…the significance of an individual’s attempt to live unconstrained by convention or circumstance.
Convention can be defined as the way in which something is usually done. These conventions are usually placed upon individuals by their society and oftentimes are reinforced by the people who raised them. Thus breaking out of what is conventionally correct can lead to judgement and isolation from others. For this reason, it is often the safest and most comfortable choice to live within convention as there is less risk of judgement or failure. However, constantly being told the correct thing to do can oftentimes limit an individual’s ability to pursue their own desires. In this way, being limited by convention leaves one feeling constrained. In Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, she explored the way individuals respond to conventions placed upon them through the protagonist Janie Crawford. Janie was raised by her grandmother, Nanny. Nanny craved stability and comfort in a conventional lifestyle. This caused her to push Janie into a marriage that was conventional even though it went against Janie’s desire for love. However, because that marriage left her unable to pursue the love she craved it caused her to leave the stability and safety of the conventional lifestyle her grandmother had made her. Janie’s experiences in the novel illustrate how when the personal desires of an individual cannot be achieved by adhering to the conventions of society, they feel constrained by the expectations placed upon them. Thus in order to truly be happy, they must abandon the safety of a conventional lifestyle.
When an individual attempts to live a life of convention that directly conflicts with their own personal desires and dreams, they are left feeling constrained. When Janie was 16 she developed her first dream, to be loved. This causes her to kiss a boy named Johnny Taylor. Seeing this Nanny became fearful that Janie would jeopardize her ability to have a comfortable life. This causes Nanny to marry her off to a man named Logan Killicks. Logan Killicks was much older than Janie and had land and money so Nanny believed that marrying Janie to him would provide her with a life of comfort and stability. Janie, however, wanted love and passion and when Logan could not provide this she went to Nanny to ask her why her marriage had not compelled love. When Janie conveyed her dissatisfaction in her marriage Nanny says “If you don’t want him, you sho oughta. Heah you is wid de onliest organ in town, amongst coloured folks, in yo’ parlor. Got a house bought and paid for and sixty acres uh land right on de big road and … Lawd have mussy!” (page 23). Nanny feels as though Janie should be happy in her conventional lifestyle because it is safe and because it is all that Nanny ever wanted. Janie is left feeling as though she has no control over her own life because of how this big decision was made by Nanny and not herself. The decision to marry Logan was not her own and was not on the path to pursuing her personal desire for love. But because Janie doesn’t love Logan she feels constrained by the conventions placed upon her by Nanny. Janie shows how when the conventional lifestyle placed upon individuals hinders their ability to pursue their dreams and desires they feel constrained. Thus causing them to desire to attempt to break out of the confines of their conventional lifestyle. With Janie’s feelings of constraint rising, she must make the choice of giving up her own personal dreams or staying within the safe conventional life Nanny created for her.
When an individual feels constrained by the conventions placed upon them they make the choice of abandoning the safety of their conventional lifestyle in pursuit of their own dreams and desires. Janie continued to suffer through her marriage with Logan until one day, while Logan was out to get a second mule, she was approached by a man named Joe “Jody” Starks. Joe proposes the idea that Janie should run off and marry him. He says to her “De day you puts yo’ hand in mine, Ah wouldn’t let de sun go down on us single. Ah’m uh man wid principles. You ain’t never knowed what it was to be treated lak a lady and Ah wants to be de one tuh show yuh.” (page 29) conveying to her that Joe could fulfill her romantic desires and free her from her marriage to Logan. Janie then leaves Logan to be with Joe saying “Even if Joe was not there waiting for her, the change was bound to do her good.” (page 32). The conventional thing for Janie to do would be to stay in her marriage with Logan, as her grandmother had desired her to, but Janie craved freedom and love. Even though she was uncertain that Joe would ever love her she still saw that Joe meant freedom from the confines of her conventional life with Logan. By doing something completely outside of society’s ideas of what is conventional, she was able to move closer toward her dream of love, even if it wouldn’t be with Joe. Janie’s experiences convey how when an individual feels that the path to their personal desires is being obstructed by the conventional life placed upon them they will attempt to escape it by doing something unconventional. Janie’s decision to leave Logan took her one step further to the achievement of her goals.
Even when an individual fails at first to pursue their goals, abandoning the confines of a conventional lifestyle can ultimately lead to the achievement of their dreams. Janie’s marriage to Joe did not work out how she had desired. Joe used her simply as something to look at and controlled her by making sure she didn’t interact with the other “lower” people of Eatonville and by making her tie up her hair up in a rag so that it would be hidden from the gaze of other men. However, she was freed from his oppressive grasp when he died. One day while working in the store Janie meets a man named Teacake whom she eventually falls in love with. Once again she found herself facing the decision to either stay in her comfortable life in Eatonville or leave with Teacake. Teacake was the definition of unconventional as he was much younger than Janie, had less money than Janie, and did things such as go out fishing with her just because he felt like it. Because Janie was able to escape her conventional lifestyle once before she was able to do it again leaving her comfortable happy life in Eatonville to pursue Teacake. Finally, Janie succeeds in achieving her first-ever dream, love. Janie’s first attempt at living unconstrained by convention led her to be able to pursue her true desires and dreams. By leaving the comfort of her marriage to Logan then her comfortable lifestyle in Eatonville she was able to acquire that which she wanted most in the world. Even after Teacake’s death, she feels as though she is finally satisfied because she had experienced love with Teacake. Janie’s life shows how by leaving a life where an individual feels dissatisfied and constrained by convention one is able to obtain that which they desire the most.
Through the character Janie Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, shows how when the personal desires of an individual cannot be achieved by adhering to the conventions of society, they feel constrained by the expectations placed upon them. Thus in order to truly be happy, they must abandon the safety of a conventional lifestyle. By leaving the safety of conventional life, with her life with Logan and then her life with Joe, Janie was able to pursue her true desire of love and achieve it with the unconventional Teacake. In order to obtain that which they desire most and be happy one must first break free from the confines of their safe conventional life and make decisions not because it is what is “right to do” but because it is what they wish to do.