The Renaissance means rebirth and that is what

The Harlem Renaissance was an important cultural movement that was
related to African Americans who had moved to the northern cities to get a
better life for themselves; it was also known as “New Negro Movement”.
Renaissance means rebirth and that is what African Americans were trying to do
in the 1920s; African Americans were creating a new image for themselves
through arts, music, and literature and Zora Neale Hurston was one of them. Her
novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was published at the peak of the movement
and it was criticized by many as a novel that had no real message or purpose;
and because Hurston empowered a female character and refused to follow the
roles of women in her story, the book was criticized further. However, at the
time of the Harlem Renaissance African American’s wanted to be heard and seen
differently, yet within that group, African American Women were silenced more
than African American men. Which is why I believe Hurston’s novel is so
powerful; it gives a voice to those women. In a time where African American
women were struggling to be heard, Hurston uses the power of voice and silence
as a tool of our protagonist’s journey to empowerment.

    The first and most obvious method Hurston
uses to show how voice and silence are used is through her characters, and
within them, we have the female characters and the male characters and each
contributed significantly to Janie’s empowerment. The female characters that
aided in silencing our protagonist and helping her find her voice are her
grandmother, the women in Eatonville and her best friend. The first character
that silenced our protagonist, Janie Crawford, was her own grandmother. Janie’s
grandmother, whom she refers to as Nanny, was a former slave who had been raped
by her owner and her daughter, Janie’s mother, was raped too by a teacher;
thus, the grandmother’s fear was that Janie would end up the way they both did,
pregnant by a man that was not her husband. Nanny’s view of the world was that
everyone had their place and she would not let Janie wander, “Honey, de white
man is der ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out… De nigger
woman is de mule uh de world as fah as Ah can see.” (Hurston 14). Janie’s
grandmother knows how the world works, she does not intentionally silence Janie
but marrying her off to Logan Killicks was out of love rather than mere
control. “She merely wants Janie to be content at rising above the menial
“mule” existence she believes a black woman normally takes on in the
world.” (Putnam 6).  The next characters
that contributed to silencing Janie were the female residents of Eatonville.
These women all had an idea of the kind of woman Janie was and all had a fixed
image of how she should behave. This was because of her marriage to Joe Starks
who had become mayor of Eatonville; even after his death, the townspeople felt
that she had an image to uphold. After she ran off with Tea Cake and came back,
they talked about her and assumed the worst and because they assumed the worst
they gave Janie’s story a voice. In the first chapter, when Janie first comes
back, everyone started to talk about her, and the women who had been jealous of
her before had remembered that jealousy. Them talking about her is what made
Pheoby, Janie’s best friend, go talk to her which is why the story is told.
This makes Pheoby the first character to give Janie a voice. Pheoby goes over
to Janie claiming she wanted to give her a plate of dinner, but really she
wanted to find out what happened; and Janie tells her and gives her the power
to tell anyone or refuse to tell anyone the story, “You can tell’em, what Ah
say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah
friend’s mouf.” (Hurston 6). By telling Pheoby the story, she gave power to her
own voice, but Pheoby telling the story to other people is how she gave Janie a
voice. Hurston’s way of using the female character’s show how some African
American women were put down by other African American women; but some were
also empowered by their help. Her novel seems to be her way of her giving them
a voice just like her female characters gave Janie.

We Will Write a Custom Essay Specifically
For You For Only $13.90/page!

order now

    The male characters in Hurston’s novel had
a bigger part in Janie’s empowerment. Most people would focus on the men she
married; but there are four men that influenced her life, Tea Cake, Jody
Starks, Logan Killicks and Johnny Taylor. Johnny Taylor was the first boy Janie
kissed, she did not love him but it was a symbol of the beginning of Janie’s
journey. Maria Racine describes Johnny Taylor as “…a minor character, thus a
lesser defined mirror of Janie,” (Racine 2); all we know of Johnny is that he
was young and her first kiss. He, like Janie, has no voice and seems to be an
imitation of how she started her journey; young, innocent and at the beginning
of their adult lives. He influences Janie by being her beginning to the search
for herself, “She thought awhile and decided her conscious life had commenced
at Nanny’s gate.” (Hurston 10), that time she entered the gate, the time spent
under a peach tree and getting her first kiss was her awakening. After the kiss
she was compelled, by her grandmother, to marry Logan Killicks. Logan Killicks
was considerably older than Janie and at the time Janie’s idea of marriage was
one full of passion and love. She soon realized that was not the case and
although she was not silent with Logan she did not exactly object to anything;
she spoke out about how she felt about working, yet she was still put to work.
In this marriage, she was silenced by being forced to do manual labor, and by
losing the hope of love in this marriage but only because Logan himself had no
voice of his own. He would tell Janie to work every now and then, but would not
ask her to, just tell her; the conversations between them had no passion, no
love or hate. We only see a little of Logan’s emotions when Janie decides to
leave, “There! Janie had put words in his held in fears” (Hurston 30). This
shows that Logan had emotions, he had feelings for Janie but he did not know or
could not express them; leaving him without a voice. Moreover, as Maria Racine
puts it, “Neither Janie nor Killicks is capable of full expression with the
other, and this causes Janie to turn to Joe Starks.” (Racine 3), since Killicks
himself had no voice it made it easy for Janie to run away with Joe Starks.

    Her second marriage to Joe Starks is where
Janie not only has no voice but any attempt she made to use it she was shut
down by her husband. Joe Starks, or Jody, was one of the characters that
through his actions and words forcefully silenced Janie. At first, in Janie’s
eyes, Jody was not exactly what she wanted, she wanted passion and he wanted
recognition and class; “Janie pulled back a long time because he did not
represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon.”
(Hurston 29). He was not exactly what she was aiming for but he was a close
second, so she ran away with him. He was sweet at first and full of passion
towards his dream, and he cared for Janie, but when he became mayor he became
more restricting. He made her tie her hair up and hide it, as her hair was
considered one of Janie’s most beautiful features it was a symbol of Janie’s
forced silence. He would not let her speak her mind on the porch with other
people or join in on town affairs; all he did was make her run the shop and
take care of his meals. He dressed her up in nice fine clothes that made the
rest of the women full of envy but he kept silencing her and as he got older
started to put her down excessively. LuElla Putnam describes Janie’s decision
to go off with Jody as “the closest Janie can find to fulfill what she believes
her grandmother would most want for her” (Putnam 7); however, I believe her
decision was more based on whether Joe would help her get what she wanted, what
her grandmother prevented her from with her first marriage, love. On the other
hand, Racine states that Janie to Jody “…is just another of his possessions.”
(Racine 5); this describes what I feel Hurston wanted to project. That to Jody
he owned Janie, no one else could have her and he could treat her any way he
likes. Therefore, Janie is silenced in her second marriage because she is seen
more of an object than a woman, was given material things instead of the love
that she wanted. Fatefully, the man who silenced her the most was the man who
pushed her too far; Jody had been criticizing Janie about her looks and how she
was getting older, to make himself feel better and one day she had enough and
speaks out, “Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah’m uh woman every inch of
me, and Ah know it. Dat’s uh whole lot more’n you kin say.” (Hurston 79). She
speaks out in front of everybody, “She bares his body to the communal gaze, not
only denying his masculinity but displaying his lack to other men,” (Clarke 9),
and he decides to give her the silent treatment causing him to lose his voice.
The day he died she went to him against his wishes and speaks her mind again
for the first time; explaining to him how he had made her feel. The way Hurston
uses this character reflects on the Harlem Renaissance, how African Americans
were pushed too far that they had to speak out; show everyone else how valuable
and intelligent they were and how they deserved to be heard.   

    Janie’s last marriage is where most people
feel she was the most empowered. Tea Cake, Vergible Woods, was a man that Janie
actually fell in love with; she left Eatonville to marry this man and live with
him away from envious and judgmental eyes. With Tea Cake, she experiences more,
than with either of her two previous husbands; she works because she wants to
be with her husband, she dances with the rest of her neighbors and Tea Cake
encourages her every action. “And with Tea Cake’s support and encouragement,
Janie continues to strengthen her voice.” (Racine 6). However, even Tea Cake
could not express all his feelings in words; when he felt jealous he beat
Janie, “Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior
justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him.” (Hurston
147). Like Killicks, being able to communicate these feelings may have been
difficult for Tea Cake, and being able to assure his dominance over her was a
way to reassure himself more than it was for Janie to understand. Although many
people would like for Tea Cake’s love for Janie be what strengthened her voice,
I believe it was more of the things she experienced. Away from her grandmother’s
ideals, Stark’s vision of class, and the prying eyes of the people in
Eatonville; with Tea Cake she experiences new things, learns how to shoot, goes
out to work on the fields and this is what leads Janie to empowerment.
Hurston’s use of Tea Cake was not to show how love can change us, but more of
how experience can open our eyes; can help us see, understand and speak out.
For African Americans who were silenced, the way for their voices to be heard
was through their achievements and their work; and for Hurston that would be
her writing.

    The characters are only one of the methods
Hurston used to create a voice for Janie and correspondingly African American
women; another method she used was the narration. There are only a few pages
where the narration is in Janie’s actual voice, the first-person narrative; but
most of the novel is in the third-person, the story is being told by someone
else. “Altogether Janie speaks only about seventy lines of actual story-telling
dialogue out of almost two hundred pages of text, the rest of which continues
in free indirect discourse with the understanding that it is derived from
Janie’s perspective and memories,” (Bailey 320). We assume that the rest of the
story is being told by Pheoby, or what Pheoby heard from Janie, and because of
this, there are parts of the story that empowers Janie even when she is silent.
The first part is when, as I have already mentioned, Tea Cake beats Janie
because he wanted to reassure himself after the fear he felt of losing her.
During this part of the story we never hear Janie’s comments on what happened;
the narrator decides to be silent on how Janie felt or what she thought about
it. All we do get is other men praising Tea Cake for the woman he has; that she
is not like the others, she does not yell or scream just cries and Tea Cake
agrees almost proudly. We could assume her silence and acceptance of what
happened was because she loved her husband, but it could be because Pheoby, who
is the one telling the story, would not want Tea Cake to be seen negatively
through Janie’s eyes, “she must edit out the more unpleasant details of her
relationship with Tea

in her own memory—limiting her knowledge of Tea Cake and of herself for

sake of the story.” (Bailey 331). Leaving parts out like this could be a way to
keep Tea Cakes image as the loving husband. On the other hand, this silence
could be a way of showing Janie’s understanding to what Tea Cake did. Joe
Starks had hit her too, and this was over a meal; Tea Cake hit her out of
feelings he could not express and Janie at this point has grown so much that I
believe she begins to understand and accept that sometimes men have trouble
communicating with words. Hurston’s effect here was to show how Janie was
already becoming powerful, she did not have to speak out or act on what
happened like with her other marriages; and not because of love but because
through her silence she had become more powerful.

    Janie’s silence through the narration is
again experienced when we read about the trial. When Tea Cake gets sick and
starts to become delusional, he attacks Janie and she shoots him to protect
herself. We are told there is a trial with 12 white jurors and Tea Cakes
friends; what we are not told or get to read is what Janie said or how she told
the story. This silence is a clear indication of how powerful Janie is, we do
not need to know what she says; she is a black woman who through her words,
whatever they may be, was found innocent by white jurors. “…this scene
exemplifies her independence as a woman,” (Racine 8). Hurston leaving out
Janie’s testimony is to show us that even in silence a person can be powerful,
that we only have to see it; “Hurston’s Janie makes readers “see” her story,
and thus takes control of both the visual field and its interpretation.”
(Clarke 3).  By not “hearing” what Janie
says during the trial we see her power through the result of her unheard

    The last method that Hurston uses often is
the mule; a symbol she uses to represent silence and speech. “De nigger woman
is de mule uh duh world so fur as Ah can see.” (Hurston 14), this is the first
introduction to the mule and it is by the grandmother, who compares African
American women to a mule. It may have a negative aspect to it, but a mule was
an animal that was stubborn and strong-headed; “However, mules are
stereotypically portrayed not as docile but rather as stubborn and
unpredictable animals.” (Haurykiewicz 3). However, when the mule is talked
about Janie loses her voice; she gets married to Killicks against her own
wishes. We see a mule again when Janie moves to Eatonville with her second
husband, the yellow mule that everyone made fun of, but Janie was not allowed
to do so, “Janie loved the conversation and sometimes she thought up good
stories on the mule, but Joe had forbidden her to indulge.” (Hurston 53); Janie
was not allowed to contribute to the “mule talk”. Therefore, every time the symbol
of a mule was present she was silenced and when it was not she had her voice
again. “The image of the mule is frequently linked to these acts of silencing,
while the absence of the mule indicates the potential for speech and
communication in Janie’s life.” (Haurykiewicz 3). Hurston’s use of this
stubborn animal as a way to silence our protagonist and every time it is
present Janie is forced to be silent and when it is not her ability to speak
out becomes manageable.

    To conclude, Hurston uses methods within
her novel to show others how easy it is for an African American Woman to be
silenced by their history, by their husbands and even other African American
women. Her use of mule imagery to describe the silence that was forced onto
Janie and its relation to these women was a comparison that shows how
restricted they were, makes this story one of the most important novels during
the Harlem Renaissance. As an author during the Harlem Renaissance,  Hurston was able to write a novel, that not
only gives voice to Janie Crawford but gives a voice for herself and other
African American women; and even if it is criticized because people believe it
has no purpose, I believe the novel was the voice they needed.