Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For Janie Crawford, protagonist of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God, her distant wish is to understand herself spiritually and find inner fulfillment through various relationships. Hurston’s novel recounts Janie’s quest to find fulfillment and security within herself which Janie initially believes can be achieved through partnership, but through her quest is actually led to self-knowledge that her inherent value and strength provides her the greatest fulfillment in her life, enhancing Hurston’s message of the novel that fulfillment comes from within oneself.
Janie’s wish arises while sitting under a pear tree, observing the beauty of nature and describing the scene as a, “love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch … [s]o this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.” (Hurston 11). Janie, limp from the void of such a love embrace in her own life, sets out on her quest to fill her heart. She attempts this with several failed marriages and partners, all of whom end up abusing, oppressing, or neglecting Janie’s needs. Multiple challenges and trials to her mettle finally lead her to meet Tea Cake, a man who, for the first time, treats Janie with respect and equality. In this relationship, Janie can equate her love for Tea Cake to her experience watching the pear tree. However, when a rabid Tea Cake threatens to end Janie’s life, Janie makes the crucial decision to sacrifice Tea Cake to save herself. Throughout the process of her quest, Janie is better able to understand her own motives and character ultimately making her self-confident. She becomes more in control of her voice; vocal about her discomfort regarding Nunkie’s advances on Tea Cake and silent when Tea Cake beats Janie along with the trial following Tea Cake’s death. Janie starts out looking for external acceptance within her community and her partner, but when she is left with neither, she is solaced only by her self-knowledge. The real “confirmation to the voice and vision” she sees under the pear tree is the discovery of her intrinsic spirit as a beautiful and powerful force. Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake leads her to self-knowledge, the awareness and embrace of which allows her to reach inner fulfillment and complete security within herself.
Hurston concludes the novel, “[h]ere was peace. [Janie] pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.” (Hurston 193). Represented is the final stage of the quest — the development of Janie’s character. Instead of observing her life from a distance, so to speak; watching her ship sail with the tide and the horizon set with the sun, she takes control of her destiny and pulls it ashore. Janie calling in her soul reflects her new found command over her voice and the self-realization that the fulfillment and security that Janie was searching for was within her all along.
This knowledge contributes to Hurston’s overall message of the work that complete fulfillment and one’s quest is only defined by the individual, that it is ultimately an internal process. Self-knowledge cannot be obtained by someone for someone else, it can only be discovered personally. While one may be guided by influences to bring them closer to their understanding, the fundamental leap to self-knowledge occurs alone. Ships at a distance hold every man’s wish on board — but for Janie, she is able to steer her own course.