Janie, the main character of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, acts as the novel main vehicle for thematic commentary. Hurston uses Janie’s account of her story to Phoebe as the driving force in the narrative. Literary critics have studied Hurston’s novel at length. It is considered to be one of the most influential works of African-American literature in the 20th century. While the novel presents a number of themes to the reader, Janie’s journey to achieve a voice in the novel is one of the most widely studied themes. Through Janie’s attempt to achieve a voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God she is able to assert herself as an African-American woman in society, provide evidence of her feminine growth, and symbolize a new found self awareness.
understanding Hurston’s use of Janie’s voice in the novel, it is important to
consider her own experiences as an African-American woman. Hurston was born in
Haurykiewicz argues that Janie’s voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God is major component of Hurston’s commentary. Haurykiewicz argues that one of Hurston’s major themes in the novel is to “examine the effects and the empowerment that arises from breaking free from that silence” in her critical article, “From Mules to Muliebrity: Speech and Silence in Their Eyes Were Watching God” (Haurykiewicz 45). Hurston “is concerned with the personal growth that comes from giving voice to one’s ideas and emotions” (Haurykiewicz 45). Haurykiewicz frames her argument that Janie’s acquisition of voice documents her personal growth as an African-American woman around one of the novels recurring images, the mule. Haurykiewicz states that “Hurston uses the image of the mule to comment on the disparity between speech and silence in Janie” (Haurykiewicz 45). Haurykiewicz focuses on four main images of the mule to shows the acquisition of Janie’s voice and her acquisition of the identity of a woman.
Haurykiewicz uses the term “muliebrity” to illustrate Janie’s achievement of a female identity and to enhance Janie’s characterization as a woman in the novel. Muliebrity is defined by the Oxford English Dictionary as “the stage or condition of being a woman.” Haurykiewicz uses the dichotomy between Janie and the mule to illustrate Janie’s voice and identity in the novel. Haurykiewicz argues that the mule acts as an oppressor of Janie’s voice in the novel, and also as a symbol of slavery. The first appearance of the mule in the novel shows the mule silencing ability:
It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment. (Hurston 1-2)
Haurykiewicz argues that “passage is an important introduction to the connection between mules and silence in Hurston's text” (Haurykiewicz 51). The passage describes the community coming together after the work day has passed. The community is unable to speak during the work day because of their attending to “mules and other brutes.” The setting of the story in the rural south is significant. The community’s need to adhere to working conditions has allowed the mules to silence them. The passage establishes the mule as oppressive of voice early in the novel (Haurykiewicz 51).
The second instance of mule imagery in the novel, “occurs in the context of Janie's first steps towards womanhood and her grandmother's response toward this burgeoning sexuality” (Haurykiewicz 51-52). It occurs after Nanny has seen Janie kissing Johnny Taylor. Nanny offers advice to Janie after witnessing the scene:
Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it's some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don't know nothin' but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger 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 nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin' fur it tuh be different wid you. (Hurston, 14)
Nanny’s words in the passage illustrate the plight of black women in society. Nanny’s use of the mule imagery “limits Janie's possibilities in regard to what womanhood or muliebrity might mean” (Haurykiewicz 52). “Nanny's sermon, through its connection between mules and silenced females, raises the question of whether the black woman can ever speak, can ever give voice to her ideas and emotions in a meaningful way. Nanny is "prayin' fur it tuh be different" for Janie, and she saves "de text" for her "to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin' on high" ifJanie would "just take a stand on high ground lak [Nanny] dreamed" (Hurston 14,16)” (Haurykiewicz 53).
The mule is later seen in the novel
In the second half of the novel, the presence of mule imagery is not as prevalent. This symbolizes Janie’s acquisition of voice and self. Haurykiewicz states, “By the end of the text, we can see that Janie has completed the journey from mule to muliebrity. She achieves this growth to the degree that she is now able to give voice to her ideas and emotions. Janie may still be restricted and silenced in some ways at the end of the text, but, to a large degree, she is free to speak her mind. (Haurykiewicz 59) Ultimately, Hurston uses the mule to show the reader the dehumanization and silence that African-American women face in society. Haurykiewicz shows us that Hurston uses Janie in the novel as a symbol for overcoming these hardships.
critic Maria J. Racine also shows the problems faced by women’s inability to
achieve voice in Their Eyes Were Watching
. . . one day she sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending store and prostrating itself before Jody, while all the time she herself sat under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair and her clothes. . . . After a while [this vision] got so common she ceased to be surprised. . . . In a way it was good because it reconciled her to things. (Hurston 73)
acquired what she has spent forty
years searching for—her voice and her self” (
Clarke also comments on Hurston’s use of Janie’s voice in the novel. Clarke
argues in her article, “’The porch couldn’t talk for looking’: Voice and Vision
in Their Eyes Were Watching God”.
Where Haurykiewicz and Racine speak of Hurston’s use of voice and a means for
Janie to acquire a sense of self and identity,
She had to go way back to let them know how she and Tea Cake
How she and Tea Cake had been with one another so they could
see she could never shoot Tea Cake out of malice…She had to
Make them see how she could never want to be rid of him. (Hurston 178)
The passage shows examples of Hurston taking on Janie’s voice to tell her story to the reader. Clarke argues “the voice is subordinate to the ability to visualiz.” (Clarke 610). While Janie is not able to speak at her trial she is able to make the reader she that she is innocent through Hurston’s voice. This effect is symbolic of Hurston’s attempt to use voice and vision to convey the experiences of African-American women. Hurston helps the reader experience the lives of African-Americans through voice by going “beyond presenting an individual woman’s journey to self awareness; (Hurston’s) accomplishment is nothing less than redefining African American rhetoric, rendering it visual and verbal” (Clarke 611).
Overall, the effect of