There are many significant questions which arise throughout and at the disappointing conclusion of Their Eyes were Watching God that we as human beings must ask ourselves as we wrestle with the meaning of symbols and themes throughout the novel and attempt to get at the core of who Janie was and who she became. These deep, profound questions are: What does it mean to find your voice? And, elaborating upon that question for the context of the novel at hand: what does it mean to find your voice as a young woman of color? These are questions that are imperative to ask as they help one understand the troubles that Janie our protagonist faces and struggles with in a way never presented to some including myself. She struggles on a emotional and psychological level to find her voice.
Many, many life altering things happen in her life, some things that she actively chooses and some that are simply out of her control. Janie is manipulated in different respects by three men who contribute to her voice being for through the events that occur but also choices she consciously makes. With each man we learn who Janie truly is because she had ways of using her voice that she did not. Through Logan, Joe, and finally Tea Cake it is discovered that Janie is not the strong female character that has found her voice, for Janie is not a good representation of a strong female character that has grown and found her voice. She is manipulated by THREE men, while the choices she has are limited one can analyze that she attempted to have a voice but constantly did not stand up for herself when it counts like not demanding Tea Cake seek medical attention after the dog bite or Tea Cake stealing all her money and listening dumbly to his rationalization. She only has a bit of agency but it is fleeting for when she loses the one man she actually loved (Tea Cake) she regresses to what was comfortable instead of building a life for herself which she had a golden opportunity to do. Janie’s voice and strong female character do not exist to put it simply. She continually has opportunities to seize what she has and make a life for herself. Many times it appears she has a voice but it is quickly silenced by choices she makes. Through three men, one she did not choose and two she did it can be seen how she does not have a grasp on how to achieve her voice. She is content not having a voice or being strong.
At the beginning of Janie’s journey, she is taken from her beginnings of learning about herself. The symbol of the pear tree and her budding sexuality are so important but they are stifled, suffocated and destroyed. Her grandmother is thinking she is helping Janie by having her marry Logan, this is in a time different from now where being content and happy meant he did not beat her too much and she had an “okay” life, which Janie discovers is a meaningless life. Her budding sexuality was taken away by her grandmother’s concern for her just as it started to bloom, “On a late afternoon Nanny had called her to come inside the house because she spied Janie letting Johnny Taylor kiss her over the fence at the gatepost” (Hurston 10) is a scene where Janie’s sexuality is stifled. The pear tree of budding sexuality described as “snowy virginity of bloom” (page 10) gets taken from her. This scene is absolutely a starting point for things going downhill for Janie only ten pages into the novel. Society is telling her that her own curiosities are to be ignored and she is to marry and “learn how to love”. This is one event in the book that disjoints Janie’s mindset and develops in her a hatred for her grandma that Janie discusses way later in the novel. When Janie discovers she will not “learn to love” (Huston 12) Logan and the twisted things she was told about love turn out to be wrong, she does demonstrate some agency when Logan belittles her work in the house and demands she does work outside on p. 31. At this point in the novel Janie defends herself by saying her work does count. It is deeply sad seeing Janie hope that the love between her and Logan will just somehow develop, when it is clear through Logan’s actions that is not the case. Logan does not physically abuse her, but leaves emotional scars that cause her to cling to Joe Starks. There is a point where one feels sympathy for Janie but also realizes her agency at this point in the novel is limited because she belongs to Logan like property and he takes that expression quite literally by wanting her to behave like a mule, which is part of the emotional abuse. The mule imagery is overlapped into her interaction with Joe. Unfortunately, the mule symbolizes how women are viewed and how they are to actually push the load for the male. This quote encompasses it quite well, “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 ud de world so fur as Ah can see” (Hurston 44). This quote by Nanny examines that the white man is at the top of the hierarchy and black men attempt to compensate for that by lowering the black women and giving her that burden of suffering at the bottom. It is sickening but this mule imaginary is something that Janie does challenge and ultimately when Logan leaves to get the mule she discovers her future husband Joe Starks. She runs away, but clearly with the first husband she does not have agency or much of a voice and we will see that steadily decline.
That moment where Janie escapes Logan was a point in the novel where one hopes a shift has been made. Janie realizes that Logan is wretched but also finds an escape in the form of Joe Starks. She takes a step to get out of an impossible situation by leaving with someone who she obviously believes is a better option than Logan and who can possibly offer a better life. However, as Joe becomes mayor her sense of self is diminished to “Miss Mayor” (Hurston 43) and it is troubling how yet again she is in difficult circumstances. Could she have foreseen how much she would have suffered – no but she does little about it. The worst part of this particular selection when Janie is with Joe is the level of control over her Joe gains and she cannot even speak, and her grand speech is just too little too late. He already beats her over a bad meal and constantly tells her where her place is. There were steps she could have taken that she did not, such as simply leaving the situation that made her miserable and this is because she sees superiority, a whiteness about him something that she perhaps hopes will give her a leg up in the world. There is a key part where Joe passes away and her mourning for him is an act. It is a pondering as to why this act was necessary and it does not say good things about Janie that she “starches her face” (Hurston 88). She decides to pretend she loved him and to look like she is mourning when actually she does not have to do any of that. That is a place where she could have used her small voice, made a grand speech that would have had a gigantic impact, and she chose to do something that was not beneficial for her at all. It is a part of her we have not seen but a strange way to use her “voice” which we are going to see diminish even more.
As if Janie hasn’t had enough trouble, she finds more in the form of Tea Cake. By far the most difficult to analyze of the three men because she loves him (so there occurs a skewed view), but once it is all cleared away it becomes easy to see that Janie does not use the voice and thus loses it to this man and the situations that arise. This is the first and only man she loves and is attracted to sexually. One would think that she has found her voice by going fishing and on various other trips with Tea Cake, and it appears that a shift that we have been waiting for has been made at long last. However, once they are together and married everything is blurred and a gray arises where one must recognize Janie is making mistakes and not allowing her voice to be heard. Why does she now want to work with Tea Cake picking beans whereas she hated the store work with Joe? She loves Tea Cake so she loves being around him, but what real choices about her life does she make to enrich it? She also gets abused by Tea Cake so her being hit repeatedly is a symbol of possession but still loves him in spite of that. This is perhaps is the most upsetting. She accepts his gambling and other faults but when her life is in actual danger, she continues to be in denial by saying that he is just pointing the gun at me or he is just shooting: “The gun came up unsteadily but quickly and leveled at Janie’s breast. She noted that even in his delirium he took good aim. Maybe he would point to scare her, that’s all” (Hurston 183). She simply had a bit of a voice with Logan and somehow love has blinded her to a point where she does not comprehend the danger she is in. Not only does Janie not have a voice and doesn’t demonstrate a strong female voice she doesn’t use the agency she does have. It is painful to read on as this tale unfolds and see her mourn Tea Cake and then there is her behavior after his death truly does it to nail shut the case about her voice. Instead of using her new life to create something of meaning, she regresses to a state of who she used to be. If anything positive can be said it is she went on a journey that changed her for the better but then she went backwards in her journey and she changed back to a ghost of herself.
In conclusion, the saddest part is all the chances that she had that she let slip away. It is lost opportunities throughout this novel that disappoint the reader. It is true that Joe treated her better than Logan and Tea Cake treated her better than Joe. That does not matter when the way she is being treated by the “best” man is still quite awful. With Tea Cake, she had a man she loved and if she could have pulled through and used her words and actions everything that happened could have happened differently. The hurricane is obviously something no one has control of, but she could have made better decisions such as getting treatment for Tea Cake when the dog bites him. It is sickening how she chose Joe and Tea Cake and accepted many things and then was upset by the outcome. She was always close to a breakthrough in her voice. One kept waiting for it to happen and the novel to drastically change. Unfortunately, almost does not count and Janie is left with no voice because of her own choices and is not a strong female character as a consequence.