Dynamics of Black Marriage in the Early 1900s

Zora Neale Hurston’s Florida based 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, takes the reader through a journey of a woman finding herself and obtaining self-fulfillment through many struggles in her path. This 193-page, the 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 Killicks, and soon becomes dissatisfied with her life with him. Logan uses her more as a maid than a wife and does not show affection towards her. She then goes on to marry two other men, Joe Starks, and Tea Cake, but both these marriages end badly.

During the 1930s traditional women of color were taught to be subservient to men. They were forced to believe that they needed a man, in order to be taken care of and that they should be happy with their husbands. During this, time women of color were still being discriminated against their gender, while applying for jobs. This was worsened as the burden of intersectional oppression was placed on them. Therefore, given to the struggles of 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.

Marriage is a part of a woman’s life that is less frequently observed when considering her freedom in society. This may be due to the stigma of marriage being a private part of a woman’s life and not a societal issue. Marriages, specifically before the 20thcentury, did not revolve around the idea of love, in fact, according to a The List article, “How marriages have changed over the last 100 years” by Brittany Brolley, marriage was more of a “political and economic institution,” than a commitment of love. For middle-class people marriage was a way to make a “business arrangement,” and for people of lower economic class, and less privilege it was a “way you got your working partner.” This held especially for women of color, in the lower economic class. Whose main goal was to secure a husband, who could provide for them and relieve them of the state of economic struggle. This created a long history of dependency on men, that is often seen today. Taking part of marriages, trapped them into a subservient dependent relationship, to their husband that often did not consider love. This was an inexcusable role that was often played, women, as time progressed, became aware of the submissive roles they were playing, in their loveless marriages and soon enough began to fight back against it. One of the women who fought back was Zora Neale Hurston, with Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which Janie, the main character is a representation of Black women, who cultivated her own freedom, by undergoing a journey to find happiness and self-fulfillment.

The novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God,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. Joe’s 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 78).

This simile produces the effect of humiliation and embarrassment. When someone’s clothes are taken off, they become vulnerable, due to that one’s body is one’s possession that’s made private by covering up with clothing, once that privacy is exploited and clothes are taken off that vulnerability takes over their power and their right to choose to showcase their possession. 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. When one’s clothes are taken away in front of many people one’s privacy is exploited by that amount of people. This connects to the idea that Joe purposely embarrassed her in front of many people 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 symbolized 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. The simile of revealing nakedness shows how embarrassed Janie felt, making the reader sympathize in her. It makes the readers not see Janie as the stereotypical aggressive black 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 and regardless of the definition of a black women. 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.      

Another section of the novel that demonstrates a change in Janie’s and Joe Starks marriage is in the scene where the narrator quickly describes the miserable years that Janie underwent with Joe Starks. Janie soon became the model wife that was not allowed a say in decisions that regarded life around her and was degraded of her voice by Joe more and more as the years went by. Joe become the beloved image of the town, as his popularity increase so did his unrealistic demands for Janie, Joe “wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it. So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again” (Hurston 71). The personification of this quote in the description of their marriage as a spirit gives the marriage human-like features that show that marriage can be removed from a place of intimacy. A marriage revolves around the personal intimacy a couple of shares, this intimacy is shown by the diction of the “bedroom”. The bedroom is in a way be compared to the parlor, a place that is not intimate and is usually used to receiving guests. When the marriage moved from a place of intimacy to a public guest location, the marriage was lost. In the later parts of the quote, the spirit was said to “shake hands whenever company came to visit”, meaning that the image of the marriage that Joe had fabricated was used to impress others, as a tool for Joe to gain popularity. The marriage was, therefore, a hoax, an act put on for the public

Critic Dale Pattison, who wrote the journal article “Sites of Resistance: The Subversive Space of Their Eyes Were Watching God” (2013), explains that Janie’s evolution as a character from the beginning of the book to the end of the book is dependent on her participation in space. Therefore, showing that specifically for Janie, locating and producing “subversive spaces” for herself that move beyond physical place allows her to successfully challenge hegemonic white patriarchal authority and therefore providing the widely believed idea that Janie is, in fact, a feminist and feminine empowering character. Specifically, Pattison claims that the house porch holds high significance in the facilitation of Janie’s growth against societies gender role setbacks. Pattison Symbolizes the set of the porch as a “space of resistance” (12). The porch is utilized by Janie to “provide a space outside of and counterpoised to the structures of race and gender that oppress her” (12). Though according to Pattison the porch is not only significant to Janie but also to African American men, who use it to empower themselves against white authority, which makes them feel less like men. The porch then reestablishes this missing masculinity when used against women like Janie, because it gives them space that they can control to do so. In the novel, the porch is where Janie begins and ends her story, the place where she grows and gains strength from telling her story.

Janie’s marriage inhabits the movement of “subversive spaces”, the bedroom and the parlor at this point in her life both become a system of oppression. The bedroom where love is supposed to stem from does not offer her the intimacy and love she craves for, because Joe is in charge of the actions that take place within the bedroom. In the second part of the quote the spirit of the marriage, “never went back inside the bedroom again”, signaling that the love and intimacy of the marriage were never recuperated and was lost forever because it never returned to the place where love and intimacy are created. The personification of the marriage allows it to move from subversive place to another just like Janie does in the later part of the book with the porch. Both the porch and the parlor demonstrate masculine directed spaces that enforce black male empowerment against white authority.

Women during the early 20thcentury believed that the only way to fix gender inequality in the united states was by pushing for a voting rights amendment. A step towards accomplishing this goal was taken in 1922, when the 19thamendment was passed in 1920, which allowed a woman the right to vote. After the 19thamendment women participated more often in society, dress style changed to shorter skirts and clothing that allowed free movement. In addition, hairstyles changed to shorter hair to symbol freedom. During the great depression when many men lost their jobs due to the stock market women had no choice but to work. According to a History.com article “Underpaid but Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women” by Jessica Pearce Rotondi, Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins, who held the first female cabinet position, “advocated against married women competing for jobs, calling the behavior ‘selfish’ since they could be supported by their husbands”. Therefore, Perkins reflected the public believe that married women should not have the right to work because single women needed the money more than they did. Married women fought against this idea and searched for jobs regardless of what others believed. Women also searched for personal fulfillment and happiness of their own.

One of these women was Janie, who achieved self-happiness through her midlife’s journey. Throughout the novel, there are many instances where Janie is shown to have fought against the idea that women have to be controlled. One of these instances was shortly before Joe’s death. On Joe’s death bed Janie built up the courage to express to Joe how she felt regarding his mistreatment towards her. Joes persona had taken over Janie’s not allowing space for Janie to be her own person, Janie’s “own mind had to be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for” his mind inside hers (86). After Janie expressed her anger towards Joe on his death bed, Joe passed. His death brought with it a sense of relieve for Janie, because after Joe passed “she tore off her kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair” and she realized that “the weight, the length, the glory was there” and now she could own her true self and let herself rest from having to keep herself together up to Joes expectations (87). During the funeral, Janie showed her true relieve and happiness towards Joe being dead when “She sent her face to Joe’s funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world” (88). This metaphor signifies Janie’s true feelings toward her husband’s death. When Janie “sent her face” to Joe’s funeral she is showing up at the funeral in order to show respect for her husband, but she only does this for the public. When someone controls their face in a public space, they are putting up an image for the public, hiding what one truly feels. In previous sentences from this metaphor, the diction in the sentence “Janie starched and ironed her face and came set in the funeral” (88), also displays the act of Janie putting up the image that she wishes people to see of her. The word Ironed represents the act of straightening imperfections normally in regard to clothing. Though, when speaking of Janie’s face, she is straightening the imperfections on her face which are the signs of happiness that are far from the norm of how she should be feeling at her husband’s funeral. Her face is the representation of the public view of her marriage, of the stereotypical black women mourning her husband. Stereotypes during this time included woman feeling helpless without a husband by her side, the death of a husband, therefore, would according to the norm completely shatter a woman. Janie’s face is the representation of stereotypes imposed on black woman during the early 1900s.

Modern-day critic Amanda Bailey examines Janie’s journey to happiness and self-fulfillment, in her journal article “Necessary Narration in Their Eyes Were Watching God” (2016). Bailey examines the novel by working through the critical history of the novels use of voice and story by looking closely at the novel’s plot and structure. Bailey uses these points to analyze Janie’s voice and power. In Bailey’s article she mentions how Janie does gain her strength and becomes a symbol of feminist ideals by the end of the novel by becoming a character whom “Women can look for many of the traits they are traditionally accused of lacking, such as strength, courage, enduring love, and wisdom” (322). Though Bailey portrays Janie as a woman who can pave the way for many other black women who are struggling to find their voices, she does not agree that Janie is in charge of her own story and therefore puts a set back to her growth. In the novel Hurston is telling Janie’s story, not Janie herself, this can be seen from the switch from first to the third person once Janie starts telling her story to Pheoby. Therefore, this leads Bailey to claim that “Hurston, not Janie controls the storytelling” (323). In other words, Janie is said to not be in control of her voice.

On the contrary, in the novel, Janie takes control of her voice during Joe’s death bed as well as her internal voice after Joe’s death. Janie sent her straightened face to Joe’s funeral in the public’s eyes, but internally she was happy and at peace. This is shown by the second half of the quote, where Janie’s true self “went rollicking with the springtime across the world”. Her true self was at peace with true hope of happiness due to the use of the word springtime”, spring arrives with sunshine and a fresh start after the dark cold winter. Janie’s true self is where she wants it to be, at peace and happiness, something that she no longer is denying herself. She is allowing herself to be internally happy instead of letting Joe’s opinion of her crowd her mind, therefore taking charge of her internal voice and power, encompassing the image of free independent black women, unlike other women during the early 1900s.

Janie’s journeys from the beginning to the end of the novel detail her growth from a woman who blindly followed people who were superior to her to a woman that takes charge of her life with dignity and independence. At the end of the novel, Janie becomes a model of freedom for black women despite her failed marriages. Janie kills her third husband, Tea Cake, in self-defense after he was beaten by a rabid dog and became rabid himself. After his death, Janie is trialed for murder but was proven innocent in an act of self-defense by the white jury. After Tea cakes funeral Janie returns home where she goes on to telling Pheoby, her close friend, her journey’s story. Janie’s returning home causes an uproar of gossip amongst the town’s women. Janie’s return also shows her independence and confidence because she returns home alone with her head held high. Pheoby’s gratefulness of Janie’s story is shown with her response to Janie’s Story of “Ah did grow ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie.” (Hurston 192). This hyperbole shows that Pheoby feels like Janie’s story helped her grow immensely, due to the description of her growth in an exaggerated and dramatic way. Janie’s return home is significant because immediately afterward she shares her new self with her friend and inspires her to take charge of her life as well.

Critic Jurgen C. Wolter whose journal article “From History to Communal Narrative: The Merging of Cultural Paradigms in Their Eyes Were Watching God”(2001), argues that Hurston employed the dualism between “linear literate tradition” and “circular orality” on many levels such as in her narrative technique, the imagery of pulpit and porch, the treatment of time, Janie’s lovers and the metaphors of mules/buzzards and dog/god. Wolter uses these symbols to explain Janie’s choices in her life that overall take part in connection to the idea of women’s oppressive role in marriage and in opposition to men. Pattison throughout the journal explains his great approval with Janie’s transformation from beginning to the end of the novel. Similarly, Wolter acknowledges Janie’s development throughout the novel through the authors use of linear and circular pattern of literate to show Janie’s “development from a dependent child to an independent personality” (234). Though these three authors agree on Janie’s development they also disagree on certain aspects of Janie’s journey to freedom.

Janie’s development from beginning to the end of the novel is what impowers Pheoby, who herself grows immensely due to the description of her growth in height. Humans can’t physically grow several feet in a matter of minutes, therefore the diction of the word “feet” is significant because physical growth is being compared with emotional and mental growth. Feet’s are also larger than other units of measurements, therefore, signifying the greater growth that Janie influenced Phoeby. During the late 1800s and early 1900s, black women did not usually openly speak about how unhappy they were in their marriages. Women who did not marry were scorn in society, regardless of Janie being gossiped about and scorned for coming back to the house without a husband, she still shares her story with Phoeby and empowers her to go against societal norms of black women and how women should behave in their marriages.

The novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston provides a catalyst for black women during the early 1900s to take control of their lives and their personal happiness instead of suppressing their ambitions and needs. Janie stands as the black female feminist of her time. The unequal treatment and consideration of women’s independence and power were during this time greatly overlooked. Marriage during the early 1900s was often a systematic form of oppression and Janie’s marriages were a great example of that. Black marriages endured signs of struggle that greater tensed their relations. Though Janie was oppressed in her marriages she overcame them and resulted in discovering her independence. This discovery is stemmed from her journey that goes against gender roles in marriages, one that many other women of color who read this book can be influenced by.


Bailey, Amanda. “Necessary Narration in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The Comparatist, vol. 40, no. 1, 2016, pp. 319–337. JSTOR , doi:10.1353/com.2016.0018.

Brolley, Brittany. “How Marriages Have Changed over the Last 100 Years.” TheList.com, The List, 11 Sept. 2018, www.thelist.com/132979/how-marriages-have-changed-over-the-last-100-years/.

Pattison, D. “Sites of Resistance: The Subversive Spaces of Their Eyes Were Watching God.” MELUS: Multi-Ethnic Literature of the United States, vol. 38, no. 4, 2013, pp. 9–31. JSTOR, doi:10.1093/melus/mlt050.

Radek, Kimberly M. “Women in the Twentieth Century and Beyond.” Women in Literature, 30 May 2006, www2.ivcc.edu/gen2002/Twentieth_Century.htm.

Rotondi, Jessica Pearce. “Underpaid, But Employed: How the Great Depression Affected Working Women.” History.com, A&E Television Networks, 11 Mar. 2019, www.history.com/news/working-women-great-depression.

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

Wolter, Jürgen C. “From History to Communal Narrative: The Merging of Cultural Paradigms in ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God.’” Amerikastudien / American Studies, vol. 46, no. 2, 2001, pp. 233–248. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41157646.