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The novel is the story of a woman's search for contentment within herself; it is probably the first American novel of its type. Janie takes her lifetime of experiences and then gathers them into herself. Janie both fully lives and transcends her experience to become a complete person. The novel is the story of how she slowly arrives at her state of wholeness.
The novel also revolves around the theme of race relations. Janie's story really begins when she realizes that she has dark skin. It had never been an issue in her early childhood. Once she is aware of her difference, however, she begins to notice how differently black people are treated.
The theme is most poignantly portrayed after the hurricane, when the people are burying the dead. The white bodies are placed in separate pine boxes for burial; the black bodies are casually tossed into an open, communal grave.
The novel also brings up gender differences. Janie's three husbands see their roles as providing for their wives. Logan, Joe, and Tea Cake all work hard and apparently enjoy their work. Janie, however, is expected by Logan and Joe to stay home and do domestic chores. If she is needed as an extra pair of hands, they direct her to help and tell her what to do. Both men are harsh on her if she does not live up to their expectations. They feel it is their right as her husband to punish her both verbally and physically. Tea Cake respects Janie as a woman. He allows her to share in his life and work beside him in the fields. But even Tea Cake occasionally lowers himself to verbal and physical abuse of his wife. In the early twentieth century, this picture of black domestic life was not questioned.
Although filled with hardships, Their Eyes Are Watching God has an incredibly inspiring mood. Told from the point of view of Janie sitting very contentedly on her porch, the story tells how she has survived various difficult experiences, including a murder trial, and flourished because of her calm bearing and strong determination to make the best of life.
Since the story is casually repeated from friend to friend, the feeling conveyed is friendly and conversational. Although the narrator's mood is serious, it is also upbeat. The language is full of sharply spirited images, unusual grammatical constructions, and dialogue filled with colloquial-phonic spellings. All of these contribute to the casual mood created in the novel.