Zora Neale Hurtson’s Work and Triple Layers of Oppression

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Layers of Triple Oppression and Its Awakening in The Work of Zora Neale Hurston

by – D. Angeline Jeba & Dr. P. Suresh, Vol. III, Issue. XXXI, August 2017


      This paper focuses on  Zora Neale Hurston’s novel There Eyes Were Watching God, it explores the Triple oppression, race, class, gender discrimination, black woman, identity, liberated woman, oppression, suppression, conditions and situations of women in society, position of women and self-realization or self-awakening through the process of colonization, male-dominated African culture brought to America by the slaves. In fact, the black women are oppressed and suppressed in different aspects.  This paper is an analysis of the ways in which the protagonist of African-American literature signifies Racism, Classism and Sexism with traumatic conditions under which African- Americans live.  This is an attempt to explore, from different feminist perspectives, the quest for the feminine identity of a black woman, Janie Crawford, the protagonist of the novel.  The protagonist’s experience of gaining her natural womanhood has a number of controversial complexities. However, in order to break out from her passivity to seek her feminine voice; her identity, Janie has to take a long journey throughout her marriages against patriarchy that exists within her society. Moreover, the methods that are used in this paper are the descriptive, analytic and interpretative ones. As for the findings, they are limited to Janie’s confrontation to her obstructions in order to gain its awakening.  The objective of this paper is to analyse the sufferings of Afro-Americans and their oppressed life. In addition this paper shows how the challenges faced by the protagonist and how her unsuccessful marriage life become alien in the society and her separation from self-awakening and self-realization in the society.  .




     Triple oppression (classism, racism and sexism) gender discrimination, black woman, identity, liberated woman and self-realization or self-awakening.




     Black women in Their Eyes Were Watching God are oppressed and suppressed by both experiences, the male dominated society and colonization. Women in the colonized situations were nothing but objects to be possessed by men both white and black. Apart from hard work and obedience at home, they were the source of sexual pleasure not only for their husbands but also for the white males. They were considered as exotic sexy women who easily surrender themselves to colonizers. In the colonial space, black woman experiences a much harsher and severer oppression because of the colonialist’s excessive attention to the body of a black woman as a sexual object to be watched and enjoyed; that is just one dimension of black woman’s unfortunate fate. This woman has already been and is simultaneously dominated by the black traditionally male-centered society. Therefore, the Afro-American women can be considered as doubly colonized in their encounter with the white-American culture.

     Zora Neal Hurston is one of the significant writers in American literary history and one of the five or six most cited Afro-American writers in the world. She can be defined as a nonconformist novelist who protests against the traditional way of defining female self in the patriarchal black society as well as a path-breaker for other future female black novelists. The issue of black female sexuality which is introduced in Their Eyes Were Watching God revives a history of black female sexual objectification. Hurston’s literary revival became a central element in the second and third waves of black feminist thought.

     Their Eyes Were Watching God is the second novel written by black female novelist, Zora Neal Hurston. Which is considered Hurston’s best work by many critics, tells the story of a woman’s quest for fulfilment and liberation.  It is about women’s Self-Realization, empowerment of women and protagonist Janie’s emancipation which involves politics and race. A novel dealing with one person’s formative years and spiritual education. Identity is one of the main obsessions of this novel whose characters such as Nanny, Joe and Janie can be considered as those kinds of individuals who struggle to preoccupy themselves with the sense of who they are. The suffering of black women, who have already been silenced and oppressed by black patriarchal society, was doubled by the experience of encounter with the white man in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Therefore Black women are doubly oppressed and suppressed.

            The story of Janie Crawford in Their Eyes Were Watching God is the record of black development from materialism and passivity to self-respect, self-reliance and self-realization. Janie is said to be

“full of that oldest human longing-self realization”(p.18)

The main character, sixteen-year-old Janie, ignores her grandmother’s stories about the violent and tragic history of her family and people because she is too alive in the present to feel burdened by anyone else’s past.  Forced to marry an ugly old farmer to protect her from predatory men, Janie Crawford, refuses to bow down and become wifely and submissive.  She cares nothing for property or security because he is heading to new horizons.  However, Starks, an ambitious man who becomes mayor and chief property owner in Eatonville, want Janie to be his ‘trophy wife’ and stay away from the common people.  Janie lives for sensations, not for ideas and books, so she feels trapped and betrayed.  When Starks dies, Janie a wealthy and attractive widow, refuses advances by black men of property and position and fall for a charming drifter named Tea Cake, who is considered younger, gambles for a living, works only when he needs the money, treats Janie just like a friend and brings her into the center of life with the ‘common folk’.

            Even though Tea Cake once stole all Janie’s money, once beat her and refuses to leave Everglades in time to avoid Hurricane, Janie would rather die with Tea Cake than living a hundred years without him.  When Tea Cake insane from contracting rabies, tries to kill Janie, She waits for him to pull the trigger on five empty chambers, giving him every chance to come to his senses before she shoots him to save her own life.  Even though Tea Cake bites her as he lies dying, she never seeks the rabies antidote that she knows Tea Cake needed.  Instead, she returns to Eatonville in her overalls and tells her best girlfriend that she has lived enough in one year to survive on the memories for the rest of her life.

            In her riveting romance, Hurston is more critical of patriarchal and bourgeoisie values within the black community than of racism and Jim Crow.  Janie seems to be Hurston’s ego, who would sacrifice everything for love, thrusting aside money, career, education and reputation.  Her unorthodox desire to be one of the poor folk rather than a middle-class wife is a resistance to the class wife is a resistance to patriarchally imposed roles that Hurston also embraced.


            The Triple oppression is based on racism, classism and sexism of the African American women. It significantly affected how African American women viewed themselves as well as how they interacted socially and politically with the greater society.  The ultimate fact of this inequity, class-based oppression, explains the low economic status of African American women.  There is only one aspect of black women’s oppression which is equally important to the definition of womanhood in the male-dominated society.


            For centuries Black women were called ‘slave of a slave’. African culture is considered to be the dominant culture and often intimidated by racists.  A black woman in Africa enjoyed many birthrights and equality to the men prior to the slavery. The black woman’s appearance was very exacerbated.  The main aim of the women organization was to scrap all kind of commercial and constitutional disparities against them.  Now they are mainly worried about the issues of black women who are suffered from triple oppression racism, classism and sexism.

Black women are called, in the folklore that so aptly identifies one’s status in society,

“the mule of the world,” because we have been handed the burdens that everyone else—

everyone else—refused to carry. We have also been called “Matriarchs,” “Superwomen,”

and “Mean and Evil Bitches.” Not to mention “Castraters” and “Sapphire’s Mama.”

                                                                                       (In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden P.237)

 The above quote has taken from In Search of Our Mothers’ Garden by Alice Walker.  She lists many of the dominant categories that have been applied to Black women since slavery and oppression, including the, perhaps, most damaging one to their mental preparation.   The  Black superwoman myth, which draws from other categories to form social and personal barriers for Black women.


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. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

                                                                                         (Their Eyes were watching god, P.No-56)

This passage, which opens Their Eyes Were Watching God, establishes the novel’s unusual dimensional on discrimination based on gender, discrimination against women and gender bias or gender domination. Because it is the story of a woman and it was the first major novel published by a black woman (Zora Neale Hurston), Their Eyes Were Watching God is often classified as a feminist novel and about women’s liberation. But feminism is often related to the idea that men and women are entirely equal in all aspects; here, the narrator of the fiction immediately establishes a radical difference between men and women. The idea that men and women need certain things from each other periodically many times throughout the novel, as Janie searches for the lovable man who can compliment her and give her those things that she doesn’t have, and Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake attempt to fill their respective needs with Janie in their respective relationships. Finally, the passage foreshadows the novel’s thematic effects: the statement about women is proud, defiant and intransigent, saying that while men never really reach for their dreams, women can control their wills and chase their dreams. As the novel extends, Janie, the protagonist reacts according to this conception, combat, battling, struggling and grapple in the direction of her dreams.  Thus gender discrimination plays a major role in this novel.


            Janie has never had a firm identity in her life since childhood.  She didn’t realize that she was a black but she identifies when she saw her picture one day.  Everyone used to call her by various names.  Janie was not raised by her mother but her grandmother.  She has very little knowledge about her family.  She knew that her mother and grandmother were both raped by white men.  Janie never knew her father.

“[Tea Cake] looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom – a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.”

Their Eyes Were Watching God Pg.No -101

            The above quotes justify the love thoughts between Tea Cake and Janie while she was searching for her own identity and self-realization.  Thus, Janie Crawford succeeded her own identity towards her life.


            Janie has a self-realization or self-awakening, self-portrait and self-confidence when she got married. She searched for her own identity.  Being married doesn’t mean that there will be love among the couple.  From learning her self-realization she becomes a woman.  She realizes that some idea given by her grandmother helped her finding and fulfilling Janie’s dreams.  Always her grandmother wants Janie to search for good things, but she really wants people to love.  There comes her self-realization. She wants her dream come true and she wants her life filled with true love and affection from her husband.


Their Eyes Were Watching God, depicts the ill-treatment of black women which constitutes one of the most important aspects of Hurston’s novel. This fiction represents frustrations of kinship and circumstantial violations of intimacy. The protagonist Janie Crawford’s life was filled with oppression, suppression, unhappy married life with three men, domination society, racial discrimination, gender discrimination and class discrimination. There are many ways of defining identity and the whites justified their exploitation of black people everywhere in the world. According to this work, women are considered to be the weaker sex and also much weaker among the services. As a colour woman, Janie suffered very much in her life. At last, she had been searching for her own identity and self- realization. After the wedding, she felt very refreshed because of her self- realization. The woman used to be always explained in opposition to man from the unknown time in ancient up to now; this definition and description of woman have been based on the critically unfounded assumption that women are much weaker than men which have brought about there. This is the reality for a black woman to fight against this idea in the colonialist situation.

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, women such as Nanny(grandmother), Leafy(mother) and Janie are exposed to the disagreeable reality of being exploited both in terms of their gender, class and their race. White man thinks women as objects and toy of watching blacks and sexual enjoyment; he has no respect for their self or identity as a black woman. Being a black woman makes Nanny and Leafy an easy target for being raped and dominance, and became Black woman is not defined in terms of an accustomed person to own a self or identity or uniqueness for herself in the presence of white people.

 Janie does not feel better in her three consecutive marriages to three black men named Logan Killicks, Joe Starks, and Tea Cake. In each of these marriages Janie experiences all sorts of oppression, suppression persecution and objectification;  What connects all the three men is that they all aim at defining Janie as selfless being whose identity should be mould by them and not by herself; through her marital relationship with the patriarchal black society Janie is further colonized and conquered.



Bennett A and Royle N. (eds.). 2004. Literature, Criticism and Theory. London: Pearson Longman.

Bloom H. 2008. Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: InfoBase P.

Washington HM. 2008. “I Love The Way Janie Crawford Left Her Husband: Zora Neale Hurston’s Emergent Female Hero.” Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Ed. H. Bloom. New York: InfoBase Publishing.

Johnson Yvonne. 1999. The Voice Of African American Women.  New York: Peter Lang Publishing.

Cooke. G. Michael. 1984. Afro- American Literature In The Twentieth Century: London: Yale University Press.

Drew. A. Bernard. 2007. 100 Most Popular African American Authors: Biographical Sketches And Bibliographies. London: Libraries Unlimited.

Introduction to the Authors: 

D. Angeline Jeba is a Ph.D research scholar at Dept. of English, Vels University, Chennai. The co-author, Dr. P. Suresh, is an assistant professor in the same department at the same university.



            I record a deep sense of gratitude to my research supervisor, Dr. P. Suresh, Assistant Professor, Department of English, Vels University, Chennai. I am indebted to him for the concern, counsel and encouragement; I received from him in the progress.

I also express my acknowledgement to the management, the Director and the Head of the Department, English for their encouragement. I extend my sincere thanks to the Librarian, American Library, Chennai.

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