Their Eyes were Watching God is in many ways a novel about Janie's sexual awakening. Because it was written in the conservative 1930s, much of this sexuality is masked in metaphor. When Janie finally finds a "bee for her blossom," it is the man that she has been most sexually attracted to in her life. Hurston takes a naturalist approach to sexuality. Unlike her grandmother, Nanny, who sees sexuality as threatening and destabilizing and punishes Janie for kissing a boy, Hurston sees it as an integral part of identity. Janie's sexuality is linked to nature from the very beginning. She learns about it from bees, rather than from a human mentor.
Power, specifically black power, was an issue of great importance to the Harlem Renaissance writers. Various characters in Their Eyes were Watching God have different notions about the best way to gain power in a white-dominated world. Nanny's idea is that her granddaughter should marry a wealthy man so that she doesn't have to worry about her financial security. Joe gains power in the same way that whites traditionally did, by gaining a position of leadership (the mayorship) and using it to dominate others. However, Janie finds that the type of power that she prefers in a man is personal, rather than constructed. She thinks that a person's power is derived not from their material possessions, but from their personal experiences, and their manner of relating to others.
One of the most politically notable aspects of Their Eyes were Watching God, a decidedly apolitical novel, is the concept of black autonomy. Jim Crow laws were still in effect in the South during the 1930s, keeping blacks and whites in seperate schools, churches, and bathrooms. Eatonville, the town in which Zora Neale Hurston grew up, was famous as the first all-black incorporated municipality in the country. Hurston's novel is a ringing affirmation of black autonomy, portraying a town with a black mayor, post office, and so on. But she questions the methods of the leader of this town, concerned with whether he achieved power through traditionally white avenues.
Hurston was by no means a capitalist, but this does not mean that she was unaware of some of the evils of capitalism. The easiest way to divide the "good" and "bad" characters in this novel is to ask which characters value material possessions. Nanny, Logan, and, to a certain extent, Joe, all value goods because they see how hard it is for African-Americans to attain them. However, their goods only make these characters look foolish. Joe's golden spittoons are a pitiable attempt to approximate the fashions of his white former bosses. Hurston is careful to draw the connection between characters like Janie and Tea Cake and nature, rather than consumable goods.
The distinction between activities appropriate for men and those appropriate for women is strongly drawn in the first half of this novel. Janie is prohibited from speaking her mind, playing checkers, and attending mule funerals. Hurston suggests that these gender constructions are absurd, however. One of Tea Cake's most appealing characteristics is that he empowers Janie to break these rules. Tea Cake encourages her to work, play checkers, speak out, fish, and shoot a gun.
Appearance of Race
There is a high incidence of African-Americans with mixed black and white descent in this novel. Janie's mother, Leafy, was the product of a rape by a plantation master, and was visibly white enough to garner punishment of Nanny by the plantation master's wife. Janie is described as having coffee-colored skin, and Hurston is careful to describe the degree of blackness of all of her characters. Caucasian characteristics can have a positive (Janie's shiny hair) or negative (Mrs. Turner's pointed nose and thin lips) effect on the character's attractiveness. Hurston is consistent on one point, however, and that is that people who try to look like something that they are not (usually whiter than they are) always end up looking terrible.
Janie differs from many of the other characters in Their Eyes were Watching God in that she is financially stable throughout the book with a fair amount of money in the bank. Therefore, for Janie, work is isolated from making money, and depends entirely on the nature of the labor. Contrary to most people, she enjoys laboring in the field more than clerking in a shop (despite the fact that the latter is "higher class") because it allows her to be near nature and the man that she loves. Janie's naturalism extends beyond her sexuality to include which type of labor she prefers.
Their Eyes Were Watching God Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Their Eyes Were Watching God is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.