Their Eyes Were Watching God provides an enlightening look at the journey of a “complete, complex, undiminished human being”, Janie Crawford. Her story, based on self-exploration, self-empowerment, and self-liberation, details her loss and attainment of her innocence and freedom as she constantly learns and grows from her experiences with gender issues, racism, and life. The story centers around an important theme; that personal discoveries and life experiences help a person find themselves.
Nanny was determined that Janie would break the cycle of oppression of black women, who were “mules for the world”. (Both of Janie’s first two husbands owned mules and the way they treated their mules paralleled to the way they treated Janie. Logan Killicks worked his mule demandingly and Joe Starks bought Matt Bonner’s mule and put it out to pasture as a status symbol.) After joyfully discovering an archetype for sensuality, love, and marriage under a pear tree at sixteen, Janie quickly comes to understand the reality of marriage in her first two marriages. Both Logan Killicks and Joe Starks attempt to coerce her into submission by treating her like a possession (Killicks worked her like a mule and Starks used her like a medal around his neck). Also Janie learned that passion and love are tied to violence, as Killicks threaten to kill her and Starks beat her to assert his dominance. She continually struggled to keep her inner self intact and strong in spite of her husbands’ physical, verbal, and mental abuse. She is rewarded when she met and married Tea Cake, the closest resemblance to her youthful idealism regarding love and marriage.
Janie had a difficult time discovering her identity and it took her many years. Once she broke down the confining walls she held a tight grip on her identity. Janie looked whiter than other women. Her fair complexion attracted Starks and also contributed to his objectification of her. Janie’s husband Joe humiliated the citizen’s of Eatonville in similar ways as the white man and forced her into slavish servitude reflected in the identity-confining head rag he made her wear. She fought his tyranny by telling him off just before he died and reclaiming her identity by burning up “everyone of her head rags”. Similarly, she encountered Mrs. Turner who was a symbol of internalized racism. Again, Janie remains true to herself and continued to form her own identity by refusing to leave Tea Cake and class off as Mrs. Turner suggested.
She experienced true happiness with Tea Cake while taking in new lessons of life. She had a sense of freedom and regained innocence with him. He made most of the decisions, but she was treated as a person so she went along gladly. They lived in the marshes, worked side by side, and danced at night. Eventually her innocence was again replaced with a harsh reality, death. Janie wore her overalls because “she was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief”. She had come full circle in her life and learned that there are “two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” Though she endured many hardships she discovered herself and life. Her journey was one every human being must take and she learned what every human being must learn…how to live.
Rather than self-destruct under the constant harsh realities she received throughout her life, Janie does the opposite at the close of the novel. The novel’s final image states what Janie does throughout the story, taking her difficult past and growing stronger and wiser as a result of it. 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”. Her story is of a beautiful black women who found out about life. Her love became real and her horizon became her own as the novel progressed. Focused on self-revelation and self-formation, Janie survives with her soul (made from continual struggle) intact.