Janie’s three marriages are key to her development and to the plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God. How do the men and marriages differ from one another? What does Janie learn from each experience?
Janie, the protagonist of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, is often identified as a feminist character. While she is certainly an independent woman who believes in the equality of the sexes, Janie does not lead a typically feminist existence throughout the novel. Largely because of her relationships with the three key men in her life, Janie is often beaten down, silenced, ignored, marginalized, and even physically abused. Yet it is these episodes of disempowerment that strengthen Janie’s feminist identity. She suffers at the hands of Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake, but she emerges from each marriage stronger and more sure of her own identity. Paradoxically, the times in her life during which she cannot be a feminist are what ultimately make Janie an exemplar of feminist strength.
Janie marries Logan Killicks, her first husband, not because she wants to be with him, but because she wants to please her grandmother and hopes that she will learn to love Logan eventually. Janie’s decision to marry Logan is not illogical, but it is a capitulation. Rather than following her instincts and insisting on retaining her independence, Janie defers to the wishes of others. Her marriage brings more forced capitulations. Logan, a well-meaning but oppressive man, wants to keep Janie under his thumb. He calls her spoiled and insists that she labor in the fields alongside him. In addition to this attempted physical oppression, Janie suffers from the emotional oppression of being trapped in a affectionless marriage. But if surrender and oppression characterize Janie’s first marriage, it is exactly these conditions that give Janie the courage to skip town. Because she is so fed up with Logan and his domineering ways, Janie musters up the courage to leave behind the only home she has ever known—something she almost certainly would not have done had she not married Logan in the first place.
Janie’s relationship with her second husband, Jody Starks, is more substantial and complex than her relationship with Logan. It is also more damaging. Jody, who is powerful and charming, imposes increasingly strict demands on his wife. He does not allow her to speak in public to large groups; he dislikes it when she socializes with other men; he insists that she hide her beautiful hair; he berates her when he believes that she is performing badly at work; and when he is enraged, he beats her. Those readers searching for evidence of Janie’s unflagging feminism might be dismayed by Janie’s willingness to put up with Jody. Despite flashes of rebellion, for the most part she behaves like the subservient wife Jody wants her to be. For years, she follows his orders, silences herself, and sticks around after he hits her. In Chapter 8, however, Hurston indicates that Janie’s suffering has imbued her with extraordinary power. When she finally gives voice to her thoughts and tells Jody what she thinks of him, he dies, as if brought down by the force of her rage. Years of mistreatment give Janie the power to fell men with her words. They also give her an outsized appreciation for her freedom. Because she knows what it means to be ground down by a man, Janie appreciates her single life far more than she could have had she never experienced real unhappiness.
With Tea Cake, Janie enjoys a fulfilling relationship characterized by intellectual, emotional, and physical compatibility. Tea Cake is not just a good match for Janie. He is also proof of the self-knowledge that can result from difficult and demeaning circumstances. Only because Janie suffered through two bad marriages can she know that Tea Cake is the right man for her. Despite the happiness Janie feels with Tea Cake, Hurston makes it clear that she has not found an ideal man. Tea Cake disappears. He gambles. He hosts raucous parties with money stolen from Janie. He flirts with other women. He even beats Janie in order to prove that he controls her. Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake is challenging and perplexing. Hurston forces us to acknowledge that despite Tea Cake’s numerous flaws, Janie is truly happy with him. Further, Hurston makes it impossible to argue that Janie has regressed, turning back into the meek creature she was with Logan and Jody. Janie’s willingness to shoot and kill Tea Cake in order to save herself, and the peace she achieves at the end of the novel, prove that she has progressed and gained power and independence.
Hurston continually interrogates the conventional wisdom about what it means to be a strong, successful woman. By giving her protagonist three husbands, and by ending her novel with Janie alone and content, she suggests that happiness does not always involve one husband, children, and a settled existence. And by portraying the bursts of independence that follow Janie’s episodes of subservience, she argues that great strength is sometimes the direct result of real weakness.