Jonathan den Hartog
February 3, 2000

Dreams Setting Over the Horizon:
Janie’s Search For the World Leads to Herself


Janie is a helpless searcher. Striving to discover love, happiness, and companionship, she spends forty years of her life on a search path that leads her to none of these things. However, upon the death Tea Cake, readers realize Janie’s path has led her to something: the discovery of herself. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God examines the journey along this path, constantly monitoring the progress of Janie’s search. Hurston is able to track Janie’s movement down this path carefully by constantly comparing Janie’s state of mind to a reference point. This reference point, this ideal state of being, is symbolized by the horizon. It is Janie’s relationship with the horizon that allows Hurston to illustrate Janie’s self-discovery.

Janie’s search begins when she is a young girl playing beneath a pear tree in the backyard of her grandmother’s house. Gazing up at the blossoming branches, the tree had "called her to come and gaze upon a mystery…[and] it stirred her tremendously" (10). The tree had sparked Janie’s curiosity concerning love; the tiny blooms "emerged and questioned about her consciousness" (11). Janie then scans her surroundings, looking for someone with whom she can share her emotions. "She searched as much of the world she could and leaned over to gaze up and down the road. Looking, waiting, breathing short with impatience. Waiting for the world to be made" (11). Peering into the horizon, Janie suddenly notices " a glorious being coming up the road" (11). This being, Johnny Taylor, approaches Janie and gives her a kiss. This scene depicts Janie’s first steps in her search for love, happiness, and companionship. Captivated by a lover who comes from the horizon, Janie makes her first steps towards becoming a woman. Hurston asserts this idea, noting that the kiss marks "the end of her childhood" (12). Janie is thus introduced as a character who searches for love and will always be aware of love on the horizon.

Janie’s second stop on her path to self-discovery is her marriage to Logan Killicks. Attempting to escape loneliness, Janie accepts her grandmother’s advice and blindly marries Logan under the assumption that marriages create love. "She could see no way for [love] to come about, but Nanny and the old folks had said it, so it must be so" (21). Janie’s aspirations of finding genuine love are blocked by Nanny’s words—Janie is left with no view of the horizon. Hurston asserts this notion, stating that Janie and Logan’s home is "a lonesome place like a stump in the middle of the woods where nobody had ever been" (21). Distanced from the rest of the world, Janie patiently awaits the genesis of a loving bond between her and Logan. With the trees surrounding her house, Janie has no view of the horizon and is imprisoned by her grandmother’s enduring words: "we know only what we see" (14). Finally, Janie’s blindfold is removed when she meets Joe Starks, a cavaliering entrepreneur who speaks "for far horizon [and] change and chance" (29). Charmed by Joe, Janie heads down the road with a view of the morning horizon and hopes for finding love.

Janie’s relationship with Joe is a vehicle which moves her further along her path of self-discovery. Hurston illustrates this idea by consistently portraying Janie’s relationship to the horizon. Janie’s initial passion for Joe results from her believing she has a clear view of the horizon at the beginning of the relationship. Directly following their marriage ceremony, Hurston depicts Janie and Joe sitting on a "house porch [and] watching the sun plunge into the same crack from which it emerged" (33). This scene describes Janie’s sense of accomplishment—she feels as though her search for love, happiness, and companionship has ended. However, as years pass, Janie finds that she becomes Joe’s afterthought during his endless pursuit for power and wealth. Hurston notes that Janie becomes "a rut in the road…[there was] life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels" (76). Janie’s aspirations for living an exciting, stimulating life are halted by Joe’s insisting that she forever remain a well-mannered, respectful store clerk. Janie realizes that she has strayed from the path to the horizon. She yearns to find her way back onto this path but her vision is obscured; she is plagued by "emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods—come and gone with the sun" (76). This passage is a direct link between Janie and the horizon—the sun is a symbol of love and the imprisoning trees symbolize Janie’s inability to break free of Joe’s control.

Though she is once again unable to reach the horizon, Janie never erases this distant symbol of her ideal state of being from her memory. Joe’s parasitic effect on Janie’s soul does not force her to lose her sense of what love and happiness are. When Joe becomes sick at the close of the relationship, Janie can see the horizon because "every morning the world flung itself over and exposed itself to the sun. [She] had another day" (51). When Joe dies, Janie discovers that this long, painful relationship has transformed her into a woman. Upon his death, "she went over to the dresser and looked hard at her skin and features…the young girl was gone but a handsome woman had taken her place" (86). With a better understanding of herself, Janie realizes "she had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people…but she had…run off down a road after things" (89). Suddenly Janie has discovered that one cannot search for love and find her horizon, her ideal state of being. In fact, one cannot even attain this perfect state of being because "no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you" (89). Hurston hereby introduces the notion that Janie will never be able to find genuine happiness and discover this ultimate love. However, this notion is immediately challenged by Janie’s ensuing relationship with Tea Cake.

Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake is set against the backdrop of her travel along the path to self-discovery. Hurston hence introduces a tension between Janie’s new view towards discovering love and her passion for her new lover. Before they are married, Janie is depicted pondering her feelings and emotions while gazing off into the horizon: "she sat on the porch and watched the moon rise. Soon its amber fluid was drenching the earth, and quenching the thirst of the day" (99). Here Janie is deciding whether or not she should be wary of Tea Cake; their shared love seems too perfect. This tension is also evident in Tea Cake’s name—his proper name, Vergible Woods, reminds readers of Janie’s past relationships with Logan and Joe. The woods, as earlier discussed, prevents Janie from seeing the horizon and finding love. Though his proper name has negative connotations, it is replaced by Tea Cake, an innocent nickname which comes from a sweet French desert. Hurston thus presents a tension in Janie’s mind between Tea Cake being a figure who will shade her from the light of the horizon or, on the other hand, being the love for whom she has been searching. Janie’s passion for Tea Cake leads her to marry him and the two share a strong, loving marriage that is cut short by Tea Cake’s death. By gaining a greater understanding of herself, Janie finds love and nearly reaches her horizon.

Janie’s search ends at the close of the novel. At this point, instead of being overcome by sorrow, she rejoices in the death of her loving husband. In her mind, Tea Cake "wasn’t dead…he could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking" (193). Janie is at rest with his death because she considers their relationship a piece of her horizon, a wonderful time in her life which she can savor in her memory for as long as she desires. Hurston continues, asserting that Janie is at "peace [and] she pulled in her horizon like a great fish net [with] so much of life in its meshes" (193). Janie hadn’t reached the horizon, but she had discovered what she most values in life. She had discovered herself. Having experienced her ideal state of being for a short while, Janie looks inside herself to view her horizon—"she called in her soul to come and see" (193).

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel about dreamers. Janie is such a dreamer. From her young days playing beneath a blossoming pear tree to gazing out over the sea when she is forty years old, Janie is always a character who wishes to bring her imagination into the reality of her life. Though Hurston asserts these dreams may be idealistic or unreachable, she notes life is nothing without them. Janie states: "If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people that never seen de light at all" (159). In this passage, light is the dream, the view of the horizon. If one has a sense of this light or has seen this dream come true, then one has truly lived. According to Hurston, life is "all according to the way you see things" (89). If one has the intuition to look out over the horizon and dream, he or she will be able to live life to the fullest.

zora neale hurston
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