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Determinism vs. Free Will in “Their Eyes were watching God”

In the continuing philosophical debate of free will versus determinism, the question arises as to whether or not free will exists. Do people really have the capability of making decisions on their own? OR Is life already determined, and whatever we do is (and always was) the only thing that we could have done at that time, conditions being what they were?

Given the circumstances in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I would argue that, while free will does exist, in my view, and a person can choose most of their actions through careful decision making, the main character, Janie, has the majority of her life planned out for her already. Whatever Janie does is governed by the laws of cause and effect; every one of her actions has a reaction. In Janie’s quest to find herself, she does make some decisions on her own, but her decisions only lead her to her destiny, so, how can we say that Janie really has free will?

The truth is that you cannot determine if Janie has free will or not. Even though it is a fiction novel, and the reader is aware that the author has Janie already figured out, we can still say that Janie does not have free will. Janie’s actions are mainly determined for her by people, events, and other things out of her control. It is because of Janie’s character and personality that the reader can know she does not have the complete power to take her life into her own hands. Janie is an African American woman which is enough to determine a heavy amount of her future for her.

Hurston tries to give Janie a chance to think for herself, but, mostly, Janie does not have the power to take on these situations. According to philosophy professor Steven M. Cahn, premise number two of the argument for determinism states that, “In the case of every event that occurs, there are antecedent conditions, known or unknown, that ensure that the event will occur. ” Zora Neale Hurston was aware of the argument for determinism. Hurston makes her reader believe that, at times, Janie does have free will, but her life is already planned out.

With enough knowledge of Janie’s character, the reader could predict the outcome of the story, or even what might have happened to Janie later on had Hurston not ended where she had. It is almost imaginable that Janie has not changed much in the end of the story and will continue her old ways of depending on a person for support and protection. The plan for Janie’s future begins with her lack of having real parents. Hurston builds up a foundation for Janie that is bound to fall like a Roman Empire. Janie’s grandmother, whom she refers to as “Nanny” takes the position as Janie’s guardian.

The problem begins here for Janie because her Nanny not only spoils her, but also makes life choices for her. Nanny is old, and she only wants the best for her grandchild, for she knows that the world is a cruel place. Nanny makes the mistake of not allowing Janie to learn anything on her own. When Janie was sixteen years old, Nanny wanted to see her get married. Although Janie argued at first, Nanny insisted that Janie get married. “‘Yeah, Janie, youse got yo’ womanhood on yuh Ah wants to see you married right away. ‘” (Page 12). Janie was not given a choice in this decision.

Her Nanny even had a suitor picked out for her. Janie told herself that she would try to make the best of the situation and attempt to find love in her marriage to Logan Killicks. But, as time went by, Janie realized that she still did not have any feelings of what she had considered to be love in her husband. Logan Killicks complained to Janie that she had been “spoilt rotten” because she did not do hard labor around the house like his previous wife had done. Logan instructed Janie to start doing more work around their house. After an argument with Logan, Janie makes a decision to leave her husband and find better things.

She runs off with a man named Joe Starks, and Joe takes control over Janie’s life from the moment the she left Logan for him. Joe gives her restrictions and does not allow her to speak her mind. Joe claims the “the woman’s place is in the home”. After so many years of a depressing marriage to a controlling husband, Janie never really made any decisions for herself. So, after her husband dies and a younger man named Tea Cake comes along, Janie is put in a position that is completely different from anything that she has ever experienced in her life.

All of her life, Janie has been taken care of by people who believed that she was not capable of taking care of herself. First her Nanny, then Logan Killicks, then Joe Starks; they all made up Janie’s mind for her. If Nanny had never treated Janie as though she were a helpless individual and always needed somebody to take care of her, then Janie would have become a stronger person. Janie was never sure of what she wanted for herself, and her weaknesses in personality allowed other people to make decisions for her.

Gradually, Janie becomes a stronger person throughout the story, but, for the most part, Janie is too weak and helpless to be able to take care of herself. Janie’s tragic flaw is that she constantly chooses these men who promise to take care of her, but, in the end, her personality and weakness allows them to get the best of her. Janie’s life is governed by her flaw and the people that she must latch onto for support. Even when Tea Cake comes into Janie’s life, Janie does not take control of the wheel. She becomes obsessed with Tea Cake and almost drives herself crazy one night when Tea Cake takes her money and disappears for a while.

She got out of the bed but a chair couldn’t hold her. She dwindled down on the floor with her head in a rocking chair. ” (Page 120). Tea Cake has control over Janie and he does not even know it. When the storm comes and Tea Cake wants to leave, Janie goes too because she does not want to lose Tea Cake, and she cannot take care of herself. When Tea Cake gets bitten by a rabid dog, he is trying to protect our helpless Janie, and it is this that brings about Tea Cake’s demise. Had Janie been able to take care of herself and had not been so needy, then the story would have been very different all together.

It is not until the end of the story that Janie begins to think for herself and find out who she really is. Janie’s life was planned out for her. She did make a few decisions on her own like when she left her first husband, Logan Killicks, but Janie only brought about more problems for herself by running off with Joe Starks. All of her husbands had control over her because she allowed herself to appear weak and vulnerable. Janie did not know any better. Nanny had kept Janie sheltered, and Janie had to learn about life on her own. At the end of the story, this happens, and Janie does seem to become a stronger person.

But Janie never quite gets a grip on life because she is not a strong person to begin with. Her helplessness allows her to be controlled by other people. These other people like Nanny, Logan Killicks, Joe Starks, and Tea Cake make many of Janie’s decisions for her. Much of Janie’s life is determined for her by these people in her life as well as other things and events around her. Janie did not have the knowledge to take care of herself. She was not raised that way. Janie’s life was governed by the laws of cause and effect, and not by her own free Determinism vs. free will in “Their Eyes were watching God. “

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