Nearly every conversation that has to do with a group of people that are oppressed in one way or another takes the same turn, namely, the way in which the domination is either not working or could potentially break down. Throughout the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie is a dominated, subdued, always-looked-out-for type of character. However, it never seems that she is the type of person who particularly needs this type of oversight. Janie is dominated in many ways, but the most complex and interesting way is through voice. Janie has one of the most meaningful voices in the novel, and yet it is a voice the reader often feels deprived of, one that is quiet in moments where one might want it to be the loudest in the room. What this paper attempts to do is analyze areas in which Janie is spoken for and also show how her being spoken for has never hampered her voice, but rather has forced it to develop, helping make it the most cutting and meaningful voice in the novel.
Right from the very beginning of the novel, Janie is described but in a way that is certainly not her own language. The novel reads as follows:
The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye. (pg. 3)
In this description, there is a blending of voice being shown by a borrowing of words. The analogies that are given for her “firm buttocks” and “pugnacious breasts” are certainly not figures of speech coming from the narrator. These are, in fact, coming from the men. The men who are watching Janie go by are imposing their speech into the narrative in a way that makes their opinion sound like the facts about the situation. This is significant, particularly in this instance, because this develops the reader’s first impression of Janie. Janie is not being given the chance to introduce herself; rather, she is being talked about from an outside perspective that she would certainly have not given, particularly in an introduction. What this does is show where voices stand in the culture. It is apparent that when people are spoken of, they are spoken of in the terms that the men dictate. The rest of the novel will go on to prove that there is much more to Janie than what this initial description would show, but nonetheless, she is a character that is spoken for, not one who initially can speak.
What is striking about this use of language, a description that is run by the male voice, is that it leads directly into a female dominated conversation. Throughout page four, the women that were on the porch Janie walked by go on to talk about Janie and her lack of stopping to talk to them. The ladies on the porch feel quite shunned by Janie and use it then as the main source of their conversation. In the midst of this feeling, the reader develops an interesting sense, one that will be confirmed by what the rest of the novel says. For Janie, to not speak is to speak. By not saying a word to the women as she passed by them, not only did she give them more than enough to fuel their conversation, but she also did, in the minds of the women, make a statement about the type of person she is. Even in a moment where Janie does not speak, she is, in a very real way, spoken for.
Though Janie is spoken for from the introduction of the book, the most notable example of her being spoken for comes from her relationship with Joe. Joe Starks was a man with a very well defined voice. Right when the reader is first introduced to him, the reader is struck both by the grandness of the plans he has and the certainty he has that those plans coming to pass is only a matter of time. Throughout their time in the Negro community, Janie is spoken for under the strong hand of Joe, but this does not diminish the voice that she has. The inactive voice is not the same as the voiceless. Janie proves that in the scene where Joe dies. The sentence Janie says to begin this deep, revealing conversation is “Naw, Jody, Ah come in heah tuh talk widja and Ah’m goin-tuh do it too. It’s for both our sakes Ah’m talkin’.” (pg. 85) A sentence like this drives a spell check feature crazy, and that is exactly the point. Though the Negro community has spoken for Janie in many ways, she has not rejected that community outright. Being spoken for has not caused her to run to “The King’s English” and get away from the culture that has, in various ways, suppressed her voice. Rather, she has made that culture her own. This sentence contains nearly as many words that are affected by the Negro voice than words that are not. This is a part of Janie; Hurston wanted it that way. This moment is, in many ways, exactly what the reader wants to see. The reader at this point in the novel has heard so many people speak for Janie while learning so many reasons to want to hear an unfiltered Janie voice that this scene is a welcome break from the norm. Here, she proves just how developed her voice is.
As the conversation between a dying Joe Starks and a finally alive Janie heats up, on of the things that she brings up is the idea of being changed. Joe has always been the man that he was and did not allow anything to change that drive and passion he had for establishing a meaningful town. This, however, is being used as a fault against him. Janie has shown that her voice is one that develops. When she was a young girl being confronted by her grandmother, she did not have it in her to stand up to anyone. She was willing to be led, even if she felt that leadership was not in her best interest. Here she shows that she has the type of voice that can stand up to someone. Albeit this only does come when Joe is down and getting ready to die, she still actually stands up to him because she has allowed time to change her. What is being contrasted here is the static voice and the dynamic voice. Joe’s static voice does not change for different people, different towns, or different circumstances. Janie has found a way for her voice, quiet as it may be, to navigate the various situations and circumstances that require voices to be different and enable voices to be heard. Janie does not wait for this moment because she simply wanted to, but rather because this was the last chance for her voice to be heard, and that made it the best time to speak.
Janie concludes the conversation and makes her last words to Joe words about the voice. “All dis bowin’ down, all dis obedience under yo’ voice – dat ain’t whut Ah rushed off down de road tuh find out about you.” (pg. 87) What Joe took as a balance of power, Janie viewed as a vocal suppression. It was never that Janie gave up her voice; there was simply no room for it in a conversation that was cohabited by Joe Starks. Janie’s voice was not one that needed to come out in words all the time because it was always at work within her, telling her what a situation truly was, always interpreting the world even when that interpretation had no where to go. Even though she bowed down beneath his voice, she never allowed her voice to become a fully submissive entity. This is what Joe never realized about power and this is why Hurston has Janie now notice how the powerful chair has been difficult on Joe. Voices never stop developing, they never truly bow down, and they never really go away. Even when the actions of a person show true support, the ruler will always have to wonder if the voice of the servant is as faithful. As Janie shows here, that voice often is not.
What can very easily be lost in this novel through the way it is laid out is that the entire narrative runs through Janie. It begins with Janie sitting down to tell the story of how she came to be the way that she is, and the rest of the novel goes on to follow the leadings and prompting of her voice. Janie’s voice has to be viewed as always developing because every moment of her life has led her to be the type of person that can give a story about that life. While he voice was subservient in many contexts, she does end up being the ultimate voice as she is in control of the narrative. Though she was spoken for, at the end of it all, she becomes the only one who gets to speak. All of this being spoken for has developed her into a woman who knows how to speak. A person can be told what to do much more easily than a voice can be told what to say. Janie gets the last word because Janie has the most developed voice.
This view of what constitutes vocal control turns into an interesting commentary on what constitutes domination. While the events of her life would illustrate Janie as a conquered character, the fact that she has a great control of the narrative makes all of the perceived domination of her fall short. It does not seem right to say that she has been defeated in her suffering as she has not lost her voice. In the same way, those who have been dominated cannot be fully dominated because their voice can never fully be taken. The distinction then must be made on what is truly dominated. Janie may be spoken for in many ways, without great financial means, and moving in and out of agency, but she has never been robbed of what makes her truly Janie.