The most prevalent themes in Their Eyes Were Watching God involve Janie's search for unconditional, true, and fulfilling love. She experiences different kinds of love throughout her life. As a result of her quest for this love, Janie gains her own independence and personal freedom, which makes her a true heroine in the novel. Because Janie strives for her own independence, others tend to judge her simply because she is daring enough to achieve her own autonomy.
Throughout the novel, Janie searches for the love that she has always desired, the kind of love that is represented by the marriage between a bee and a blossom on the pear tree that stood in Nanny's backyard. Only after feeling other kinds of love does Janie finally gain the love like that between the bee and the blossom.
Janie experiences many types of love throughout her life. With Nanny, her caring grandmother, Janie experiences a love that is protective. Nanny yearns for Janie to have a better life than she did, and she will do anything in her power to make sure that Janie is safe and cared for. This protective love that Nanny bestows on Janie serves as the driving force behind Nanny's plot to arrange Janie's marriage to Logan Killicks.
With Logan, Janie has attained a similarly protective love, much like that provided by Nanny. Logan represents security for Janie, as he owns a 60-acre potato farm. For Janie, however, this protective love does not satisfy her need for the love that she has always desired.
Joe Starks provides Janie with an escape from the protective and unsatisfying love of Logan. Joe is a man with lofty goals and charisma. Janie feels for the first time in her life that she may be able to find true love with this man who wants her to be treated like a lady, rather than as a subservient farmer's wife. After being married just a short time, however, Janie realizes that she is once again lacking the love that she has longed for. The love that Janie experiences with Joe is a possessive love. Joe views Janie as his possession, his trophy wife. He expects Janie to follow his orders, just as the townspeople abide by the laws he creates as mayor. Joe forbids Janie to interact with the porch sitters or to play checkers on the porch of the crossroads store. Janie feels trapped by Joe's love, but she remains with him until his death.
Following Joe's death, Janie meets the man who represents the true love of her life, Tea Cake Woods. He arrives in Eatonville as a fun-loving man who quickly falls for Janie's beauty and charm. Although Janie fears that she is too old for Tea Cake, she cannot help but fall in love with this man. Janie leaves behind everything that she has ever known to embark on a new life with Tea Cake. She adores him, as he adores her. After moving to the Everglades with Tea Cake, she embraces this new life as well as her new friends. Finally, Janie has found the love like that between the bee and its blossom. She declares that Tea Cake could be a "bee to a blossom — a pear tree blossom in the spring."
In her search for love and in the losses that she suffers, Janie gains independence. Janie's independence begins slowly in the novel. She holds a spark of independence when she gains the courage to leave her loveless marriage with Logan in order to run away with Joe Starks. Her independence grows, however, throughout her marriage to Joe. As Joe treats Janie as his possession instead of his wife, Janie gains an inner strength. Her strength builds, and one day she stands up for herself to Joe in the presence of the porch sitters. This act is Janie's first outward sign of her inner strength. Her strength and independence grow as Joe becomes weaker. Although he banishes Janie from his room, she visits him anyway. As Joe lies dying, Janie reveals to him that he is not the man that she ran off with years ago. She tells Joe that he has never been able to accept her for the person that she really is. Ironically, Janie finds strength in Joe's death. Finally, she is free of the man who confined her in a loveless marriage. Janie exhibits her freedom after Joe's death by removing the kerchief from her head to let her long braids drape freely down her back.
Throughout Janie's quest for love and the independence that she gains in her journey, Janie endures the harsh judgment of others. The porch sitters in the novel serve to judge Janie. As the novel opens, they sit and comment about Janie's return and her present lifeless appearance. The theme of judgment continues in Janie's life with Joe. He judges Janie, rather than accepting her for what and who she is. He stifles her independence because he fears that another man may take her away from him. Even Mrs. Turner, the bigoted restaurant owner, judges Janie. She questions Janie's choice of Tea Cake as a husband, because he is "too black." Because Janie endures the harsh judgments of others, she is able to gain independence and strength.
Janie's quest for love leads her along different paths. She gains strength from the protective love of Nanny and Logan as well as the possessive love of Joe. Janie finds her desired love with Tea Cake. Throughout her life, she also gains an independence and strength from these relationships as well as by enduring the judgments made by others. As a result of her lifelong encounters, Janie gains autonomy and learns the value of true love. As a character, Janie proves herself as a heroine.
Hurston created the character of Janie during a time in which African-American female heroines were uncommon in literature. In 1937 when the novel was originally published, females experienced fewer opportunities than they do today. Hurston chose to portray Janie as a strong, independent woman, unlike most African-American females of the early nineteenth century. Perhaps Hurston characterized Janie as capable and courageous to empower her readers and to show them that opportunities do exist for all women; they just have to embrace them.