The Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston
Contributed by Jennefer Ruano
Themes are described as ideas that dominate a particular piece of literature. In almost all cases, pieces of literature will be centered a theme or a number of them.

Alice Walker depicts Zora Neale Hurston’s work as providing the African-American literary community with its prime symbol of "racial health - a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings" (190). Appropriately, Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, provides an enlightening look at the journey of one of these undiminished human beings, Janie Crawford. Janie’s story - based on principles of self-exploration, self-empowerment, and self-liberation - details her loss and subsequent attainment of her innocence, as she constantly learns and grows from her difficult experiences with gender issues and racism in Their Eyes Were Watching God. 

After joyfully discovering an archetype for sensuality and love under the pear tree at age sixteen, Janie quickly comes to understand the reality of marriage when she marries Logan Killicks, then Joe Starks. Both men attempt to coerce Janie into submission to them by treating her like a possession: where Killicks works Janie like a mule, Joe objectifies her like a medal around his neck. In addition, Janie learns that passion and love are tied to violence, as Killicks threatens to kill her, and both Joe and Tea Cake beat her to assert their dominance. Yet Janie continually struggles to keep her inner Self intact and strong, remaining resilient in spite of her husbands’ physical, verbal, and mental abuse. Janie’s resilience is rewarded when she finally meets and marries Tea Cake, who represents the closest semblance to her youthful idealism regarding love and marriage.

Another male figure playing prominently in Janie’s life is the white man who raped her grandmother; her lineage determines, therefore, that Janie will look whiter than other black women. This fair complexion eventually attracts the ambitious Joe Starks, yet also contributes to Joe’s objectification of Janie. Yet, outward appearances aside, Janie’s identity takes shape in response to the white male tyranny that made her own birth possible. 

For example, Janie’s husband Jody paints his house "a gloaty, sparkly white," (44) humiliates the citizens of Eatonville in similar ways as the white man would, and forces Janie into the slavish servitude reflected by the identity-confining head rag he makes her wear (51). Yet, Janie fights Joe’s tyranny by telling him off just before he dies in Chapter Eight, then reclaims her own identity by burning up "every one of her head rags" (85). Similarly, Janie encounters Mrs. Turner, Hurston’s symbol of internalized racism, who doesn’t "blame de white folks from hating [African-Americans] ’cause Ah can’t stand ’em mahself" (135). Again, however, Janie remains true to herself as she continues to form her own identity by refusing to leave Tea Cake and class off as Mrs. Turner suggests. 

Rather than self-destruct under the constant realities of racism and misogyny she receives throughout her life, Janie Crawford does the opposite at the close of Their Eyes Were Watching God. The novel’s final image states what Janie does throughout the story - taking her difficult past in and growing stronger and wiser as a result of it. Author Zora Neale Hurston believed that freedom "was something internal..The man himself must make his own emancipation" (189). Likewise, in her defining moment of identity formation, Janie "pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see" (184). At the end of a novel focusing on self-revelation and self-formation, Janie survives with her soul - made resilient by continual struggle - intact.

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