Identity and Self-Actualization in Their Eyes Were Watching God

In the novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, written by Zora Neale Hurston, the concept of identity and self-actualization is prominent throughout the life of the protagonist Janie Crawford. The novel depicts the trials, tribulations, and triumphs that Janie experiences in life and love in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Hurston depicts Janie’s life as a mixed-race woman living in a time when women were kept cleaning and cooking in the home, however, Janie goes through life wanting fulfillment and freedom to live as she pleases.

This novel examines the life of the African American woman in marriage and occupation with the traumas of slavery plaguing the generation before the protagonist. With the horrors of slavery weighing heavy on Janie’s grandmother, the motives for survival are different from the ideals Janie hold close to her heart. In her novel, Zora Neale Hurston creates a conversation about identity concerning sexuality, relationships, and race by showing the individuality of African American women.

Their Eyes Were Watching God battles the idea of sexual identity repeatedly with the protagonists’ maternal figures sifting through generational trauma and rape while Janie finds her voice in her sex life as well as her femininity. Hurston created a character with a free spirit and the need to be liberated from an average life. This character not only represents the protagonist, but they also show the need for more fulfillment within the Black community after slavery.

The idea of being sexually free to multiple men in this time is frowned upon and the protagonist is shamed into marriage due to her developed womanhood and her kissing another man.

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“You just want to hug and kiss and feel around with the first one man and then another, huh?” (Hurst 13). In Janie’s young life there is no room to explore and find pleasure in her sexuality until she is onto her third marriage in her older years. In Carol Batkers essay about sexual policy in the 20th century, she points out the ideals of the club movement and the classical blues. “…Club women attempted to regulate desire and refute racist ideologies that represented African American women as libidinous. The classical blues are often read as centrally concerned with expressing desire, with establishing African American women as sexual subjects” (Carby 1998).

This example shows the rigidness of the movement of women with one side showing ideals of conservative women with the motive of education and the other looking for freedom of expression. With this excerpt, the audience can see that Hurston was communicating the liberation of femininity and sexuality with the protagonist’s aloofness when it comes to conservation of intimacy. The autobiography by Harriet Jacobs by the name of Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl shared situation of reclaiming one’s sexuality. Jacobs writes that in order to avoid being raped by another master, she begins a relationship with a white neighbor (Jacobs 1861).

This story is an early example of the African American woman’s experience in sexual liberation as she was a former slave. In this story, sex is shown to be dangerous with the horrors of rape and pregnancy plaguing the protagonists’ maternal figures. Hurston also shows that the African American woman can have a sexual identity that involves intimacy as show by the protagonist’s relationship with Tea Cake and they can be empowered by their bodies just like men are.

The concept of relationships whether they are familial, or partner based, are expressed through the novel with the protagonist finding her voice in her relationships as she goes through different situations in love like abuse, loneliness, and grief. One relationship the protagonist is tied to is her maternal figures such as her grandmother but also her absent mother. She feels strong ties to her grandmother and has generational trauma from what her grandmother has experienced with abuse and then love.

Janie’s relationship with her first and last husband are reflections of her grandmother as her grandmother dealt with the first marriage and Janie was a maternal figure to Tea Cake due to their age distance and for her need to feel motherly because she didn’t have a real loving mother. Hurston connects the protagonist’s turbulent childhood to how she would love in the future (Gottlieb 100). Hurston begins her story with Janie being forced into a marriage with a well-off farmer. The basis for this relationship is the survival of the protagonist as her maternal figure will not be around forever. She is to be married for the reasons of a bed to sleep in and food to eat.

The marriage is not full of love it is full of dead hope and dreams. The woman’s desire for “love and sexuality” is demonstrated by the pear tree in the book (Howard 47). This connection to the pear tree is not fully blossomed until Janie meets Tea Cake which is a relationship full of love, trust, and fulfillment. Hurston describes the first marriage as lonely and says, “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman” (Hurston 25).

The idea of dreams being seen as childish shows that women are to be the pillars of the home stereotypically, having no desires but children and keeping the husband happy. Hurston would later show that dreams do not die in womanhood but can blossom even in older age with a love more intimate and exciting than many have experienced. At the end of the protagonists second marriage, she feels like a load has been taken off her with the need “to carry the burdens of men” no longer being her purpose of life (Dilbeck 104).

With this newfound freedom, Hurston develops the protagonist as a strong black woman who knows her worth and is unwilling to give up her liberty for a man. This sentiment is not only for the character but is an example for black women all over the country to rise above what does not suite them. Hurston wants black women to realize their worth and be willing to change their lives to achieve their dreams.

Racial identity in Their Eyes Were Watching God is an important topic not only during the Harlem Renaissance but as well as the 21st century. At this time race meant everything and Hurston shows the camaraderie of the Black community as well as showing Eatonville as a tight knit town of African Americans. In the beginning of the novel, the protagonist did not know she was black until a picture was taken of her with her white friends. She is a mixed-race woman having a lighter complexion which is important in this time as she is treated better by employers and has darker skinned male partners.

The protagonists experience of racial issues is different compared to Tea Cake because of her lighter complexion. When working, Janie has a conversation with Mrs. Turner who is also a mixed-race woman. Mrs. Turner believes in a racial hierarchy due to her racial status and frowns upon dark skinned Blacks. She is quoted saying “Look at me! Ah got no flat nose and liver lips… Ah got white folk features in mah face. Still and all ah got tuh be lumped in wid all de rest. It ain’t fair. Even f dey don’t take us in wid de Whites, dey oughta make us a class tuh ourselves” (Hurston 142).

Mrs. Turner loathes her Blackness and sees herself as a better person than those with African features. Tea Cake and Janie embrace their Blackness. After a hurricane hits their community, the protagonist finds themselves burying the dead, separating the Whites from the Blacks. Even in death the whites get better treatment with pine coffins while the others get nothing.

The author Richard Wright found issues with Hurston’s writing, finding it “counterproductive to the image of the New Negro” (Odlum 2016). Wright did not agree with the portrayal of the Black man even though the book was made to portray the Black woman in America. Hurston’s depiction of racial identity shows the empowered Black woman and man finding love within themselves and their community. Racial Identity is the foundation of America and at this time being Black was not empowering, it was a fight for civil rights and even a chance to prove yourself to the White man.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a story of the African American woman finding her place in the world while going through tough situations like any other. Zora Neal Hurston creates an atmosphere of understanding the plights of an African American as the characters interact within their communities and with the White man. The protagonist finds herself at the end of this novel with the ability to reach fulfillment. She has been broken and she has been loved like she never has before.

She sees the reason for living and she has found the purpose to live within herself. She has reached a point where she knows her voice in her relationships and she has found empowerment in her race. Zora Neale Hurston portrays the message of identity in relationships, sexuality, and race in Black women by showing the trials and tribulations that many faced in this time. Black women can find empowerment in this story as well as guidance through rough times.

This novel appeals to women in all races but holds a special place for Black women whether they were in the 20th century or today. The ideals of love, loss, and self-esteem can be dissected throughout this novel, but one thing is for sure, identity can be anything you believe in whether it be religion, relationships, or love. Hurston created a story worth sharing as it has been appreciated throughout many generations of women and historians.

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Identity and Self-Actualization in Their Eyes Were Watching God. (2023, May 06). Retrieved from

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