Love, Marriage and Slavery in Hurston’s Novel

Inflam’d by love, and urg’d by deep despair, he leaves the realms of light, and upper air; daring to tread the dark Tenarian road, and tempt the shades in their obscure abode, wrote the poet Ovid of Orpheus love for Eurydice (10.17-20). His passion for his bride, whose life was cut short by a viper on their wedding day, was so strong he dared to face the perils of the netherworld and stand before Hades and Persephone to request Eurydicer’s return to the living. Romantic love stories, similar to those of the Greek, have been told throughout Western history.

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The most famous being told by the Great Bard ” Romeo & Juliet ” in which the lovers cannot live without the other and offer their lives so that they might join each other in the afterlife. Supportive, equality, and mutuality are the ideal and as such are not always consuetudinary. The lure of eros-philia-agape is inextricably bound to suffering, and yet the human condition causes us to search for the fairytale endings: the ?they lived happily ever after. In some cases, when the ideal is neglected to an extreme degree, marriage can turn into servitude. The protagonist of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford, seeks the perfect lover, but each time falls short; being engulfed with bondage.

It is not surprising then that an early target of the feminist movement was marriage. Sheila Cronan provided an iteration of the prevailing sentiment when she wrote: The institution of marriage ?protects women in the same way that the institution of slavery was said to ?protect blacks; that is, that the word protection in this case is simply a euphemism for oppression marriage is a form of slavery. (214) Given the history of African-Americans and the institution of slavery, the reference is not one to be passed over quickly. Slavery included corporal punishment, compulsory labor, ownership by another, and for African-American women it often involved forced exogamous relationships. To some degree, examples of each are found in the marriages of Janie Crawford.

The choice Janie makes as to where to begin her autobiography allows the reader to understand her motivation. She sits relaxed under a pear tree, watching bees move from flower to flower, a symbiotic relationship essential to pollination. The imagery Hurston employs is orgasmic (sink into the sanctum of a bloom; arch to the love embrace; ecstatic shiver; and frothing with delight) and Janie exclaims, So this was a marriage (Hurston 10-11). Donald Marks equates this imagery with an organicist ideology, which characterizes her romantic relationships with Johnny Taylor and Tea Cake. Through this Marks understands it as a pursuit of passion and one free from social constructs, pure love (152,154). It is carefree love that Janie desires. She sees harmony within it and finds it to be part of the natural order. Her marriage with Logan Killicks appears to change Janier’s perspective; She knew now that marriage did not make love (Hurston 25). Yet the allure of natural love, even within marriage, never leaves her. Love is her desire for freedom that remains enkindled in the depth of her soul. It is evidenced in Janier’s meetings with each of her lovers (Hurston 28,101-102).

The ember that sustains Janie also contributes to her disillusionment as she never finds the ?happily ever after in her lovers. Her marriages are then transformed into slavery, oppressive and murderous. The specter of slavery is introduced early in the text as Janie recounts the story told to her by her grandmother, the slave of a white man who used her for his sexual gratification and impregnated her (Hurston 16-17). Nanny tells her own story in an effort to persuade Janie to make choices based on reason, i.e. prosperity and social mobility. Judie Newman believes that Nanny attempts to show Janie the path out of slavery slaves were denied choices and stability (820).

The irony is that the ?choice is taken away from Janie because Nanny arranges the marriage with Logan Killicks over the objections of Janie. Janier’s first marriage begins loveless, but she believes that love will eventually enter the relationship. Elements of their life together briefly satisfy the love needs of Janie but when Logan had stopped talking in rhymes to her [and] ceased to wonder at her long black hair and finger it (Hurston 25), a change comes over Janie. A simple move from honeymoon to reality arrives when Logan asks Janie to help him with the chores, which is symbolized with the purchase of a mule. The mule is a prominent symbol in Their Eyes Were Watching God, appearing on two different occasions. The first referenced by Nanny when she tells Janie that [d]e n***er woman is de mule uh de world (Hurston 14). The second was the hapless creature that is the laughing stock of Eatonville. There is a direct connection between the idea of a mule and slavery in Their Eyes Were Watching God, even slavery within slavery. It was sexual exploitation and political oppression that hampered the female slaver’s ability to dream higher (Sadoff 8). The mule then implies more than physical labor. It is an animal that is yoked and driven by its owner to do someone elser’s bidding. Derek Collins equates this revelation in Janie with a movement toward self-determination (146). Though moving in the right direction, Collins does not capture the totality of the movement. It must be centered within the framework of her desire for natural love, of which self-determination is only a part. She realizes that she will never attain her ideal with Logan. It cannot be mere coincidence that Jody Starks enters the story the very afternoon Logan decides to purchase a second mule (the beginning of Logan and Janier’s life together).

Jody comes along and offers her an escape from Logan she takes it: You aint got no mo business wid uh plow [or] cuttin up no seed ptaters neither (Hurston 28). A path to freedom has been offered to her. The proverbial last straw on the camel (or mule)r’s back is when Logan threatens to kill her with an axe if she does not follow his order to stay with him. This is enough to push Janie to choose a life of potential happiness with Jody rather than a life of slavery with Logan: From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom. Her old thoughts were going to come in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them. (Hurston 31) The words used by Hurston immediately recall the reader to Janier’s revelation under the old pear tree. She, unlike Orpheus, has persuaded Charon to allow her to cross the River Styx in search of her beloved again. Though the seed for her enslavement has been planted at the same time. Janie recognizes in Jody what she thinks of as a natural-like love, only to later come to the realization that his love is another form of ownership.

It does not take long for Janie to realize the differences between her own view of marriage and Jodyr’s,Janie soon discovers that she is merely one of his possessions, a beautiful status symbol (Smith 29). Her personhood is denied when she is treated as an object. Then along comes the mule, symbolic of a critical shift in their relationship. Janier’s role in the marriage is further devalued with the constant degradation of her property value in the eyes of Jody.

Jody purchases a worn out old and mistreated in order to set it free and impress Janie with his magnanimity (Hurston 53-54). It is certainly an act of kindness to the animal. Perhaps in the mind of Jody he saw this as a symbolic act of Janier’s freedom, but Janie herself interprets it as a symbol of her own slavery. Jody owns the mule as he owns Janie and is capable of disposing of either as he sees fit; the mule to retirement and Janie to silent shop work. Starks tyranny, his unwillingness to permit Janie to blossom, shatters her dream of the pear tree (Lupton 46). Hurston later describes Janie in the terms of a broken mule, saying her soul was affected (72). Hurstonr’s use of soul can been seen as analogous to that quest for natural love. The ember was not snuffed out, merely buried deep within her.

A fateful day in the store provides Janie the opportunity to enliven her passion. She miscuts a plug of tobacco and Jody berates her yo rump hangin nearly to yo knees (Hurston 74). Janie becomes livid and finally finds her voice once again. The judging of Janie by her appearance, particularly her muscle tone, cannot be seen as only an uncouth insult. Instead, it must be judged within the context of livestock; of which slaves were considered a part. The pity of the mule is based on its lack of functionality as a work animal and now Jody is making a similar claim toward Janie. The reminder of bondage awakens within her the possibility of achieving and dreaming beyond her present state.

Only with the the death of Jody is Janie freed from his servitude. Tea Cake, an unlikely drifter, finds himself the preferred suitor of the widowed Janie. Janie quickly warms to him and the reader begins to see the flickers of natural love. When Janie asks his name, her response to Tea Cake is flirtatious, So you sweet as all dat (Hurston 93). Janie has been away from natural love for a long time and in the intervening period created her new vocabulary. Here she is reclaiming the old words, but in a broken way. Sweet is a remembrance of the honey, which is the nectar produced from the love-dance between the bee and the flowers of the pear tree. It is time to charm Charon once again.

Romeo and Juliet, the story of Orpheus, and other cultural epics of love, end tragically; perfect love is always beyond the grasp of mortals. A natural assumption then would be that Tea Caker’s contraction of rabies is another example of this. The manifestation of Tea Caker’s obsession with jealousy in his delusional state may offer another view. As the disease progresses, he slowly loses his humanity. While Tea Cake may be willing to attack anyone in his condition, he keeps returning his focus on Janie and questions of her faithfulness to him. The final and remaining element of his personality is jealousy, a form of possession.

The presence of jealousy prior to Tea Caker’s infection is significant. When Janier’s friend Mrs. Turner comes by the house and talks up her brother, Janie refuses to even consider him, Ah is married now, so ?taint no use in considerin (Hurston 137). Tea Cake hears the entire conversation: Tea Cake had a brain storm before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. (Hurston 140) It was not rabidity that brought forth the jealousy. It was already present and not in a tangential way; it was at the core of Tea Caker’s being.

Hurston is deliberate in placing the symbolism of the mule in each of the relationships Janie Crawford had with her lovers. They are the markers of her slavery. Subtly, Hurston shifts the mule from being an external character to being personified in Janie herself. Even with Tea Cake, janie is not given a true choice, After dis, you betta come git uh job uh work out dere (Hurston 126). No longer is the mule doing the work, as with Logan, nor the mule acting as surrogate, as with Jody. Janie has become the passive mule doing the will of her master. Tea Caker’s death needed to occur to allow Janie the possibility to continue to seek that which her heart desired: the flight of bees in search of sweet nectar. From the apian revelation of her youth to the struggles on the muck of Florida, Janie Crawford refuses to accept anything less than perfect love. Her marriages lacked support, equality, and mutuality; and instead became prisons. She was not one to sit idle; the fire was too strong in her. And so when Janie returns to Eatonville Tea Cake lives only through memory and they make pictures of love and life against the wall (Hurston 184). Through memory alone can love be perfect, and Janie is able to effectuate her control for the first time.

Works Cited

  1. Collins, Derek. The Myth and Ritual of Ezili Freda in Hurstonr’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Western Folklore 55.2 (Spring 1996): 137-154
  2. Cronan, Sheila. Marriage. Radical Feminism. eds. Anne Koedt, Ellen Levine, Anita Rapone. New York: Quadrangle Books, 1973. 213-221.
  3. Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper-Perennial, 1990.
  4. Lupton, Mary Jane. Zora Neale Hurston and the Survival of the Female. The Southern Literary Journal 15.1 (Fall 1982): 45-54.
  5. Marks, Donald. Sex, Violence, and Organic Consciousness in Zora Neale Hurstonr’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. African American Review 19.4 (Winter 1985): 152-157.
  6. Ovid. Metamorphoses by Ovid. The Internet Classics Archive. 30 November 2010 .
  7. Newman, Judi. Dis aint Gimme, Florida: Zora Neale Hurstonr’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. The Modern Language Review 98.4 (October 2003): 817-826.
  8. Sadoff, Dianne. Black Matrilineage: The Case of Alice Walker and Zora Neale Hurston. Signs 11.1 (Autumn 1985): 4-26.
  9. Smith, Barbara. Sexual Politics and the Fiction of Zora Neale Hurston. The Radical Teacher 8 (May 1978): 26-30.
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