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Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston
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What is the main theme or message of the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God?

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Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God is such a rich novel that there is no one main theme or message.  Rather, the book is ripe with multiple life lessons. However, one of the central themes focuses on the idea of self-actualization.

Throughout the novel, Janie looks outside of herself for fulfillment. She grows up under the care of her grandmother, a woman who was born into slavery and now looks for little more than security. She pushes Janie into a marriage with Logan Killicks, an older farmer who can provide Janie with a place to live and enough to live in semi-comfort. Janie hopes that this marriage will lead her to the happiness she desires, that she will eventually fall in love with Logan, but things quickly change as he soon expects her to work much harder than she believes she should have to. As their marriage continues to decline, she meets a man named Jody Starks who “spoke for far horizon.” Jody is a go-getter; he has big plans to transform a small black settlement into a bustling town, which he begins to do.  Initially Jody treats Janie very well, not expecting her to work as Logan did, but as they settle into their new life together in Eatonville, Jody begins to grow more possessive of Janie, wanting her to be not just a trophy but his trophy.  He grows jealous of the attention that the other men show her and refuses to let her dress and look the way she wishes to. As their marriage declines, so does Jody's health. One day he berates Janie's appearance in front of others, and she retaliates, standing up for herself but berating his very manhood in the process. This moment marks a shift, not only because Jody's health worsens but because he no longer wishes to occupy the same bedroom as Janie. He dies shortly afterward, and while Janie attempts to clear the air between them, Jody reveals that he doesn't believe she is capable of loving others, because she doesn't love herself.

After Jody's passing, Janie continues to run their shop and turns away all possible suitors until a man named Tea Cake arrives in town. In Tea Cake, Janie finds happiness. While their relationship is far from perfect, Tea Cake genuinely wants her to be her own person and loves her as such. He encourages her to go out, play chess, and do all the things that her previous husbands didn't want her to do. The two eventually leave town together to head to the Florida Everglades. They set up a meager life of hard work in "the muck," and while Janie has detested physical labor before, in the muck she is happy to work hard alongside Tea Cake. The two grow closer and closer, and Janie begins to realize her own happiness through the relationship. However, tragedy strikes in the form of a hurricane. As Janie and Tea Cake attempt to flee to safer land, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog and begins to grow sick. As the illness progresses, he begins to grow suspicious of Janie and to talk to her in ways similar to how her other husbands did. Janie doesn't lash out at Tea Cake as she did with Logan and Jody, however. Rather, Janie's personal growth and love for Tea Cake allow her to understand that he is not in control of his faculties.  Eventually a doctor is called, and he reveals the dire nature of Tea Cake's situation. The doctor is unable to get medicine to help Tea Cake, and Janie watches her husband's mental health continue to decline until he is no longer her husband but rather an unthinking, spiteful creature. Tea Cake's paranoia continues to grow until he attempts to shoot Janie.  She retaliates by killing him with a shotgun. The act nearly destroys her, but it also shows that she finally understands her own self-worth and wishes to preserve it.

Janie is put on trial for the murder, but the jury decides she acted in self-defense. Those that knew her and Tea Cake, however, turn on her until they see the amount of attention she puts into his funeral. Janie then leaves the muck and returns to Eatonville. The citizens of the town gossip about her, but she is not bothered by their words, because, through her journey, she has found inner peace and happiness. She has found the horizon that she so desperately wanted, and she pulls it in around her like a cloak.

Through her journey, Janie moves from an immature young woman, unsure of what she wants, to a mature, content, self-actualized person. She no longer requires the support or approval of others, and she has realized her own potential for happiness.

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Zora Neale Hurston's underlying theme of self-expression and independence is one that is startling for its day.  And, that a young girl with no worldy experience arrives at the realization that she is an emotional slave to the men that she has married is equally unusual.  However, this theme underscores Hurston's desire to create, in her own words, "an alternative culture that validated their worth as human beings."  And, Hurston contends that black people, while living in the Jim Crow world, could still "attain personal identity by not transcending the culture, but by embracing it."

Clearly, Zora Neale Hurston was much ahead of her time with these motifs.  Truly, "their eyes were watching God" and not looking down at the earth as many others did in her era.  Hurston and her character Janie knew, in the words of Lord Byron, that a person's "reach should exceed his (her) grasp--Else what's a heaven for?"  Hurston's message is an existential one, while at the same time encouraging the belief in one's culture.

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