Study Guide

Their Eyes Were Watching God Compassion and Forgiveness

By Zora Neale Hurston

Compassion and Forgiveness

Chapter 3
Janie Crawford

She knew things that nobody had ever told her. For instance, the words of the trees and the wind. She often spoke to falling seeds and said, "Ah hope you fall on soft ground," because she had heard seeds saying that to each other as they passed. (3.31)

Having endured a loveless and thankless marriage with Logan, Janie has sympathy for anything that might encounter hardship in life—especially the seeds that remind her of her lovely experience under the pear tree.

Chapter 6

When the mule was in front of the store, Lum went out and tackled him. The brute jerked up his head, laid back his ears and rushed to the attack. Lum had to run for safety. Five or six more men left the porch and surrounded the fractious beast, goosing him in the sides and making him show his temper. But he had more spirit left than body. He was soon panting and heaving from the effort of spinning his old carcass about. Everybody was having fun at the mule-baiting. All but Janie.

She snatched her head away from the spectacle and began muttering to herself. "They oughta be shamed uh theyselves! Teasin’ dat poor brute beast like they is! Done been worked tuh death; done had his disposition ruint wid mistreatment, and now they got tuh finish devilin’ ‘im tuh death. Wisht Ah had mah way wid ‘em ali." (6.45-46)

This episode with the tormented mule recalls Nanny’s prophetic words that "de n***** woman is de mule uh de world" in Chapter Two. It comes as no surprise, then, that Janie commiserates with this poor animal, who has had every sort of hard, unwanted burden thrust upon it without its consent. Like the long-suffering black women, the mule has no voice of its own and no choice in the world.

[when Joe commands Janie to get his shoes, after an argument]: She got up without a word and went off for the shoes. A little war of defense for helpless things was going on inside her. People ought to have some regard for helpless things. She wanted to fight about it. "But Ah hates disagreement and confusion, so Ah better not talk. It makes it hard tuh git along." (6.49)

Janie’s sympathy for "helpless things" links her helplessness as a victim of Joe to the mule’s helplessness as a beast of burden for Matt Bonner.

Chapter 7

Jody must have noticed it too. Maybe, he had seen it [his old age] long before Janie did, and had been fearing for her to see. Because he began to talk about her age all the time, as if he didn’t want her to stay young while he grew old. It was always "You oughta throw somethin’ over yo’ shoulders befo’ you go outside. You ain’t no young pullet no mo’. You’se uh old hen now."…If he thought to deceive her, he was wrong. For the first time she could see a man’s head naked of its skull. Saw the cunning thoughts race in and out through the caves and promontories of his mind long before they darted out of the tunnel of his mouth. She saw he was hurting inside so she let it pass without talking. (7.8)

Even though Joe’s malicious thoughts are transparent to Janie, she lets them pass because she has compassion for Joe and does not want him to suffer. This is, of course, a very quiet brand of compassion that is not noticed—much less reciprocated—by her arrogant, self-serving husband.

Chapter 8
Janie Crawford

"Dis sittin’ in de rulin’ chair is been hard on Jody," she muttered out loud. She was full of pity for the first time in years. Jody had been hard on her and others, but life had mishandled him too. Poor Joe! Maybe if she had known some other way to try, she might have made his face different. But what that other way could be, she had no idea. (8.45)

Even when Joe dies unrepentant for all the wrongs he has committed against Janie, she pities him. Where most people would rejoice at Joe’s death, Janie actually shows regret. She wishes that she had known how to treat him better while he was alive. This is rather ironic since Joe voiced no regrets about how he had treated her. This reveals the sheer depth of Janie’s compassion and willingness to forgive, a characteristic that makes her almost Christ-like.

"Ah’d ruther be dead than for Jody tuh think Ah’d hurt him," she sobbed to Pheoby. "It ain’t always been too pleasant, ‘cause you know how Joe worships de works of his own hands, but God in heben knows Ah wouldn’t do one thing tuh hurt nobody. It’s too underhand and mean." (8.6)

Even though Joe has treated her badly, Janie cannot find it in her heart to wish him ill. It’s not that she’s in love with Joe, though, it’s more of a universal compassion for every human ("Ah wouldn’t […] hurt nobody").

Joe Starks

[Joe]: "Dat’s ‘cause you ain’t got de right feelin’ for nobody. You oughter have some sympathy ‘bout yo’self. You ain’t no hog."

"But, Jody, I meant tuh be awful nice."

"Much as Ah done fun yuh. Holdin’ me up tuh scorn. No sympathy!"

"Naw, Jody, it wasn’t because Ah didn’t have no sympathy. Ah had uh lavish uh dat. Ah just didn’t never git no chance tuh use none of it. You wouldn’t let me." (8.26-29)

Joe’s accusations of Janie being a cold and callous woman simply do not resonate with the reader, who has seen Janie’s side of the struggle. We know that Joe is a hypocrite; he is the one with no sympathy for Janie, always serving only himself and his ego with his big voice. Though he accuses Janie of being inhumane for having no compassion, we know who the real "hog" is.

The half-washed bedclothes hurt her pride for Jody. He had always been so clean. (8.19)

Even something as insignificant as dirty laundry can incite Janie’s compassion for her formerly glorious husband. It shows the magnitude of his decay that he would let his hygiene slip.

Chapter 9

She hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity. She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her. But she had been whipped like a cur dog, and run off down a back road after things. It was all according to the way you see things. Some people could look at a mud-puddle and see an ocean with ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for not matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love. (9.4)

Here, Janie shows uncharacteristic and absolute anger at her grandmother. Nanny, in Janie’s eyes, has committed the greatest sin by speaking a falsehood to Janie about love—namely, that it comes automatically with marriage. Thus, she has desecrated everything that Janie ever valued—life, love, relationships, and the horizon—and Janie unconditionally condemns Nanny. So much for compassion and forgiveness. Janie forgave Joe, so does that mean that Janie believes Nanny was worse to her than Joe?

Chapter 13

But oh God, don’t let Tea Cake be off somewhere hurt and Ah not know nothing about it. (13.15)

Janie speaks this prayer, even though she suspects Tea Cake may have stolen her money and run off with a younger woman. Janie does not allow spite or jealousy to rule her heart but instead prays saint-like for Tea Cake’s well-being. Is this woman for real?

Chapter 15
Janie Crawford

They fought on. "You done hurt mah heart, now you come wid uh lie tuh bruise mah ears! Turn go mah hands!" Janie seethed. But Tea Cake never let go. They wrestled on until they were doped with their own fumes and emanations; till their clothes had been torn away; till he hurled her to the floor and held her there melting her resistance with the heat of his body, doing things with their bodies to express the inexpressible; kissed her until she arched her body to meet him and they fell asleep in sweet exhaustion.

The next morning Janie asked like a woman, "You still love ole Nunkie?"

"Naw, never did, and you know it too. Ah didn’t want her."

"Yeah, you did." She didn’t say this because she believed it. She wanted to hear his denial. She had to crow over the fallen Nunkie.

"Whut would Ah do wid dat lil chunk of a woman wid you around? She ain’t good for nothin’ exceptin’ tuh set up in uh corner by de kitchen stove and break wood over her head. You’se something tuh make uh man forgit tuh git old and forgit tuh die." (15.14-18)

Even though Janie has every reason to spite and leave Tea Cake for his inappropriate flirting with Nunkie, she forgives him—or rather, they forgive each other in a cathartic session of lovemaking. However, Janie’s forgiveness is not entirely selfless. She cannot bring herself to forgive Nunkie. Thus, we see a less forgiving, cattier side of Janie that is rather uncharacteristic.

Chapter 19

Sop and his friends had tried to hurt her but she knew it was because they loved Tea Cake and didn’t understand. So she sent Sop word and to all the others through him. So the day of the funeral they came with shame and apology in their faces. They wanted her quick forgetfulness. So they filled up and overflowed the ten sedans that Janie had hired and added others to the line. (19.183)

Although Sop and his friends tried to testify against Janie in her trial, Janie forgives them. This is rather generous. But Janie selflessly looks at the situation from their point of view and realizes that these men acted as they did out of love for Tea Cake.

Chapter 20

Because they really loved Janie just a little less than they had loved Tea Cake, and because they wanted to think well of themselves, they wanted their hostile attitude forgotten. So they blamed it all on Mrs. Turner’s brother and ran him off the muck again. They’d show him about coming back there posing like he was good looking and putting himself where men’s wives could look at him. Even if they didn’t look it wasn’t his fault, he had put himself in the way. (20.1)

Interestingly, it is not really Janie’s forgiveness that the men seek, but her forgetfulness. Perhaps they desire this because they cannot really forgive Janie for killing Tea Cake and would be free to resent her forever if their sin was forgotten but not necessarily forgiven. Either way, they demonstrate their apology to Janie indirectly—by driving the Turner brother from the Everglades. Janie couldn’t care less because she forgave them without expecting anything in return.