A Voice With Experience
In Zora Neale Hurston s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, many critics have argued over whether or not the main character, Janie, finds her voice by the end of the novel. Yet many seem to be confused as to what her “voice” is. Her voice is her ability to express her thoughts and display her emotions verbally. Many relate the question of Janie s voice to her amount of emotional strength (her ability to confront her problems or run away from the current situation rather than be isolated in it), yet these things are a completely different matter entirely. While Janie s emotional strength varies throughout the novel, her voice is always there.
Her voice is proven from the beginning when she argued about housework with her first husband, Logan, and it became even more evident in her relationship with her next husband, Joe. She did not speak to Joe often because he did not mean much to her and she did not waste her energy on always arguing with him. But when she found a subject on which she wanted to speak her mind, she always did. Many seem to think that Janie found her voice towards the end of the novel because that is when she spoke most often. Yet the reason she spoke more is because she had someone who she cared about and to whom she wanted to speak to (her husband, Tea Cake). In her trial in defense of killing Tea Cake (the situation in which many argue that Janie s silence was proof that she had not yet found her voice), her silence has nothing to do with whether or not she is emotionally strong or has a voice. Her silence is the result of the love she felt with Tea Cake. Though she felt very emotional, Janie understood that love was not something you could express verbally and she therefore chose not to speak.
In Janie s first relationship with Logan, it becomes clear that Janie had both her voice and emotional strength. Expecting that marriage would bring love, Janie married a farmer, Logan Killicks, at a young age. Yet her relationship with him was not what she expected. He was ugly and lazy and didn t even give a thought to Janie s feelings. He forced her to do extra work and never treated her like the woman she was. When after hours of housework, and Logan asked her to chop wood for him one day, Janie finally felt that she needed to protest, saying “Ah m just as stiff as you is stout. If you can stand not to chop and tote wood Ah reckon you can stand not to git no dinner. Scuse mah freezolity, Mist Killicks, but Ah don t mean to chop de first chip.” (p.26) This shows that even at this point, Janie definitely had a voice. Janie s emotional strength is also proven at this time. She is obviously unafraid of Logan and has no problem confronting him with her problems. She even confronts him about running away saying “S pose Ah wuz to run off and leave yuh sometime I might take and find somebody dat did trust me and leave yuh” (p.30). When Joe came along speaking of “change and chance”, Janie acted quickly, running away with him and getting married that same day. This shows that Janie had the emotional strength to confront Logan and run away from his controlling and depraved ways.
Throughout Janie s relationship with her next husband, Joe, she continued to keep her strong voice but showed weakness emotionally. Speaking of “change and chance”, Janie was immediately attracted to Joe Starks. This is exactly what Janie wanted at the time: a change from her life with Logan and a second chance at life and love. But the change and chance that Joe was speaking of was very different than what Janie wanted or expected. He was not looking for love or a companion, but instead wanted to use Janie to promote his image as a leader for his new plans to start a black community. Janie soon realized this after it was too late. Her life with Joe was horrible. Joe rarely said a word to her or even looked at her after awhile, and instead was too involved in his business. He was very controlling of her life, never even wanting to hear what she had to say. When being inducted into office as the town mayor, the townspeople wanted to hear some words from Janie, but Joe would not allow this, saying, “Thank yuh fuh yo compliments, but mah wife don t know nothin bout no speech-makn . Ah never married her for nothin lak dat. She s uh woman and her place is in de home.” The fact that Janie never talked back and always kept out of Joe s way (instead of confronting him or running away from him) shows that Joe s abuse was making Janie emotionally weak. Janie s emotional weakness at this time becomes obvious when Joe forces her to work in his store all day without any grievance or objection from her.
Despite her increasing emotional weakness, Janie s voice throughout this time was still evident. Though she was often too intimidated and weak to speak back to Joe, when she felt that she needed to speak her mind and there was no risk involved, she did. A good example of this took place when some of the locals were teasing a mule. She felt very close to the lonely and mistreated mule and could relate to many of it s problems. When she could take their ridicule of the mule no more, she spoke, saying “They oughta be ashamed uh theyselves! Teasin dat poor brute beast lak they is! Done been worked tuh death. Done had his disposition ruint wid mistreatement and now they got tuh finish devilin im tuh death. Wisht Ah had mah way wid em all.” Though she did not have the courage to say this publicly, these strong words were overheard by Joe, and convinced him to set the mule free. Another incident that shows Janie s voice took place near Joe s death. Janie knew that she could not keep the emotions that she had felt for over 20 years locked up inside of her and she decided to have a talk with Joe before he passed. Despite his weak condition, when Joe didn t want to listen to what Janie had to say, she persisted, yelling “Ah knowed you wasn t gointuh lissen tuh me. You changes everything but nothin don t change you- not even death. But Ah ain t goin outa here and Ah ain t gointuh hush. Naw, you gointuh listen tuh me one time befo you die. Have yo way all yo life, trample and mash down and then die ruther than tuh let yo self heah bout it. Listen, Jody, you ain t de Jody ah run off down de road wid. You se whut s left after he died ” (p.86) This quote shows her strong voice as well as her increasing emotional strength in light of Joe s passing. After Joe did die, Janie was left in a lonely state but with a personal freedom she had not felt for years. Yet this loneliness didn t last for long, as a new man, Tea Cake, came into the picture.
Janie most often showed her natural strong voice in her time spent with her next husband, Tea Cake. Alone and lonesome in Joe s store, a handsome man named Vergible Woods came in to buy some cigarettes. Janie was instantly attracted to his good looks and the fact that (unlike most men that talked to Janie after Joe s death) he did not seem like he wanted something from her. While Joe said that Janie didn t have the brains to learn how to play checkers, Tea Cake (Vergible s nickname) knew better and had no doubts, asking her for a game on his first visit. Though reluctant at first, Janie could not help but love him and she eventually ran off and married him. Her life with Tea Cake was like nothing she had experienced before. It was exactly like what she had dreamed of when she was younger. Though he was not rich or powerful like Joe, he treated Janie like a woman and truly loved her back. While she rarely spoke with Joe, she could hardly keep her mouth closed when she was with Tea Cake. Yet by just looking in each other s eyes, they could express the deep love they felt for one another. Many critics believe that Janie found her voice towards the end of the novel because that is when she talked the most, but this is not the case. The reason she used her voice more at this point is because she had someone to use it on. Though she always had her strong voice, Tea Cake gave her a reason to use it.
Janie s silence at the trial for Tea Cake s death was not a result of her lack of a voice, but instead her choice, ending in the idea that love can not be expressed through words. In an effort to escape a deadly hurricane, Janie got trapped in a river, hanging on to a cow for her life. In trying to help Janie out of the situation Tea Cake got bit by a rabid dog. The wound healed in only a few days and the incident was forgotten about until about a month later when Tea Cake got sick. His sickness took him over and he became delirious. At one point he picked up a gun and was ready to shoot it at Janie. Despite their still strong love, to save her own life, Janie shot and killed him. She obviously blamed nothing on Tea Cake, but instead the rabid dog who bit him in the first place. That same day Janie was forced to go on trial. Considering that there were no witnesses and no real proof of what happened, much of Janie s defense was based on the fact that she loved Tea Cake. But when she got up and was expected to speak, there were few words that came out. This is because Janie knew that love can not be expressed through words, and like she said to Pheoby later in the story, “talkin don t amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can t do nothin else. And listenin tuh dat kind uh talk is jus lak openin yo mouth and lettin de moon shine down yo throat. It s uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there ” Janie is saying that you have to experience love to understand it, and that it would have done her no good to try to express verbally what she felt for Tea Cake.
At the end of the novel, Janie walked away from the trial with both her voice that had been with her throughout her whole life, the emotional strength that she had gained through her love with Tea Cake (and which had continued even after his death), and something that she had not known before: experience. (Experience with death, love, marriage, and life in general.) Many argue that Janie found her voice towards the end of the novel because that is when she spoke the most. Yet Janie had had her voice throughout, from her loveless marriage with Logan, to her abusive relationship with Joe, and through her heavenly time spent with Tea Cake. Tea Cake didn t help Janie find her voice, but instead just gave her something to use it on. Yet while critics will argue forever over the questions of Janie s voice and emotional strength, it is unquestionable that she walked away from it all with a new sense of knowledge and experience. And with these things, Janie was cabable of dealing with whatever new challenge came her way.