Although Their Eyes Were Watching God revolves around Janie’s relationships with other people, it is first and foremost a story of Janie’s search for spiritual enlightenment and a strong sense of her own identity. When we first and last see Janie, she is alone. The novel is not the story of her quest for a partner but rather that of her quest for a secure sense of independence. Janie’s development along the way can be charted by studying her use of language and her relationship to her own voice.
At the end of her journey, Janie returns to Eatonville a strong and proud woman, but at the beginning of her story, she is unsure of who she is or how she wants to live. When she tells her story to Pheoby, she begins with her revelation under the blossoming pear tree—the revelation that initiates her quest. Under the pear tree, she witnesses a perfect union of harmony within nature. She knows that she wants to achieve this type of love, a reciprocity that produces oneness with the world, but is unsure how to proceed. At this point, she is unable to articulate even to herself exactly what she wants.
When Jody Starks enters her life, he seems to offer the ideal alternative to the dull and pragmatic Logan Killicks. With his ambitious talk, Jody convinces Janie that he will use his thirst for conquest to help her realize her dreams, whatever they may be. Janie learns that Jody’s exertion of power only stifles her. But just before Jody’s death, Janie’s repressed power breaks through in a torrent of verbal retaliation. Her somewhat cruel tirade at the dying Jody measures the depth of Jody’s suppression of her inner life. Having begun to find her voice, Janie blows through social niceties to express herself.
Janie flourishes in her relationship with Tea Cake, as he “teaches her the maiden language all over.” Her control of speech reaches a new level as she learns to be silent when she chooses. This idea of silence as strength rather than passivity comes to the forefront during Janie’s trial, when the narrator glosses over her testimony. Dialogue has been pivotally important up to this point, and one might expect Hurston to use the courtroom scene to showcase Janie’s hard-won, mature voice. The absence of dialogue here, Mary Ellen Washington argues in the foreword present in most editions of the novel, reflects Hurston’s discomfort with rhetoric for its own sake; Hurston doesn’t want Janie’s voice to be confused with that of the lawyer or politician. Janie’s development of her voice is inseparable from her inner growth, and the drama of the courtroom may be too contrived to draw out the nuances of her inner life. Janie summarizes the novel’s attitude toward language when she tells Pheoby that talking “don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans” if it isn’t connected to actual experience.