Myth and Violence in Zora Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God

Daniel Wenger

Writer’s comment: Over the past year, in an effort to achieve a deeper understanding of violence, I have been examining its mythological and aesthetic dimensions (previously, I had analyzed and evaluated violence within a moral context). The marital violence in Zora Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God has been a prominent issue in the last decade, in large part because of its paradoxical status within the feminist framework through which Their Eyes has been traditionally interpreted. The following paper was born out of a dual attempt to examine violence in a nonmoral context and explain the marital violence of Their Eyes which feminism had highlighted and made problematic. Professor Barrish’s teaching style and outlook were helpful in developing a paradigm through which to interpret Their Eyes. Barrish is not limited by any particular literary theory, but moves easily between various critical strategies, employing what is interesting and productive. He uses theory, I believe, not to prove or necessarily uncover meaning, but to produce it, and his approach put me in an experimental mood. It was not until after sampling several paradigms that I settled on that of the creation story, which I felt best explained the violence that permeates the entire text.
—Daniel Wenger

Instructor’s comment: Daniel Wenger’s essay impresses on several levels. Beyond the grace and sophistication of the essay’s prose, Wenger provides a detailed, careful reading of Hurston’s novel, a book that until very recently literary critics have denigrated or ignored. Wenger’s reading shows how Hurston’s work resonates with texts long taken to be among the most powerful and complex in Western culture—Genesis and the Odyssey—even as Hurston develops her own themes and motifs.
—Phillip Barrish, English Department

Now, one of the main problems of mythology is reconciling the mind to this brutal precondition of all life, which lives by the killing and eating of lives. You don’t kid yourself by eating only vegetables, either, for they, too, are alive. So the essence of life is this eating of itself! Life lives on lives, and the reconciliation of the human mind and sensibilities to that fundamental fact is one of the functions of some of those very brutal rites in which the ritual consists chiefly of killing—in imitation, as it were, of that first, primordial crime, out of which arose this temporal world, in which we all participate. The reconciliation of mind to the conditions of life is fundamental to all creation stories.
      —Joseph Campbell, “The Journey Inward”

      Zora Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is, among other things, a creation story. For creation stories are not simply myths about the historical origins of the universe and humankind but metaphors for individual maturation. Individual perception is, to a large extent, what constitutes the world. Hence, the individual is the source and embodiment of the world; Janie is, the narrator tells us, “the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop” (72). And Janie’s awakening, or maturation, represents not only a personal transformation, but the creation of a universe. As a child seeking meaning, Janie does not look forward to merely “growing up” but waits “for the world to be made” (11). Obviously the narrator does not mean the material world, but that particular world which comes into being with the mature individual. And as a creation story, Their Eyes, like the creation stories which precede it, deals with “the reconciliation of mind to the conditions of life”—to the inherent violence of living.
      Janie’s story begins in a utopian garden, wherein there is a tree bearing forbidden fruit—a pear tree representing sexuality: “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 tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight” (11). Janie is, of course, drawn to the forbidden fruit and soon eats of it when she kisses Johnny Taylor over her grandmother’s fence. And just as Adam and Eve enter into life when they eat of the forbidden fruit in the Garden of Eden, so Janie’s “life commence[s] at Nanny’s gate” (10). Spying her kissing Johnny Taylor over the fence, Janie’s grandmother calls her into the house. Janie “half believe[s]” that her grandmother has not seen her, and her grandmother circuitously approaches the subject. Finally, confronting Janie, her grandmother “slap[s]” her “face violently” (13). The scene maintains a detailed parallel with Genesis. God, by definition, knows when Adam and Eve have eaten of the forbidden fruit. Yet, like Janie’s grandmother, God temporarily feigns ignorance, first calling out to Adam as if unaware of his whereabouts, and then asking innocently how Adam came to know he was naked. And Adam, like Janie, apparently believes, or half believes, that God does not know he has eaten of the fruit. And finally, just as Janie’s grandmother punishes Janie by slapping her and forcing her to marry Logan Killicks, so God curses Adam and Eve. In both stories—if in fact they are separate stories—violence accompanies life and distinguishes it from paradise. Entering into life, however, and experiencing its inherent violence do not mean that Janie has reconciled herself with it; her creation is nowhere near complete.
      Although she protests, Janie finally submits to her grandmother and marries Logan Killicks. Janie is not yet ready, however, to leave the Garden of Eden, and she maintains a utopian view of marriage. Although she does not love Killicks, Janie insists that she will love him after she marries him, since that is “what marriage [means]” (20). During the marriage, Janie is at least verbally exposed to additional violence, as Killicks at one point tells her, “Ah’ll take holt uh dat ax and come in dere and kill yuh!” (30). What is significant about Janie’s brief relationship with Killicks, however, is that whereas she passively accepts her grandmother’s slap, Janie returns and perhaps initiates the violence with Killicks. In bed, she tells him, “S’posin’ Ah wuz to run off and leave yuh sometime,” which “put[s] a terrible ache in Logan’s body” and makes him “resentful in his agony” (29). Whether or not Janie’s violence is justified is irrelevant. The conditional violence of life is neither justified nor fair, and what is important, in a mythological framework, is that Janie’s violence indicates an increased participation in life.
      Joe Starks is, essentially, a step above Killicks. Through Joe, Janie is, for the first time, surrounded by a community environment. However, Joe prevents Janie from actually participating in that community. Early in their marriage, Janie tells Joe, “You’se always off talkin’ and fixin’ things, and Ah feels lak Ah’m jus’ markin’ time” (43). Further, the narrator tells us that “Janie loved the conversation and sometimes she thought up good stories about the mule, but Joe had forbidden her to indulge” (50). Hurston’s use of the word “forbidden” and the strange ambiguity of the word “indulge” when the reference is clearly to living again evoke Genesis. God, in forbidding Adam and Eve to eat of the fruit, prevents them from participating in life. Like Janie, Adam and Eve are constricted to wandering aimlessly about the wonderful garden. Neither God nor Joe, however, is an oppressor in the usual sense of the word; neither actually controls subordinates. Life is readily accessible to Adam, Eve, and Janie, and requires a personal, psychological overcoming, rather than the overthrow of a more powerful, external being. Adam and Eve must simply eat of the fruit or disobey orders. And Janie must come to terms with the violence necessary to life.
      At the precise point at which Janie acts violently towards Joe, he begins to die. Literally, that Joe should begin dying the moment Janie verbally abuses him is a ridiculous coincidence. Mythologically, however, it is both necessary and predictable. Joe is what separates Janie from the community, and what makes this separation possible is Janie’s unwillingness to participate in the violence upon which life depends; Joe’s existence hinges upon Janie’s passivity. Significantly, Janie’s violence against Joe is much greater than that she inflicts on Killicks. Whereas with Killicks Janie says only a few mildly injurious words, she humiliates Joe before an audience. The demands and the rewards—the magnitude of the violence required from Janie and the intensity or depth of the living which follows—increase as the novel progresses.
      Tea Cake represents the final stage in Janie’s maturation, her complete immersion into life. Tea Cake’s actual name is Vergible Woods. The root of his first name, verge, has two possible meanings: a limit or point beyond which something begins, in this case the woods, or a general inclination or propensity towards something. The first meaning is applicable to Janie; Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake places her on the verge of the woods (which I take to mean an unmediated and unprotected interaction with life). The second meaning, which accentuates the first, is indicative of Tea Cake’s personal bent for the woods and his wild character. In either case, Tea Cake represents an intimacy with life. As such, he is both more alive and more violent than any of Janie’s previous close relations. Soon after their marriage, Tea Cake is involved in a fight that he describes as follows: “He lost his razor tryin’ to git loose from me. He wuz hollerin’ for me tuh turn him loose, but baby, Ah turnt him every way but loose. Ah left him on the doorstep and got here to yuh de quickest way Ah could” (121). As far as the reader knows, Tea Cake killed his enemy and left him dead on the doorstep. And when Tea Cake decides to teach Janie how to shoot, he tells her, “ÔOh, you need tuh learn how. ‘Tain’t no need uh you not knowin’ how tuh handle shootin’ tools. Even if you didn’t never find no game, it’s always some trashy rascal dat needs uh good killin’,’” after which he laughs (125).
      As critics have pointed out, Tea Cake and Janie’s journey down into the muck is a symbolic journey into black culture. In addition, however, it is a journey into a magical or unnatural, mythological realm:

To Janie’s strange eyes, everything in the Everglades was big and new. Big Lake Okechobee, big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything. Weeds that did well to grow waist high up the state were eight and often ten feet tall down there. Ground so rich that everything went wild. Volunteer cane just taking the place. Dirt roads so rich and black that a half mile of it would have fertilized a Kansas wheat field. Wild cane on either side of the road hiding the rest of the world. People wild too. (123)

Just as the fact that Odysseus floats about the Mediterranean for fourteen days before sighting land signals a passage into an unnatural world of adventure, so the unnaturally exaggerated and strange features of the muck indicate Janie’s passage into a similarly adventurous realm. Specifically, the immense plants indicate an extremely undomesticated and virile region conducive to growth. And proportional to the intense life on the muck is its extreme violence; hundreds of people are literally wiped out in the hurricane and flood. The muck is an additional mythological image illustrating the direct and proportional relationship between life and violence.
      The hurricane deserves particular attention for what it reveals about the relationship between life and violence. In the midst of the destruction, the narrator writes: “As soon as Tea Cake went out pushing wind in front of him, he saw that the wind and water had given life to lots of things that folks think of as dead and given death to so much that had been living things” (152). That Hurston should say that the objects are alive simply because they are moving is no accident. Metaphorically, the hurricane is not simply destructive; it gives previously dead things a chance to live. Further, life requires violence and death. The previously dead things, now living, demand a world lethal to human beings and other animals, and vice versa.
      During her stay on the muck, which for the most part precedes the storm, Janie becomes progressively more violent. Earlier in the novel, Janie feels sorry for the town mule when several men harass it: "She got up without a word and went off for the shoes [away from the scene with the mule]. A little war of defense for helpless things was going on inside her. People ought to have some regard for helpless things" (54).
      With Tea Cake, on the other hand, Janie “shoot[s]” the “head off” a hawk and hunts alligators for their “hides” and “teeth” as a way of “having fun” (125). Nothing in the nature of helpless things has changed; the hawk and the crocodile are no more well-equipped to defend themselves against Janie’s gun than the mule is against the men’s teasing. Janie, however, has undergone a fundamental transformation and now accepts and participates in the very sort of violence she previously criticized and shunned. And whereas with Killicks and Starks Janie is only verbally abusive, she strikes Tea Cake and tries to “beat him” (131).
      I do not mean to imply, by either of these examples, that violence against animals or marital violence—which includes Tea Cake’s physical violence against Janie—is a specific form of violence necessary to life. I do mean to suggest that, within a mythological framework, these incidents are metaphors for the general violence necessary for life. Janie’s marriage to Tea Cake is not literal; nor is it meant, like The Brady Bunch, to instruct its audience in the operations and methodologies of the ideal family. Rather, it is a union symbolic of Janie’s union with and participation in life; and as a symbol of this union, Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake is violent.
      Janie’s violence culminates in her shooting Tea Cake. It is fitting that Tea Cake teaches Janie how to shoot. As a representation of Janie’s nearly unmediated participation in life, Tea Cake introduces Janie to the extreme violence upon which life depends. And in compelling Janie to kill him, Tea Cake compels her to accept that violence in its most painful and difficult form. But more than a convenient indication of Janie’s maturation, the killing of Tea Cake is a necessary act. Again, in a mythological framework, Tea Cake is not a literal human being but the symbol of Janie’s status; with Tea Cake, Janie stands at the edge of the woods, on the verge of entering it. His existence, however, indicates her unwillingness to do so. As long as Janie is with Vergible Woods, she is not in the woods. His death symbolizes her union with life, and that she kills him a willingness to participate in the violence necessary to bring that union about. The killing of Tea Cake is, essentially, one of those “brutal rites” to which Campbell refers and which reconciles the human sensibilities with the conditions of life.
      The mythological hero never remains in the magical or unnatural realm of adventure and discovery, but at the end of his/her journey returns home. Odysseus’ return to Ithaca is perhaps the most widely known example. Similarly, Their Eyes concludes in Janie’s bedroom back in Eatonville. Here, Janie briefly reviews the recent events of her life:

The day of the gun, and the bloody body, and the courthouse came and commenced to sing a sobbing sigh out of every corner in the roomÉ. Commenced to sing, commenced to sob and sigh, singing and sobbing. Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. (183)

In this last paragraph, the narrator juxtaposes the most violent event in Janie’s life with her most profound and joyful experience. Neither experience outweighs the other; they interact harmoniously. The Sorrow is not crushed beneath or dissipated by the Joy. Instead, as if sharing a stage, Sorrow sings first and then politely flies to an outside pine tree while Joy takes a turn, prancing about in the form of Tea Cake. Like Joy, Sorrow—and the violence which brings it about—has a place in the world and in Janie’s life. And in the novel’s closing lines, Janie “[pulls] in her horizon like a great fish-net. [Pulls] it from around the waist of the world and [drapes] it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see” (184). Sorrow, of course, is included in Janie’s horizon, and the image of pulling in her horizon reverses the previous image of Sorrow flying out. Janie not only accepts the sorrow and violence of life, but welcomes it. And, in doing so, Janie’s horizon embraces the waist of the world, and her creation becomes the creation of a world.


Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. Ed. Henry Louis Gates. New York: Harper, 1990.