Multi-Genre Project Sarah Nickles

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Dear Reader,

Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God examines the life of Janie as she becomes a woman in search of love. Her search is marked with honesty, vulnerability, and a found independence, and is not unlike that of many young women coming into their own in the midst of romance and adversity. The first time I read this novel, I was the same age as young Janie, a 16 year old with a hunger for drama, a desire for passion. Janie's pear tree, meant to symbolize her womanhood as it blossoms, spoke clearly to me as a young woman. The second time I read the novel, I was drawn in by the pear tree's symbols but was also captivating by Janie's personal journey towards independent womanhood, marked but not defined by her relationships with the men in her life. The story is framed within the conversation of Phoeby and Janie, in which Janie recounts her experiences to her friend, so I attempt to keep this frame in mind through my work with the story. I have picked out moments of sincerity and glimpses of the pear tree or any other blossoming language as it appears, and use it alongside friendship and love as I have understood it through Hurston.

Source: Weston T. Jones Illustration

I chose this illustration as an element of my project because I believe it encompasses all the major thematic elements of the novel, including Janie's hair and overalls as they appear when she returns to Eatonville, her pear tree, and the hurricane that comes through the Everglades and causes the loss of Tea Cake, her last and closest romantic partner. It also reminds me of the scene after Mayor Starks' funeral in which Janie says, "''Tain't dat Ah worries over Joe's death, Phoeby. Ah jus' loves dis freedom.'" (93). For Janie, loss is cause for mourning and reverence, but in each loss she experiences throughout the novel, a renewed sense of freedom comes with it. Janie's story begins with a desire for experience, passion and romance, but, all the while, she is growing and reaching for something higher, that no man can truly satisfy. I think this image perfectly embodies that feeling.

"Oh to be a pear tree- any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. Where were the singing bees for her?" (11).

The pear tree is the most pertinent and easily applicable symbol of the novel. It symbolizes growth alongside the death and loss Janie encounters during her journey. The endings of each relationship do not take from Janie, but rather add to her growing independence. I have chosen to focus on this pear tree and the subsequent growth of Janie as she loves and loses. Like the pear tree, Janie moves upward and is not defined by comparisons or ownerships; even when she is not blooming, she is strongly rooted.

Source: http://www.zoranealehurston.com/
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  1. "In Search of Janie Crawford" is inspired by Alice Walker's essay entitled In Search of Zora Neale Hurston, a work in which she discusses her search for Zora Neale Hurston's grave. Walker's passion for Hurston's work brought on a renewed interest, as the work of African American writers, especially women, was not taken seriously in the 1930s when Their Eyes Were Watching God was written. In the first and last chapters of the novel, Hurston places her piece within the framework of a conversation between Janie and Phoeby. The women are longtime friends reunited after Janie left town and lost her husband. I decided to also think about this conversation as a frame for my perspective on the novel. This poem is free verse and nods at Phoeby's feelings towards Janie's return, and her acceptance of Janie despite the loss of Tea Cake. The friendship between these women is, as I believe Hurston emphasizes, one of the most important and fulfilling relationships Janie encounters. I appreciate the parallel that can be made between Phoeby and Janie, and Hurston and Walker, as two women seeking out each other's stories. While they were not friends, I think their shared contributions to the work of African American women writers bonds Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston.
  2. The want ad looking for a husband is inspired by Nanny's matchmaking in chapter 2, when she promises Janie as a wife for Logan Killicks, a much older man. Janie's dreams of love and blooming pear trees is dashed, but I chose to give a nod to Nanny's (mostly) good intentions as caretaker of Janie. She is more focused on the practicality of marriage and the usefulness of this union for Janie's future. Instead of the love and passion Janie desired, Nanny saw stability and security and decided that was more valuable: "''Tain't Logan Killicks Ah wants you to have, baby, it's protection...Mah daily prayer now is tuh let dese golden moments rolls on a few days longer till Ah see you safe in life.'" (15). This is an important moment in the novel because it demonstrates the various levels of love that Hurston explores through her characters. Nanny's love for Janie is pure and sincere, but jaded by experience and feasibility.
  3. The obituary was created for Janie's "first dream" that is said to be dead on page 25 of the novel. I felt an obituary to be appropriate because this instance does not signify a literal death, of which the book is not short, but rather a very personal, very intimate version of death felt only by Janie. Additionally, with this death comes new life as Janie "becomes a woman" as a result of the death of her dream. This bleak outlook then can take the form of a healthy realization, or perhaps the realization itself is bleak. I related to it nevertheless, as it does seem becoming a woman, or a man, involves the abandonment of one's childish hopes. This is complicated by Janie's discovery of love with Tea Cake, so by recording the death of only her "first dream", the sheer ability to dream is not gone forever.
  4. Janie's second marriage brings privilege, influence and status. She marries "up", so to speak, with Joe "Jody" Starks, becoming Eatonville's Mrs. Mayor Starks, as they build the town together. But, her husband's power seeped into their relationship and created a controlling man with strict expectations for his wife. On page 43 at the dedication of their new town, the townspeople request a speech from Janie that is denied by Mayor Starks. He simply states, "'...mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home.'" (43). Again, Janie realizes she is being stifled in her marriage, and resents the "...way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off of things." (43). The romanticized blooms of Janie's hopes for love and the future are slowly dwindling. I continued on this theme of blooming and loss as I created found poem, using the rest of chapter five, about what Janie might have said if given the chance to speak. I decided on the found poem as a genre in order to utilize the dialect of the novel.
  5. The coroner's report is a loose adaptation of the legal document as it would stand after Tea Cake's death. Janie was forced to shoot him after he was bitten by a rabid dog as they fled the hurricane. I am struck by the violence of this loss, but moreso by the hopefulness that Hurston's leaves the readers with in the final scene. Janie must come home to Eatonville and explain the death of Tea Cake, but despite her pain, the memory of Tea Cake is sustained unlike any other man Janie had been with: "Of course he wasn't dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace." (193). I would again draw attentions back to the illustration of Janie growing into the sky as a pear tree, looking strongly at the remains of a storm and standing confidently with her hair flowing. Tea Cake, in contrast to all other men, allowed not only for her physical being to be free, but for her soul to continue to be freed even after he is gone.

Works Cited

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row Publishers, 1937.

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Sarah Nickles
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