The main conflicts in this novel are human versus society, and to a lesser extent, human versus themselves. The conflict is revealed through the main character’s narration and what other characters say about her. The human versus society angle is one worth digging deeper into, and the majority of the conflict that swirls around Janie comes from this source.
The story revolves around Janie and begins with her rather inglorious return to town after a mysterious but seemingly turbulent absence. The neighbors fuss about the overalls she’s wearing: “What she doin coming back here in dem overhalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on?” (Hurston 2). The gossip of Janie’s neighbors is described as “mass cruelty.” Their heedless and hurtful talk represents the cruel and unfair expectations of womanhood that Janie fights against throughout the novel.
The story turns to the past in the second chapter, as told by Janie and an omnipotent narrator. Her grandmother promises her in marriage to an older and prosperous local man when she is only sixteen. Janie is expected by society to get married, as this is the traditional role of the woman in society. She longs to fall in love, but this seems to be an indulgence that is denied. When she complains to her grandmother that she does not love her new husband, Logan, she is told she has a “mouf full uh foolishness” (Hurston 23).
Much the same happens with Janie’s second husband, Starks. An upstanding man of wealth and charisma, Janie initially seems to believe that he will give her a better life. He does provide nicer clothing and a house, but he is just as indifferent to her feelings as Logan and expects her to work just as hard. Even though it is not farm work, Janie’s discontent remains.
Janie’s situation and location might change, but she still remains conflicted. She is forced to accept what society wants for her instead of finding out for herself. This is one of the novel’s themes. Human beings find their hopes and dreams through conflict, and the conflict in the novel helps to explain this to the reader.
Hurston, Zora N. Their Eyes Were Watching God.University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Wall, Cheryl A. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Casebook. Oxford UP on Demand, 2000.