At the turn of the 20th century, black men in the southern United States regarded women as property. Women took the role of slaves in marital relationships and men typically ruled as the masters. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is a story of such repression and possession in these black Southern communities. Taking place mainly in Etonville, Florida, Hurston’s book details the life of one such young woman, Janie. This novel is the tale of Janie’s escape from this oppression into her own self-awareness and personal identity. However, Janie’s path to awakening is fraught with hardships. She must journey through the wasteland of being a possession before she may enter the garden of her self-actualized dreams of love.
Abandoned by her mother, and raised by her grandmother, the beginning of both her slavery and awakening begin when she is quite young. While marveling at a blooming pear tree in her grandmother’s backyard, she experienced a sexual awakening. The tiny blossoms on the tree and the pollen dusty bees that buzz around it tremendously move Janie. “Oh to be a pear tree – any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. Where were the singing bees for her?” (Hurston, 11). This is her first step toward self-awareness, and a plunge into sexual awakening. Janie abandons the prudish advice of her grandmother, Nanny, and kisses a neighbor boy. Frightened by this act of youthful sexuality, Janie’s grandmother determines to marry her off as quickly as possible. Nanny believes that Janie needs the support of a man, preferably one with wealth. She is married to a man decades older than her sixteen years, Logan Killicks, because of his ability to provide her material comfort. No thought was given to Janie’s desires, she was married to Logan as a mare is mated to a stallion.
As a man would add a rare coin to a collection, Logan married Janie as another possession about which to boast. She longed for the love she had imagined at the pear tree. In an attempt to find comfort, Janie confides to Nanny that she is not at all attracted to Logan. However, as a product of the culture, her grandmother values material things and security far above emotional bonds. She condemns Janie for her ungrateful attitude, “If you don’t want him, you sho oughta. Heah you is wid de onliest organ in town, amongst colored folks, in yo’ parlor. Got a house bought and paid for and sixty acres uh land right on de big road and…Lawd have mussy!” (Hurston 22).
The marriage becomes an ever-increasing bore. Logan does not appreciate her for who she is, but only for her beauty and ability to work. The more time they are married, her list of chores of grows longer and longer. To Janie’s dismay, she realizes that she could never be happy in her loveless marriage. She would never be a blooming pear tree. “The familiar...