In the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, Janie, the heroine, represents some aspects of feminism when she takes it upon herself to become liberated from each of her three domineering romantic relationships. Janie’s first husband, Logan Killicks, treats Janie as more of a prized possession to be obtained than as a wife or companion. For example, Logan goes to Lake City to buy a second mule that Janie can plow behind in the potato field because potatoes are “bringin’ big prices” (Hurston 36).
To Logan, Janie is a means of increasing his profits, and her value in lies in the work she can do, not the love she can provide him. Later, Logan makes sure Janie understands her role in their relationship. He demands her to “come help me move dis manure pile befo’ de sun gits hot” (41), and when Janie refuses, Logan expresses that it is not her place to refuse, that she “aint’ got no particular place. It’s wherever Ah need yuh” (42). Janie draws the line at this treatment from Logan, and has to choose whether to escape her controlling marriage or become her husband’s “mule” for the rest of her life.
Janie recognizes that the marriage means nothing to Logan other than a financial arrangement, someone to work on his sixty acres of land. She chooses to leave him, after letting him know “you ain’t done me no favor by marryin’ me” (42). She refuses to be like a slave to Logan, taking it upon herself to change her destiny. In accepting that destiny as her own responsibility, Janie becomes a feminist woman. She has no problem standing up to Logan and letting him have a piece of her mind, despite his threats of violence against her.
To escape Logan’s oppressive grasp, Janie elopes with Joe, who “didn’t make many speeches with rhymes to her, but he bought her the best things the butcher had” (45). Janie’s relationship with Joe, at the start, is dramatically different from the one she had with Logan. Before she ran off with him, Joe stated, “Janie, if you think Ah aims to tole you off and make a dog outta you, youse wrong. Ah wants to make a wife outa you” (38). Though being a housewife is not the ideal form of liberation, for Janie it is a huge step up from the possibility of becoming another man’s mule.
She has high hopes for her marriage to Joe, even though she knows that he is not exactly the man she always dreamed of. Joe does not “represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance” (39). But along the way in the marriage, Janie comes to see that even though he provides her with a kind of liberation from Logan’s domination, he confines her to a new sort of domination. He does this by not permitting her to speak in public, forcing her to wear her long hair up, and forbidding her to socialize with other townspeople on the store’s front porch.
Joe also dominates Janie through physical as well as verbal abuse. In one instance, Janie’s meal she had prepared for Joe did not come out as planned, and she was punished accordingly; “so when the brad didn’t rise, and the fish wasn’t quite done at the bone, and the rice was scorched, he slapped Janie until she had a ringing in her ears…” (96). After that incident, Janie withdraws into herself as a defense mechanism to keep a hold on her sense of self and individuality. “She didn’t change her mind but she agreed with her mouth” (84).
Finally, Janie fights back one day against one of Joe’s bouts of verbal abuse. Joe regularly ridiculed Janie in front of store customers by attacking her looks and age. Janie retaliates by berating him: “Naw Ah ain’t no young gal…But Ah’m uh woman every inch of me…Dat’s uh whole lot more’n you kin say. You big bellies around here and put out a lot of brag, but ‘tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big voice. Humph…When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life” (106).
Joe is so speechless that the only reaction he can think of his to slap Janie in an attempt to make her mind her master. Since he can’t put up, he is basically forced to shut up. Janie now has the upper hand over her abusive husband, and he no longer has authority. Even when Joe is on his deathbed, Janie musters up the courage to inform him of his incompetence as a husband. Janie’s newfound voice destroyed every last bit of domination Joe had over her. Jane’s next relationship is with Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods.
Like Joe, Tea Cake appears, at first, to be a completely liberating force for Janie, and he does this by treating her as an equal, if not a superior. Despite their age difference, Janie “found herself glowing inside” when Tea Cake invited her to play a game of checkers. “Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play” (128). For the first time, Janie receives equal treatment from a man and fittingly, ends up marrying him later in the novel. Another example of Tea Cake liberating Janie occurs when he shows her how to handle a gun and to hunt.
Ironically, she eventually becomes a better shot than Tea Cake himself, a talent that later comes back to haunt him. Additionally, Janie is able to fend for herself and becomes the main provider in the home she shares with Tea Cake in the Everglades, rather than the other way around. But in this liberation, however, just as in Joe’s liberation, there still exists a side of domination. This domination presents itself in Tea Cake’s jealousy and later his abuse of Janie. Tea Cake first shows his display of jealousy when he starts to leave work in the middle of the day to check on Janie.
She asks him why he does this one day, and he tells her he is worried that “de boogerman liable tuh tote yuh off whilst Ah’m gone” (177). Janie does not believe him, and confronts him about it. She says, “Tain’t no boogerman got me tuh study ‘bout. Maybe you think Ah ain’t treatin’ yuh right and you watchin’ me” (178). Later in the novel, Tea Cake demonstrates his jealousy through physical abuse. When racist Mrs. Turner brings her brother to meet Janie, Tea Cake retaliates by whipping Janie, “not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him.
Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss” (196). When Tea Cake gets bitten by a rabid dog, he gets so sick that he becomes irrational. He indirectly accuses Janie of cheating on him and pulls a pistol on her. Janie has already foreseen this situation and made plans to protect herself, and pulls a shotgun on Tea Cake in return. When Janie realizes that Tea Cake is actually going to kill her, she defends herself and shoots him before he has a chance to shoot her.
This is the most powerful moment for Janie in the novel because, again, she takes charge and ends a domineering relationship on her own terms, yet does not end the relationship by entering another; she simply remains independent. Janie had come to a tragic recognition: when Tea Cake is attempting to fire a pistol at her, she recognizes that her loving relationship – what has saved her – is the very thing that threatens to destroy her. This threat has existed all along, but Janie finally recognizes it as such when the two have guns loaded and aimed at one another.
This demonstrates her feelings of independence and self-discovery. Janie realizes she does not need Tea Cake in order to live, she only needs herself. Hurston conveys a message about the role of feminism and the self-discovery of women in Their Eyes Were Watching God. She expresses this message through Janie, who overcomes three domineering relationships independently and discovers her own voice in the process. With her first husband, Logan Killicks, he treats her as nothing more than a work mule instead of as a companion or spouse. Janie is unhappy, so she simply leaves him.
With Janie’s second husband, Joe Starks, he treats her like a possession to be controlled. She endures his abuse for many years until one day she finds the courage to verbally strike back at him. When he dies, she moves on relatively quickly and finds happiness in her marriage with Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods. Though he treats her as an equal in the beginning of their relationship, he turns jealous and eventually domineering and violent. Janie makes her last change to advance her freedom by shooting Tea Cake when he threatens her life. So, in the end, Janie ends up alone, but happy and independent.