Their Eyes Were Watching God

by: Zora Neale Hurston

Chapter 6

Summary Chapter 6

Jody continues to exert the same kind of control over Janie that he does in Chapter 5. It is important to note, however, that Jody is not an evil character. Indeed, there are no true antagonists in the book, and evil is not manifested in specific individuals. Jody doesn’t cause pain for its own sake; rather, pain results for Janie as a result of the way that Jody acts—according to the rules that make sense to him, misguided though they are. He is living the only way he knows how. In his heart, he does not intend to hurt people, but his unfailing belief in a social hierarchy dominated by wealthy males inevitably hurts those around him.

That Jody is not fundamentally evil manifests itself in the episode with Matt Bonner’s mule. Jody’s purchase of the animal is a tender moment: unbeknownst to Janie, he spares the animal in order to please her. It is a noble display of power both because it frees the mule from cruelty and because it is meant to please Janie. But even in moments such as this one, Jody’s relationship to Janie still operates according to an imbalanced power dynamic. Though this incident is not a matter of anger or ambition but rather tender kindness, he can demonstrate this kindness only by means of money. He is unable or unwilling to interact on equal terms with Janie; he uses his purchasing power to express his emotions.

Furthermore, we get the sense that perhaps Jody’s actions are not so noble. One can argue that he senses Janie slipping away from him and that he intends the act to woo her back under his dominion. Indeed, he is praised for his compassion, and the comparison to Lincoln only feeds Jody’s haughty sense of himself—the same egotism with which he first attracts Janie. In refusing to allow Janie to attend the mule’s funeral, Jody again prioritizes issues of decorum over Janie’s happiness; he would rather keep up the appearance of his wife as a perfect lady than indulge her emotions. The unromantic, commonplace descent of the vultures upon the mule’s carcass after the funeral seems to testify, if not to the shallowness of Jody’s motivations, then to his inability to express himself suitably.

Hurston again uses two different narrative devices to differentiate between the realm of Janie and Jody’s relationship and that of the community. The third-person omniscient narrator describes Janie’s life in the store: except for her outburst at the end, she remains silent, and the narrator tells us her story. But in the lengthy passages of dialogue, we are brought deeper into the world of the novel: instead of being told a story, we are actually being shown a world. As Henry Louis Gates Jr. points out in his essay “Their Eyes Were Watching God: Hurston and the Speakerly Text,” we experience the full richness of these conversations because the characters speak for themselves. Only rarely does the narrator interrupt to tell us something about the scene.

Sam Watson and Lige Moss’s conversation about the role of nature in the world strikes at the heart of the novel’s central theme: the relationship between humans and the world around them. The porch conversation is, in modern terms, a debate over nature versus nurture: whether we are as we are because of what we are born with (nature) or what we are taught (nurture). Sam Watson’s comment that “[God] made nature and nature made everything else” resonates throughout the novel, particularly at the climax, when all of the characters find themselves at the mercy of nature. Janie is attracted to these conversations because of the warm human connection that they offer and their organic, humorous approach to the questions that are at the center of her journey to the horizon. Her outburst at the end of the chapter represents an attempt to break out from Jody’s silencing control and join the world of the porch.