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Self-fulfillment is the most obvious theme in the story and is symbolized by Janie's pear tree. When she is sixteen, she watches the bee take nectar from the tree, and from that point forward she looks for the perfect male relationship that can fulfill her. Part of her search for fulfillment is sexual, for she wants to be fully loved by a man. The sexual experience, however, is only symbolic for what Janie actually seeks, which is deep emotional connection with another human being. Janie, therefore, becomes a very early independent female character who takes her sexual fulfillment as a natural course of action and uses it to find her interior self.
A theology of sorts arises out of this book. Hurston seems to suggest that each person creates his own heaven and hell and godhead. Janie is obviously a religious person, who has been taught by her Nanny. Several times in the book she turns to God, especially during the hurricane and when Tea Cake is dying. Janie's God, at the end of the novel, seems to be a kinder God who is seen in Tea Cake's "dancing" around her room and placing the horizon over her shoulders as she thinks and prepares herself for bed. Janie calls to her soul, in the book's last line, to come and look, for she has a measure of peace inside.
Death is also a significant theme in the story. Hurston depicts four funerals: one for the mule, one for Joe Starks, one for the hurricane's dead, and one for Tea Cake. The first is a mock funeral and contains a parody within a parody when the buzzards show up. Janie is not allowed to attend this funeral, which upsets her; she is tired of being left out of life. The second, Joe's funeral, is rather dry and couched in terms of material goods; Hurston makes a point of how impressive everything is and who attends. The third burial, which comes immediately after the storm, is again a parody, this time of race relations. The white bodies are carefully placed in separate pine boxes; the black bodies are tossed into a common, open grave. The fourth funeral, Tea Cake's, is rather brief, but contains many important details. Janie puts a guitar in his hands and roses in his casket. She gathers his friends to honor him with a procession that would make Tea Cake proud. She herself wears overalls, for she is t oo grieved to dress like grief. It is a touching and natural end to a very fulfilling relationship.
The gender roles in the story are clearly depicted and relatively unquestioned. The men work; Tea Cake works, Joe works, Logan works. On the other hand, Janie is expected to keep house and tend the store for Logan and Joe. Housewifery is drudgery for her, be cause she does not love the husband and does not want to care for him. She feels like a mule, just as Nanny has explained. Even when she becomes a rich widow, she does not escape her image as a mule, for she has not found what she is seeking in life. The wealth has no meaning; it is only used against her by the unfeeling public. Tea Cake allows Janie to turn things around. When she says she wants to work in the fields beside him, he welcomes her company. In turn, she gladly takes care of and serves Tea Cake, not because she is expected to but because she wants to. The couple is truly devoted to one another, with sincerity and without fuss. Through Tea Cake, Janie has found her pear tree and can be the woman she has always dreamed of being. Sh e knows it is a very different image than the one Nanny envisioned for her, but she is happy.