Themes and Meanings (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
The novel begins with a statement of its central subject:
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon. . . . That is the life of men. Now women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.
The differences between the reactions of men and women form the core of the novel. Janie, the protagonist, is able to live her dream after two false starts. At the novel’s end, Janie is left with her memories, and her gift to the community at large is her willingness to share her story with others.
The horizon is a metaphor to which Hurston returns to describe the characters and their relation to their dreams. Nanny Crawford, Janie’s grandmother and protector, is described as a woman who has a limited and limiting dream. She wants protection for Janie; Janie, however, comes to think of Nanny’s dream as a noose that is slowly strangling her and depriving her of her own dream.
Other characters share Nanny’s dream of material wealth as a safety net that helps to buoy their position in society. Logan Killicks represents the completely practical man whose ship has come in with the tide. Likewise, Joe Starks wishes that “his people” would spend less time playing and more time attending to their business. Janie...
(The entire section is 550 words.)
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Christian Themes (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
In The Sermon and the African American Literary Tradition (1995), Doland Hubbard has argued that African Americans were forced to redefine Christian experience to make it applicable to their particular experience in the United States. White Christians had argued that slavery was justified by the Bible, and later that segregation and Jim Crow laws were biblically ordained through the stories of Cain and Abel and of Noah’s descendants. African American ministers, on the other hand, identified slave experience with the experience of Jews in Egypt, so that God working through Moses to free the Hebrew children was analogous to civil rights leaders working to bring equality to African Americans. Clearly, to black Christians, God was ultimately even and square in his dealings with people—white, black, man, woman, they were all children of the same father.
Hurston’s novel demonstrates this point long before the Civil Rights movement, for what Janie learns in both her relationships and in her experience in the hurricane is that all must face God in the same manner. Whites are not the ones who watch God and then tell African Americans what to do. All eyes watch God. Furthermore, Janie ultimately concludes that God sees each individual as unique: Everyone has to go to God, she concludes. We may assume, therefore, that she is justified in learning to do the things that men do and also in defending her life at the expense of her lover’s.
(The entire section is 669 words.)
Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God charts the development of an African-American woman living in the 1920s and 1930s as she searches for her true identity.
Search for Self
Although the novel follows Janie through three relationships with men, most critics see its main theme to be Janie's search for herself. She must fight off the influences of her grandmother, who encourages her to sacrifice self-fulfillment for security, and her first two husbands, who stifle her development. Her second husband, Jody, has an especially negative impact on Janie's growth as his bourgeois aspirations turn her into a symbol of his stature in the town. She is not allowed to be herself, but must conform to his notions of propriety, which means she cannot enjoy the talk of the townsfolk on the porch, let alone participate in it. After he is elected mayor, she is asked to give "a few words uh encouragement," but Jody interrupts the applause by telling the town, "man wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin'. Ah never married her for her nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home." After this, Janie feels "cold," realizing that by cutting her off, Jody has prevented her from deciding for herself whether or not she even wanted to give a speech. Throughout the rest of her marriage, Janie must bury her own desires to the point where she loses sight of them altogether. But after Jody's death she feels a freedom she has never...
(The entire section is 1912 words.)