In a crucial scene in Their Eyes Were Watching God (Zora Neale Hurston, 1937), Janie mocks Joe's age and illness, ending with:

“Naw, Ah ain't no young gal no mo' but den Ah ain't no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah'm uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat's uh whole lot more'n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but 'tain't nothin' to it but yo' big voice' Humph! Talkin' 'bout me lookin' old! When you pull down yo' britches, you look lak de change uh life.”
Then Joe Starks realized all the meanings and his vanity bled like a flood.

(Chapter 7)

I understand that this is dialect for “When you pull down your britches, you look like the change of life.” I understand that Janie is mocking Joe's penis specifically and manhood generally. I think “change uh life” refers to menopause. But I can't connect these together. I gather that Janie is implying that Joe is impotent, but I don't quite understand how.

  • What does it mean to look like the change of life?
  • What does it mean for a man to look like it?
  • “Joe Starks realized all the meanings” suggests that there are multiple layers of meaning; what are they?

I am not looking for deep interpretation, just the meaning of this specific phrase in this context. It is a turning point in the novel and I want to make sure I understand it fully.


  • 1
    Considering they were talking about looking old, it may be the change of life to death...
    – Skooba
    Apr 20 at 13:16

1 Answer 1


The narrator says that “Joe Starks realized all the meanings”, which suggests that the insult is subject to multiple interpretations. Here are three that I found in the scholarly literature on the novel.

  1. Janie means that Joe Starks (“Jody”) is impotent.

    To Stark’s taunting insinuations about her being too old now to mingle with all the men in his shop, she [Janie] answers with self-confidence […] After his impotence is publicly exposed, Starks’s physical strength declines rapidly. From now on he will not leave his bed, and even the intensive efforts of a root-doctor cannot prevent him from dying soon afterwards.

    Klaus Benesch (1988). ‘Oral Narrative and Literary Text: Afro-American Folklore in Their Eyes Were Watching God’. In Callaloo 36, p. 629.

    After one especially aggravating session in which Jody has mocked her age yet again, Janie defies her husband and plays the dozens herself […] With his impotency thus revealed to the citizens Jody has heretofore lorded over, his bombastic facade is shattered, his spirit is broken, and he soon dies.

    Roger Matuz (1990). ‘Zora Neale Hurston’. In Contemporary Literary Criticism, vol. 61, p. 236. Detroit: Gale.

    So saying, Janie announces to his male subjects that their leader, the mighty Mayor Joe Starks, is sexually inadequate, that he can’t get it up, that he’s not enough man for “every inch” of woman she still is.

    Ann DuCille (1993). ‘Passion, Patriarchy, and the Modern Marriage Plot’ In The Coupling Convention: Sex, Text, and Tradition in Black Women’s Fiction, p. 119. Oxford University Press.

    The authors quoted above don’t explain how the insult generates this interpretation, but I think it does so via association of ideas: the menopause in women causes infertility, and so does impotence in men.

  2. Janie means that Jody resembles an old woman, in being past the prime of life.

    Janie does not simply reveal Joe’s impotence. Her words proceed from her earlier witty claim that God has told her that women, not men, were the norm at creation. She calls Joe a woman and not a woman like she is, still in the prime of womanhood, but a woman no longer fully a woman because of the change of life.

    John F. Callahan (2001). ‘“Mah Tongue Is in Mah Friend’s Mouf’: The Rhetoric of Intimacy and Immensity in Their Eyes Were Watching God’. In In the African-American Grain: Call-and-response in Twentieth-century Black Fiction, pp. 134–135. University of Illinois Press.

    Janie invokes the African principle of Nommo, the power of the word, and it overturns Jody’s “illusion of irresistible maleness”. The concept of Nommo suggests that the “word” is a living, active agent with the power to make things happen and effect transformation. In calling Jody an old woman, Janie effectively emasculates him. He begins to look like what he accuses Janie of being, an old woman past the prime of life, wasting away in bed and waiting for death.

    Donna Weir-Soley (2009). ‘Literary Interventions in Their Eyes Were Watching God’. In Eroticism, Spirituality, and Resistance in Black Women’s Writings, p. 54. University Press of Florida.

  3. Janie means that Jody resembles an old woman, in being publicly objectified.

    The experience of having one’s body become an object to be looked at is considered so demeaning that when it happens to a man, it figuratively transforms him into a woman. When Janie launches her most devastating attack on Jody in front of all the men in the store, she tells him not to talk about her looking old because “When you pull down yo’ britches you look lak de change uh life.” Since the “change of life” ordinarily refers to a woman’s menopause, Janie is signifying that Jody, like a woman, is subject to the humiliation of exposure.

    Mary Helen Washington (1987). ‘“I Love the Way Janie Crawford Left Her Husbands”.’ In Invented Lives: Narratives of Black Women 1860-1960. Doubleday. In Cheryl A. Wall, ed. (2000). Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Casebook, p. 30. Oxford University Press.

  • Thanks for looking into this so thoroughly! Apr 20 at 20:23

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