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Joes’s Values and Relationship with Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Sean Lowe

            In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,  Janie searches for love.  Her second husband, Joe Starks, fails to provide her with the love and care she desires.  Starks’ problem is that he is completely self-centered.  He is only concerned with leading a fledgling African-American town, Eatonville, and establishing himself as its dignified mayor.  He is an egotist concerned with his own image.  Jodie’s values lead him to ignore, suppress, and abuse Janie, ruining their relationship.

            Leadership and dignity cause Joe to neglect Janie. This neglect is evident at the earliest stages of their relationship.  When Joe and Janie are newlyweds traveling to Eatonville, Joe’s aspirations, not Janie, dominate him.  “Mostly he talked about plans for the town when he got there.  They were bound to need somebody like him” (42).  Joe does not “make many speeches with rhymes to [Janie]” (42).  Instead of romantically paying attention to Janie, Joe ambitiously makes plans for the town.  His leadership, apparently, is more important to him than his new wife, leading him to all but ignore her.  Janie soon realizes herself that Joe is more interested in his leadership role than in her.  After Joe establishes his leadership in the town, Janie says, “It jus’ look lak it keeps us in some way we ain’t natural wid one ‘nother.  You’se always off talkin’ and fixin’ things, and Ah feels lak Ah’m jus’ markin’ time.  Hope it soon gits over” (54) to which Joe responds, “Over Janie. I god, Ah aint even started good” (54)  Janie feels Joe is too consumed in work to spend time with her and is consequently unhappy.    Because Joe “aimed tuh be uh big voice” (54), he ignores and neglects Janie, which makes her unhappy.  Joe’s value of leadership over Janie thus helps to corrode their relationship.     His value of status causes Joe to put Janie on a pedestal she does not appreciate.  Joe wants to be better than everyone else in the town, and he uses Janie to achieve this end.  For example, Jody puts her on display during the store opening to show how he has the best wife.  “Everybody was coming sort of fixed up, and he didn’t mean for nobody else’s wife to rank with her…She must look on herself as the bell-cow, the other women were the gang” (51).  Already it is apparent that Joe views Janie as a kind of showpiece to make him look good.  In fact, Joe takes this pride in his wife too far.  He puts Janie on a pedestal, feeling she is some kind of queen to put on display.   He builds a “high chair for her to sit in and overlook the world” (75) by isolating Janie and not letting her mingle with the townspeople, the commoners.  Janie, however, resents this isolation.  An episode involving the town mule exemplifies this.  The town gossips about Matt Bonner’s ornery mule on the steps of Joe’s store.  “Janie loved the conversation and sometimes she thought up good stories on the mule, but Joe had forbidden her to indulge. He didn't want her talking after such trashy people” (65). Joe makes Janie go into the store, feeling she is too good for the porch sitters.  Janie’s distaste for this isolation is apparent: “Why couldn’t he go himself sometimes?  She had come to hate the inside of that store anyway” (66).  Janie develops further animosity over her isolation when the mule dies and the town conducts a ceremony she is forbidden to attend.  Joe tells her, “You ain’t gon’ off in all dat mess uh commonness.  Ah’m surprised at yuh fuh askin’ [to go]” (73).  Again, Janie “was sullen and he resented that” (75).  Joe, however, views his isolation as “pouring honor all over her” (75). Because Joe values status, he wants to make Janie a kind of aristocratic first lady, but because she does not value status, she is resentful of Joe’s efforts.  Thus, their relationship suffers.

Machismo causes Joe to abuse Janie, leading to the complete failure of their relationship.  Joe’s machismo is evident from the very start of his relationship with Janie.  At the opening of the store, Joe stops wife from giving a speech.  He explains, “Ah never married her for nothin’ lak dat.  She’s uh woman and her place is in de home” (53).  This disrespect damages the marriage because Janie feels jilted out of her right to speak.  “It must have been the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off of things.  But anyway, she went down the road behind him that night feeling cold” (53).  Joe consistently feels the need to dominate his wife, and this jars his relationship with Janie further.  The narrator explains, “[Joe] wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it” (86).  After several attempts to curve Joe’s overbearing domination on her, Janie learns that “it didn’t do her any good.  It just made Joe do more” (86).  For this reason, “the spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor” (86).  Clearly, Joe’s machismo attitude towards Janie damages their relationship.  In fact, it puts an informal end to it.  When Janie makes a clumsy mistake cutting tobacco for a customer one day, her dissatisfaction with his machismo explodes.  Joe begins insulting her in front the crowd, and she replies “When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life” (96), publicly humiliating him.  This revolt successfully ends any pretence Joe and Janie may have of being happily married; Joe moves to a room downstairs, not even sleeping with his wife any longer.

Janie’s lecture to a dying Joe further proves that his self-centered values and mistreatment lead to her unhappiness and revolt.  Joe contracts a kidney illness that will kill him, and while he is on his deathbed, Janie tells Joe exactly what her problems are in their marriage.  She complains about how he is self-centered and neglects her. She exclaims, “You wouldn’t listen.  You done lived wid me for twenty years and you don’t half know me atall.  And you could have but you was so busy woshippin’ de works of yo’ own hands, and cuffin’ folks around their minds till you didn’t see uh whole heap up things yuh could have” (104).  Janie specifically complains about how Jody forces her into the image he wants.  “Ah run off tuh keek house wid you in uh wonderful way.  But you wasn’t satisfied wid me de way Ah was.  Naw!  Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me” (105).  Janie is referring to how Joe tries to turn her into the dignified aristocrat he is, rather than accepting her for who she is.  Janie also complains about Joe’s suppressing her.  “All dis bowin’ down, all dis obedience under yo’ voice—dat ain’t whut Ah rushed off down de road tuh find out about you” (103), Janie says.  She basically is complaining about his machismo and how he dominates her.  From this harangue, it is clear that Joe’s self-centered and macho value system causes Janie’s unhappiness.  Thus, Joe’s value system is responsible for the ruination of their relationship.

With Joe’s values in mind, it is obvious why he is not the man Janie “rushed off down de road tuh find out about” (103).  Joe is a self-centered bigot.  Janie wants a pear-tree, or someone to be her true love.  Joe cannot be her pear tree because he is stubborn, macho, and too concerned with his personal status.  Joe is more concerned with himself and dominating those around him than with love and Janie.  Hence, the relationship with Janie chokes and dies.

 

This page was last updated on 10/10/05.

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