“Their Eyes Were Watching God”: Themes, Characters, and Key Ideas

The phenomenon of race, particularly the perception thereof and the effects that the specified perception has had on American institutions, has been shaping the discourse regarding the management of crime in the U.S. to a noticeable extent. Specifically, the emergence of nuances regarding the connection between sex-based discrimination, gender roles, and exposure to socioeconomic, sociopolitical, and sociocultural issues should be listed among the key characteristics that make the relationships between the character’s direction and potential allow making the narrative more compelling and pronounced.

The acknowledgment of the multiple factors that shape the extent of exposure to the problem of gender inequality, sex-based discrimination, and the related issues in relation to the characters’ ability to fulfill their potential is apparent in the novel. By relating the extent of their abilities to external constraints, the author outlines the suffocating and quite unbearable effect of racism in modern society.

Furthermore, what makes the novel especially prominent and praiseworthy is the author’s ability to incorporate the issues of sex-based oppression and racial discrimination into the novel. Thus, the concerns of African American women are placed at the forefront of the story, making it belong fully to the protagonist. Though Janie, a young African American woman, could be seen as slightly superfluous in the first chapters of the book, her further character development emphasizes the complexity and challenges of having to survive in the racist world of the U.S. at the time.

What makes the novel particularly remarkable is the fact that Janie is not devoid of flaws, particularly the warped perspective of her race and the effects that racism has on her and her friends’ lives. For instance, Janie’s envy toward one of her friends, being bottled up and, therefore, increasing rapidly, indicates that Janie needs to revisit her perceptions of social interactions, values, and the fact that her envy works to her eventual detriment. As Sara Ahmed explained in her evaluation of the impact of economic concerns on the quality of interpersonal relations, “It is the emotional reading of hate that works to bind the imagined white subject and nation together” (Ahmed 1314). The specified assertion supports the importance of controlling the emotional responses to a crisis and prioritizing personal relationships over momentary gains.

Additionally, the necessity to acknowledge and, therefore, regain control over one’s emotions is represented quite clearly in the story as Janie faces the urge to compete with Janie over economic opportunities. As Ahmed explains, “Emotions work as a form of capital: affect does not reside positively in the sign or commodity, but is produced only as an effect of its circulation” (1315). In other words, the importance of reciprocity as the basis for successful interactions must be acknowledged and accepted, which the lead character initially fails to do. Since her envy toward her friend clouds her opinions and her ability to judge the situation properly, she develops an unhealthy relationship with her sense of envy, thus, exacerbating it. Therefore, the novel portrays how the economic factor corrupts the relationships between individuals, particularly in the setting where characters are exposed to racism and discrimination.

Moreover, one could argue that, in her book, Hurston seeks to portray interpersonal relationships between the characters as impaired due to the effects of racism that they experience regularly and the resulting need to compete in order to survive. The specified problem has been outlined by Siebers, who pointedly recognized the fact that the presence of oppression and discrimination impairs an individual to an extent, exposing vulnerabilities and forcing one to live in the context of partial or complete loss of agency: “The oppressed identity is represented in some way as disabled, and although it is hard to understand, the same process obtains when disability is the oppressed identity” (Siebers 1489). The problem of social disability as being deprived of any sense of agency and independence is rendered perfectly in Hurston’s novel.

Remarkably, while Janie does not concern significantly about the extent of social influence that she can exert and the range of independence that she has, her husband is. The focus on the importance that the social weight has for Joe is rendered in the following statement: “Joe Starks was the name, yeah Joe Starks from in and through Georgy. Been working’ for white folks all his life. Saved up some money – round three hundred dollars, yes indeed, right here in his pocket” (Hurston, 60). Thus, Joe emphasizes the importance of social currency as one of the key aspects of building social relationships, which the African American community has been deprived of due to racism and discrimination.

In addition, the feeling of jealousy that Janie has toward people in her life can be viewed through the lens of fear, particularly the fear of losing the few relationships that he has managed to build in an excruciatingly harsh and hostile environment. Remarkably, Ahmed examines fear primarily in the context of the relationships between white and African American people, pointing to the fact that the former is likely to be intimidated by the latter due to the effects of racist misperceptions: “The average white man feels ‘fear and loathing’; the white housewife, ‘repulsion and anger'” (Ahmed 1313). Moreover, Ahmed emphasizes that the specified emotional experiences are often contextualized as positive. However, when reversed, the situation apparently becomes particularly unfavorable for African American people, whose feeling of fear is seen as a sign of weakness. Thus, while it could be argued that Janie seems to draw her feelings of fear from internalized racism, which force her to view the relationships between Tea Cake and Nunkie, the specified feelings can be attributed to her need for reciprocity in her feelings toward Tea Cake.

Furthermore, the phenomenon of jealousy in the novel extends not only to people but also to inanimate objects. Defined by Marland as ecocriticism, the specified phenomenon emphasizes the deep fracture within Janie’s community and the need to mend the rift caused by excessive amounts of racism. Suggesting that the problem of racism has been exacerbated to the point where the oppressed find it incredibly difficult to navigate everyday relationships, the phenomenon of ecocriticism allows viewing the devastating effect of racism and the related discriminatory ideas as suffocating for the very proof of building agency and independence. Specifically, Marland states the following:

Other areas of theory that were gathering momentum in the 1970s, such as feminism and post-colonialism – both of which critiqued the political and social effects of ‘othering’ – had more identifiable means of locating and giving the space for the articulation to those voices silenced by dominant ideologies. (Marland 1508)

Therefore, the discourse within the novel surrounding the experiences of negative emotions, particularly jealousy, that all characters experience at some point, and the effects of which they feel quite clearly, is an inescapable outcome of discrimination and systemic racism. The specified perspective raises the question of whether gaining agency is, in fact, possible for those who have been under the effects of racial prejudices and discriminatory attitudes. In Hurston’s understanding, the perspectives, while being admittedly muddied, are somewhat optimistic since the lead character manages to step on the path to self-actualization and personal growth after her husband’s death. Arguably, Janie’s decision to end her husband’s life as he becomes a threat to her life becomes the pivoting point in her development when she recognizes her ability to oppose the constraints imposed onto her by a racist society and, instead, follow her own path, however difficult it might be.

Indeed, a closer look at the ending and the manner in which Janie frames her story indicates that she is ready to accept the idea of personal agency and independence as established by Ahmed. Moreover, Janie eventually manages to overcome the phenomenon of personal dissatisfaction caused by the exposure to systemic racism and the threat to her very existence that the American community at the time was exuding. The idea of embracing one’s limitations and moving past them as a part of the process of transcending the boundaries set by racial politics is rendered in Sieber’s work: “Since aesthetic feelings of pleasure and disgust are difficult to separate from political feelings of acceptance and rejection, what do these objects tell us about the ideals of political community underlying works of art?” (64). Thus, the significance of analyzing sociocultural issues from multiple perspectives, including the economic one, is rendered.

Similarly, the ending suggests that Janie is ready to embrace what Marland defined as the concept of ecocriticism. Indeed, in the context of the racist society where Janie is forced to live and the sense of jealousy that she has developed as a response to the specified phenomenon, the need to develop a realistic perspective on the external factors that shape Janie’s life instead of continuing living in the realm of a personal bubble is vital in order to survive and, possibly, even thrive. Marland mentions the problem of “shared damage,” which is quite applicable to Janie’s case since her jealousy stems from the community trauma caused by racism (1511).

Therefore, the ending of the novel encapsulates the essential concepts introduced by Ahmed, Siebers, and Marland. By embracing the necessity to face reality, as Marland insists in her essay on ecocriticism, Janie manages not only to overcome her feelings of bitterness and jealousy but also reconcile with her emotions and gain independence, therefore, stepping onto the path of self-improvement. Therefore, claiming that Janie’s experience with jealousy and the related emotions was entirely adverse would be a mistake. Instead, her experiences of envy and bitterness should be seen as one of the steps that she had to take on her path to building autonomy, without which she would have failed to do it. Indeed, in order to

By focusing on sociocultural and socioeconomic issues, which represent primarily the lead character’s qualities incorporated by the elements of the target environment, one can improve the setting in question by minimizing the levels f uncertainty. Specifically, one can contribute to managing the needs of the lead characters by singling them out so that they can become more diverse and complex.

Works Cited

Ahmed, Sara. “Affective Economics.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Wiley, 2017, pp. 1312-1315.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. J. B. Lippincott, 1937.

Marland, Pippa. “Ecocriticism.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Wiley, 2017, pp. 1507-1531.

Siebers, Tobin. “The Aesthetics of Human Disqualification.” Literary Theory: An Anthology, edited by Julie Rivkin and Michael Ryan, Wiley, 2017, pp. 1486-1489.

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