THESIS: There are different issues of speech that are faced and tackled within the book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, while discussing in depth the role of silence and how it is changed within the book
The novel is a unique literary work of art, reflecting on the life of African American women, the hardships they face and their strife to make their voices heard.
a) Role of Silence
It emphasizes the role women and their stature in society as voiceless creatures, symbolic to the mule.
b) Change in the Silent Role; Acquiring the Voice
Janie’s life, her break though and ability to acquire voice is symbolic of what the women can accomplish if they set their mind to overcoming silence.
Women have found their voice and are liberated and empowered, to contribute to society.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Their Eyes Were Watching God, is a book considered very unique, due to its language use as well as mastery of dialect. It is also considered to be among the most influential literary works ever to be written on African Americans and their society as a whole. This is because the author, Hurston has put to use a narrative structure that is quite interesting, therefore dividing the story between idiomatic discourse and literary narration (Hurston 3). The passages of discourse are quite lengthy and are used to bring forth the voices that are used within Janie’s world. The manner, in which the characters speak, in this case Janie, usually acts as a reflection of their personalities and individualism. Hurston’s use of language is aimed towards helping Janie find her own voice.
Although the novel does present different themes, silence and voice are considered to be among the themes that are widely studied. It delves into Janie’s journey of silence and her unquenchable thirst to achieve her own voice. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, she finds the strength to make this certain, despite the fact that she is an African American woman, who stands disadvantaged within her society. There are different issues of speech that are faced and tackled within the book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, while discussing in depth the role of silence and how it is changed within the book.
Role of Silence
Janie is considered to be among the leading characters in Hurston’s, Their Eyes Were Watching God. She acts as the driving force behind the thematic commentary and narrative as a whole. Several literary critics have made comments, on the use of voice within the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. I have concentrated much of their research on the setting, theme, symbolism, characterization, form and style of Hurston’s work, in order to illustrate and support the different arguments that I have came up with. The first argument on the theme of silence, which is found within the book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie’s voice is considered the main component. My view is supported by an article from a critic known as, ‘From Mules to Muliebrity’. She also argues that the main theme can be said to “examine the effects and the empowerment that arises from breaking free from that silence.”
The author is very much interested with the character’s personal growth that stems, from the voicing her emotions and ideas. Hurston makes us believe that it is Janie’s acquisition of voice, which facilitates her personal growth and freedom as an African American woman. Hurston also relates to Janie to a mule. This is used as symbolism, and it refers to the discrepancy that is present between silence and speech. The author uses a number of images representing the mule as an illustration of Janie’s acquisition of voice, which in turn leads to the acquisition of her identity as a woman. The term Muliebrity is used as an illustration of Janie’s achievement in her quest for her identity. It enhances her characterization of a woman within the novel. Muliebrity according to the dictionary can be defined ‘as the condition a person has of being a woman’.
Hurston, puts into use the dichotomy that is present between the mule and Janie, in such a way that it brings to light, both her identity and her voice. It also stands symbolic of the slavery symbol. The first appearance of the mule within the novel is used to show Janie and her silencing ability. It talks of the coming together of the community after a hard day of work. During work hours, this same community hardly has any time for communicating, as their focus is solely placed on serving their masters. This kind of work condition is what has led to the silencing of the community. The mules in this case refer to their masters, who signify the oppressive voice that is present within the novel.
Another instance where silence is clearly seen in the book, takes place when Janie begins her first steps towards attaining her womanhood. Janie’s nanny sees her kiss a man, Johnny Taylor and gives her some advice with reference to her burgeoning sexuality. The advice that she receives from her grandmother, give a good reflection of the plight that black women face within the society. In this scenario, Janie’s silence is brought on by her grandmother’s advice. This is because it is aimed at limiting the diverse possibilities that Janie’s has, when it comes to her sexuality and womanhood, and what this might all mean. The advice that nanny gives, its intertwining with mules and silencing of the women, raise some questions such as whether a woman from the African American race will ever have the voice to speak about her emotions and diverse ideas that she may have.
The mule is also seen much later within the novel, when Logan decides to purchase one for Janie so that she can use it when plowing the fields. This acts a symbol, as Janie is considered to be transforming into one of the mules. This is seen when she becomes even more silent. It is after a while that she meets Jody, who convinces her that there is more to her life than living within the confines and holding on to her role as a mule. It is from their conversation, that Janie is enlightened on how foolish it is for them to be silenced. As the story commences we see that Jody asking Janie if she would run away with him (Hurston 98) This in some way is asking her to stand up for her self and voice her own mind and choices. Haurykiewicz mentions that it is this act, that Jody takes to help Janie be free, that eventually starts her on the path towards acquiring her persona voice. The voice she is in search for is also symbolic of her autonomy as a woman.
Change of the Silent Role
As the novel continues to unfold, the theme of silence or the mule imagery, which is used within the Their Eyes Were Watching God, is not as ubiquitous. This change of theme is used to symbolize Janie’s acquisition of both self and voice. Janie is successful in her journey from being the mule to Muliebrity. This success made it such that she was capable of voicing out her emotions and her ideas, something that was impossible to do before. However, there are some instances where she still is restricted. Her opinions and feelings can only be voiced to a certain degree and not to its entirety (Hurston 67). The author, Hurston ultimately uses the mule as a way of helping the readers to understand the inhumane treatment that society places of the woman, and especially those of African American descent. The author also uses Janie as a symbol that hardships can indeed be overcome.
The author delves deeper to show the different problems that are faced by women, who are unable to achieve their voice within the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. She uses different techniques in order to illustrate different inferiority levels (Hurston 56). She argues that the evolution that takes place with Janie’s voice can be said to be parallel that of the male voices. All the men that Janie is with have voices of their own. It is observed that when as her voice continues to develop, there is a noted improvement in her relationships. Janie’s voice is observed when she advices Jody to save a mule from being mistreated.
Although there are several attempts for Janie to voice her emotions and opinions, there is still silence as this personal voice is yet to be recognized and acknowledged. However, even though her voice is hardly recognized in the beginning, growth in the same is observed. The grow stems from her constant questioning and from her lack of voice, which in turn signifies having absolute power over her life. This is evidenced when she publicly humiliates Jody with a statement that she makes. In the novel, we learn of Jody’s demise. This in itself was the opportunity that Janie required to attain fully her female identity, voice as well as high standing within the society’s hierarchy.
Janie’s voice can also be seen within the different relationships she has with people. Having developed a strong self-sense, she is now able to control whom she has a relationship with. She starts a relationship with a man known as Tea Cake (Hurston 10). Their relationship is fine until he becomes mentally unstable and attempts to cause her harm. In her defense, she kills him. This assertion of control is proof enough of the voice she now has. She is aware that she can survive independently and is therefore not afraid of living without a man. Janie’s voice also comes up during her murder trial. Hurston brings out the fact that the voice that Janine uses is effective, and that is why she is able to acquit herself from the charges and is released.
Voice is also present, when Janie decides to share the story with Pheoby. The reason that she chooses to share with Pheoby and not any other person, is that she wants someone that will listen to her. As she enters the town, she is very silent; however, this changes when she meets Pheoby. This story sharing was very critical for Janie as it was the ultimate symbol of her newfound self and voice (Hurston 11).The author’s use of silence and voice, to bring out personal identity and self-sense can be said to be the driving force behind having a liberated independent African American woman within our society.
There are some instances within the story where we see Hurston using Janie’s voice to communicate with the reader. It is however argued that the voice used is secondary, to one’s ability to visualize the situation or story unfolding. This visual aspect of Their Eyes Were Watching God is created by Janie’s voice. The ability of the voice to account the experiences allows the reader to be able to visualize what is happening within the novel. Although there are instances, where Janie is unable to communicate, such as when she is in the law court, the reader is still able to ascertain her innocence through the voice of the author, Hurston. This kind of effect acts as a symbol of the author’s attempt at using vision as well as voice. In this way, he is able to convey the different experiences that African American women face in their day-to-day lives. Using voice, the author can make certain that the reader has fully understood the message that is being conveyed.
A conclusion can therefore be made that the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God is mainly concerned with finding a voice for African American woman within the society. Having a voice can be considered the main instruments of a certain number of things, such as injury, salvation, personal empowerment as well as selfhood. We find that Janie is offended when Jody refuses her to make a speech when he becomes mayor. She believes that it is a repression of her individuality and freedom. In her relationship with Tea Cake, we find that she enjoys it when he engages her during their conversions and viewing her as being equal to him. This in turn is reciprocated in love, as she believes that he has respect for her personality and individualism (Hurston et al. 56). Once Janie had discovered, that she can define herself through her speech relations with other people, she is also made aware of the fact that silence, can also be use as an empowerment source. However, this can only be successful once she attains her voice and learns how to control it and use it effectively. Hurston has used the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God to emphasize the control that one ought to have over language in order to obtain an identity source and personal empowerment.
Hurston, Zora N. Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel. New York: Perennial Library, 1990. Print.