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The point of the story is for Janie to tell Pheoby how it is she has come back to sit on her own porch, by herself, in Eatonville. Janie disappeared with Tea Cake a couple of years earlier, and has come back without him. In order for Pheoby to understand the full impact of Janie's mindset, she feels she must tell Pheoby her entire life story.
Janie Crawford is clearly the story's protagonist. Their Eyes is Janie's story, her recounting of her life, her values, and her satisfactions. Before she finds herself, Janie lives through others' expectations of her.
Janie's antagonist is her search for her true self. During the search, Janie confronts a series of characters that are less than perfect, but far from evil. Joe Starks is probably the most directly difficult character for Janie to contend with. Her husband for twenty years, Joe puts Janie on a pedestal and mistreats her, choosing to remain estranged from her rather than considering his marriage a partnership. Joe is an example of a kind of misdirected regard; he worships Janie, but ignores the fact that his worship carries no respect for Janie as an actual person. Another antagonistic relationship involves Nanny. Through Janie's grandmother, Hurston clearly shows how each generation must take stock of its own history, but cannot ultimately impose its history as a pattern for living on later generations. Janie must break away from Nanny in order to find herself; then she must reject the stable and secure life offered by her first two husbands, Logan and Joe.
The story reaches a climax during a terrible hurricane on "the muck," when Janie and Tea Cake must run for their lives. After deciding to ride out the storm in their workers' shanty, they realize their mistake when the dam breaks and the lake floods the area. When Janie nearly drowns, Tea Cake yells for her to grab on to a swimming cow until he can reach her. Unfortunately, a mad dog is also riding the cow, and when it tries to attack Janie, Tea Cake swims to her. He fights off the dog and saves Janie, who now realizes she is totally loved by a man who is devoted to her. It is what she has been seeking her whole life.
The outcome of the hurricane is tragic, for while Tea Cake is saving Janie, he is bitten by the mad dog. Although he succeeds in saving his wife, he comes down with rabies and goes mad. In his sickness, he shoots at Janie with his pistol. She protects herself by fatally firing the rifle at him. She is then tried for his murder.
In spite of the tragic circumstances surrounding the hurricane and Tea Cake's death, the novel has a comic ending, for Janie is found innocent of murder and given a chance to reorder her life and come to grips with who she really is. In telling her story, it is obvious that she feels like a fulfilled woman who has known love and has precious memories to surround her. She is content in knowing that her pear tree has blossomed.