prompt: …the significance of an individual’s attempt to live unconstrained by convention or circumstance.
text: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Circumstances can be defined as the conditions surrounding an individual at various points in their life. It is the nature of these circumstances that dictates the results of one’s actions; therefore, an individual’s responses and feelings towards these results will reveal their desires regarding how they want to live their life. When feelings of dissatisfaction — stemming from outcomes that fail to live up to expectations — take over an individual’s perspective on their circumstances, the manifestation of unhappiness and discontent is all but inevitable. This causes an individual to attempt to live unconstrained by their predetermined situations. Zora Neale Hurston explores an individual’s response to their restrictive circumstances in her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, with the protagonist Janie Crawford. Janie grew up in rural Florida at the turn of the century under her grandmother, Nanny’s, care. As a former slave, Nanny had strong opinions regarding the way Janie should be raised and ensured Janie lived the life that she, herself, wished she had; however, these restrictive expectations clashed with Janie’s desires to live unconstrained to pursue her ideal life by seeking her “horizon” — the combination of love and freedom — which often led her to leave safety and security in favour of her idyllic life. Hurston explores how Janie’s experiences show that when an individual feels dissatisfied with the restrictive nature of the circumstances they find themselves in, their life can only find purpose by living unconstrained by them — they choose to follow their values and beliefs in an attempt to make their life meaningful; thereby, one is freeing themselves from the limitations they face. Janie’s continual choices of leaving her circumstances in the pursuit of her desires — even in the face of failure — demonstrates the value she places on them and her unrelenting ambition.
Circumstances are very influential in shaping an individual’s desires and goals as well as the results obtained from the pursuit of these. Nanny’s life as a slave has shaped her views on the value of financial security above all else when trying to survive in the world. Nanny and her daughter were both raped and had a child as a result of it; these unprotected circumstances that she and her daughter lived through play a significant role in Nanny’s intentions to protect Janie in what she perceived as the best option: marriage. When Nanny sees her granddaughter kissing Johnny Taylor, she sees the change within Janie — specifically her sexual awakening symbolized by the blooming pear tree and the new sight she found through the “pollinated air.” Nanny sees this new stage of Janie’s life forgoing any romanticization and does not want her granddaughter to be forced into a life of shame and dishonour, similar to the one she had. Marriage was the respectable choice and, Logan Killicks, was a respectable man; a man who could protect Janie and offer her status and security — ideals Nanny longed for. This marriage marks the start of Janie’s dissatisfaction in her circumstances and the start of the resentment directed at the woman who got her into this situation, Nanny. When someone is young, the people who raised them can play a significant role in creating their circumstances. It is when these situations neglect the ideals and values of the person directly affected that an individual must reevaluate their desires in accordance with the life forced upon them. Janie’s “first dream” revolved around the concept of love and she thought she would find it in marriage. When this turns out to not be the case, she tells Nanny who calls her desires “full uh foolishness” because Janie has everything she could need — at least in Nanny’s perspective. To her, the issue of love was minor and should hardly even be considered when choosing how to live. Nanny tries to get her granddaughter to conform to the beliefs she has because she is trying to give Janie a successful life — something she never had — Nanny believes that living a respectable life will lead to fewer burdens. By conforming to Nanny’s values instead of living according to her own, it is clear that “Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.” Dissatisfaction often comes when an individual is constrained by a life they had no role in creating. Values and beliefs change with time and based on one’s experiences. When there are two individuals who were brought up in very different ways, neither would be happy in the other’s perceived ideal circumstances. At this point in her life, Janie is stuck in her situation and the only thing she can feel is a sense of dissatisfaction.
It is with the realization that life beyond one’s current situation is possible that hope manifests into an individual attempting to live unconstrained by their circumstances. The reality of Janie’s marriage was seen with it stagnating as Logan was no longer fascinated by his new bride and thought putting her to work on the farm was the best use of her. When he had gone to buy supplies, she met Joe “Jody” Starks for the first time. He was a smartly-dressed man who talked to her about his dreams of power and having “a big voice.” Most importantly, he told her about the “horizon” and “change and chance.” The horizon in Janie’s mind was an ideal defined by the coexistence of love and freedom and her circumstances made it feel like a dream that would never come to fruition; in fact, Nanny had “pinched it into such a little thing” and “choked” her with it as an attempt to villainize it and make it something that would hurt her more than help her. She wanted to prevent Janie from pursuing a life that would jeopardize everything Nanny had established for her. Joe’s drive and passion inspired Janie to look past her undesirable circumstances by allowing her to envision a life unconstrained by the values Nanny imposed on her. Finding the horizon became an actual possibility rather than a hopeless venture. When individuals see how it is, in fact, possible to leave their circumstances in the pursuit of something better, they attain a renewed sense of hope in what had once seemed like an implausible dream. They continue meeting after their initial encounter; one day, Joe asks her to leave with him because he wants to “make a wife” out of her. She is reluctant but does not deny him, thereby, demonstrating the appeal she sees in a life with him. It is when she talks to Logan about the possibility of her leaving in the pursuit of her ideals, she gets the perspective she needed the most: her life with Logan was not a life at all. His only response was to belittle her and cite how he was too good for anyone in her family. Life with Logan lacked both love and freedom — this life was the furthest from her view of the horizon. If Janie chose to continue to live constrained by these circumstances, she would have no one to blame for her unhappiness but herself. This time, it was her choice. With that, she leaves the security and safety Nanny had put in place for her in search of the horizon — something she desired. Upon seeing the potential that exists in creating a new life for oneself, dissatisfaction only grows in response to one’s present circumstances. This gives them the motivation to leave their life behind — the good and bad parts alike — favouring the chances they have at living a life they desire over the certainty they have with their present situations. Janie makes this decision with Joe as her only support and, thereby, must learn to live by these choices even if the results do not match what was originally sought.
The initial realization that a life unconstrained by circumstances is possible allows hope to thrive even in the face of failure. Life with Joe was not what she had imagined when she chose to leave Logan. She had freedom, but she lacked love. To Joe, Janie was more like a trophy than a wife. He used her beauty and elegance to make his standing in town even greater. This emotional separation caused a rift between them, and it was resolved only with his death. Through death, Janie was freed from the oppressive circumstances Joe had forced upon her. This is evident with her removing the head-rag he forced her to wear and leaving her hair, which was symbolic of her power, down. With the introduction of new circumstances in her life, Janie obtains a renewed sense of hope. While, in her life, attempts to live unconstrained by her circumstances led to another set of unfavourable circumstances; what she acknowledges, however, is how it is possible to create a life that matches one’s ideals and goals. Joe, for all his faults, managed to create a town and a respectable man out of himself. He was the perfect example of creating a life based on one’s wants and desires. Seeing how potential continues to exist allows individuals to maintain hope as they continue their life keeping in mind that success could be within their grasp. Her life with Joe was not the complete realization of the horizon, but it showed her that the horizon was not an implausible dream. After Joe’s death, Janie continued to work in the store. There, she meets Tea Cake. Tea Cake’s presence is full of charm and charisma as he teaches her to play checkers — something Joe never did. This game represents the equality that exists in their relationship, which gives her the respect and independence she desired, again, revitalizing the hope she has in the realization of her ideal life. While she was reluctant at first, Janie gives into Tea Cake’s advances and, similar to her first attempt at living unconstrained by circumstances, leaves Eatonville for the Everglades. Again, this choice represents how important the pursuit of the horizon became to her. Janie left a life in a big, nice house in favour of pursuing happiness. She refused to limit herself based on the fact she had money and security because those were not the things she valued in life. With Tea Cake, Janie went to the “horizon and back” showing how, in her third marriage, she was able to find what she wanted most — freedom in the form of not being limited by anyone and love with someone who treated her like a wife. With Tea Cake, the choice to live unconstrained by circumstances was a successful and fruitful venture because it gave Janie what she desired most in her life. This was her idyllic life. One can play a major role in creating their perfect life, it is just up to them to make the choice to do so. Even if failure comes at times, a possibility continues to exist, which means success is not just a dream. Janie may have failed at first, but her hope and persistence allowed her to live out her desires eventually.
Through plot and character development in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston demonstrates that living unconstrained by circumstances allows an individual to choose a life that prioritizes their own ideals over someone else’s. Even if some of her efforts were met with failure, Janie’s realization that it is possible to create her situations enabled her to find the motivation to act following her values continuously. By choosing to not be limited by her circumstances, Janie was able to live a life she designed — though it might have been short, it was enough for her. The horizon became her reality and gave her everything she needed. The only way one can ensure their happiness in life is when they take it into their control.
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