Janie in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and Celie in Alice Walker's the Color Purple
The main character and narrator of Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Janie, has much in common with the narrator and main character Celie within Alice Walker's novel The Color Purple (1982). Each speaks authentically, in her own voice: the too-often ignored voice of an African-American female in a white male-dominated society. For both characters, however, authenticity of voice has come at great cost, and through the surmounting of numerous obstacles, the greatest of these being the fears and the lack of confidence within themselves. I will discuss several common characteristics of Celie and Janie within these two novels by female African-American authors.
As Henry Louis Gates, Jr. suggests, fear and hesitancy by African-Americans, male and female alike, to speak authentically, has deep roots: "For just over two hundred years, the concern to depict the quest of the black speaking subject to find his or her voice has been a repeated topos [sic]" (p. 29). Both Janie and Celie are young African-American women, essentially alone and unprotected in the world. Therefore, each character is forced to find her own path in life, and her authentic voice entirely on her own, through a combination of trial and error; observation, internal courage, and intuition. Often both characters' processes of learning who they truly are include facing painful realities, about weaknesses and limitations of others, and men in particular. Although Their Eyes Were Watching God and The Color Purple were published nearly 45 years apart, both Janie and Celie live in an equally white, male-dominated world. Within that world, due not only to their race but to their gender, each character exists, nameless, voiceless, and essentially unimportant (female versions, in that particular sense, of Ralph Ellison's Invisible Man) on the fringes of society.
Zora Neal Hurston (c.189l -1960), is sometimes called the grandmother of African-American literature. Hurston participated in the post-World War I Harlem Renaissance, a period of the flowering of African-American artistic and literary expression within the United States like never before or after, in the years between the two world wars. Hurston is best known for Their Eyes were Watching God, which is, much like The Color Purple, a young inexperienced African-American woman's coming-of-age story. Zora Neale Hurston, however, was the first ever to write a novel hat featured an African-American woman as a coming-of-age main character, that is, Hurston was first to validate, within fiction, such an individual's experience as other than as an extension of white and/or male experience. As Sherley Anne Williams observes, in her "Foreword" to Their Eyes Were Watching God:
Black women had been portrayed as characters in numerous novels by blacks and non-blacks. But these portraits were limited by the stereotypical images of, on the one hand, the ham-fisted matriarch, strong and loyal in the defense of the white family she serves . . ., and, on the other, the amoral, instinctual slut. (p. vii).
Zora Neale Hurston was also the first African-American novelist to describe African-American female experience without somehow degrading that experience. According to the web article "Hurston, Zora Neal":
As a fiction writer, Hurston is noted for her metaphorical language, her story-telling abilities, and her interest in and celebration of Southern black culture in the United States. Her best-known novel is Their Eyes Were Watching God
(1937), in which she tracked a Southern black woman's search, over 25 years and 3 marriages, for her true identity and a community in which she can develop that identity. Hurston's prolific literary output . . . was not political, but her characters' use of dialect, her manner of portraying black culture, and her conservatism created controversy within the black community. Throughout her career she addressed issues of race and gender, often relating them to the search for freedom.
Zora Neal Hurston's fictional works, of which Their Eyes Were Watching God remains the most widely read, deal often with universal themes, including conflicts and difficulties caused by a young African-American woman's struggles to define her own self: vis-a-vis men; her community, and the outside world. From the start, Hurston's main character, Janie, is, as she states: "full of that oldest human longing -- self revelation" (p. 18).
Most typically, within Hurston's works, a young woman is led away from her own self (as Janie is, for example, by her well-meaning Nanny, into her first loveless marriage to the plodding Logan Killicks) through either external circumstances (e.g. naivete, youthfulness, and/or others' wish to assure her security); her own weak judgment, or a combination of all these factors. Then the young woman is left to struggle, on her own, to find her authenticity, often hurting herself and others along the way.
As another example, in Hurston's 'short story "The Gilded Six-bits" (1933), a young, recently married woman, Missy, is seduced away from her loving husband Joe by an apparently wealthy new man in town, Otis Slemmons. After Joe struggles within himself and finds a way to forgive his wife, Missy must learn, by working through her own guilt, to accept Joe's forgiveness, and to also forgive herself. Consequently, when Missy hears Joe at their front door again, meaning that all has been forgiven, Missy, with their new baby in her arms "couldn't run to the door, but she crept there as quickly as she could" (Hurston, "The Gilded Six-bits," p. 1072).
Similarly, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie must learn to accept herself as she is, and forgive herself (and others) for her (and their) past weaknesses and mistakes. Only then can Janie learn to accept herself as she is, and fully appreciate Tea Cake's love for her: as she is and not as he (unlike either Logan or Joe, Janie's past husbands) would like her to be.
Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, frequently acknowledges her own debt to Zora Neale Hurston, and Hurston's literary influence on her and on her own characterizations of African-American women within The Color Purple. According to Harold Bloom, for example, quoting Alice Walker on Hurston's Their Eyes were Watching God: "There is no book more important to me than this one'" (p. 1). And, as Alice Walker also stated, in another tribute to Hurston:
We live in a society, as blacks, women, and artists, whose contests we do not design and with whose insistence on ranking us we are permanently at war.
To know that second place, in such a society, has often required more work and innate genius than first, a longer, grimmer struggle over greater odds that first -- and to be able to fling your scarf about dramatically while you demonstrate that you know -- is to trust your own self-evaluation in the face of the Great White Western Commercial of white and male supremacy, which is virtually everything we see, outside and often inside our own homes. That Hurston held her own, literally, against the flood of whiteness and maleness that diluted so much other black art of the period in which she worked is a testimony to her genius and her faith. (Qtd. In Bloom, "Introduction, pp. 1-2).
Moreover, according to Lauren Berlant, Walker's The Color Purple expands on many ideas and themes initially described, four and a half decades earlier, in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God:
The Color Purple problematizes [sic] tradition-bound origin myths and political discourse in the hope of creating and addressing an Afro-American nation constituted by a rich, complex, and ambiguous culture. But rather than using
patriarchal languages and logics of power to describe the emergence of a postpatriarchal [sic] Afro-American national consciousness, Celie's narrative radically resituates the subject's national identity within a mode of aesthetic, not political, representation. These discursive modes are not "naturally" separate, but The Color Purple deliberately fashions such a separation in its
attempt to represent a national culture that operates according to "womanist" [sic] values rather than patriarchal forms. While political language is laden with the historical values and associations of patriarchal power, aesthetic discourse here carries with it a utopian force that comes to be associated with the spirit of everyday life relations among women.
Within Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie is essentially a free spirit, and within The Color Purple, Celie yearns to be. Both are prohibited, however, from expressing their authentic identity, by their families, their communities, and their society. Janie's grandmother, as a result of her own experience of being raped, greatly fears the possibility of a similar kind of sexual exploitation of her granddaughter Janie, who at the start of the novel is becoming not only a fecund but a beautiful young woman. Therefore, convinced she is protecting Janie against a possible fate like her own, Nanny essentially trades Janie to Logan, for the promise of financial security: another form of sexual exploitation of her (especially since Janie does not love Logan, has nothing in common with him, and never would have chosen him…