The Harlem Renaissance was an important cultural movement that wasrelated to African Americans who had moved to the northern cities to get abetter life for themselves; it was also known as “New Negro Movement”.Renaissance means rebirth and that is what African Americans were trying to doin the 1920s; African Americans were creating a new image for themselvesthrough arts, music, and literature and Zora Neale Hurston was one of them. Hernovel Their Eyes Were Watching God was published at the peak of the movementand it was criticized by many as a novel that had no real message or purpose;and because Hurston empowered a female character and refused to follow theroles of women in her story, the book was criticized further. However, at thetime of the Harlem Renaissance African American’s wanted to be heard and seendifferently, yet within that group, African American Women were silenced morethan African American men. Which is why I believe Hurston’s novel is sopowerful; it gives a voice to those women. In a time where African Americanwomen were struggling to be heard, Hurston uses the power of voice and silenceas a tool of our protagonist’s journey to empowerment.
The first and most obvious method Hurstonuses to show how voice and silence are used is through her characters, andwithin them, we have the female characters and the male characters and eachcontributed significantly to Janie’s empowerment. The female characters thataided in silencing our protagonist and helping her find her voice are hergrandmother, the women in Eatonville and her best friend. The first characterthat silenced our protagonist, Janie Crawford, was her own grandmother. Janie’sgrandmother, whom she refers to as Nanny, was a former slave who had been rapedby her owner and her daughter, Janie’s mother, was raped too by a teacher;thus, the grandmother’s fear was that Janie would end up the way they both did,pregnant by a man that was not her husband. Nanny’s view of the world was thateveryone had their place and she would not let Janie wander, “Honey, de whiteman is der ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out… De niggerwoman is de mule uh de world as fah as Ah can see.” (Hurston 14). Janie’sgrandmother knows how the world works, she does not intentionally silence Janiebut marrying her off to Logan Killicks was out of love rather than merecontrol. “She merely wants Janie to be content at rising above the menial”mule” existence she believes a black woman normally takes on in theworld.
” (Putnam 6). The next charactersthat contributed to silencing Janie were the female residents of Eatonville.These women all had an idea of the kind of woman Janie was and all had a fixedimage of how she should behave. This was because of her marriage to Joe Starkswho had become mayor of Eatonville; even after his death, the townspeople feltthat she had an image to uphold. After she ran off with Tea Cake and came back,they talked about her and assumed the worst and because they assumed the worstthey gave Janie’s story a voice. In the first chapter, when Janie first comesback, everyone started to talk about her, and the women who had been jealous ofher before had remembered that jealousy. Them talking about her is what madePheoby, Janie’s best friend, go talk to her which is why the story is told.
This makes Pheoby the first character to give Janie a voice. Pheoby goes overto Janie claiming she wanted to give her a plate of dinner, but really shewanted to find out what happened; and Janie tells her and gives her the powerto tell anyone or refuse to tell anyone the story, “You can tell’em, what Ahsay if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mahfriend’s mouf.” (Hurston 6). By telling Pheoby the story, she gave power to herown voice, but Pheoby telling the story to other people is how she gave Janie avoice. Hurston’s way of using the female character’s show how some AfricanAmerican women were put down by other African American women; but some werealso empowered by their help.
Her novel seems to be her way of her giving thema voice just like her female characters gave Janie. The male characters in Hurston’s novel hada bigger part in Janie’s empowerment. Most people would focus on the men shemarried; but there are four men that influenced her life, Tea Cake, JodyStarks, Logan Killicks and Johnny Taylor. Johnny Taylor was the first boy Janiekissed, she did not love him but it was a symbol of the beginning of Janie’sjourney. Maria Racine describes Johnny Taylor as “…a minor character, thus alesser defined mirror of Janie,” (Racine 2); all we know of Johnny is that hewas young and her first kiss.
He, like Janie, has no voice and seems to be animitation of how she started her journey; young, innocent and at the beginningof their adult lives. He influences Janie by being her beginning to the searchfor herself, “She thought awhile and decided her conscious life had commencedat Nanny’s gate.” (Hurston 10), that time she entered the gate, the time spentunder a peach tree and getting her first kiss was her awakening. After the kissshe was compelled, by her grandmother, to marry Logan Killicks. Logan Killickswas considerably older than Janie and at the time Janie’s idea of marriage wasone full of passion and love. She soon realized that was not the case andalthough she was not silent with Logan she did not exactly object to anything;she spoke out about how she felt about working, yet she was still put to work.In this marriage, she was silenced by being forced to do manual labor, and bylosing the hope of love in this marriage but only because Logan himself had novoice of his own. He would tell Janie to work every now and then, but would notask her to, just tell her; the conversations between them had no passion, nolove or hate.
We only see a little of Logan’s emotions when Janie decides toleave, “There! Janie had put words in his held in fears” (Hurston 30). Thisshows that Logan had emotions, he had feelings for Janie but he did not know orcould not express them; leaving him without a voice. Moreover, as Maria Racineputs it, “Neither Janie nor Killicks is capable of full expression with theother, and this causes Janie to turn to Joe Starks.” (Racine 3), since Killickshimself had no voice it made it easy for Janie to run away with Joe Starks. Her second marriage to Joe Starks is whereJanie not only has no voice but any attempt she made to use it she was shutdown by her husband. Joe Starks, or Jody, was one of the characters thatthrough his actions and words forcefully silenced Janie.
At first, in Janie’seyes, Jody was not exactly what she wanted, she wanted passion and he wantedrecognition and class; “Janie pulled back a long time because he did notrepresent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon.”(Hurston 29). He was not exactly what she was aiming for but he was a closesecond, so she ran away with him. He was sweet at first and full of passiontowards his dream, and he cared for Janie, but when he became mayor he becamemore restricting. He made her tie her hair up and hide it, as her hair wasconsidered one of Janie’s most beautiful features it was a symbol of Janie’sforced silence. He would not let her speak her mind on the porch with otherpeople or join in on town affairs; all he did was make her run the shop andtake care of his meals. He dressed her up in nice fine clothes that made therest of the women full of envy but he kept silencing her and as he got olderstarted to put her down excessively. LuElla Putnam describes Janie’s decisionto go off with Jody as “the closest Janie can find to fulfill what she believesher grandmother would most want for her” (Putnam 7); however, I believe herdecision was more based on whether Joe would help her get what she wanted, whather grandmother prevented her from with her first marriage, love.
On the otherhand, Racine states that Janie to Jody “…is just another of his possessions.”(Racine 5); this describes what I feel Hurston wanted to project. That to Jodyhe owned Janie, no one else could have her and he could treat her any way helikes.
Therefore, Janie is silenced in her second marriage because she is seenmore of an object than a woman, was given material things instead of the lovethat she wanted. Fatefully, the man who silenced her the most was the man whopushed her too far; Jody had been criticizing Janie about her looks and how shewas getting older, to make himself feel better and one day she had enough andspeaks out, “Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah’m uh woman every inch ofme, and Ah know it.
Dat’s uh whole lot more’n you kin say.” (Hurston 79). Shespeaks out in front of everybody, “She bares his body to the communal gaze, notonly denying his masculinity but displaying his lack to other men,” (Clarke 9),and he decides to give her the silent treatment causing him to lose his voice.The day he died she went to him against his wishes and speaks her mind againfor the first time; explaining to him how he had made her feel.
The way Hurstonuses this character reflects on the Harlem Renaissance, how African Americanswere pushed too far that they had to speak out; show everyone else how valuableand intelligent they were and how they deserved to be heard. Janie’s last marriage is where most peoplefeel she was the most empowered. Tea Cake, Vergible Woods, was a man that Janieactually fell in love with; she left Eatonville to marry this man and live withhim away from envious and judgmental eyes. With Tea Cake, she experiences more,than with either of her two previous husbands; she works because she wants tobe with her husband, she dances with the rest of her neighbors and Tea Cakeencourages her every action. “And with Tea Cake’s support and encouragement,Janie continues to strengthen her voice.
” (Racine 6). However, even Tea Cakecould not express all his feelings in words; when he felt jealous he beatJanie, “Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behaviorjustified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him.” (Hurston147). Like Killicks, being able to communicate these feelings may have beendifficult for Tea Cake, and being able to assure his dominance over her was away to reassure himself more than it was for Janie to understand. Although manypeople would like for Tea Cake’s love for Janie be what strengthened her voice,I believe it was more of the things she experienced.
Away from her grandmother’sideals, Stark’s vision of class, and the prying eyes of the people inEatonville; with Tea Cake she experiences new things, learns how to shoot, goesout to work on the fields and this is what leads Janie to empowerment.Hurston’s use of Tea Cake was not to show how love can change us, but more ofhow experience can open our eyes; can help us see, understand and speak out.For African Americans who were silenced, the way for their voices to be heardwas through their achievements and their work; and for Hurston that would beher writing. The characters are only one of the methodsHurston used to create a voice for Janie and correspondingly African Americanwomen; another method she used was the narration. There are only a few pageswhere the narration is in Janie’s actual voice, the first-person narrative; butmost of the novel is in the third-person, the story is being told by someoneelse.
“Altogether Janie speaks only about seventy lines of actual story-tellingdialogue out of almost two hundred pages of text, the rest of which continuesin free indirect discourse with the understanding that it is derived fromJanie’s perspective and memories,” (Bailey 320). We assume that the rest of thestory is being told by Pheoby, or what Pheoby heard from Janie, and because ofthis, there are parts of the story that empowers Janie even when she is silent.The first part is when, as I have already mentioned, Tea Cake beats Janiebecause he wanted to reassure himself after the fear he felt of losing her.During this part of the story we never hear Janie’s comments on what happened;the narrator decides to be silent on how Janie felt or what she thought aboutit. All we do get is other men praising Tea Cake for the woman he has; that sheis not like the others, she does not yell or scream just cries and Tea Cakeagrees almost proudly. We could assume her silence and acceptance of whathappened was because she loved her husband, but it could be because Pheoby, whois the one telling the story, would not want Tea Cake to be seen negativelythrough Janie’s eyes, “she must edit out the more unpleasant details of herrelationship with TeaCakein her own memory—limiting her knowledge of Tea Cake and of herself forthesake of the story.” (Bailey 331).
Leaving parts out like this could be a way tokeep Tea Cakes image as the loving husband. On the other hand, this silencecould be a way of showing Janie’s understanding to what Tea Cake did. JoeStarks had hit her too, and this was over a meal; Tea Cake hit her out offeelings he could not express and Janie at this point has grown so much that Ibelieve she begins to understand and accept that sometimes men have troublecommunicating with words.
Hurston’s effect here was to show how Janie wasalready becoming powerful, she did not have to speak out or act on whathappened like with her other marriages; and not because of love but becausethrough her silence she had become more powerful. Janie’s silence through the narration isagain experienced when we read about the trial. When Tea Cake gets sick andstarts to become delusional, he attacks Janie and she shoots him to protectherself. We are told there is a trial with 12 white jurors and Tea Cakesfriends; what we are not told or get to read is what Janie said or how she toldthe story. This silence is a clear indication of how powerful Janie is, we donot need to know what she says; she is a black woman who through her words,whatever they may be, was found innocent by white jurors.
“…this sceneexemplifies her independence as a woman,” (Racine 8). Hurston leaving outJanie’s testimony is to show us that even in silence a person can be powerful,that we only have to see it; “Hurston’s Janie makes readers “see” her story,and thus takes control of both the visual field and its interpretation.”(Clarke 3). By not “hearing” what Janiesays during the trial we see her power through the result of her unheardtestimony. The last method that Hurston uses often isthe mule; a symbol she uses to represent silence and speech. “De nigger womanis de mule uh duh world so fur as Ah can see.” (Hurston 14), this is the firstintroduction to the mule and it is by the grandmother, who compares AfricanAmerican women to a mule.
It may have a negative aspect to it, but a mule wasan animal that was stubborn and strong-headed; “However, mules arestereotypically portrayed not as docile but rather as stubborn andunpredictable animals.” (Haurykiewicz 3). However, when the mule is talkedabout Janie loses her voice; she gets married to Killicks against her ownwishes. We see a mule again when Janie moves to Eatonville with her secondhusband, the yellow mule that everyone made fun of, but Janie was not allowedto do so, “Janie loved the conversation and sometimes she thought up goodstories on the mule, but Joe had forbidden her to indulge.” (Hurston 53); Janiewas not allowed to contribute to the “mule talk”. Therefore, every time the symbolof a mule was present she was silenced and when it was not she had her voiceagain. “The image of the mule is frequently linked to these acts of silencing,while the absence of the mule indicates the potential for speech andcommunication in Janie’s life.” (Haurykiewicz 3).
Hurston’s use of thisstubborn animal as a way to silence our protagonist and every time it ispresent Janie is forced to be silent and when it is not her ability to speakout becomes manageable. To conclude, Hurston uses methods withinher novel to show others how easy it is for an African American Woman to besilenced by their history, by their husbands and even other African Americanwomen. Her use of mule imagery to describe the silence that was forced ontoJanie and its relation to these women was a comparison that shows howrestricted they were, makes this story one of the most important novels duringthe Harlem Renaissance. As an author during the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston was able to write a novel, that notonly gives voice to Janie Crawford but gives a voice for herself and otherAfrican American women; and even if it is criticized because people believe ithas no purpose, I believe the novel was the voice they needed.