Rivers are perhaps one of the most interesting occurrences of nature to observe. While they are common throughout the world, rivers have many qualities that make them more complex than they may appear at first glance. For example, rivers, unlike lakes, are constantly flowing and this continuous movement never allows the temperature to drop low enough to completely freeze the water. Rivers also cover great distances, picking up small mementoes along the way that they deposit in different locations. Each of these objects affects the overall composition of the river and causes small obstacles in the rivers path. A key part of examining rivers is where they begin and how they have been shaped along their journey. For example, if a river begins in the mountains it will behave differently than if it begins from a spring. Along the way, however, the rivers are altered based on how the earth moves it, such as rocks, or differing elevations of land. Both where the river originated and how it was shaped along the way influences the river’s journey to the sea. Very similar to rivers are the courses of our lives. Just like the river, we never stop moving or changing. We meet people and have experiences along the way that cause little bumps in the path of our lives, for the better or worse. Our path, just like the river, is determined by where we start out and how things along the way make us become who we are in the end. In the thought provoking novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, the idea of how our lives are shaped by our past and the way it directs our future is displayed through the actions of many characters including Janie, Nanny, Jody, and Mrs. Thompson. The question of how nature and nurture affect our lives in brought into question and is explored through the building and ending of relationships, as well as the discovery of the meaning of love and life.
Nanny cares deeply for her granddaughter Janie, as is evident from the very beginning of the novel. However, Nanny’s past heavily influences Janie’s life and her hopes for Janie’s future are skewed by her own traumatic experiences. During the time that Nanny was growing up she was a slave and was raped by her white master, impregnating her with her daughter Leafy. This experience of male domination greatly affected Nanny’s life, which is interesting because the same thing ended up happened to Leafy. Rape and male power made Nanny develop an idolization of legitimacy and security, two things that she had never had or had been able to provide. As a result, Nanny’s hopes for Janie revolved not around her happiness but her desire for Janie to marry and have kids legitimately. For example, when Janie has her first kiss with a boy who Nanny finds unsuitable to her expectations, she scolds Janie harshly and slaps her. “"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." Nanny literally finds danger in marrying the wrong man because her only experiences lie in poor relations to men. Unfortunately, the idea of marrying rich and secure is not appealing to Janie, which Nanny turns a blind eye to. This is because Nanny’s conception of freedom is one of wealth and idleness. Through her growing up as a slave, she has learned to become not only obedient, but subjective and tolerant of the situations that others impose on her. Additionally, through her time living in the backyard of the Washburns, she has also learned to romanticize the position of the white women and the security that goes along with it. Although Nanny knows that she will never be able to have the things that a white woman can, she imposes it on Janie by making her marry a respected land-owning black farmer.
Nanny’s love for Janie is what fuels her desires to provide a suitable husband for Janie; however, the driving force behind her actions is her own experiences. Throughout Nanny’s life she was greatly influenced by her environment or the nature she was surrounded by, due to the lack of anyone truly raising her. The only bonds she formed during her lifetime were the forced bonds between her and her slave master, to the Washburns who she worked for (basically like a house slave), and to her daughter who was raped as she was. These bonds seared the impression in Nanny’s mind that to marry well is the gateway to success. Love in a relationship was a foreign concept to Nanny, as the only relationships she had ever been a part of were not driven by such feelings. Along the route of Nanny’s life up to the point she married Janie off to Logan, she had experiences small experiences and developed ideas that she deposited in her granddaughter’s life…things Janie would carry with her that would create obstacles in her path.
Joe Starks (often called Jody) is Janie’s second husband and a born entrepreneur with magnetic charisma. Despite his love for Janie, his overwhelming sense ambition, lack of communication, extreme feelings of superiority, and uncontrollable jealousy over Janie slow, and almost block, her path to happiness.
When Janie first sets eyes on Jody, she is mesmerized by his stylish looks and the power that radiates from him. Her current unhappiness with Logan and the emotional strains Nanny has placed on her cause her to rebel from the life she has currently and fall for Jody. Jody’s persona is complete pride and confidence which leads him to dress and act like he is better than those he considers his inferiors, something that at first draws Janie in. However, his actions and looks also reveal his true vanity and the high esteem he places on his manhood. His overwhelming desire to display power and authority over those around him stems from the ideas of the current time that black men were lesser than white men. Due to the stereotypes of being inferior, Jody feels that complete power over those that he can control will allow his status to rise above the restraints that his race has put upon him. For example, Jody builds up the black town in order to gain complete control over those residing there. He decides who can live there, how the businesses are run, and whose opinions count. In fact, his overbearing nature causes many of the residents to grumble that he is very similar to a slave master. Indeed in many ways Jody resembles a white man, from the way he dresses to how we works to the house he lives in. His infatuation with Janie also stems from his desire to replicate the life of the Caucasian race because Janie has white features, such as her hair. While Jody’s complete adoration of Janie is what makes her fall in love with him, it is also what she quickly realizes is what makes her unhappy. Jody values Janie to an obsessive level—a level of control—where he loves her as a trophy more than as a wife. His desire to keep her all to himself, such as when he make her tie her hair up whenever she works in the store or doesn’t allow her to attend the mule’s funeral, proves that he is only interested in preserving his wealth, power, and control over Janie.
Jody’s desire to become white by acting white overwhelms his and Janie’s relationship. His inability to let go of some power by providing freedom to the people of the town and Janie cause him to lose everything in the end. It is apparent, even on his death bed, that Janie is still below him and belongs to him. While she lays out all of him crimes to him as he is dying, Jody still persists on power and his drive to control what he feels is his. Following Jody’s death, Janie’s path in life is altered and shed of the stones of Nanny’s desires and Jody’s domination. However, the influences that these events have had on her life push her path in a new direction fueled by her own desires to find true love and happiness.
Despite the usual response to the overwhelming sense of racism of the time (which was often the condemning white people for the suppression and condescension towards black people), Mrs. Turner takes the complete opposite frame of thinking. Like Janie, Mrs. Turner is a mix of both black and white and because of this was raised among the white middle class. Due to her upbringing around the Caucasian race, Mrs. Turner completely worships the white way of doing things and believes that the way white people are always authoritative and correct. She idolizes whiteness so much in fact that she believes that the worth of a person hinges on how white they are. Thus, Mrs. Turner worships Janie for her white features, especially her hair. She thinks that Janie is making a big mistake in marrying Tea Cake because the way to achieve more whiteness is to marry someone who is lighter skin such as herself. "You got mo’ nerve than me. Ah jus’ couldn’t see mahself married to no black man. It’s too many black folks already. We oughta lighten up de race." Mrs. Turner wants Janie to dump Tea Cake, a man with very black skin, for her brother who is half black and half white as well.
Mrs. Turner’s desire to have light skin and have her children and grandchildren that have light skin stems from her desire to exemplify whiteness. This is because her path in life has been shaped by how she was raised, which was alongside the white middle class. She has been exposed to their lives and has seen firsthand the better treatment that whites receive in society. Like Nanny, her main motive for having Janie marry her brother is so that their children will have the best chances to be successful in the world; chances only offered to people with white skin. Janie, however, is unable to recognize the opportunities that Mrs. Turner is talking about because her entire life has been comfortable due to her whiteness. By this point in time Janie has become satisfied with the love she is experiencing with Tea Cake and has embraced her place in society.
Janie’s story begins at the close where she is sitting with Phoebe and recollecting her life story. Her journey is over and like a river she has finally reached the sea. As Janie recollects her past, we are able to understand how her path was shaped along the way and how it led to her present.
Janie’s childhood and first experience at marriage is highly influenced by Nanny, whose ideas about love and its legitimacy force Janie into a mold she cannot fit into. While Nanny’s memories of love revolve around rape, and the struggles of work and the hardships of being black, Janie views life in terms of love and the passion of sex and adventure. Perhaps the most influential experience of her life is under a pear tree one day while she observes the bees pollinating the flowers. “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.” In this moment Janie realizes that marriage and sex is something beautiful, perfect and willing, not forced or unnatural. This causes Janie to desire this type of love throughout her entire journey, and her actions to revolve around finding this ideal picture of what she life should be. Unfortunately, her first marriage to a farmer named Logan, a matrimony that Nanny set up in order to ensure Janie would live comfortably, fails due to their lack of connection. Logan thinks of Janie as a provider in a way, saying that she needs to be for him whatever he needs in that moment. This, however, does not fit with Janie’s ideas of what love should be. And, despite the influences from Nanny to remain where she will be provided for, Janie meets Jody and leaves Logan.
Jody seems to be everything Janie desired when she first met him. Unlike Logan, he holds her on a pedestal and constantly admires her white looks and beauty. However, Jody is obsessed with holding power over everyone around him, including Janie, which infuriates her on the inside. While she attempts to be subdued and obedient, it is simply not in her nature. She feels like her true self is squashed under Jody’s commands, especially when he keeps her from expressing herself. For example, Jody requires Janie to tie up her hair in the store so that other men can’t admire it. Janie’s hair is not only a symbol of her whiteness, but also a symbol of her personal power as an individual, something Jody despises and is afraid of to a degree. Jody also refuses to let Janie talk the other people in the town, like when he forbids her from talking on the porch of the store or from attending the mule’s funeral. During this period of her life, Janie begins to truly examine her into wants and what she desires. While she knows that she has not yet found the love she observed under the pear tree, or reached “the horizon”, she kindles her spirit. As time goes on, Jody’s health begins to deteriorate and on his death bed, Janie’s spirit finally breaks free. She expresses to Jody how overbearing and horrible he treated her, and like a dry creek bed filling with water, Janie’s life rushes ahead once more. Jody’s death left her feeling renewed and more feminine than she had before. This is demonstrated when Janie finally lets her hair down from the rags that Jody had required her to tie it up in.
A little while after Jody’s death, Janie meets Tea Cake. Tea Cake instantly adores Janie and Janie falls quickly for Tea Cake. Despite their age difference, as well as their financial statuses, Janie and Tea Cake run away together despite the rumors and grumblings of the town. While Tea Cake is not as responsible as Janie, such as when he steals her money and gambles it away, it is evident that their love for each other is strong. It is with Tea Cake where Janie feels that she has finally found the love embrace between the beas and the flowers. During one point, Tea Cake appears to be flirting with another girl named Nunkie. When Janie approaches him about it, he defends himself, and they get in a wild argument resulting in passionate lovemaking. This only strengthens their bond and Janie’s belief that her path is finally at the place she has traveled so far to find. Later in the novel a hurricane arises, and Janie and Tea Cake decide to wait out the storm in a small shack. However, the whipping winds and quickly rising water force them out of the shack and into the storm. Janie attempts to grab hold of a cow floating in the water, but a dog perched on its back tried to attack her. Tea Cake, attempting to defend his love, kills the dog but gets bit at first. Eventually, Tea Cake develops rabies, and he goes mentally insane. During this time Janie becomes heartbroken over her true love that seems to be slipping out of her fingers, especially when she finds a loaded pistol under his pillow. One night, Tea Cake pulls it on her and before he can kill her, Janie is forced to shoot him with a rifle. This pivotal moment in Janie’s life causes her to sick into a depression. She believes that she finally found what she desired and then it was taken from her. Janie begins to question her entire past and how she arrived at the place her is. She thinks of Nanny’s desires for her, her desires, and all the people that failed to provide them for her. However, Janie realizes that her love for Tea Cake allowed her to experience what she truly wanted, if for a little while, and she realizes how content she really is now.
The paths of rivers are unique to each. Their winding paths overcome great obstacles, boring through rocks, hurling themselves over mountainsides and run drying at times. Along the way they each picked up small items, which at times blocked their paths. Some of these items they carry with them on their journey, and others they deposit onto the banks and leave them behind. However, each river’s journey to the sea is shaped by everything around it, and in return shapes those things as well. In “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, each character was shaped by their past which influenced their journey. The issues and stereotypes of black vs. white, the struggle for power and control, and the desire to find love all influenced the character’s actions and the actions of those around them. The fact is, nature and nurture in people’s pasts influence the purpose and directions of their future. Just like a river that begins in the mountains, it begins gravity pulling it downward, but the shaping of the earth is what winds it through the trees. Similarly, Janie was raised with the forced ideals of Nanny, but it is how she responded to these desires, as well as her own and the influence of others, that led her to where she ended her story. Although the path of her life was not smooth and free of obstacles and pain, Janie’s story proves that indeed, our lives are influenced by our pasts…but we can each shape our futures.