Zora Neale Hurston covers many themes in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. She writes about the concept of God, searching for love, marriage, and other relationships. Perhaps her most significant theme, however, is that of independence. Throughout the course of the novel, Janie is always searching for her own character and identity, which she believes she will find through a man’s love, but her value is actually inside of her own soul.
Janie is 17 when she first marries Logan Killicks; she is starry-eyed and dreams of affection and romance. She quickly realizes that Logan will not satisfy her expectations; he is older than she is and has no use for romantic love. When the marriage proves to be less than she expected, she begins to dream of and search for another way to fulfill the void in her heart. Joe Starks comes along, and she believes she will find love and fulfillment in him. She leaves Logan and runs off to “marry” Joe.
Her relationship with Joe also proves to be less than desirable, however. In the beginning before they run away together, Joe is full of promises, bright ambitions, and charisma. These aspects rapidly change after he becomes mayor; he controls and oppresses her, to the point that she is never allowed to wear her down. He always wants her to have it wrapped up in a handkerchief. After he dies of kidney failure, Janie lets her hair fall freely and begins to obtain a little bit of independence and identity. She sees herself as a grown woman and runs the store successfully on her own. She continues in this way until Tea Cake comes along, and her life changes drastically again because of her desire to have a man’s love and attention.
Unlike her first two husbands, Tea Cake is flirty, charming, and pays Janie the attention she has craved since she first allowed Johnny Taylor to kiss her at the gate when she was a child. Even he, however, does not represent the perfect love that she has been searching for. They have a nice relationship in the beginning; he is flattering and adventurous and makes her feel excited, but he also proves to have major faults. He beats Janie, despite the fact that he admits she has done nothing wrong or to anger him. He says he beats her because he wants to prove that he is in control. He also leaves her and spends the $200 that she had earned and hidden when she ran away with him, spending it on throwing a party so that he can know what it feels like to be rich. When he goes mad from the bite he received from a rabid dog, Janie is forced to either kill him or lose her own life. Tea Cake’s death, at the hand of Janie, is symbolic; she is now free to live her own life, and she made the decision to do so, even though it is heartbreaking.
Janie does not feel bound in any way to her first two husbands, as evidenced by the fact that she left Logan and did not really mourn after Joe’s death. On the other hand, she desperately loves Tea Cake and the lavish attention he pours out on her. She does not realize that theirs is not a healthy relationship either, however. Hurston begins the story with Janie returning home and reveals the rest of the story in a flashback because it is symbolic; the end of Tea Cake and Janie’s relationship is actually the beginning of Janie’s new life, in which she can become her own person and realize that her identity is not found in being Logan and Joe’s wife, or even the center of Tea Cake’s affection. Janie realizes this at the end of the story after she tells Pheoby what happened. She looks forward to discovering what it means to live her own life in a world that she alone can discover for herself. Her worth is found not in a man loving her, but in in the strength of her character, and in all of the hardships she has overcome throughout the course of her life.