Analysis of Relationships in Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie’s journey towards spiritual enlightenment and her development of individuality, largely through Janie’s relationships with others. Hurston uses the themes of power, control, abuse, and respect, in Janie’s relationships with Nanny, Killicks, Starks, and Tea Cake, to effectively illustrate how relationships impact identity and self-growth.

 It is Janie’s relationship with Nanny that first suppresses her self-growth.  Janie has an immense level of respect towards Nanny, who has raised Janie since her mother ran off.  The respect Janie has for her grandmother is deeper than the respect demanded by tradition, from a child toward his caretaker, probably because Nanny’s genuine concern for Janie’s well being is so obvious.  Her authentic concern can be seen largely through dialogue between her and Janie, for instance when Nanny desperately explains to Janie that she had worked hard to buy a real house so that Janie would no longer be subject to harassment by her black classmates, and that her motivation in marrying Janie off to Killicks was to ensure that Janie wouldn’t end up being used for a “work-ox” (16) or a “spit cup” (20) by men, white and black. Ironically, Nanny’s determination to shelter Janie from oppression ends up serving as the first oppressor of Janie’s individuality that we see in the novel. Nanny pushes her idealized image of security, through marriage, onto a teenage girl whose current desire in life is anything BUT security.

As a sixteen-year-old girl who has just come to realization of her budding sexuality, Janie spends much of her time wondering at the great mysteries of nature and love and life, and as to how she herself fits within them.  Here Janie first sets her eyes on the “horizon,” which she herself cannot describe with words, but which is a destination that would ultimately bring her a sense of fulfillment through harmony with the natural world around her, and understanding of her inner self.  Janie relents to Nanny’s insistence that she marry Killicks, and when she does, we can see that Janie’s respect for Nanny is largely what gives Nanny control over her decisions. And although Nanny does not overpower Janie in the way that Killicks, Starks, and even Tea Cake later will, it is also clear that Nanny’s words have some power over Janie even after Nanny is dead, causing Janie to hesitate before running off with Starks. (29) So, Janie temporarily sacrifices pursuit of her “horizon” out of respect for, and trust in, her grandmother, and with the naive hope that love for Killicks will follow their marriage. Later in the story, Janie will realize that she hates her grandmother for stunting the pursuit of her dreams.

In the beginning of their relationship, Janie and Killicks have mutual respect for one another, though Janie’s respect for Killicks takes the form of passivity rather than love, and Killicks’ respect for Janie is in the form of awe and admiration versus real love. Within the first few months of marriage, Nanny is dead, and after a year, Janie is still very much not in love with Logan Killicks. Her first dream dies as she realizes that marriage does not make love, and so Janie transforms from a daydreaming teenage girl into a woman (25). It becomes clear to Janie that Killicks will never be able to assist her in her journey to the “horizon,” and because Killicks is not able to bring Janie the sense of fulfillment that she seeks, Janie has no more use for him and loses any remnant of legitimate respect for him that she once had. Similarly, Killicks fails to respect Janie’s individuality when he reveals Janie’s shortcomings in comparison to his previous wife’s work ethic (26). At this point in the novel, Janie’s sense of independence is not developed enough for her to be able to defend her individuality, as she herself believes that her “place” is in the kitchen just as Killicks’ place is...
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