A R T I C L E
Their Eyes Were Watching God:
Magical Realism as Natural Pathway to Womanhood
b y d e v o n a m a l l o r y ~ n o r m a l, i l l i n o i s
Women have a unique link with divine power. It is no coincidence that the concept of Mother Nature exists. With regard to ancient religion, women were the first beings worshipped as deities through the act of creating the world through giving birth (Harding 59). However, when men finally discovered how children were conceived, women lost much of their power; hence, the rise of the patriarchal religions that are still prominent today (Ruether 94-99).“I found god in myself and… I loved her fiercely”—Ntozake ShangeIntroduction
WOMEN HAVE been central to nature since the world began, serving traditionally as the caregivers of all life. As Alice Reich comments:
Women’s spirituality is characterized… by a sense of the connectedness of the whole of life. This connection not only crosses apparent boundaries between human and other species, it includes “inanimate” nature as well. It also connects people through time, tying them together with generations past and generations yet unborn. Secondly, women’s spirituality conceives of the divine as impermanent, that is, within humans, rather than transcendent, or outside them… women’s spirituality is also characterized by a radical egalitarianism…
[t]his egalitarianism says that… humans, nature, and the divine are on the same plane. This equality does not imply similarity. In fact, it honors diversity by refusing to create hierarchies of difference. (429)
If one looks closely enough, it becomes apparent that the origins of Magical Realism also have been a part of everyday life since the world began. Women’s spirituality and Magical Realism borrow from the same notion—that everything is connected in the universe. Nowhere is this idea more exemplified than in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. Even the title evokes something magically realistic.
A magical realist rite of passage
The premise of the novel follows the heroine Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods’ pathway to womanhood through her connection to nature. At age sixteen, Janie sought feminine guidance within a blooming pear tree which reflected her changing identity: “It [the tree] had called her to come and gaze on a mystery… It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness” (Their Eyes 10). The tree, calling out to her, reflected her sexual awakening:
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister–calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to the tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. (10-11)
Fruit-bearing trees commonly symbolize fertility and budding sexuality (Pondrom 188). Unfortunately, Janie's marriage revelation challenged her ability to act upon her own blossoming sexual nature.
Her grandmother, Nanny, recognizing Janie's budding maturity, tried to control her life by making sure she was secure. She told Janie, “De nigger woman id de mule uh de world as fur as Ah can see” (Their Eyes 14). Nanny goes on to say “…nothin’ Ah been through ain’t too much if you just take a stand on high ground lak Ah dreamed” (16). Nanny would rather her granddaughter was unhappy and safe than happy and in love, so she forced Janie to marry an older man aptly named Logan Killicks (kills trees/logs), despite Janie's realization that “[t]he vision of Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree” (13). Regardless, they married and, during their marriage, Janie returned to the pear tree looking for guidance to deal with a bad marriage.
Logan, like Nanny, wanted to control Janie. First, his impotence negated her sexuality. Even worse, he started treating Janie the very way her grandmother had hoped he wouldn't—like a mule. Tragically, just as Nanny realized what she had done to Janie, she died (20-26).
The lack of freedom in her marriage to Logan taught Janie "that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (24). Janie continued listening for signs from the pear tree, a signal of her need for a better life.
Janie began to turn to nature through a continuous and hopeful gaze at the horizon. She would "stand around the gate and expect things… She knew things that nobody had ever told her. For instance, the words of the trees and the wind…” (24). It was as if she were looking for something that would help her escape her problems. When Joe (Jody) Sparks strutted down the road, ready to rescue her, she decided to run off with him (28-31).
Joe served as both mayor of Eatonville and the proprietor of the general store. The townspeople treated him as if he were a god:
The town had a basketful of feelings good and bad about Joe’s positions and possessions, but none had the temerity to challenge him. They bowed down to him rather, because he was all of those things, and then again he was all of these things because the town bowed down. (47)
At the beginning, Janie worshipped Joe just as the rest of the town had. Joe’s vitality and zest for the better life seduced Janie away from her decrepit and desecrated existence with the elderly Logan. No longer would she live like a work mule, old before her time. Because Joe promised her big things, she felt that not only would she finally have sex, she would also be secure, the best of both worlds. Janie's spontaneous fleeing, from Logan to Joe, revealed she was not a mature woman who could take care of herself; instead, she was still looking for someone to take care of her.
However, Joe eventually posed another hazard. While he fulfilled Nanny's wish by placing Janie on a pedestal, it was there and only there where he wanted her to stay. A big bully, Joe wanted to control her by keeping her quiet and isolated from the townspeople.
His appetite for control only increased Janie’s connection with nature: “the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another took the bloom off of things” (41). Joe told her she was too good to mix with the townspeople. His jealousy of light skin and beauty threatened his manhood; he was afraid she would leave him like she had her first husband. His need for total power over her and the whole town led her to tell him “… it jus’ looks lak it keeps us in some way we ain’t natural wid one ‘nother” (43).
Despite this, Joe's enforced isolation of Janie only served to deify her, and the town bowed down to Janie as Joe’s “queen,” even though she disliked the role.
Things began to change after Joe assaulted her, further isolating Janie. Like any abused woman, she closed herself off from pain: “[S]he wasn’t petal-open anymore with him” (67). In that isolated state, Janie reaffirmed her commitment to nature, realizing Joe was no longer a god to her, only a very flawed man:
She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her… It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered… She had no blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be. She found that she had a host of thoughts she had never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about… She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now and she knew how not to mix them. (68)
She was done watching the wrong god.
Twenty years passed, and Janie reaffirmed her affinity with nature to gain strength:
…she sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending store and prostrating before Jody, while all the time she herself sat under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair and clothes. Somebody near about making summertime out of lonesomeness… This was the first time it happened, but after a while it got so common she ceased to be surprised. It was like a drug. In a way it was good because it reconciled her to things. She got so she received all things with the stolidness of the earth which soaks up urine and perfume with the same indifference. (73)
Eventually Janie realized Joe was physically dying, no longer able to contain the “spark” of his youth (73). It was after he tried to verbally abuse her in front of the whole town that Janie, aided by his loss of strength, stood up to him in front of them, and they came to see him as only human as well (75-76). Janie’s insult “robbed him of his illusion of irresistible maleness that all men cherish” (75). He realized he no longer held power over everyone else and resigned himself to dying.
As a new widow with wealth and opportunity, Janie was able to reopen her petals. She reflected on her life at Joe’s funeral:
Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing that God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way behind you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love… She had found a jewel down inside herself… Janie had tried to show her shine. (Their Eyes 86)
Metaphorically gazing at the horizon, Janie searched for another male savior to save her, realizing that being a queen did not suit her.
Nine months after Joe’s death, Janie, like a blooming pear tree, “was just basking in freedom for the most part without the need for thought” (88). At age forty, she soon found new love with a man twelve years younger—Vergible Woods, otherwise known as Tea Cake (90-96).
While Logan Killicks wanted to prune Janie’s branches, and Joe’s spark burned her, Tea Cake’s given name suggested a return to elemental nature for Janie—a return to her wild and free youth. She loved Tea Cake because he exemplified nature to her:
He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God. (102)
As it turned out, by loving Tea Cake, Janie merely replaced one god with another. Unlike her previous relationships, however, Janie liked Tea Cake’s domination over her. She followed his lead because she felt he treated her as his equal. Tea Cake had lowered her to his social level, and it meant she could truly enjoy her basic nature. Janie knew his direction stemmed from love and respect, and not from oppression (105-110). “Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine” (108), she told her friend, Pheoby, explaining how Tea Cake “done taught me de maiden language all over” (109).
Janie may have made a conscious decision to live on her own terms, but she still relied on a man for her well-being. This time, however, instead of finding security and prestige, which she already possessed, she sought out love as a way to relive her childhood. What better way to “shine her jewel” than with a younger man, especially when she was so youthful herself, her closed petals reopening to a flourishing bud.
“He [Tea Cake] drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place” (122).
Unfortunately, since Janie was not a completely strong and independent individual, Tea Cake’s love was still oppressive, and he ended up controlling her with his sexual prowess.
She was still a willing victim, but this time, instead of allowing the man in her life to control her, to a certain extent she began oppressing herself. Her love was so strong and necessary for her personal growth, she was willing to do anything to keep it. Therefore, even if the love became “self-crushing,” she instinctively understood that she needed to go through the experience to become a full woman.
Tea Cake, being younger than Janie, felt he had to prove he was “man” enough to take care of Janie. He refused to live off her money, and he pulled her off her pedestal and made her his equal. In one instance, Tea Cake had her picking beans on “the muck” in the Everglade, which turned out to be the perfect place for her inner flower to thrive, with the “[g]round so rich that everything went wild… People wild too” (123). Janie loved every minute of it. She thought she would be able to live life on her own terms in this new-found “Garden of Eden.” Literally and figuratively, she'd gone back to “nature” in its purest, unadulterated form. But as time passed, she learned how this new paradise was yet another form of imprisonment.
Ironically, Janie could commune with the trees and flowers, but not with the weather, demonstrating how she had not completed her spiritual growth as an independent woman. In fact, she continued to rely upon Tea Cake for answers and safety. However, there came a moment—in the form of a hurricane—when both failed to start "watching God," and this led to the demise of their relationship.
Janie and Tea Cake were given many clues that the elements of nature were about to wreak havoc, but they ignored them all (146-148). For one thing, the Seminole Indians evacuated in advance of the oncoming storm. Today, we realize that Native Americans looked for signs that showed nature would attack (Peat 118), but in Hurston's novel, the Indians were viewed as “dumb” by the characters. Janie and Tea Cake were, in fact, the dumb ones. They loved “the muck” so much that they did not have the sense to leave it during the off season. Like most of humankind, they imagined they were above nature.
Then the animals fled. Animals are commonly known to be the first to flee an area before disaster hits. The universe, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, seemed to be signaling the personification and changing mood of nature before Janie and Tea Cake: "[m]orning came without motion. The winds, to the tiniest, lisping baby breath had left the earth. Even before the sun gave light, dead day was creeping from bush to bush watching man (Their Eyes 147).
Unfortunately, when the hurricane hit, “[s]ix eyes were questioning God” (151). Further:
The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He [God] meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, their eyes were watching God. (151)
Everyone realized that, like Joe before him, Tea Cake was not the real God. He, like them, held no power to stop the hurricane, so the town stopped looking to him for guidance and instead endured the hurricane, depicted by Hurston as a symbol of God’s wrath upon them for worshipping mere mortals.
All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood. (138-39)
Instead of heeding God’s warnings, the characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God were trapped, left to question why God had forsaken them. Had they listened to the messages that nature had sent them, they would not have been caught in their predicament.
The rising flood finally uprooted Janie and Tea Cake from the earth (152-53). Shortly after, a rabid dog bit and infected Tea Cake as he was killing it to protect Janie (157, 168). As his fever raged, his nature changed from loving husband to fever-maddened dog (168), the rabid dog having become one with him. Tea Cake’s insecurity and jealousy over Janie rose to a fever pitch, and he shot his rifle at her. Fortunately, her proficiency with guns saved her life when she retaliated, shooting Tea Cake to death (174-75). Just like it had been between Tea Cake and the dog, it boiled down to him or her with regard to dying.
Janie’s murder trial reflected the natural racial divisions of “the muck” community even though she stood on her own. Both blacks and whites viewed Janie as Tea Cake’s property, and not as a separate person. They believed a part of Janie died with Tea Cake, leaving only “the relic of Tea Cake’s Janie” (177).
After her trial, “she was free… [a]nd the white women cried and stood around her like a protecting wall and the Negroes, with heads hung down, shuffled out and away” (179). Her innocent verdict had little impact on the whites in the community, but it directly affected the blacks; they emotionally judged Janie, acting as if in a choir, swaying like trees in the wind, mourning Tea Cake and blaming Janie for taking their god. They did not understand that the god they had worshipped was only a man and they hated Janie for destroying their illusions of human invincibility.
Janie buried Tea Cake in Palm Beach because “the ‘Glades and its waters had killed him” (180). She wanted him firmly rooted in the ground just like the tree he had been. She buried him like the “Pharaoh” and “the son of the Evening Sun” he had resembled in life (169, 180).
Unlike Joe, the memory of Tea Cake did not overshadow Janie’s life. As a part of nature, Tea Cake may have physically died, but his memory lived. She planted Tea Cake’s flower seeds because they “reminded Janie of Tea Cake more than anything else because he was always planting things… Now that she was home, she meant to plant them for remembrance” (182). The seeds represented Janie’s resurrection. When their flowers bloomed, the memory of Tea Cake and Janie’s new life flourished together in the same way. And so Janie returned to Eatonville an independent and strong woman.
Janie survived her husbands because of her link to nature, which none of her husbands possessed. It was their lack of understanding of the universe and of Janie that lead to their downfall. They failed to see her connection to the natural world because they were so enraptured with the material one. All of them thought in terms of “taking care” of her physical, tangible needs; it had never occurred to them to support her spiritually or emotionally. They were so removed from nature they did not realize its importance in their lives or in Janie’s.
Magical realist tropes in Their Eyes Were Watching God
Overall, the blending of the female paganistic nature with the unequaled dominance of male-oriented religion becomes the magical realist heart of Their Eyes Were Watching God.. Three specific themes support this.
The cycles of nature. Time, as understood by most indigenous cultures, is circular, not linear, with cycles corresponding to birth, death and rebirth (Peat 8; Reich 429). In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie's story begins with her present, then moves back into her past, before returning again to the present, a narrative structure which illustrates the circularity of her spiritual birth, death and rebirth.
With regard to the last of these cycles, the act of Janie killing Tea Cake corresponds to the ancient Babylonian myth of Ishtar and Tammuz. In Babylonia, Ishtar was the moon goddess and:
the personification of that force of nature which shows itself in the giving and taking of life. She is the mother of all… She is the goddess of fertility, giving the power of the reproduction and increase in the fields and to all animals including man. Thus all life emanates from her; plants, animals, human beings are her children… But like all moon gods, Ishtar has a two-fold character. Not only is she the giver of life but she is also the destroyer. (Harding, 156)
Tammuz is her son and lover:
…Tammuz, was, actually, in his own person, the vegetation of the whole earth… In the myth, with the attainment of manhood, he becomes her lover. Year after year, however, she condemns him to death at the turning of the year, about the time of the summer solstice, he perishes and goes to the underworld. (Harding 157)
This myth is commonly used to explain the seasons. When Tammuz dies, Ishtar grieves and we have winter. She becomes pregnant then, and in the spring, gives birth to Tammuz. He becomes her lover but is sacrificed in the summer so crops can grow (157). This cycle of life definitely corresponds to Hurston's linkage between women's spirituality and nature in Their Eyes Were Watching God, though in the case of Janie, she did not give birth to Tea Cake in the end, but to herself.
Also, as she grew older, Janie’s husbands correspondingly grew younger. For example, she went through her old age with Logan, her middle age with Joe, and her youth with Tea Cake. Even Tea Cake said at one point “…You’se uh lil girl baby all de time. God made it so you spent yo’ ole age wid somebody else, and saved up yo’ girl days to spend wid me” (172). Through this cycle of relationships, she realized she did not have to find God in a man and that God had been within her the whole time. In a sense, Janie completed the cycle of her life in reverse.
Each character in Their Eyes Were Watching God represented a period of transition in Janie’s life. When she had complete the individual lessons each had given her, she sacrificed them to the earth through burial. However, their influence continued to nourish Janie, laying the foundation for future relationships until she finally exorcised their oppressive memories and turned them into something positive.
This might be said to be one major goal of magical realism: to wrest control over oppressive memory as a way to regain one's true identity.
The pervasiveness of vultures. During her marriage to Joe, Janie did not join in presiding over a town funeral for a prized mule. Hurston describes how, after the funeral, the buzzards came to feast off the dead mule in a strange parallel to the previous ritual:
The flock had to wait for the white-headed leader, but it was hard. They jostled each other and pecked at heads in hungry irritation. Some walked up and down the beast from head to tail, tail to head. The Parson sat motionless in a dead pine tree about two miles off. He had scented the matter as quickly as any of the rest, but decorum demanded that he sit oblivious until he was notified. Then he took off with ponderous flight and circled and lowered, circled and lowered until the others danced in joy and hunger at his approach… [h]e finally lit on the ground and walked around the body [the mule] to see if it were really dead… That being over, he balanced and asked:
“What killed this man?”
The chorus answered, “Bare, bare fat.”
“What killed this man?”
“Bare, bare fat.”
“What killed this man?”
“Bare, bare fat.”
“Who’ll stand his funeral?”
“Well, all right now.”
So he picked out the eyes in the ceremonial way and the feast went on. (58)
In folklore, buzzards represent baseness, laziness, lasciviousness, timidity and stupidity (Rowland 16). However, this passage refuted these ideas since it demonstrated the natural cycle of life, death and rebirth. An animal’s death gives life to other animals. The fact that the buzzards "talked" to each other allowed Hurston to draw a parallel between humans and animals through Joe and the townspeople—Joe, as the Parson who fed off the mule for his own personal gain, and the townspeople as the buzzards who fed off of what Joe had left behind. Eventually, they become the vultures that would pick over the bones of Janie’s notorious future with Tea Cake.
Upon Joe's death, the townspeople paid a visit to his and Janie’s property for a final symbolic meeting with their deposed leader, just like buzzards waiting to pluck a corpse:
…people began to gather in the big yard under the palm and chinaberry trees. People who would not have dared to foot the place before crept in and did not come to the house. Just squatted under the trees and waited. Rumor, that wingless bird, had shadowed over the town. (Their Eyes 80)
Since vultures voraciously eat the dead, the analogy between the townspeople and vultures seems apropos. But vultures are also appreciated in certain cultures because they eat the dead during extreme heat, preventing the scent of the bodies from contaminating the air. They are also associated with the goddess religions as positive beings. In fact, Maut, an Egyptian goddess, utilized the vulture as her patron animal. Indeed, the vulture did not get a bad reputation until the rise of patriarchal Christianity (Rowland 177-80). Just like the community of buzzards/townspeople that waited for Janie’s downfall, these vultures were scavengers waiting to pick over Joe’s bones. Figuratively “eating” Joe became a positive idea. In that way, his dominant influence would not continue to contaminate the town.
The spiritual symbolism of trees. Trees make a strong showing for nature in this novel. According to Man, Myth, and Magic, trees are sacred because they represent different deities. People perform religious ceremonies under them for protection and shelter from their respective icons. As a result, trees also signify the immortality and fertility of nature (“Trees” 2656-2662). The characterizations in Their Eyes Were Watching God bear this out.
Janie's spiritual relationship with trees is utterly significant in its symbolism. The feminine pear tree used to be worshipped like the women religions but, like Janie, became subserviant to other trees and by other elements borne of male domination.
Nanny resembled an obsolete sacred Christian tree with her “palma christi” leaves (Their Eyes 12). To Nanny, the world was like the woods, scary and wild. For this reason, she forced Janie to marry Logan, a sheltering tree she thought would protect her granddaughter. Nanny may have been a woman, but because of her hard life, she was fully subordinate to the male patriarchal society which would, ironically, made her one of its strongest advocates.
Logan, with his name, killed logs literally because his home “was a lonesome place like a stump in the middle of the woods where nobody had ever been” (20). A stump, as a phallic symbol, showed Logan could never sexually or emotionally satisfy Janie. Though Logan may have protected Janie, he forced her unfairly to work for that protection.
Joe corresponded to a young and strapping tree that promised to grow into something powerful (26). Joe placed her on a celestial pedestal and in exchange expected her obedience. However, years later when Janie chopped him down (literally and figuratively), he died (75-83). Interestingly, the cypress tree Joe had planted in town, which was turned into a street lamp, also represented the community; it brought everyone together, especially to bow in front of Joe (42).
Finally, Tea Cake was another strapping young tree that Janie had to yell timber over (175). Tea Cake promised equality, but in reality, controlled Janie as everyone else has done previously.
Through these examples, it's clear how all of the people in Janie's life metaphorically tried to prune, chop and shape Janie’s branches into their separate personal perceptions of what she should have been, never considering what Janie wanted to do with her life.
Janie spent her life watching for the magical god on the horizon who would arrive and protect her from harm. In turn, all her gods expected Janie to worship them out of gratitude for taking care of her. Like proud and sacred idols of spirituality, they also expected her to bow down to them in watchful obedience. However, she toppled each for the next. Like the pear tree, her roots finally became firmly planted in the ground and, with her branches no longer pruned, she was able to grow and bear fruit and to watch the real god blossoming within herself.
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