Marriage as a Repressive Ideology in Their Eyes Were Watching God
As a young girl, Zora Neal Hurston’s protagonist Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God experiences self-fulfillment lying under a beautiful pear tree. This moment near the beginning of the text, met with sexual and emotional completeness, gives Janie an unrealistic idea of what she hopes to experience in marriage. She lies there and sees “the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch” and thinks to herself, “so this was a marriage!” However, throughout the novel we learn that marriage is not the key to Janie’s “revelation” (11). She strives to find the same fulfillment with a man, but through Janie’s three marriages Hurston reveals to readers that marriage is nothing but a repressive ideology. Marxism believes the most successful and repressive ideologies are those that society blindly adheres to. The danger in an ideology like marriage is that it’s not recognizable, for it appears natural. Through Marxist theory, we can begin to see “all the ways in which we are products of material/historical circumstances and the repressive ideologies that […] keep us subservient to the ruling power system” (Tyson, 58). Rather than independently seeking competition like her independent experience under the tree, Janie is influenced by the powers around her. Janie’s Nanny enforces the power system of marriage because she wants Janie to be protected and cared for. Janie listens to her grandma but doesn’t let go of her dream under the pear tree, rather, her dream changes into duplicating this moment with a male counterpart. But in the end, she is unmarried. By analyzing Janie’s internal dialogue throughout her three marriages and the repetitive symbolic use of the pear tree, we will see how Hurston upends the repressive ideology of marriage, proving to readers that an independent woman like Janie cannot thrive in a male dominated relationship.
Starting with her marriage to Logan Killicks, Janie begins a repetitive cycle where she convinces herself that she will find the same pear tree revelation of love and joy in her marriage. If we understand Janie’s cyclical pattern as adhering to an ideology, we will see how Hurston dismantles marriage by the end of the novel. Marriage is an ideology, which according to Marxism, is “a belief system” that is a “product of cultural conditioning” (Tyson, 57). Janie believes in marriage because she has only known it to be a good thing, not just because she will find love, but because a man can provide protection. Janie relies on her grandmother and cultural conditioning for this truth, for she thinks, “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” (21). Janie is unaware that her submission to this thought process of idolizing marriage is exactly how ideologies function. Tyson says, “the most successful ideologies are not recognized as ideologies but are thought to be natural by the people who subscribe to them” (57). I believe Hurston wants readers to see what Janie cannot see, which is marriage operating as a sneaky repressive entity. We must venture through all of Janie’s three marriages to see whether she will break free from marriage. In her first marriage to Logan we can already see Janie grappling with her individual truth and what the world is telling her. Before they are married Janie “asked inside of herself and out. She was back and forth to the pear tree continually wondering and thinking” (21). There’s an inquisitiveness about Janie, which here is working to question marriage. She thinks ‘inside’ of herself, showing an internal questioning of the system, which contrasts with asking ‘out’ of herself. The outside is society, Nanny, “the old folks,” and the power structures in place that enforce marriage. Janie thinks back to the pear tree with longing, trying to imagine if Logan Killicks can complete her in the same way. But we soon find out that Janie’s inside was right, for her marriage did not live up to the moment of fulfillment under the pear tree. Janie discovered that “marriage did not make love,” and as the novel progresses, Hurston teaches us that marriage does not maintain love either (25).
Janie leaves her loveless marriage to Logan for Jody Starks, only to witness the same cycle unfold. As with Logan, Janie is hopeful to experience completeness in her marriage to Jody, thus her longing for a loving marriage continues. In all three of Janie’s marriages, Hurston subtly nods back to the pear tree, showing that this is always at the forefront of Janie’s mind. One of the first times she meets Jody they “sat under the tree and talked” (29). With the repeated symbolic use of the tree imagery, both readers and Janie begin to believe that Jody will usher in the unique fulfillment Janie is seeking. She goes off with Jody to start a new life and the repeated imagery continues. Janie decides that with Jody, “from now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom” (Tyson, 32). Although Janie experienced the joy of the pear tree individually, she is still driven by the ideology of marriage to see her dream come to fruition and believes that Jody is the missing puzzle piece. We can better understand Janie’s pursuit of marriage through Marxism’s definition of false consciousness. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, marriage is “an ideal [that] functions to mask its own failure, it is a false ideal, or false consciousness” (Tyson, 60). For Janie this means that she’s not to blame for believing in the beauty of marriage, as it has only been presented to her as a positive entity. In addition, false ideals are successful in enlisting support. Janie has been conditioned by the “possibility that anyone can win” in marriage, thus she “cling[s] to that possibility” (Tyson, 60). Jody is an abusive and manipulative partner who eventually dies, but long before his death Janie made the important realization that he was “never the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over” (72). This is a defining moment for Janie because she begins to understand that a husband, a ‘flesh and blood figure,’ is not her dream. Again, Janie has been culturally conditioned to seek a loving marriage, but here Hurston reveals Janie’s internal resistance to the union of marriage. She is starting to see that she has draped her dreams over an ideology, which is what many people do with the American dream, they cling to an idea of possible success and happiness and fail to have realizations like Janie has with her marriage to Jody. However, Janie has yet to break her cycle and finds a third possibility of her dream come true in Tea Cake.
In Janie’s last marriage to Tea Cake she nearly arrives in a liberating relationship, but Hurston reveals that this third marriage too follows a cyclical pattern of hierarchal abuse, reiterating marriage as a repressive ideology. As with Jody, Janie believes Tea Cake “could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring” (106). Janie is a remarkable character for she does not lose hold of her search to be made whole, she is determined not to settle for anything less than complete fulfillment. However, Janie continues to be caught up by the ideal of marriage. She doesn’t know, at least not yet, that a male partner isn’t needed to feel complete. It’s the ideal that’s been instilled in her head keeping Janie enticed by marriage, for in her mind it is the key to love. At first, Tea Cake and Janie’s marriage appears to be filled with mutual love and respect, that is until Tea Cake asserts his authority in similar ways of Janie’s previous husbands. The difference with Tea Cake and her former husbands is that Tea Cake’s physical attack on Janie is somewhat masked or dismissed because it wasn’t directly his fault, for he was bitten by a rabid dog. However, I argue that Hurston uses the mad dog to show that even the “best” man in the novel—Tea Cake—is controlled by patriarchy and therefore cannot love Janie as an equal. Tea Cake tells his doctor that the bite “twudn’t nothin’ much […] it wuz all healed over in two three days” (176). Yet in reality, the dog bite possesses Tea Cake and he tries to kill his wife, which shows that Tea Cake cannot be “healed” from his superiority. It’s crucial to identify the dog bite as patriarchal control because when Janie succeeds in killing Tea Cake, she has defeated the patriarchal control in her life.Although Janie grieves the death of her husband, this doesn’t mean that their marriage met Janie’s pear tree expectation of love and completeness. We see Janie fight to keep their marriage alive when she tells Tea Cake to “put down dat gun and go back tuh bed!” (184). But Tea Cake can’t overcome the ideal of patriarchy, and neither can Janie. She wants to save Tea Cake and her marriage, but Hurston assures readers that marriage can only function as a repressive ideology in a patriarchal society. Janie is single at the end of the novel because she is a character, whether she knows this or not, that can’t thrive in marriages dominated by patriarchy, and for Hurston, there is no such marriage void of this dominance. In relaying all of her lived marriages to her best friend Pheoby, Janie circles back to the beginning of the novel when she says, “you got tuh gothere tuh knowthere. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh” (192). In Janie’s own way she is taking a direct stance against what Marxists call cultural conditioning, which is the reason many (if not all) people adhere to ideologies. No one can out right say that marriage or any other ideology is best, instead, one has to live through the false truths—that marriage is the goal—to learn their own truth. As readers, we don’t know if Janie still believes in marriage by the end of the novel. But still, I argue that Hurston wants readers to see how Janie cannot thrive as an individual woman in a society where marriage is a patriarchal relationship.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God.Amistad, 1937.
Tyson, Lois. Critical Theory Today.Routledge, 2015