that this love could be as pure as that natural love, as the first love she had seen and felt for herself.
As Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake progressed, so did her own self-love and awareness. Janie got to feel loved, free, young and special in her relationship with Tea Cake. The forced love that she had with her other husbands was not present with Tea Cake. Even with this, their relationship is actually the best example of why the novel is not a girl-meets-boy love story. While this is the best experience with romance Janie has, it is by no means as perfect or as pure as she had hoped. Tea Cake does love Janie, but he also steals from her and on one occasion hits her. While his intentions are allegedly good, it also shows what Janie’s intentions are as well. Because Janie loved him so much, she could overlook their jealousy issues. The domestic violence incident of the book is a glaring red flag spiked into what is otherwise a sturdy love affair. More importantly however, the violence is also representative of Janie’s self-worth. “When Mrs. Turner’s brother came and she brought him over to be introduced, Tea Cake had a brainstorm. Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her assured him in possession” (147). Regardless of how much they loved each other, Janie was Tea Cake’s possession. Yes she had freedom and they had love, but she still belonged to him. She was captured under his spell.
Janie and Tea Cake’s love is tested after Tea Cake is bit by a rabid dog during the hurricane. His sickness overcame him to the point of unrecognizability. All his love and affection for Janie was dwindling out of him. Watching Tea Cake dying was killing Janie. They had been inseparable, their love making them a single unit, but his disease was going to be the death of at least one of them. Janie loved Tea Cake with every ounce of her body, but a beast had taken over him, and she knew what she had to do. Janie’s murder of Tea Cake in self-defense was not only her greatest act of love towards another person, but also to herself. She couldn’t stand to see him suffer anymore, so she ended his suffering. She could have killed herself too or even let herself be bitten in some contorted act of Shakespearean romance, but she did not. She chose to live. Tea Cake had instilled in her a sense that now, at his death, she was able to truly love and protect herself, without someone else there to hold her hand.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie’s self-love comes full circle. Her most pure love does not come from another person. It is the love she experiences in the innocence of nature and in the love she in the end comes to feel for herself. With every relationship, Janie grows and learns more and more about what love is and how to take control of her life, and she in turn learns to love herself even when no one else is physically there to pretend to lover her back.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2006.