In Their Eyes Were Watching God Janie goes through several relationships before [s]he pulled in her horizon like a great fish net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder (p. 184). In other words, not all the experiences that helped her to gain control of her life were positive ones. These experiences can be put into one of four relationships: Nanny, Logan Killicks, Jody Starks, and Tea Cake.
No doubt that Nanny loved Janie a great deal, and naturally she wanted her granddaughter to have security beyond an old woman who would inevitably die. She also wanted more opportunities for Janie than she’d had as she grew up a slave. As she explains to Janie, [a]nd Janie, maybe it wasn’t much, but Ah done de best Ah kin by you. Ah raked and scraped and bought dis lil piece uh land so you wouldn’t have to stay in de white folks’ yard and tuck yo’ head befo’ other chillun at school (p. 19).
Nanny’s intentions are only to make Janie’s life better than hers was, but in an ironic twist she is the one who puts the shackles on Janie in the first place by marrying her off to the person, not of Janie’s choice, but of her own. To give Janie a better life than a slave, Nanny would have done better to not be as controlling. Unfortunately, Janie seems only to remember this and not Nanny’s love.
Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon-for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you-and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated that old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love. (p.85)
Logan Killicks then takes Nanny’s place in Janie’s life. Even for her controlling Nanny he is a poor substitute at best as he calls her spoiled and talks down to her. At one point he even criticizes her for being powerful independent (p. 29) for someone who had been born the way she had (as if she had a choice in the matter!).
If Logan did genuinely care about Janie, then it could not have been a much more complex feeling than his wanting his tools or his mule around. But human beings are a great deal more complicated than that and (hopefully) are not satisfied with being considered a thing rather than a person. Logan goes to town to get a new mule and is expecting that Janie will automatically work with him, something she happens not to agree with. Logan’s problem is that he has a set of expectations about Janie and she fails to live up to them. Had Logan been wiser, he would not have built himslef up so much and instead appreciated who Janie was and not who she wasn’t. This is the last straw in a strained relationship.
Jody Starks has ambition, which is probably not the thing that least attracts Janie to him. In any case, she leaves Logan Killicks to start a new relationship with Jody.
Jody is the first person to hit Janie, and in general he treats her as if she were his property. She is made to tie up her hair, for instance, so that no one else in town can see her with it down. He tries to maintain her as a thing that no one else may look upon or take pleasure from, therefore he keeps control over her life. Ambition may have attracted Janie to Jodie, but the thing he loves is power, and even at his most sensitive to her he is still a shrewd man who’s real intentions have to be second guessed at.
One perplexing thing about Janie’s relationship with Jody is why she doesn’t leave. She certainly shows that she has the initiative when she leaves Logan Killicks, and by the time Jody has hit her for accidentally ruining their dinner it seems obvious that this is not a healthy relationship. So why does Janie stay? Probably because there is no one to latch on to immediately, like there was when she was with Logan Killicks. This greatly qualifies the reader’s optimism since it is showing that Janie is really not so independent- even with the verbal assaults she launches back at Jody, she still stays with him until he dies.
Tea Cake is the only man to ever court Janie (what Logan Killicks did with Nanny is more like lobbying his cause). He is fun-loving, high spirited, outgoing, and does not act like he owns or wants to own her. These things make Tea Cake the ideal mate for Janie, and her relationship with him is the only one that she really enjoys being a part of consistently.
What is bothersome about Tea Cake is that he does in fact hit Janie. Apparently this was tolerable, and even expected at the time. In today’s society it would certainly not be tolerated, nor would the attitude that goes along with it. Tea Cake hits Janie because he is weak, and the act has the complete opposite effect on the reader from the effect it has on the characters in the novel.
When Mrs. Turner’s brother came and she brought him over to be introduced, Tea Cake had a brainstorm. Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him of possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around to show her who was boss. (p. 140)
Maybe it isn’t the beating that is such a problem, but the fact that he needed to be reassured of possession when it is all but assumed that tea Cake is different from the rest of the characters who had tried to possess and/or control Janie.
At her trial, Janie is silent either by Hurston’s wanting to tell it in omniscient third person, or because Hurston is, in fact, trying to qualify the reader’s total optimism about Janie’s life. Was Janie unable to achieve her voice as Robert Stepto contends (see Forward, xi)? Or did we the readers not hear Janie defend herself because knowing how to use your voice includes knowing when not to as Alice Walker believes? Or is Mary Helen Washington the one who hits the nil on the head when she writes, I think that silence reflects Hurston’s discomfort with the model of the male hero who asserts himself through his powerful voice. Depending on the reader’s interpretation of the book, it could be any of these things. But the fact remains that it can be interpreted all three ways (and possibly more) and that alone is enough for the reader to question whether or not the novel is purely optimistic.