This is just a short essay I whipped up for an American Lit class I’m taking. It turned out better than I thought so I figured I would post it here in the hopes that a fan of the book finds it interesting or knowledgable. In any case enjoy!
In Zorah Neal Hurston’s “Their Eyes were Watching God” Janie’s hair symbolizes her emotional state and the way people perceive her. Her hair acts as the visual cue as to her sense of freedom at any givenmoment. It is a symbol of strength and individualism for Janie that influences her relationships with others in unique ways. To begin, her hair is a physical manifestation of her independence and refusal to abide social norms. Secondly, her hair acts as a phallic symbol. It represents masculinity and a melding of the gender scripts people were not accustomed to during the period. Finally, her hair is tool of manipulation. The way in which she wears her hair informs the interactions Janie will have with the people around her.
In the very opening of the book we are privy to the towns critique of Janie. She is dressed in overalls and wearing her long, straight hair down as opposed to the generally accepted conservative look (pg.2). Because Janie chooses to wear her hair down “lak some young gal” (pg.2) she is treated like an outsider, even though we learn that she has been an integral part of the community for years. Her refusal to bend to the will of the people, even in trivial matters such as appearance, demonstrates her strong rebellious spirit. Due to her lack of cooperation she invites her relationships with other people to be damaged.
When Janie ties her hair in a braid, and in some other situations, it functions a phallic or sexual symbol. Men are attracted to her hair to the point where that is all they focus on. They forget about the person attached to the symbol of desire. One instance in chapter 6 has a man “standing behind Janie and brushing the back of his hand back and forth across the loose end of her braid ever so lightly so as to enjoy the feel of it without Janie knowing what he was doing” (pg.55). Janie’s hair fosters intense desire in her relationships with strangers yet a deep jealousy in her relationship with her husband Jody. The moment described above led him to demand that she always wear a head rag. When wearing the rag her sexuality is hidden away. Later on she covers up knowingly in order to play the role of grieving widow (pg.87).
Lastly, Janie uses her hair as a social “weapon” in order to manipulate her relationships. People see her long straight hair and immediately think of the careful structure and power typically associated with white men. If she hides her hair people assume a more conserved, somber nature. When it is let down in a braid it eschews a radiant sexuality. As mentioned before, Janie purposefully covers her hair in the rag after her husband’s death because it is what people expect. On the inside she is elated but the public can’t know that.
Janie’s hair functions in a number of unique ways throughout the first half of the text and all inform her relationships with the denizens of the novel in different ways. Whether it is proud individualism, powerful sexuality or cunning manipulation Janie’s hair can do it all.