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What does it mean to be free? Seems like a rather simple and puzzling question to ask since we are all free. Aren’t we? What it means to be free is a concept that so many feel unreachable and others take for granted. In Zora Neale Hurston's novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie Crawford, the granddaughter of a former slave has grown up knowing the weight of the word freedom and the painful history behind it as an African American. Growing up not only black but a woman of the 30s has shown her a form of imprisonment that was tolerated by society at that time. Having been the wife to three different men over the cause of many years has shown her dependence upon others, and her lacking experience of living life alone. That is until the death of her second husband, Joe Starks, where she has for the first time in her life chosen to be independent from others especially men. This is the first time since she was a child that Janie is free.
In Janie’s quest for freedom, her journey is often affected by outside sources who have their own idea of what it means to be free. Her grandmother had certain expectations as to what her life was going to become.
“Ah been waitin’ a long time, Janie, but nothin’ Ah been through ain’t too much if you just take a stand on high ground lak Ah dreamed" (Hurston, 16).
Slavery confined her grandmother all her life. She didn’t ask for that life but it was the one she had and it kept her from fulling her own dreams. This leads her putting her dreams on the shoulders of her daughter and then her granddaughter, enforcing a certain kind of life for them, especially Janie. So much so that she married Janie off to Logan Killicks, an older man who could offer her protection, stability and 60 acres of farmland. However, Janie never loved Logan and told her grandmother she felt she never could. In the eyes of a former slave, stability and protection out weights love. Janie, on the other hand, saw things differently. Before being married to man she didn’t love, Janie had different ideas as to what love would feel like and be like. She couldn’t be free to love how she wants to with Logan so after two years she left him for a man who she fell deeply for. A man she put all her hopes, dreams and 20 years of her life into. A man named Joe Starks.
For the second time in her life, Janie has become reliant on a man for her survival and stays with him throughout all his digressions. Janie thought that her life with Joe would be exceed all her dreams as to what love and freedom would be. "He spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance" (Hurston, 29). However, for Joe Starks freedom came with authority and power, which he weald carelessly as the mayor of Eatonville. This power he held wasn’t just over the town but over his wife as well. Joe grew jealous of the men who would look at Janie’s outer beauty and forced Janie to put her hair up in a rag. He didn’t want others to see her at all and kept her away from the people of town. Janie became a prisoner once again but this time she was imprisoned by the man she thought would free her.
Joe continues this abuse of Janie’s mind, and beauty for the twenty years that they are married. Janie has no friends and no family left since the death of her grandmother, Joe is all she has. This being said she still searches for the company of others who crowd the porch of the store they own. The porch of the store becomes a sign of society and how we as people need to be around each other and socialize even it means gossiping about each other. Joe doesn’t want Janie to socialize with people because then it means she is enjoying someone else's company.
Janie grows tired of the constant horrid abuse and lashes out at Joe in a game of the dozens. After the attackers her appearance and her age she hits him right where it hurts by saying, “Humph! Talkin’ ‘bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life" (Hurston, 79). Both Joe and Janie throw jabs at each other’s age and sexuality, showing the huge change from when their marriage started. At the beginning of her second marriage, Janie stated “From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom” (Hurston, 32). By calling Joe her bee she referring to a man who can fulfill her sexual needs, which he no longer can do due to his age and his illness. When she does this, she stripped him of his pride and what is left of his manhood in front of his peers. His illusion of power is no longer there and he has nothing to hold onto anymore as his illness worsens.
After a long and confining marriage, Janie is finally free of Joe Starks when his illness takes his life. His death closes a very long chapter in her life and opens a new one that marks independence. A really nice device that Hurston uses in the eighth chapter, is having Janie look at herself in the mirror. “The young girl was gone, but a handsome woman had taken her place. She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there” (Hurston, 87). A mirror in literature often represents a reflection of what is going on in life. Here Janie is starring in the mirror at a woman who has grown in age gracefully despite all she has gone through and all who have tried to diminish her beauty.
There are all different types of ways to find your freedom as demonstrated in Hurston’s novel. For Janie’s grandmother, she was free in knowing her granddaughter was being taken care of. For Joe, he was free of being controlled because he had the power to control others. For Janie freedom came after Joe’s death. It came when she was able to except herself for who she is despite what others say. She found her freedom when she found independence. It took her a great deal of time and pain but she was finally able to find the love she wanted. She just found it within herself. The lesson learned here is not to find happiness in others, true happiness, love, and freedom come from within yourself. Otherwise, you are just free falling.