Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie’s passage from repression to spiritual fulfillment as she clashes with the expectations thrust upon her by others. Inspired by the revelation she received as a teenager after watching a blissful union between a bee and flower, Janie elevates marriage and love in her mind as the highest achievement, but this ideal is defiled when she marries Logan and Jody, two men whom she does not love and who prolong her “cosmic loneliness.” As Logan and Jody both cease to “make speeches with rhymes to her,” Janie’s hope for self-fulfillment—via sexual and romantic fulfillment—struggles to survive.
Upon Jody’s death, Janie abandons the materialistic desires of her first two husbands (and ultimately, her Nanny, who urged Janie to marry for money in the first place), and permits herself to fall in love with Tea Cake, a man considerably younger and poorer. Tea Cake acts as a catalyst who drives Janie toward a stronger sense of self. He allows Janie to partake in experiences once relegated as “for-men-only,” and introduces her to the enjoyment of a loving relationship, one in which they make “lots of laughter out of nothing.” Janie learns to speak up for herself when Tea Cake disappears for days at a time or flirts with other women, an act that is not met with silence from Tea Cake, but rather, apology and conversation. When the novel’s dangerous and climactic hurricane begins picking up speed, Tea Cake asks Janie if she wishes she stayed in Eatonville without him, safe from harm, but Janie dismisses this idea. With Tea Cake, Janie’s “soul crawled out from its hiding place,” and she knows what it is like to have “self-crushing love.”
The climax of the novel and resolution of Janie’s ultimate search for self comes after the hurricane, when Tea Cake succumbs to insanity as a result of the mad dog biting him in the storm. Caught between her love for her husband and the fear she feels that Tea Cake will kill her, Janie chooses to shoot him dead, marking the moment in which she asserts herself in the face of her most difficult circumstance yet. Beforehand, Janie believed Tea Cake’s death would be “too much to bear,” but in choosing to save her life, Janie affirms what she has been searching for since her revelation under the pear tree: self-actualization born from true love. Not long after Janie clutches dead Tea Cake to her bosom and thanks “him wordlessly for giving her the chance for loving service,” Janie must defend herself in court where the jury “all leaned over to listen while she talked.” This conclusion to Janie’s story greatly contrasts with her beginning, in which she strains to have her voice heard by Nanny, Logan, Jody, and many of her gossiping neighbors. The novel ends with Janie finally achieving what she always hoped for: “Here was peace.”