Study Guide

Joe Starks in Their Eyes Were Watching God

By Zora Neale Hurston

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Joe Starks

(Click the character infographic to download.)

Joe Starks, often called Jody, is Janie’s second husband and a born entrepreneur with a few good qualities. For one thing, he has magnetic charisma.

And for another, he

Actually, apart from his charisma, Joe Starks is kind of a jerkosaur. He suffers from an overdose of ambition, a lack of communication, a superiority complex, and uncontrollable jealousy over Janie.

Joe’s appearance is both indicative of his true nature and also subtly misleading. Janie is first attracted to Joe because of his suave, stylish looks—and who wouldn't be? Check him out:

It was a cityfied, stylish dressed man with his hat set at an angle that didn’t belong in these parts. His coat was over his arm, but he didn’t need it to represent his clothes. The shirt with the silk sleeveholders was dazzling enough for the world. He whistled, mopped his face and walked like he knew where he was going. He was a seal-brown color but he acted like Mr. Washburn or somebody like that to Janie. (4.14)

Joe looks sharp. But, Janie learns that Joe's fashion sense is an outward manifestation of Joe’s pride and confidence: he dresses better than those he considers his inferiors.

His flamboyant peacocking also reveals his vanity. In fact, Joe’s entire lifestyle revolves around his high esteem of his self and his manliness.

Joe mixes conceptions of manhood with his right to power, wealth, and authority. He considers himself perfectly justified not only in building up the town but ruling it, deciding who can live there and whose opinion counts. His high-handed tyranny of Eatonville often has the inhabitants grumbling and comparing him to white slave masters.

Joe resembles a white slave master in more than one way. He is well fed (read: he's a tad chubby), like the well-to-do bourgeois Caucasians. He also carries himself with all of the confidence and authority of a man sure to get what he wants. Though Janie initially admires these attributes in Joe, she quickly finds that too much of this good thing can quickly become stifling and pretentious.

Joe’s treatment of women also defines him; he acts like women are objects to be owned and ordered around by men. This treatment of women is a double-edged sword; Joe highly values Janie as a trophy wife—for her physical beauty and ability to arouse envy in other men—but simultaneously, he views her as completely in his possession:

This business of the head-rag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. Her hair was NOT going to show in the store. It didn’t seem sensible at all. That was because Joe never told Janie how jealous he was. He never told her how often he had seen the other men figuratively wallowing in it as she went about things in the store. [...] She was there in the store for him to look at, not those others. (6.31)

At first, Janie only knows that Joe values her. But, as she realizes that Joe values her as a possession rather than as a human being, she becomes emotionally distant. From Joe’s standpoint, since Janie is a woman, she has no intelligence, voice, or autonomy and should be entitled to none. Though much of this concept is illustrated through his treatment of Janie, Joe also enforces this philosophy on other women as well.

He's a total misogynist:

[Joe:] "Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves."

"Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!"

"Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one."

From the beginning, Joe makes it known that he desires to be "a big voice." However, when he achieves a position of power, Joe takes it too far and, in Janie’s eyes, becomes nothing but the big voice. With this voice, Joe makes his opinions loudly known, often silencing others’ dissent and giving his words the force of law.

As Joe ages, it’s evident that speaking with the ruling tongue has taken a toll on the man—his body shuts down. In the end, Janie speaks out and lays out all of Joe’s crimes to him on his deathbed. But, like the big voice he is, Joe refuses to listen and dies cursing Janie.

Joe Starks in Their Eyes Were Watching God Study Group

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