Janie is both the protagonist and narrator of her story, recounting her life experiences to her friend Pheoby after arriving back to Eatonville at the end point of her journey. Janie's experiences within her marriages, a central subject of her story, are what drive her to recognize that what she most actively seeks is a voice for herself—to be someone who can speak and be listened to. The distinctive personalities of Jody and Tea Cake in particular bring to light Janie's progress toward finding a voice. While Jody stifles Janie and does not allow her to express herself, Tea Cake earns Janie's attraction precisely by acting as her equal, by being someone who listens.
Janie's full discovery of her own voice emerges in Chapter 19, the climactic trial scene immediately following Tea Cake's death. In this scene, Janie-the-narrator noticeably decreases her interruptions of the narrative itself, instead allowing herself as a character to provide continuous testimony. This shift marks her recognition of herself as an individual with a unique voice, one that she owns and can control without supervision from a man. Janie's story can be read not only as recounting her experiences to a friend, but also as a triumph in and of itself. That is, her goal and desire throughout the novel is to find a voice that is her own and to use that voice to express herself as a person. So being able to tell her own story, to be both the narrator and protagonist, marks the achievement of that ambition.
Their Eyes Were Watching God not only explores the theme of language and storytelling at the level of narrative content, but also through its form. There is a clear split between the narrator's literary style and the dialect of the black American South used by Janie and the characters in her community. This split is deliberately challenging to read, indicating Hurston's attempt as the author to equalize these different forms of communication. By writing the novel in this way, Hurston endows the black community she seeks to portray in the novel with a literary "voice" that was previously unrecognized or seen as un-literary and not worth listening to.
Voice, Language and Storytelling ThemeTracker
Voice, Language and Storytelling Quotes in Their Eyes Were Watching God
Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by time. That is the life of men.
"Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it's some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don't know nothin' but what we see…De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see."
"Thank yuh fuh yo' compliments, but mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin'. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home."
"Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business. He told me how surprised He was 'bout y'all turning out so smart after Him makin' yuh different; and how surprised y'all is goin' tuh be if you ever find out you don't know half as much bout us as you think you do."
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.
Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play. That was even nice. She looked him over and got little thrills from every one of his good points.
The thing made itself into pictures and hung around Janie's bedside all night long. Anyhow, she wasn't going back to Eatonville to be laughed at and pitied. She had ten dollars in her pocket and twelve hundred in the bank.
Janie seethed. But Tea Cake never let go. They wrestled on until they were doped with their own fumes and emanations; till their clothes had been torn away; till he hurled her to the floor and held her there melting her resistance with the heat of his body, doing things with their bodies to express the inexpressible.
"Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons. Dis house ain't so absent of things lak it used tuh be befo' Tea Cake come along. It's full uh thoughts, 'specially dat bedroom."
Of course he wasn't dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish net…She called in her soul to come and see.