Their Eyes Were Watching God | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God | Themes

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Love

In her childhood Janie dreams of a loving marriage, but it takes many years to achieve that goal. Her first two marriages, one loveless and the other disappointing, do not destroy her capacity for love. Even when she does find love with an equal, she cannot hold that desired reality for long, as tragic events take Tea Cake from her. Yet as a result of finding true love with Tea Cake, Janie comes to know herself and to express herself more fully.

The relationship of Nanny and Janie highlights another aspect of the love theme—the nurturing love of a parent. Nanny's devotion to Janie is proved by years of care, attention, and direction. Even when she forces Janie to marry Logan Killicks, an action Janie agrees to only reluctantly, Nanny is trying to care for Janie. With little regard for married love, with a pragmatic concern for survival, and with a strong sense of her own dwindling time on earth, she wants to make sure that Janie is cared for after she dies.

Independence

Janie searches for freedom so that she can be the person she wants to be. One issue in her first two marriages to Logan Killicks and Joe Starks is that she cannot do as she wishes; both of her husbands control and manipulate her. Janie tries to assert her independence in leaving Logan, but her situation with Joe is not much better—and lasts much longer. In addition Joe Starks and Nanny seek economic and social freedom despite the limitations of race, class, or gender that they face. Joe carries this desire to an extreme degree, imposing his will on Janie as a way of trying to control his world. His ambition is admirable; his desire for power is understandable. His manipulation of Janie, however, makes her miserable.

In the end Janie achieves independence, but at a cost. She must lose the deep, mature love she always sought before she can do so. In fact she must act to kill her love, choosing life alone over dying with him. She will always cherish her life with Tea Cake, however.

Race

Racial identity appears early in Janie's account of her life, as she reveals her shock the day when, at 6 years old, she first realizes that she is not white.

Hurston pulls no punches in depicting white racism against blacks. The wife of the slave owner who fathered Nanny's baby threatens to whip her and sell her baby; she clearly blames Nanny, not her husband, for the child he gives her, a graphic example of the power of whites over blacks. That lesson is underscored by the rape of Leafy by a white teacher. While much of the novel takes place within Eatonville and other African American communities, racial inequality is always looming nearby. That is evident as early as Chapter 2, when Nanny explains to Janie her view that whites "throw down de load" and tell the black man to pick it up. It recurs toward the end, in the episode of the hurricane, when Tea Cake is pressed into service by whites in the unwelcome task of locating the bodies of those who drowned.

Hurston also explores the attitudes within the black community both toward members of their group and other races. Mrs. Turner prefers light-skinned to dark-skinned blacks. African Americans hold racist attitudes toward other groups, such as Native Americans, as evidenced by comments about the Seminoles in the Everglades.

Gender Roles

Hurston explores the theme of gender roles in her novel through male-female relationships and the comments of characters on them. Males and females are just as unequal as whites and blacks. As Nanny points out, while the white man tells the black man to pick up the load, he picks it up "but he don't tote it." That remains for the black woman to do. And black women have no one they can pass the load on to; they must shoulder it and do the work, as Nanny has shouldered the load left by the fleeing Leafy of raising Janie. Nanny can no more imagine a world in which "colored women [are] sittin' on high" preaching sermons than she can that remote place across the ocean where black men have power.

Janie's husbands control, constrain, and abuse her. Throughout the novel, males have the power to inflict punishment; females do not, although Janie, more independent than most women, strikes Tea Cake as well. Only in Tea Cake does Janie find a partner who treats her as an equal. That equality is one reason their relationship blossoms into love.

Judgment

From an early age, Janie is exposed to the judgments of others based on her appearance and actions. Like a Greek chorus, the porch sitters who are customers at Joe Starks's store comment on Janie's behavior and decisions at the beginning of the book. In addition Joe Starks keeps a constant and judging eye on Janie's behavior throughout their 20 years of marriage, and Janie's wrenching decision to shoot Tea Cake in order to save herself is not left to stand without comment; she is tried in a court of law.

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