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The concept of “a new beginning” is a recurrent theme that prevails in African American literature, predominantly, in the geographical form of The South. Used as a literary terrain, The South is more than a characterization of the savagery that African Americans endured during the period of slavery. It is within this landscape that African Americans advanced society and culture that was established through the strife of their ancestors and the life tools they had developed to survive. Their ancestry is deeply rooted within the soil of the landscape and it is from there that a new future can arise. Understanding this political landscape is vital to any analysis of Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). Speech and vision are crucial tools of empowerment for Janie as she challenges the stereotypical views of marriage in The South. This essay will aim to discuss these approaches in detail as Janie Crawford is symbolized throughout the novel as a figure of feminine empowerment, during her quest for fulfillment, freedom, and autonomy as a young black woman raised in the aftermath of slavery. Furthermore, I will discuss how Janie achieves self-awareness through her ability to participate in insurgent behavior and how this continually translates to acts of resistance – and finally, how these acts of resistance are constrained by the prevailing historical context will be analyzed.

Hurston (1937) introduces three noticeable sections in the novel: material, psychological, and narrative. Even though we witness Janie’s worldly sense of self through her experiences, the reader finds many opportunities to witness her empowerment through their engagement in the narrative space. Discovering and making use of the rebellious, empowering possibility of an incongruent space in which Janie’s growth as a character is nurtured. This growth symbolizes potential cultural growth and transformation in The South. In each of the sections that Hurston (1937) introduces, the theme of marginalization linked to African American female individuals provides opportunities whereby women may take a stand against the authoritative discourses of whiteness and patriarchy. As a young woman of color, Janie’s dual consciousness enables her to distinguish between—interior and exterior—and in a sense compartmentalize her from the condescending presence of white male authority. Many of the novel’s climactic scenes happen on the porches of Eatonville, and Janie’s storytelling, which forms the narrative backbone of the novel, happens to take place on her back porch. For the African American community of Eatonville, the porch operates as a space for production, where playful language and storytelling provide relief from the imposing structure of white authority.

The porch creates numerous channels for resistance to traditional systems of control. For Janie, participation in daily rituals that men are amused by promises a level of independence and power. In the novel, this setting is depicted as an entrenched scene of masculinity, the patriarchal system is personified by her husband at the time – Joe Starks. Janie’s first attempts to utilize the porch space fail dismally, and after being denied the right to speak in front of the town, Janie identifies the porch as a rambling place of resistance and tries to talk with the townsmen, “Janie did what she had never done before, that is, thrust herself into the conversation” The powerful use of the word “thrust” in this context further emphasizes her sheer determination and willpower to go against the established patriarchal system. Joe Starks interrupts the conversation by saying “You gettin’ too many, Janie… go fetch me de checker-board and de checkers. Sam Watson, you’re mah fish.” (Hurston, 75). It is at this moment in Joe realizes that Janie’s involvement in the conversation poses a threat to the hierarchy keeping him in control – in his marriage, as well as in Eatonville.

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Janie’s gradual movement away from the front porch to the intimate setting of the back porch shows her longing to cultivate a separate space situated exterior to the system that has been pre-established. Janie believes that her freedom is vested in her ability to get rid of the gender barriers by taking a stand against the isolated, masculine space of the front porch. After the death of Joe Starks, Janie’s porch can be described as a fairly isolated space in the town, rising against Eatonville’s established patriarchy. The reader follows how Janie follows a progressive path of resistance following Joe’s death, as seen on page 91, “six months of wearing black passed and not one suitor had gained the house porch.” The rich usage of the word “gained” further emphasizes the spatial independence Janie achieved after Joe’s death, and Tea Cake’s limited access to her house is a reflection of her propensity to control who has access to her space – whether that space is internal or external.

“Tea Cake drifted off to sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a soul-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place” (Hurston, 128). The reader feels a sense of relief at this moment, as Tea Cake and Janie’s relationship has the opportunity to blossom without interference from gender politics and societal expectations that have riddled Janie’s past relationships. In the process of watching Tea Cake sleep peacefully, Janie sets her identity free from the obstacles that hinder her prosperity through much of the novel. The narrator describes Janie’s soul as though it is a creature, small and timid, as one reads this passage, we get the sense that Janie is finally ready to set her soul free. The use of the verb “crawled” shows how difficult of a process it has been for Janie, as her soul had to hide in the darkness throughout her marriages with her two previous husbands.

Resistance may be depicted in the form of ‘escapes.’ Although Janie was not always able to escape physically, she had the option to escape psychologically. Janie’s inner voice manifests itself during the last moments that she spends married to Logan Killicks. Janie despises the business of working the land alongside him, yet she keeps her inner emotions hidden away. She gradually evolves a dissenting attitude about who she wants to be, living an external life distinguishable from her internal life. Throughout her marriage with Joe, she learns to make use of her internal voice to defend herself. At one point, it is said that she “robs Joe of his irresistible maleness that all men cherish” (Hurston, 75). After Joe dies, this psychological liberation becomes more apparent, as seen when Janie thinks to herself: “Years ago, she had told her girl self to wait for her in the looking glass. It had been a long time since she had remembered.” As well as in the moment when she looks at her face after tearing off the head rag covering her hair, “starched and ironed her face, forming it into what people wanted to see.” (Hurston, 87) The use of the metaphor ‘ironed her face’ in this context, provides evidence that she consciously molds her facial expressions, backing up the fact that she distinguishes between her external and internal profiles.

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