Study Guide

Their Eyes Were Watching God Innocence

By Zora Neale Hurston

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Chapter 2

[Nanny]: "Dat’s what makes me skeered. You don’t mean no harm. You don’t even know where harm is at. Ah’m ole now. Ah can’t be always guidin’ yo’ feet from harm and danger. Ah wants to see you married right away." (2.31)

Even though Nanny claims Janie’s womanhood has emerged, Janie is still relatively innocent; she still doesn’t "know where harm is at" and is much less prepared to defend herself against it. So Nanny’s way of protecting her is not enlightening her to the dangers around her, but marrying her off so that a man can keep her from ever discovering those dangers. It is a form of blinding her or helping her preserve what innocence she has left.

It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. (2.13-14)

The pear blossoms and bee have an undeniably sexual overtone here. The leaf buds are described as having a "snowy virginity" whose scent sensuously "caress[es]" Janie "in her sleep." To naïve little Janie, the penetration of the bee into the blossom is a "love embrace" whose "ecstatic shiver" creates a "creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight." This sounds suspiciously like the overwhelming passion and ejaculation of sexual intercourse. And it leaves young Janie feeling "limp and languid," as a woman might after orgasming. This experience, ironically, both seems to take Janie’s virginity by introducing her so sensually to sex and also to preserve her innocence by building such a romantic ideal for her future lovers to live up to.


[Nanny]: "She [Leafy] was only seventeen, and somethin’ lak dat to happen! Lawd a’mussy! Look lak Ah kind see it all over again. It was a long time before she was well, and by dat time we knowed you was on de way. And after you was born she took to drinkin’ likker and stayin’ out nights. Couldn’t git her to stay here and nowhere else. Lawd knows where she is right now. She ain’t dead, ‘cause Ah’d know it by mah feelings, but sometimes Ah wish she was at rest." (2.73)

Nanny recalls how her own daughter, Leafy, violently lost her innocence. Leafy’s rape by her schoolteacher left the impressionable young girl deeply disturbed. Leafy, after being raped, couldn’t live a normal life because she was haunted by the memory of her violent and unwilling sexual initiation into womanhood. Thus she never develops into a fully healthy woman.

[Nanny at the sight of Johnny Taylor kissing Janie:] "Janie!"

The old woman’s voice was so lacking in command and reproof, so full of crumbling dissolution,—that Janie half believed that Nanny had not seen her. So she extended herself outside of her dream and went inside of the house. That was the end of her childhood. (2.18-19)

Janie’s definitive end of childhood and the most naïve level of innocence is initiated by a single word from Nanny. Curiously, this word does not carry a tone of authoritative reproof but is marked by its frailty. It seems that Janie is more moved by pity for Nanny than actual regret for kissing a boy, and that her childhood innocence is lost not from the awareness of her sexuality but from disappointing Nanny.

Chapter 3
Janie Crawford

[Janie on Logan]: "He don’t even never mention nothin’ pretty."

She began to cry.

"Ah wants things sweet wid mah marriage lak when you sit under a pear tree and think. Ah…" (3.26-28)

Janie’s innocent ideas about love and marriage being like her experience under the pear tree are being eroded away by her marriage to Logan. When Logan shows no tendencies to even try to achieve this type of immortal beauty, Janie feels cheated.

In the few days to live before she went to Logan Killicks and his often-mentioned sixty acres, Janie asked inside of herself and out. She was back and forth to the pear tree continuously wondering and thinking. Finally out of Nanny’s talk and her own conjectures she made a sort of comfort for herself. Yes, she would love Logan after they were married. She could see no way for it to come about, but Nanny and the old folks had said it, so it must be so. Husbands and wives always loved each other, and that was what marriage meant. It was just so. Janie felt glad of the thought, for then it wouldn’t seem so destructive and mouldy. She wouldn’t be lonely anymore. (3.2)

Janie very innocently and naively enters into marriage believing that marriage always brings love. Young Janie equates marriage with love and an end to loneliness. In a way, this passage also foreshadows her loss of innocence—Janie considers forcing a person into a loveless marriage to be "destructive and mouldy," and indeed her first marriage does destroy some of her innocence.

So Janie waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time. But when the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she began to stand around the gate and expect things. What things? She didn’t know exactly…The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off. She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman. (3.31)

Though Janie is still inexperienced enough not to know what she really wants, she sure doesn’t want Logan. Her innocence makes her yearn still for chivalric love but her horrible experience with Logan has gone a long way in killing her dream. The fact that "she became a woman" at the death of her dream means that womanhood is partly defined by suffering, disillusionment, and a loss of innocence.

Chapter 4

The morning road air was like a new dress. That made her feel the apron tied around her waist. She untied it and flung it on a low bush beside the road and walked on, picking flowers and making a bouquet. After that she came to where Joe Starks was waiting for her with a hired rig. He was very solemn and helped her to the seat beside him. With him on it, it sat like some high, ruling chair. From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom. (4.59)

The emphasis on newness in the first half of the passage recalls Janie’s youth, when everything, particularly the products of nature, seemed new and wonderful. This feeds appropriately into Janie’s decision to start a new life and try for an Eden-like innocence—represented by "flower dust and springtime"—with a man who seems to want nothing more than to love Janie.

Chapter 6

Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just some thing she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further. She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be. She found that she had a host of thoughts she had never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about. Things packed up and put away in parts of her heart where he could never find them. She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them. (6.186)

This is the turning point where Janie loses faith in her former innocent illusions of love with Joe. The loss of innocence inherently means developing "an inside and an outside," instead of being completely honest and wearing her heart on her sleeve. The fact that Janie now has two separate parts of her means that she now has the ability to deceive—to think one thing and express another—a capability that the truly innocent don’t have. Notice also the negation of the nature imagery associated with pure and innocent love—"blossomy openings" with "pollen" and "glistening young fruit"—all of which close up and represent Janie’s fall from innocence.

So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again. So she put something in there to represent the spirit like a Virgin Mary image in a church. The bed was no longer a daisy-field for her and Joe to play in. It was a place where she went and laid down when she was sleepy and tired.

She wasn’t petal-open anymore with him. She was twenty-four and seven years married when she knew. (6.184-185)

At this point, Janie is totally disillusioned with her marriage to Joe. There is no longer any sense of love or youth or innocence in their relationship. However, Janie still cherishes hopes of pure and innocent love and attempts to keep this aspect of herself alive by cherishing "something" reminiscent of the Virgin Mary. Also, notice all the plant imagery—"daisy-fields" and "petal-open"—that symbolizes Janie’s lost innocence and illusions of love with Joe.

Chapter 7

Then one day she sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending store and prostrating itself before Jody, while all the time she herself sat under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair and her clothes. Somebody near about making summertime out of lonesomeness.

This was the first time it happened, but after a while it got so common she ceased to be surprised. It was like a drug. In a way it was good because it reconciled her to things. She got so she received all things with the stolidness of the earth which soaks up urine and perfume with the same indifference. (7.5-6)

In the awful situation that Janie is living in, she seems to protect a degree of her innocence by imagining herself in nature and away from her husband and daily life. This seems to preserve some of her natural purity and innocence, which she later taps into during her marriage with Tea Cake.

The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody did, she said nothing. She had learned how to talk some and leave some. She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels. Sometimes she stuck out into the future, imagining her life different from what it was. But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods—come and gone with the sun. She got nothing from Jody except what money could buy, and she was giving away what she didn’t value. (7.1)

Janie’s loss of innocence results in a silencing of her voice. Her imagination—her projection of a better future—is the only thing that keeps her from growing incurably bitter and cynical. She does, however, see the marriage now for what it is—an economic system of exchange in which Joe gives her material goods that do not touch her emotionally, and she responds in kind.

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)

In her utter disillusionment, Janie realizes she hates her grandmother for manipulating her and subjecting her to pain—all in the name of love. Janie resents this misguided treatment that caused Janie such suffering in two bad marriages. Janie realizes now that preserving one’s innocence depends on your outlook on the world. Nanny’s pessimistic outlook was, from the very beginning, devoid of innocence and immersed in jaded cynicism. That Nanny imposed her dark outlook on such a pure young girl infuriates Janie.

Janie starched and ironed her face and came set in the funeral behind her veil. It was like a wall of stone and steel. The funeral was going on outside. All things concerning death and burial were said and done. Finish. End. Nevermore. Darkness. Deep hole. Dissolution. Eternity. Weeping and wailing outside. Inside the expensive black folds were resurrection and life. She did not reach outside for anything, nor did the things of death reach inside to disturb her calm. She sent her face to Joe’s funeral and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world. (9.2)

Janie’s development of an inside and outside duality allows her to pretend a deep grief for Joe’s death. However, her liberation from Joe’s iron rule instills a profound happiness in her which is expressed as her internal "rollicking with the springtime" even while she stands with her head bowed at Joe’s funeral. The "resurrection and life" inside her suggests a hope of regaining her innocence.

Chapter 11

It was so crazy digging worms by lamp light and setting out for Lake Sabelia after midnight that she felt like a child breaking rules. That’s what made Janie like it. They caught two or three and got home just before day. Then she had to smuggle Tea Cake out by the back gate and that made it seem like some great secret she was keeping from the town. (11.24)

Janie’s adventures with Tea Cake remind her of all the enjoyable mischief of her childhood, reviving pleasant memories of her days of innocence, before Logan and Joe. This is one of the factors that makes Janie fall in love with Tea Cake—his fun-loving ease and childlike spontaneity—and allows Janie to be herself around him. Unlike Logan and Joe, Tea Cake is not inflated with a sense of his own importance and gravity. He seems to be an embodiment of innocence.

Chapter 16
Janie Crawford

[Janie to Mrs. Turner]: "Ah couldn’t stand it if he [Tea Cake] wuz tuh quit me. Don’t know whut Ah’d do. He kin take most any lil thing and make summertime out of it when times is dull. Then we lives offa dat happiness he made till some mo’ happiness come along." (16.13)

Janie tells the skeptical Mrs. Turner that Tea Cake is the true love of her life because he can bring snippets of profound happiness and innocence back into her life. Because Janie has always associated her innocence with spring and summer, the fact that she calls Tea Cake’s creations "summertime" shows just how deeply she cherishes those times and the man who makes them possible.

Chapter 19
Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods

[Tea Cake:] "Thank yuh, ma’am, but don’t say you’se ole. You’se uh lil girl baby all de time. God made it so you spent yo’ ole age first wid somebody else, and saved up yo’ young girl days to spend wid me." (19.127)

In an attempt to compliment Janie, Tea Cake remarks that she is still a young "lil girl baby" to him because she seems to have all her youthful exuberance and instinctive trust about her still. When hearing this, readers immediately recognize the truth of his words; Janie spent her "ole age first," or days of bitterness, with Logan and Joe and saved her "young girl days," or childlike innocence, to lavish on her true love, Tea Cake.

Chapter 20

Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see. (20.12)

Both Janie’s innocence and maturity are represented here in the image of the horizon. As an innocent child, Janie always chased her horizons. Here at the end, she has both worshipped her horizons from afar and traveled them so she has the capacity to "pull it from around the waist of the world and drape it over her shoulder," without complete ignorance but also without cynicism. Now she can just marvel and cherish all the life snared in its meshes and relive her many full memories.

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