-Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Zora Neale Hurston, in dealing with the female search for self-awareness in Their Eyes Were Watching God, has created a heroine in Janie Crawford. In fact, the female perspective is introduced immediately: "Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly" (1). On the very first page of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the contrast is made between men and women, thus initiating Janie's search for her own dreams and foreshadowing the "female quest" theme of the rest of the novel. Detailing Janie's quest for self-discovery and self-definition, Hurston celebrates Janie as a role model for all by communicating her understanding of life's true meaning.
In finding life's true meaning, Janie underwent self-definition or what today is called self-actualization:
In 1954 an American psychologist Abraham Maslow proposed that all people are motivated to fulfill a hierarchical pyramid of needs. At the bottom of Maslow's pyramid are needs essential to survival, such as the needs for food, water, and sleep. The need for safety follows these physiological needs. According to Maslow, higher-level needs become important to us only after our more basic needs are satisfied. These higher needs include the need for love and 'belongingness', the need for esteem, and the need for self-actualization (In Maslow's theory, a state in which people realize their greatest potential) (All information by means of Encarta Online Encyclopedia).
It is ironic that a black female author of the late 1930's was able to write a novel exemplifying this very theme, well before its time. Although Hurston had Janie endure three marriages and a slew of hardships, the novel's protagonist finally reached the pinnacle in human existence. She had been a part of the loving harmony she had witnessed so early in her childhood. Janie was complete.
Janie Crawford is a black woman who asserts herself beyond expectation, with a persistence that characterizes her ...
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...end Phoeby, Janie inadvertently begins her life as a role model for all seeking the culmination of Human existence (4). The two keys that unlocked life's secrets she believed were "people got tuh go tuh God, and they got to find out about livin' fuh theyselves" (183). Zora Neale Hurston closes off Their Eyes Were Watching God with one final, poignant image, reiterating the transformation in the heroine: "[calling] in her soul to come and see the splendor of her life" (184).
Hurston has portrayed a female character as an emergent heroine, a creator of her own destiny, and one who has mastered the journey for self-awareness. Says Mary Helen Washington in the Foreword of Their Eyes Were Watching God, "for most black women readers discovering "Their Eyes" for the first time, what was most compelling was the figure of Janie Crawford - powerful, articulate, self-reliant, and radically different from any woman character they had ever before encountered in literature." Janie Crawford is defiant; she defies men, but most importantly, she defies our own preconceived notions of what the role of an African-American woman should be in modern literature.
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