Illustration of the profile of Janine Crawford and another person facing each other

Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

Start Free Trial

Discussion Topic

Themes in "Their Eyes Were Watching God"

Summary:

Key themes in "Their Eyes Were Watching God" include the search for self-identity, the nature of love and relationships, and the struggle for independence. Janie's journey reflects her quest for personal fulfillment and autonomy, challenging societal norms and expectations regarding gender and race.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is one feminist theme in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

To a large extent, the story of Janie Crawford can be seen as one of female empowerment. Born and raised in a social environment disfigured by racism and sexism, Janie has a number of very serious obstacles to overcome if she's to achieve freedom and live the kind of life she wants to lead.

One such obstacle is the advice of her grandmother. Nanny tells Janie that black women are the mules of the world, and so the only way for Janie to avoid a life of back-breaking toil is to get married to a man with land who can provide her with some measure of security. Though this would represent freedom of some sort, Janie would still be beholden to a man; she still wouldn't be the kind of empowered, independent woman she wants to be.

And so it proves. After getting married to just such a man, Joe Starks, Janie finds herself stuck in a relationship that is both physically and mentally abusive. Janie stands her ground as best she can, but Joe uses his physical strength to keep her in a state of subordination.

Even after Joe passes away, Janie still cannot be truly free. Society simply cannot handle the idea of a single woman with money following her own path in life. In an illustration of feminist teaching, patriarchal society acts as an impediment to women's freedom, always seeking to restrict what women can and can't do.

Even when Janie exercises her right as a woman to choose her next partner, Tea Cake, she still finds that she is anything but free. Tea Cake beats Janie simply to show her who's boss. Janie may have chosen Tea Cake, but she certainly didn't choose to be subjected to domestic abuse.

From a feminist standpoint, Janie's abusive relationship with Tea Cake is just one more example of the near impossibility of female empowerment in a patriarchal society that looks upon women as second-class citizens.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme of the book "Their Eyes Were Watching God"?

Just remember that a book review must not exclusively talk about theme. You must also mention other elements, such as plot, characters and setting, in addition to your own thoughts about the novel.

However, certainly the central theme seems to revolve around Janie's "journey" through life and in particular her growth in her own understanding of herself and a strong love of her own independence. This central movement of Janie towards wisdom and maturity occurs as a response to the different relationships that she has. The novel seems to suggest that fulfilling relationships can produce growth, but only when they are based on equality, as Janie's relationship with Tea Cake demonstrates.

If we view the novel as being about Janie's journey towards self-fulfillment, we can see that she manages to escape from her relationships with Logan and Jody that hinder this goal but does not do this with her relationship with Tea Cake. We see that in this relationship, Janie establishes her true identity and enjoys independence. Through this relationship, Janie establishes an almost spiritual connection with the world and even feels that Tea Cake, although he is dead, is still with her in some way.

You might like to consider the following quote from the final chapter as part of the consideration of this theme:

Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh themselves.

Janie has done both of these things in her quest for self-enlightenment, which is something that distinguishes her from the ignorant and gossipy villagers she returns to. Having done it, she has reached a position of security in her own identity and independence in who she is.

Posted on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme of the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God?

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme of the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God?

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.

Last Updated on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

What is the main theme of the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God?

In Their Eyes Were Watching God, arguably one of the most prominent themes of the novel is living one's dreams.  In the second chapter of the novel, the narrator reveals Janie's beliefs about love as she compares love to a blossoming pear tree.  The sense of beauty, freedom, and independence that Janie feels love offers is represented by the unfolding nature of spring.  Janie wants to find true love for herself.  However, Nanny has a different idea and marries her off to Logan Killicks so that Janie will be financially secure.  But Janie reasons that "marriage does not make love," and after he treats her like a "mule," she goes off down the road when Jody Starks comes through.  Yet her marriage to Jody ends up being no better as he forces her to tie up her hair and treats her like a piece of property.  Through all the hardship, however, Janie does not lose the belief that love should impart a sense of freedom, so after Jody dies, Janie again looks for the kind of love she wants and deserves.  She finds this love in Tea Cake.  After he dies, Janie is content being on her own because she has realized the dream of love that she had as a teenager.

See eNotes Ad-Free

Start your 48-hour free trial to get access to more than 30,000 additional guides and more than 350,000 Homework Help questions answered by our experts.

Get 48 Hours Free Access
Last Updated on