We've All Been Some Version of Janie: A Character Reflection--Their Eyes Were Watching God
I don’t know what it is, but it’s something about going back to a book I haven’t read in years that excites me. Regardless of how many times I’ve read a story, there is always a piece of me that looks forward to drawing new conclusions about old characters. What will I learn about them this time around? How will they change my perspective one, two, or maybe 15 years later? I got a chance to answer those questions recently when I reread Their Eyes Were Watching God. I have gone through this book several times in life–during high school, college, and again as a wife and mother. Each time I read this story I learn something different, or gain new insights about the main character, Janie. It hit me the other day that in one way or another, all of us women have been some version of her.
Throughout the story we picture Janie as she transitions from a teenager to a woman. Going through a journey of self-discovery and life experiences that are a mixture of confusion, hopelessness, joy, and acceptance. Janie is not more than a child when she marries her first husband, Logan Killicks. When they marry, it is not by choice. But by obligation. Janie’s grandmother, like a master conductor, orchestrates the arrangement. It is her belief that this will be good for Janie. That, in order to secure some type of future for her granddaughter, marriage is the only option. No way could Janie become some wild child out in the world. She had to be saved. So, Janie, despite her hesitation and disappointment, marries Logan. A much older man with a house and farm–a sign of black excellence. Surely, such a move will provide security.
Within that marriage there’s no love, no lust. She is a helping hand, with regular reminders of how spoiled she was by her grandmother. Janie was there out of obligation. How many of us have done something, or have been something to someone, out of obligation? We stayed in that relationship…out of obligation. We stay connected to that family member because blood is supposedly thicker than water…out of obligation. We stay in that job we can’t stand, that chips away at our spirits…out of obligation.
It is difficult to exist in obligation. Your life is never truly your own because your choices require you to think about what someone else deems important. And to choose that preference. What could Janie have known about being a wife? She hadn’t even scratched the surface of what it meant to be a woman. To taste womanhood. A kiss by a tree with a teenage crush doesn’t count. In all her innocence, Janie has not reached the point of being able to identify romantic love let alone experience it.
When Janie realizes that her life is not her life-that she has little control- in comes Jody Stark. Literally riding on a horse as if he is her personal knight. Coming to save her from despair and disappointment. Regret. To save her from something that maybe she can’t even call life, simply an existence. Regardless if Jody was there, I like to think Janie would have still walked down the road and away from “obligation”. That in looking down that long dirt road she would have been able to see a future for herself.
Jody is many things. He’s ambitious. A visionary. A man of action. He is also egotistical and insecure because within that relationship Janie, once again, isn’t Janie. She’s a thing. She is to be seen and rarely heard. She is the arm candy. The trophy wife. She is meant to make Jody look good. In this second marriage, despite being peddled around town and standing by Jody, Janie ironically becomes invisible. How many of us have felt invisible? How many of us have felt the sting of shrinking and dimming our light to make someone else shine? To make someone else feel bigger or more important at the expense of losing ourselves?
How long could you stand in someone else’s shadow? To have someone view you as less than because the effort to see past their own assumptions about your value or worth is nonexistent?
In both Janie's first and second marriage we see a woman who wants to believe there is more to life than obligation and invisibility. But here she is in these relationships with men that can only see her as one dimensional. How lonely that must be. To have feelings no one honors. To have ideas you cannot express. Janie was so much more than a thing to keep.
With each marriage a layer of her personality is peeled away. Eventually, we are exposed to her true self, which is partly due to Tea Cake. It’s at his arrival that we begin to see Janie. Not as a field hand or maid. Not as an object to be seen and not heard. But as a person with thoughts and feelings and desires.
Tea Cake, in no way, is perfect. However, we do see Janie come to life when she’s with him.
She’s free to figure out Janie. And, in Janie having this opportunity, we also gain the opportunity, as readers, for self-reflection. To question our own growth with regards to our relationships and self-knowledge.
In this relationship we see Janie at her best. Not because she’s in a relationship, but because we see Janie striving to be the woman she wants to be. We see her uninhibited by the thoughts of others and moving to create an identity of her own and not neatly fitting into a box based on others’ perceptions, needs, or wants.
There is a piece of Janie that lives in all of us. The woman drowning in obligations. The woman fighting to be seen. The woman that is unconsidered. Unappreciated. And the woman that hopefully has had at least one person in her life as a source of encouragement. Even if that person is herself. I think back on my opinions of Janie from the time I first read the book in the 10th grade up to now. There's been a lot that has happened throughout those years. A lot of life experiences.
See, when you’re 15 you may not have gone through enough to say this character makes total sense. Sometimes you have to go through a little more, and sometimes you have to keep going through a little more until you’re able to say, “Wow, I didn't think there were that many sides to this character. And I didn’t think there were that many sides to me.”
I read this book now and I think to myself how beautiful it is that someone was able to create a character whose experiences and life story continues to resonate years later. And that someone was able to create something that encourages us to think that much deeper about our lives and our growth–our wants and desires and relationships. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a literary work of art. Not for the obvious reasons like style and character development, but because of the gentle nudge it provides that encourages us to think differently about life, our relation to others, and our connection to the world around us.
About the author: Latanya Muhammad is a writer and the founder of CITYS, LLC, a digital content company focused on content creation, editing, and copywriting. To read features and blogs, visit citysllc.com. To connect, submit all inquiries to firstname.lastname@example.org.