Fear is a universal emotion that has a powerful presence both in life and in literature. It can keep people from danger, and it can shackle them, preventing them from living their lives to the fullest. Most of the characters in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God belong to disenfranchised racial minority groups. Many of them are women living in a profoundly patriarchal society. Their lives’ precarious nature appears to encourage fear naturally, yet many other emotions move them just as strongly, vividly reinforcing the message of their humanity. Janie Crawford, the novel’s protagonist, is the best example of this tendency. Though she feels fear for herself and others at many points, her driving passion for most of the book is the pursuit of true love. The plot comes to a head when Janie kills her third husband, Tea Cake, who has been driven mad by rabies. Although this killing is seemingly an act of self-defense, it can be argued that it was the expression of a love stronger than fear.
Janie’s life, as narrated by herself, forms the main thread of the novel. As a light-skinned black woman living in Jim Crow South, Janie faces discrimination and judgment from all quarters. Despite those restraints, she strives to control her fate and pursue love. Her grandmother, who raised her from birth, convinces her to marry an old farmer named Logan Killicks for “protection” (Hurston, 2004, p. 18). Unlike her grandmother, a former slave who prioritizes safety, Janie is not satisfied with mere survival. Once it becomes clear that Logan regards her like a farmhand and that Janie could not make herself love him, she runs off with Joe Starks, a charismatic man who promises to treat her well. Together, they move to the all-black town of Eatonville, where Joe eventually rises to be mayor. Yet Janie is not happy there either, as Joe treats her as a valuable but powerless possession. After Joe’s death, Janie ends up with Tea Cake, a poorer, but charming man who offers her reciprocal romantic love. Thus, Janie’s lifelong search seems to conclude in a happy ending before misfortune strikes.
Tea Cake’s death is the culmination of a tragic sequence of events beginning with him ignoring warnings about a hurricane. As a result, he and Janie are put in danger when the hurricane hits and barely escape. Tea Cake is injured by a rabid dog while trying to keep Janie safe and contracts rabies. As his condition deteriorates, he loses control of himself, becoming more jealous and aggressive. Eventually, he attacks Janie, forcing her to kill him after she fails to calm him down. During the fight, she is “a scared human being fighting for its life” (Hurston, 2004, p. 216). Yet she is also filled with hope that he would come to his senses or flee. She only pulls the trigger once she looks into his eyes and sees that he is gone. During her trial, she reflects that Tea Cake “had to die to get rid of the dog” (Hurston, 2004, p. 220). In other words, rabies made the man she loved something other than himself, and the only way to set him free was to kill him.
Janie’s understanding of her deed is consistent with the values she exhibits throughout the book. She could not be happy with either Logan or Joe because neither of them respected her personality. Although Logan does not treat her cruelly, she leaves him because their relationship remains crudely practical. Towards the end of Joe’s life, she tells him that he “done lived wid me for twenty years and you don’t half know me atall” (Hurston, 2004, p. 102). Mutual understanding and appreciation of another person’s individuality are essential for Janie’s idea of love. That is what she finds in Tea Cake, who genuinely cares about her personality, just as she cares about his. He “made somethin’ outa” (Hurston, 2004, p. 195) Janie by encouraging her to meet new people and take up hobbies like shooting, fostering her personality where her previous husbands ignored it. She excuses his flaws, such as gambling: “it was part of him, so it was all right” (Hurston, 2004, p. 148). Ultimately, Janie kills him because she realizes that his personality is no longer there, a fate worse than death to someone of her convictions.
Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie’s emotional maturation, from a naïve, romantic girl to an experienced and self-determined woman. While she learns more about herself, other people, and the world throughout the plot, her driving ideal remains the same. She seeks romantic love based on mutual understanding and acceptance. Her first husband shows her that a purely practical marriage will not bring her what she desires. The second marriage is much more comfortable materially, but Janie finds no happiness there either, feeling that her husband doesn’t care about her personality. Tea Cake, the third husband, serves as a contrast to the first two, as he accepts her and encourages her growth. She truly loves him, and that, at least as much as fear for her own life, is why she kills him when he succumbs to rabies. As she puts his personality first, she knows that living with it gone would be a cruel mockery of his life.
Hurston, Z. N. (2004). Their eyes were watching God. PerfectBound.