Self-Realization and Identity in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston explores the idea of a young black woman's search for identity in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston emphasizes the idea that women, specifically during the twentieth century when this novel was written, need to find their independence and identity without being under the control of men. According to Pondrom, Their Eyes Were Watching God has been analyzed as a quest for self-fulfillment or self-identity (181). Bernard also claims that "interpretations of the novel have focused, and continue to focus, on Janie's psychological, emotional, physical, folkloric, feminist, linguistic, and spiritual self" (2). The main character, Janie, is on a quest to find her freedom and her unique identity. Her primary avenues for her self-realization are her marriages to three men -- Logan, Joe, and Tea Cake. Hurston embodies Janie as a strong character who does not stay in bad relationships and eventually learns to only depend on herself. Hurston tells the story of Janie's search for her self-realization and identity through natural metaphors, her childhood, and her three marriages.
Hurston uses descriptive imagery adopted from the natural world to convey her point-of-view through Janie. Hurston foreshadows Janie's quest for love while she is lying underneath a pear tree:
"She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze and the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She was a dust bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to the tiniest branch and creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage!" (11)
The joining of the bee and flower is a reflection of the love that Janie desires throughout the novel. Sivils argues that her "hybridization and continuing relationship with trees serves to place her within a natural ecological system, a situation that makes sense as Janie repeatedly fails to fit within human communities" (100). Bernard also supports this argument, by writing that, "Janie uses the self-as-nature metaphor to consider the self both as a material object and an abstract entity combined by language, human mind and memory. The related 'tree' metaphor anchors this duality" (4).
Hurston first introduces the reader to Janie's identity issues during her childhood, which she spends with her grandmother, Nanny. Janie lived a relatively privileged life for someone of her race at the time of the story, and had white children as playmates. Janie's unawareness of the uniqueness of her looks among the other children is the first example of her identity crisis. She eventually sees herself in a photograph and says that, "before Ah seen de picture Ah thought Ah wuz just like de rest" (Hurston 8). This realization that her dark skin has set her apart from her peers sends Janie into both a downward spiral as well as the path to find her own identity.
Janie's first marriage, to Logan Killicks, is arranged by her grandmother. Janie was resistant to this relationship, as she believed that she was losing her freedom and sense of self. She was now Mrs. Logan Lillicks, and had obligations to her husband. Janie is not in love with Logan, as she says to Nanny: "Cause you told me Ah mus gointer love him, and Ah don't. Maybe if somebody was to tell me how, Ah could do it" (Hurston 23). Instead of listening to her husband, Janie chooses to listen to "the words of the trees and the wind" (23), which shows that she is searching beyond the face value of her life for something more meaningful. Pondrom writes that Logan represents "economic security, marital legitimacy, and a measure of protection from dependence on whites or exploitation by them" (190). He goes on to argue that this kind of marriage was the "greatest goal" (190) that a slave-born grandmother could wish for her grandchild, but that Logan "meant mere survival to Janie" (190). Logan did not give Janie "joy, romance, sexual desire, or understanding, [nor] creativity, imagination, or a means to envision a meaning for experience that transcended sixty acres and a mule" (Pondrom 190).
Janie wants to look for the emotional and physical love that her husband cannot provide for her, and finally leaves Logan for another man, Joe Starks. Joe represents a more genuine love and better future to Janie:
"Every day after that they managed to meet in the scrub oaks across the road and talk about when he would be a big ruler of things with her reaping the benefits. Janie pulled back a long time because he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon" (Hurston 29).
When she leaves her husband for Joe, Janie thinks to herself, "Her old thoughts were going to come in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them" (31). But Janie's dreams of love are crushed, as Joe restricts and oppresses his new wife, making their marriage another loveless one for her. Pondrom argues that "Joe's denial of Janie's voice, his insistence that she occupy a pedestal so that his power will be visible, demonstrates how completely he has been consumed by a value system which places ownership at its center and makes even persons into possessions" (191).
Hurston writes, "She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be" (72). Although her illusions have been shattered, she Janie still has faith in true love: "She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen" (72). When Joe dies and leaves Janie widowed, she finally feels a sense of freedom and independence again, and "new thoughts had to be thought and new words said" (77).
Janie finally meets the love she has been looking for with Tea Cake, an unpretentious man without the high status of her previous husbands. Hurston writes of Tea Cake: "He looked like the love thoughts of a woman. He could be a bee to a blossom -- a pear tree blossom in the spring. He was a glance from God" (106). Tea Cake affords Janie the freedom that she has always wanted, and she has finally found inner peace and her own identity. She no longer felt obligated as a wife, but helped her husband because she loved him. Janie says of Tea Cake, "He done taught me de maiden language all over" (109). Pondrom writes of this marriage:
"Janie learns, in the brief months with Tea Cake, how to share her life with a potent male, and what it means neither to own nor to be owned but to rejoice in the creative forces of the universe -- the forces that animate the plants of the fertile muck, the singing and dancing of the folk, and the exuberant sexuality of her union with Tea Cake." (192)
Tragedy strikes Tea Cake when he is bitten by a rabid dog, and Janie must mercy kill him:
"Janie held his head tightly to her breast and wept and thanked him wordlessly for giving her the chance for loving service. She had to hug him tight for soon he would be gone, and she had to tell him for the last time" (184).
The most important gift that Tea Cake gave Janie was security, strength, and inner happiness. Janie goes back to her hometown, where she was treated poorly, and says, "So Ah'm back home agin and Ah'm satisfied tuh be heah" (191).
Janie's quest for self-realization and independent identity was…