Power and Temptation: Analyzing the Relationships of Janie and Odysseus
Although Homer composed The Odyssey nearly three thousand years before Zora Neale Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God, the themes presented in both texts are related and parallel in nature. Jody and Circe occupy similar roles: neither is the hero’s primary lover and instead relies on tempting the hero. In this vein, Jody’s and Circe’s voice and physical appearance incite desire in Janie and Odysseus, respectively. On the other hand, gender conventions are reversed in The Odyssey and left intact in the Their Eyes Were Watching God.
While men traditionally initiate relationships and proceed to hold more power, Odysseus and Circe’s relationship does not reflect this quality. On the whole, Janie’s marriage with Jody and Odysseus’s relationship with Circe exemplify how temptation and gender relations create a sense of captivity and shape each protagonist’s quest. Janie falls for Jody in a strikingly similar manner to how Odysseus falls for Circe. Before their relationships, Janie and Odysseus both face weary situations. About six months into Janie’s marriage, Logan “had stopped talking rhymes to her.
He had ceased to wonder at her long black hair and finger it” (Hurston 26). Lousy almost entirely from its start, their marriage was reaching its lowest point as Janie grew increasingly desperate. Similarly, Odysseus has recently lost the rest of his squadron after being banished from Aeolus’s palace. Both Jody and Circe provide a sense of security and wealth after Janie’s and Odysseus’s difficult toils. What captivates the heroes is also practically the same: voice and appearance.
Through flattery, sweet-talking, and dramatic rhetoric, Jody’s voice attracts Janie: “Janie pulled back a long time because he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance” (Hurston 29). Circe’s singing, in addition to her attractive appearance, also draws Odysseus and his crew towards her palace. Circe is described as “the nymph with lovely braids, Circe–and deep inside they heard her singing lifting her spellbinding voice as she glided back and forth at her great immortal loom” (Homer 10.221).
Furthermore, before each relationship begins, our heroes must overcome certain internal struggles. Nanny’s advice draws Janie away from Jody, while Eurylochus reminds Odysseus how his succumbing to temptation by mocking the Cyclops led to his misfortune. In both cases, our heroes succumb to temptation, lust, and the possibility of a better future–they accept their lovers’ requests for an affair in which the hero’s present lover (i.e. Logan and Penelope) would be betrayed.
While these two relationships mirror each other in the heroes’ temptations, the gender roles manifested through the relationships are actually mirror images of each other. Convention suggests that the man initiates a relationship; the male typically asks the female out, not vice-versa. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jody indeed takes the first step in the relationship. Hurston sets up the scene such that Jody walks down the street to approach Janie. After several encounters, Jody explains to Janie, “Janie, if you think Ah aims to tole you off and make a dog outa you, youse wrong. Ah wants to make a wife outa ya” (Hurston 29).
Jody introduces the idea of leaving Logan and running away with him instead. On the other hand, Circe initially asks Odysseus to have an affair with her: “Come, sheathe your sword, let’s go to bed together, mount my bed and mix in the magic work of live–we’ll breed deep trust between us” (Homer 10.370). Circe is the apparent aggressor in this affair; she seduces Odysseus and occupies a traditionally masculine role. In the same vein, Jody and Circe hold the power in their respective relationships even though the societal norms would suggest male dominance in both time periods. Janie very clearly assumes the subordinate role throughout her relationship with Jody.
Soon after Janie arrives in Eatonville, Jody delivers a speech about the town’s future, but he refuses to allow Janie to provide her input. The narrator comments on Jody’s failure to treat Janie respectfully: “It must have been the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off of things” (Hurston 43). After eleven years pass, Jody, in a sign of what the marriage truly becomes, hits Janie after she emasculates him in front of the other men on the porch. Like Janie, Odysseus plays the subordinate role in his relationship with Circe. For example, Odysseus is reduced to begging the nymph for permission to leave the island.
Once Odysseus’s crew takes him aside and asks that he leave the island, Odysseus confronts Circe in their bedroom, hugs her knees, and pleads to her: “My heart longs to be home, my comrades’ hearts as well. They wear me down” (Homer 10.534). In contrast with the social conventions enforced in Their Eyes Were Watching God, the very masculine Odysseus does not hold the reigns of power in this relationship. Zora Neale Hurston and Homer employ similar narrative elements–temptation and power structures–and illustrate their effects on the relationships of their protagonists Janie and Odysseus. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie finds herself in a time of hardship and emotional turmoil when Jody approaches her to seduce her into marriage.
Through power inequity, gender roles, and temptation, Jody subordinates Janie and leaves her hamstrung such that she feels the need to stay with him. This same plot configuration presents itself in The Odyssey, with Odysseus acting in place of Janie. Perhaps there is something inherently sinister and timeless about love: temptation seeks to take advantage of vulnerability and perpetuate dependence through power imbalance.