The novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is a story of one woman’s growth as a person physically, emotionally, and intellectually while on a journey for life fulfillment. Throughout the novel, a theme illustrating the value of finding true love and friendships rather than material possessions and power is developed. This theme is most apparent in the contrasting relationships that Janie shares with each of her husbands: Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake. Throughout a series of failed relationships, Janie finds herself constantly struggling against domineering male figures who attempt to define her by subjugating her to a role of silence and subservience. Janie finally achieves a strong sense of true love when she meets Tea Cake.
While exploring Janie’s first relationship, it is apparent that Janie does not marry Logan out of love for him. Instead, it is too please Nanny in the hope that she will learn to love him. During their marriage, Logan doesn’t put a hand to Janie and makes sure she’s alright, or “kissin’ her foot” (27), as Nanny calls it. Logan, according to Janie, does not take care of himself in regards to his personal hygiene. She is turned off by things as simple as his toe nails. Janie finds that she could not learn to love Logan: “She knew now that marriage did not make love” (25). Janie began to notice the changes Nanny once mentioned would occur. Logan takes heed to working hard for Janie and her failing to meet him halfway . “If Ah kin haul de wood heah and chop it fuh yuh, look like you oughta be able tuh tote it inside” (26). The two don’t get along, often times disagreeing and arguing until Janie is fed up and leaves for Jody.
When Janie meets Jody, she is enticed by his good looks and promises of a good marriage. Unlike Logan, he believes his wife should not be put to work. These differences are apparent when Logan states, “Mah fust wife never bothered me bout choppin no wood nohow. She’d grab dat ax and sling chips lak uh man” (26), as opposed to Jody, who protests that, “A pretty doll-baby lak you is made to sit on de front porch and rock and fan yo’self and eat p’taters dat other folks plant just special for you” (29). Janie is not forced into marriage with Jody; she wants to marry him and so she does. Janie is satisfied when she looks at Jody. “Janie took a lot of looks at him and she was proud of what she saw” (34). This differs from the way she views Logan, disgusted by his lack of personal care: “Ah’d ruther be shot wid tacks than tuh turn over in de bed and stir up de air whilst he is in dere” (24). Janie also says that Logan “don’t never mention nothin pretty” (28), while Jody’s way of speaking was what captured her feelings.
As the people talk about the couple, they mention that “de way he rears and pitches in de store sometimes is sort of ungodly, but she don’t seem to mind at all” (59). He wore the pants in the relationship, and this was evident by how he began to talk to Janie without any back talk– like she’d once had the pleasure of giving Logan– and how he makes her carry herself with her hair covered as to not let any of the other men see nor touch it, and not letting her engage in the banter of others, once referring to it as the “gum-grease from folks dat don’t even own de house dey sleep in” (63). One major difference from Logan is that Jody physically abused Janie. While Logan says he “never mean to lay de weight uh his hand” (27) on Janie, Jody did not hesitate nor regret putting his hand to Janie over a fuss about dinner. If Jody had not died, Janie might not have had the strength or courage to set herself free like she did with Logan, which she should have done a long time ago, with Jody.
The first difference we are aware of with Tea Cake is that he doesn’t mind teaching Janie to play checkers, something Jody had forbid Janie from playing, saying she “never would learn” (115). Janie was at first cautious with Tea Cake’s company, half expecting that he would “strip her of all that she had” (119). Unlike Logan and Jody, Tea Cake does not possess any luxuries of life, which is brought to the reader’s attention when Hezekiah mentions “Tea Cake ain’t got doodly squat” (122). Tea Cake and Jody’s major difference is that Tea Cake doesn’t keep Janie from enjoying her inner-child. While Jody used to make snide remarks about her growing old, often mentioning that she “ain’t no young gal no mo'” (93), Tea Cake, on the other hand, made Janie feel like “a child breaking rules” (121), allowing her to shoot guns and play checkers. In her article about the elements of the text that make Their Eyes an archetypal quest novel, Missy Kubitscheck notes that Janie’s relationship to Tea Cake “contrasts with her subordination to Jody” (Kubitscheck, 1983).
Janie finds new meaning to her life when Tea Cake offers her new experiences that she had never encountered beforehand. Unlike Janie’s previous husbands, Tea Cake is not so overprotective and controlling of Janie. Tea Cake gives her freedom and equality, he treats Janie well, and fulfills Janie’s desire of love. Although he does not have prosperity and position, he completes Janie’s dreams to feel the freedom of life and the sensation of true love. He adds color and meaning to Janie’s life, which satisfies Janie and opens an undiscovered door to Janie’s previously wounded soul. Janie does not want material or high position; she only needs love and freedom in her relationship to get happiness.
In her quest to find the true meaning of love, Janie finds different kinds of love that is represented by her three marriages. Each experience within her marriages makes her idea of love more developed. She failed to find her true love in her first and second marriage. Although her previous husbands, Logan and Joe, have prosperity, material, and high position, they cannot be her “singing bees” (14) and give her a true love because they use their power to dominant over Janie and they treat Janie more like a mule than a wife. Finally, she learns the value of true love when she marries Tea Cake, her third husband. Janice Knudsen, in her discussion of the book as a quest for positive self-identity, asserts that “Janie’s ultimate evolution of self is only possible because of the strong, healthy relationship she shares with Tea Cake,” which “fosters the self-worth necessary for full self-realization” (Knudsen, 1996).
Hurston created the character of Janie during a time in which African-American female heroines were uncommon in literature. In 1937 when the novel was originally published, females experienced fewer opportunities than they do today. Hurston chose to portray Janie as a strong, independent woman, unlike most African-American females of the early nineteenth century. Perhaps Hurston characterized Janie as capable and courageous to empower her readers and to show them that true love does not involve the submissiveness of the woman; true love is associated with equality and understanding between the lovers, which is apparent in Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake.