Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston
Tools of Characterization
Thoughts and Opinions
Many of the characters are defined by their thoughts and opinions on women, especially Janie’s three husbands. Logan considers women to be nothing outside of their husband. For example, he doesn’t think a woman has a defined place of her own; a woman’s sphere isn’t the kitchen or the home – it’s wherever her husband wants her to be at that particular moment. Joe Starks thinks that women should be pampered and beautiful, but silent and obedient. Essentially, a woman is just a beautiful object owned by her husband that gives him increased status and pleasure. Like Logan, Joe doesn’t consider women to be thinking or feeling humans, and both of these men think they have the right to hurt a woman who they think is misbehaving. Tea Cake, however, has a more egalitarian view on women. He wants Janie to play checkers against him and is sure that women can walk far just like men. He also values Janie’s personality and company, which is why he wants to be near her and have her work beside him. Tea Cake also feels a strong duty and obligation toward his wife – to provide for her materially, protect her from dangers, etc. Logan and Joe, however, are more concerned about what a woman’s obligations are to her husband – to make good meals, be obedient, and so on.
Names give the reader insight into the characters’ true inner selves. For example, Logan Killicks threatens to kill Janie; that action effectively kills their marriage. Joe Starks has a stark outlook on life, refusing to compromise his standards no matter how unreasonable he is being or how others suffer from his assumptions. He also renders his marriage with Janie a stark, bleak relationship where love slowly bleeds away. He denies Janie all forms of pleasure. Tea Cake, on the other hand, has a name with more positive associations. When Janie first hears his name, she says, "Tea Cake! So you sweet as all dat?" The answer is yes, he is sweet. His last name, Woods, is rife with associations to nature – an entity synonymous with Janie’s innocence and youth. Thus his marriage to her is a ripe and happy one that reminds Janie of her childhood happiness. Another important name is Mrs. Turner, who turns against her own race.
Nanny is described in terms of shriveled old foliage, which seems to represent her youthful innocence and idealism wasted and gone. Her rough treatment as a slave and mistress to her white master has robbed her of any expectation of happiness and independence. Her bitterness forces her to impose her views on young Janie, a blooming young woman with "blossomy openings dusting pollen." Logan Killicks is ugly and represents everything that Janie detests in men – coldness, lack of refinement, and silence. Joe Starks is always suavely dressed and resembles a white man in both physical and behavioral terms. This anticipates his arrogant behavior. Tea Cake is a handsome man with some distinctly feminine characteristics like "lashes curling sharply away" and "full, purple lips." These traits anticipate his compassion and willingness to talk and listen to his lover.
Speech and Dialogue
The frequent use of the black vernacular can be interpreted several ways. One might read African-Americans as uneducated and uncouth in comparison to the white men’s correct use of Standard English. We lean toward thinking that Hurston used the black vernacular to celebrate African-American culture, characterizing it as unique, highly spirited, and capable of relating narrative just as well as Standard English. Surprisingly, almost everyone in the novel speaks this black vernacular, regardless of social class, race, gender, or age. The only exception is the judge and jury who speak during Janie’s trial using Standard English. Perhaps Hurston decides to gift everybody with this animated language to illustrate their essential humanity, except the judge and jury for they are decidedly cold. Another possibility is that, having lived in Eatonville, Florida, Hurston portrayed accents and vernacular as she heard it spoken.
Standard English is usually only used by the narrator. For the most part, the use of this Standard English distinguishes between the narrator and the characters. Standard English is also used by the white jury and judge during Janie’s trial, making these characters feel rather cold and inhuman.