At the end of chapter 13 in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston writes,
He drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.
The significance and meaning behind this quote can be identified through its context. Janie is in a romantic relationship with a man named Tea Cake. Tea Cake is younger and has less money than Janie, but none of that matters too much. What’s of consequence is that Janie has finally found someone to love and who loves her in return.
The quest for genuine love eluded Janie for most of her life. At first, she married Logan Killicks. This marriage was not based on love. Janie married Logan because that’s what her grandma wanted her to do. Janie then runs off with Jody. Jody, too, mistreats Janie. He views her as an object instead of a full human being.
Yet Tea Cake doesn’t try to restrain Janie. In a sense, he lets her soul crawl “out from its hiding place.” With Tea Cake (for a little while, at least), she’s free. They play checkers, go to the movies, and engage in a variety of “fun and foolishness.”
The quote in question comes after Janie is worried that something bad has happened to Tea Cake while gambling. Eventually, as daylight is “creeping around the cracks of the world,” Tea Cake comes home. He’s cut, but he’ll survive.
Her anguish over Tea Cake seems to signify how love can crush someone. She loves Tea Cake so much that if something were to happen to him, it’s like it would happen to her as well. At the same time, this deep, devoted love has a distinct liberating quality.
The paradoxical nature of the quote is reinforced in the conclusion. Janie has to shoot Tea Cake in order to save her own life and spare him from further torment. Yet by “crushing” Tea Cake, she almost “crushes” herself, because she’s put on trial for murder. As the narrator notes, Janie doesn’t shoot Tea Cake out of “malice”: it is, arguably, out of love.