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.

            Before 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 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama. Her father was a carpenter and Baptist preacher, and her mother was a school teacher. Hurston was the fifth of eight children, and when she was young she moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, the first all-black incorporated town in the United States. Hurston attended Howard University and began to develop her writing. Interestingly, she struggled to find her own “voice” in her novels. As a writer who illustrated the depression and “Harlem Renaissance”, many of her novels were criticized after publication. Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937 and was criticized for its lack of literary and social significance in light of the political strife of the late 1930’s. Hurston’s writing also came under fire for not adhering to traditional gender roles in America. The repeated criticism quashed her writing and sent her into obscurity. During the last 20 years, the literary and social significance of Hurston’s work has been well analyzed and documented by literary critics. Julie A Haurykiewicz, Maria J. Racine, and Deborah Clarke are three literary critics who have commented on Hurston’s use of voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God. These three critics examined the theme, setting, symbolism, characterization, style, and form of Hurston’s work to illustrate their argument.

            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 when Logan is going to buy a mule for Janie to plow the field. Logan’s buying of the mule is symbolic of Janie becoming a mule herself. She has become silence and reduced to the position as a mule (Haurykiewicz 54). However, Janie then comes in contact with Jody who plants the seed in Janie’s mind that she does not need to be confined to the role of the mule. “'You behind a plow! You ain't got no mo' business wid a plow than a hog is got wid uh holiday!'” (Hurston 28). Jody shows Janie the foolishness in becoming silenced. Later, Jody asks Janie to run off with him and in effect is asking her to achieve her own voice. Jody tells Janie “You ain't got no particular place. It's wherever Ah need yuh" (Hurston 30).” Haurykiewicz states that Jody’s advice helps Janie leave Logan and starts her journey obtain her own voice. Her search for her own voice is symbolic of her own independence as a woman (Haurykiewicz  54).

            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.

            Literary critic Maria J. Racine also shows the problems faced by women’s inability to achieve voice in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Racine’s critical commentary, Voice and interiority in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God”  addressed some of the narrative techniques used by Hurston in the text to illustrate differing levels of inferiority. Racine argues that “throughout the course of the novel, the evolution of the male voices seems to parallel the evolution of Janie's: Increasingly, Janie's men have voices, and her voice develops as her relationships improve” (Racine). While Racine does spend time in her essay commenting on the effects of men’s voice in the novel, she also comments on Janie’s personal voice. Janie’s “real” voice is seen in the novel for the first time when Jody Starks saves a mule from being mistreated after a recommendation from Janie. Janie commends Jody for his act, and Janie’s words are an example of her trying to exert her voice in the novel. However, Jody does not acknowledge Janie’s praise. In effect, Janie has spoken but her voice is still silent because of Jody’s failure to recognize her. Janie has a voice in the novel to the reader but not to the world in which she lives since her voice is not recognized. Despite Jody’s lack of recognition,  Janie’s voice continues to grow in the novel:

. . . 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)

Racine argues that the passage is symbolic of Janie “attaining her own voice and, thus, (and) control over her life” (Racine). Janie begins to challenge her lack of voice in the novel. Janie’s voice become even more apparent when she humiliates Jody in front of others in the line, “’When you pull down yo' britches, you look lak de change uh life’” (Hurston 75). Janie is able to fully achieve her voice and female identity after the death of Jody. She is able to obtain her own place in the social hierarchy. Janie has developed a strong sense of self and is able to participate in a new relationship with Tea Cake. Janie is controlling who she engages in relationships with. Racine goes on to show that Janie’s voice is seen in her eventual killing of Tea Cake after he has become mentally ill. She asserts the control to help herself and thus kills Tea Cake when he tries to harm her. Racine says that Janie then knows she is capable of existing independently. “Ultimately, voice is more than speech; it is a state of mind—a positive sense of self” (Racine).

            Racine now turns her attention to commenting on how Janie and Hurston’s voice fuse into one at Janie’s trial for murder. Racine writes, “Through Hurston, we know that, during the trial, Janie speaks and that her voice is effective, for she is immediately acquitted and released” (Racine). Janie’s telling of the story to Pheoby is the ultimate representation of Janie’s sense of voice and self. Janie does not tell her story to other that will not listen to her. Janie only wants to tell her story to Pheoby. Janie is silent as she enters the town, but is able to speak when Pheoby offers to listen. Racine cites the analysis of literary critic Susan Willis to illustrate the importance of Janie’s telling her story to Pheoby. Willis states that through telling her story to Pheoby, Janie, “has finally

acquired what she has spent forty years searching for—her voice and her self” (Racine).

            Deborah 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, Clark states a case for Janie’s voice being a vehicle for creating the concrete experience of being an African-American woman. Clarke writes that Hurston uses “the visual to affirm the beauty and power of color and to provide a vehicle for female agency” (Clarke 600). The visual that Clarke speaks of is created through Janie’s voice in the novel. Janie’s voice and accounts of her experience provide the reader with ability to “see” what is occurring. Clarke writes, “We don’t need to hear her story, because we can see her story” (Clark 610). Clarke cites several passages from the text to illustrate Janie’s use of voice and vision, but the following explicitly displays Clarke’s argument:

                        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