March 28, 1999

Your Husband Is Defective

    Is it better to have loved and lost than never to have loved at all? Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, titled Their Eyes Were Watching God, explores this question from the viewpoint of a young black woman named Janie Crawford. Throughout her life, Janie goes through a total of three marriages, all of which have at least one big problem. The first two marriages deal with oppression and disappointment, while the last one deals with freedom. Even in her childhood, Janie has practically no freedom. Janie does not grow up with her parents but with her grandmother, who is so overly strict and protective that Janie doesn’t get to do much of anything. Eventually, when she’s older, Janie leaves the small world that her grandmother brought her up in, and but winds up married to a man she neither knows nor loves. Her second marriage gets her stuck with a man who offers her material possessions but is quite abusive. After having taken control of her life, Janie eventually meets a third man—with the nickname of "Tea Cake"—whom she not only loves but is loved by. She marries him and is happy, but eventually she kills him in self-defense, as he becomes diseased by a rabid dog. The motif of failed relationships include Janie’s marriage to Logan, the man she didn’t know; Joe, the abusive and jealous man; and Tea Cake, the man who loved her but whom she had to kill when he got rabies.

    Janie Crawford’s first husband is a man by the name of Logan Killicks. Unlike her other two marriages, this is a forced marriage. Nanny, as is relatively obvious, has decided that this is who Janie is going to marry. Though this is not someone that Janie has chosen, she decides that she is going to try to love him anyway. Janie hoped that being married would make her less lonely and, after all, she had been wanting someone to love; maybe this was her chance. However, Janie is mistaken; she doesn’t truly love him, she realizes; just because someone is married, they don’t necessarily love the other person. Janie admits her feelings to Nanny: "‘Cause you told me Ah mus gointer love him, and, and Ah don’t. Maybe if somebody was to tell me how, Ah could do it" (Hurston 22). One of the first things described in chapter three, the one about the wedding, is what Logan’s house looks like. The author describes it: "It was a lonesome place like a stump in the middle of the woods where nobody had ever been" (Hurston 20). After reading the story of Janie’s failed marriage to Logan, some readers may see that Logan’s house represents what happened to his marriage to Janie. Eventually, Janie runs away from him, with Joe Starks.

    Janie’s next marriage is to a man named Joe "Jody" Starks. The first time she meets him, it’s outside Logan’s house. He makes her feel special from the start, when he basically tells her that she deserves better than simply growing potatoes, and offers her a comfortable life with him. It doesn’t take long for Janie to accept his offer, realizing how much material possession he can offer her. True to his word, he buys her gifts. Right from the start, however, it becomes obvious that Janie’s love isn’t being returned. Note that he doesn’t make any effort to be romantic, even at first: "On the train the next day, Joe didn’t make many speeches with rhymes to her, but he bought her the best things the butcher had, like apples and a glass lantern full of candies. Mostly he talked about plans for the town when he got there" (Hurston 32). Joe Starks, as it turns out, is an abusive man. Not terribly, but he is very strict, and he slaps Janie once in a while. At one point, Jody buys a suffering old mule from its abusive owner, and with a kindhearted reason: "Didn’t buy ‘im fuh no work. I god, Ah bought dat varmint tuh let ‘im rest. You didn’t have gumption enough to do it" (Hurston 54). As kind as this is, Jody is still jealous and bitter. He's good to Janie, but he's good to his animals also. In a way, Joe's attitude towards Janie is reflected by his behavior towards the overworked mule he buys and sets free: He lets the mule loose to wander around town as evidence of his generosity and wealth. Eventually, Joe dies, and Janie goes on as a single woman...for a while. She doesn’t give a hoot that Joe is gone, and is in fact happy. Doing all the things Jody wouldn’t let her do, Janie gets one step closer to freedom.

    Janie’s third and last husband is a man she meets whose name is Vergible Woods; however, people call him "Tea Cake" for short. After Joe Starks had died, Janie continued to work in the store, and that is where she met Tea Cake. He is a kind man, right off the bat. Not long after he gets to know her he has taught her checkers, cooked food for her, played songs on the piano, gently combed her hair, and done all sorts of things to make her feel comfortable around him. He also says many kind things to her. So for Janie, Tea Cake is like another step on the path to her freedom, and she realizes he’s different from the other men: "He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God" (Hurston 101-2). Realizing that this man was surely destined to have a relationship with her, Tea Cake and Janie eventually tie the knot. Finally, she has a husband who offers her real—not material—love. The two treat each other as equals. Sadly, though, a disaster strikes at one point. The town is engulfed in a massive flood, and in the process of getting to dry land, Tea Cake is savagely bitten by a rabid, ferocious dog. Janie avoids the vicious creature—so it goes after Tea Cake. Rabies has destroyed the dog’s mind, and pure hate burns in its eyes: "The dog stood up and growled like a lion, stiff-standing hackles, stiff muscles, teeth uncovered as he lashed up his fury for the charge" (Hurston 157). Tea Cake gets the disease, and when his wrecked mind threatens Janie’s life, she is forced to do him in.

    In conclusion, one of the recurring themes throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God is the way in which Janie’s marriages all fail in one way or another. The motif of failed relationships includes Janie’s marriage to Logan Killicks, whom she ran away from; Janie’s marriage to Joe "Jody" Starks, who passed away; and Janie’s marriage to Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods, whom she loved but had to kill in self-defense after he got rabies. Interestingly, though, Janie learns something from each situation. With Logan, she learned that you can’t be forced to love someone. With Joe Starks, she learned that neither material possessions nor money can buy love. With Tea Cake, she realized just what it was like to truly love someone . . . and be loved back. Tea Cake may have helped her on the path to freedom, or perhaps even represented the path to freedom, but his death may have ultimately freed Janie. When Tea Cake was gone, she had nothing holding her back. She was only going to be taking care of herself, and she, Janie Crawford, would finally be the one truly in charge of her life. She realizes this: "Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see" (Hurston 184). Through her own inner strength, Janie was able to bring out the positive rather than dwell on the negative. And, like Zora Neale Hurston, both of these people were finally able to live as they chose.