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Third Time's The Charm: Romantic Love and Their Eyes Were Watching God

Rachel Edwards/Fort Wayne Museum of Art


It is difficult to locate the exact origins of romantic love. Perhaps love is little more than an adaptation of an instinctive drive to reproduce. Or maybe it is a preordained, God-given glimpse of some eternal force. Alternately, it could be a side effect of social convention, or merely a child’s fantasy. Romantic love seems to be a complex, yet clumsily-assembled combination of every idea we attempt to describe it with. It seems that someone must find answer to the question of love for herself. In the words of Janie Crawford, “you got tuh go there to know there” (192). Romantic love is not a concept words can easily define, and it is not an umbrella that everyone’s experiences can squeeze underneath. It is dynamic, and evasive, and confusing. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston approaches romantic love as a symbiotic element of nature and longing that, when finally realized, is too pure to exist for very long on an impure earth. She uses Janie’s learning experiences to first determine what romantic love is not, and then she uses the negative space of Janie’s failed relationships to outline a turbulently sweet portrait of what Hurston contends true love is. 
Janie’s first exposure to love is unique in that it does not come from a human mentor, but rather from the natural world and her own unchecked ideas. Hurston uses the natural imagery of the “glistening leaf-buds” and the “snowy virginity of bloom” and “the panting breath of the breeze” to liken Janie’s blooming womanhood to the flowering of a pear tree. She then lets Janie watch as “a dust-bearing bee” lowers itself into one of the tree’s blooms, becoming the quintessential embodiment of love as Janie would define it. She glorifies the simple, idyllic purity of the natural exchange, the give-and-take of a bee and a bloom. Hurston’s narration lapses into free indirect discourse as she cries out from Janie’s perspective, “Oh, to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!” (11). The concurrence of nature’s unthinking loveliness with Janie’s attentive observation results in the creation of an idea that is entirely her own—the notion that romantic love has nothing do with society at all. To Janie, as both an imaginative girl and a reflective woman, love in its purest form will always be the junction of the bee and the bloom. This love might vocalize itself in marriage, or sex, or friendship, certainly; but most of all, the feeling two people share in their relationship must possess some overwhelming sensation of mutual naturalness about itself to really qualify as love in the eyes of Janie Crawford.
Janie’s culture does not generally share her perspective. She might argue that this is because “most humans didn’t love one another nohow,” but a discerning reader notices that Janie actually possesses a rare privilege in being able to seek out the real, all-consuming love that others in her life never had the chance to find (90). Leafy and Nanny’s histories certainly would not encourage any appreciation for romantic love, and it makes sense that Nanny would want protection for Janie over passion. Still, perhaps the nature of raising a child in an environment where she has security and privilege is that she also gains the right to make her own (sometimes-dangerous) decisions. Janie certainly does, whether she has the ‘right’ or not, and this earns her a great deal of disapproval. To Nanny, romantic love is “just whut’s got us uh pullin’ and uh haulin’ and sweatin’ and doin’ from can’t see in de mornin’ till can’t see at night” (23). It is not a blessing, but an illusion created by God and man to beguile foolish women. The story of exploited Annie Tyler seems to support Nanny’s perspective, as she “waited all her life” for love only for it to “kill her when it found her” (120). Love is evidently not always a two-way street; it can be as strong in its unrequited form as it is when shared between two reciprocating individuals. As Janie grows older, her idea of love seems threatened by an onslaught of cruel, discriminating reality.
Janie finds the very concept of a marriage without love offensive. She resents Logan Knicks when she realizes that he is “desecrating” her image of the “pear tree” (14). She accepts nothing short of symbiosis and refuses to give up hope for her girlish idea of romance, but she is not without her doubts and setbacks. The second great turn in her transition from childhood to adulthood is when Hurston writes that her “first dream [is] dead, so she [becomes] a woman” (15). Still, this realization does not destroy Janie’s notion of love entirely—just the childish belief that marriage would “compel love like the sun the day” and culture its growth in a relationship where it did not exist before (21). Logan is Nanny’s image of love—he is security, and protection, and routine. Janie does not love him, but she “wants to want him sometimes,” indicating her continued longing for a realpassionate love—whatever that may be (23). In some respects, Logan as a husband is more a reflection of Nanny’s motherly love for Janie than he is of any kind of romantic affection; to Janie, he is impersonal to the point of suffocating, and his age and pragma stifle her development of even the barest positive regard for him, let alone the exciting romance she really desires.
Upon meeting Joe Starks, Janie at first thinks her second grab at love might be successful. True, Joe is no bumble bee on a spring day, but he does arouse in her a kind of excitement—and a chance at escape from her mundane, grueling life as Logan’s wife.  Jody is “citified” and “stylish dressed,” carrying an aura of power and attraction (27). He evaluates her on sight as too beautiful for the life of a farmer’s wife, and he speaks for “far horizon,” for “change and chance” (29). This does not, however, mean that the “change” he brings is necessarily a good one. Janie does not love Jody any more than she did Logan, and he does not seem to care for her the way she wants either. To Jody, Janie is a box to check off and a trophy to display; she is not a lover. Janie recognizes this, accusing, “we ain’t natural wid one ‘nother” and identifying that, like Logan, Jody does not fulfill her expectations for love at all (46). Security does not equate love, but it seems that change, when that change only leads to a lonely relationship governed by possession, is not enough either.
When Janie finally finds a worthy object for her impassioned affections, decades after her sexual awakening under the pear tree, she still appraises him as “a bee to a blossom” (106). She thus never really loses her childhood concept of idealized love; she holds onto it until she can adapt it as a part of reality. Now that Hurston has clarified exactly what love is not, she can focus her writing efforts on describing all of the things it can be, through Tea Cake, “the son of Evening Sun” (178). He differs from his predecessors first in that he regards Janie not as an inferior or an object, but as an equal and a friend. He plays with her, matching her simple childlike set of ideals with his own. They engage in a “love game,” and she begins to hate and adore him simultaneously (114). Curiously, they both seem to think of each other as souls in flight. Janie lets Tea Cake “leap forth and mount to the sky on a wind” and he holds and caresses her as if fearing “she might escape his grasp and fly away” (107, 106). Together, they delve out a love that soars to altitudes as elevated as the expectations from Janie’s girlhood, melding to a new society where they “work all day for money, fight all night for love” (131). Janie is exhilarated, enthralled, enamored; Tea Cake is not just a man, but a “glance from God” (106). Love meets her every hope and dream, meaning truth and joy and freedom. Finally, Janie has the validation she has waited for since she was a girl: the assurance that there is such a thing as love and that it clenches souls tight and makes them fly.

Despite all this wonder, Their Eyes Were Watching God could not be called realistic if it did not also account for some of the imperfections of love and specifically of Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake. From the first time they meet, the sexual attraction between them is striking; the looks Tea Cake gives her are “cold-cocked” and “cut-eye” (95, 97). The childishness that seemed idyllic at first warps into an immaturity that shows itself in fights of dignity and dominance. Tea Cake even steals from her, suggesting the obvious fear that he means only to exploit her, just like the men Nanny always warned about. As their relationship progresses, Janie and Tea Cake both become possessive and jealous of each other, not trusting the other to be faithful. In a show of public dominance, Tea Cake even strikes her, ironically arousing a heap of community support; their performance makes “the women see visions” and the “men dream dreams” (147). In fact, it would almost seem that Hurston herself approves of the violence between Janie and Tea Cake. It is probably not what she would consider ideal, the novel’s third person narrator’s lens romanticizes the way Janie yields to Tea Cake’s conventionalized abuse.
Hurston seems to enjoy the idea of a relationship that is as lovely as it is hateful. Janie and Tea Cake’s arguments dissolve into kisses, and Janie’s “resistance” melts “with the heat of [Tea Cake’s] body” (138).  Violence does not take at all from Janie’s “soul-crushing love,” or from her belief that Tea Cake is her “light at daybreak” (128). Even his descent to madness and death does not change her unswerving feelings. The tone of Their Eyes Were Watching God seems to imply that if there is life after death, then there will be love between Tea Cake and Janie as well. At this point in the novel, it becomes clear that love is a uniting force between individuals, irrevocably changing them so that if the body of one survives, then the spirit of the other does too. Janie gleans wisdom from her experiences with Tea Cake, deciding that “love is lak de sea…uh movin’ thing” that “takes its shape from de shore it meets” (192). Hurston seems to acknowledge that Janie’s love story would not be possible for everyone—would perhaps not even be desirable for everyone. Yet the negative aspects of Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake curiously never seem to temper the powerful influence of her love for him; rather, it is as though the sparks of her anger only add to her kindled passion for him, burning it brighter each day and then immortalizing its heat in his untimely death.

There are few stories more optimistic than those which depict someone trying and failing, fighting and losing, only to find goodness in the end (even, it seems, if this goodness is cut short by a dog and a pistol). Janie Crawford is as good-natured as she is vain, as honest as she is selfish. However one chooses to judge her, there is undeniably something of admiration in her absolute refusal to surrender to convention or settle for anything short of her dreams, and something of wisdom in her loyalty to the pure simplicity of the love-thoughts from her childhood. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston creates a love story that does not care what society has to say about it, so long as it is known that Janie Crawford loved deeply by the light of Tea Cake’s joy and the melody of frivolity’s song, and that her loving did not finish when his life did.

Content Edited By: Bernadette Becker