Zora Neale Hurston’s Florida based 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching Godtakes the reader through a journey of a woman finding herself and obtaining self-fulfillment through many struggles in her path. This 256-page coming-of-age novel has an organized structure of repetitive ending and start, in which the novel starts and finishes with the main character, Janie, and her friend, Pheoby, both sitting on the porch of Janie’s house. Janie’s story runs chronologically and is told from the third person point of view. In the novel, Janie’s grandmother shows her love toward Janie by marrying her off to someone who will provide financial support and social standing. Janie moves in with her new husband, Logan Kellicks, and soon become dissatisfied with her life with him. Logan uses her more as a maid than a wide and does not show affection towards her. She then goes on to marrying two other men, Joe Starks and Tea Cake, but both these marriages end badly.
During the 1930s traditional women were taught to be subservient to men. Women were forced to believe that they needed a man in order to be taken care off, and that they should be happy with their husbands. During this time women were still being discriminated against their gender while applying for jobs. This was worsened for women of color who had the burden of intersectional oppression placed on them. Therefore, given to the struggles of a women of color during this time, they were pressured to get married as soon as possible in order to obtain security. Marriages for these women during this time constrained them to oblige to their husbands demands. Many of them felt unhappy but new that the norm was to stay in their marriages and be subservient to their husband. On the other hand, Janie is an exception to the traditional roles of married black women from this time. She is not a woman of her time.
The novel demonstrates how Janie is not a woman of her time, and breaks the stereotype that women are supposed to be bound to marriage. Janie ran away with her second husband Joe Starks to an all-black town, Eatonville. Joe becomes the mayor of this town and transforms Janie into a model wife. Joe is the most popular, the richest and the most confident man in the town, though Janie soon finds these qualities not good enough to sustain her happiness. His qualities transform him into an obsessive and demanding husband, who does not care about Janie’s voice or opinions. One day Joe publicly humiliates Janie in the town store that he owns in front of everyone they both know, because Janie mistakenly cut a piece of chewing tobacco incorrectly. Joes remarks hurt Janie’s feelings and make her feel “like somebody snatched off part of a woman’s clothes while she wasn’t looking, and the streets were crowded” (Hurston).
This simile metaphor produces the effect of humiliation and embarrassment. When someone’s clothes are taken off, they become vulnerable, that vulnerability takes over their power and their right to choose. The choice can be seen to be taken away by the syntax in which the phrase “and the streets were crowded” comes after stating Janie’s embarrassment, in order to add on to how embarrassed Janie felt and amplify that she did not choose for this situation to occur. This connects to the idea that Joe purposely embarrassed her and purposely made her vulnerable in order to show her the power he has over her, and how their marriage gives him the power and opportunity to do this to her. In a marriage a woman becomes vulnerable when she chooses to show herself to her husband without clothing, in this way a man and a woman create a connection, this connection is thrown away and used by Joe to embarrass her in front of the town.
The embarrassment that is explained and symbolled here is crucial to be understood, because it therefore gives Janie justifiable reason as to why she lashes out at Joe, in front of everyone in the store, in the subsequent sentences after this quote. It makes the readers not see Janie as the stereotypical aggressive woman that needs to be better controlled by her husband, due to the fight in the store. Instead, it allows the readers to view this scene as a pivotal moment in which Janie, for the first time, says to her husband what she truly feels regardless of who is watching, regardless of her subservient position in her marriage, regardless of what society expects of her. Based on this scene, she makes her way toward self-fulfillment and freedom that she sought out to obtain from the start of the novel
Hurston, Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. J.B. Lippincott & Co., 1937