As a motif, we now need to examine how it supports a theme. Ultimately, what Janie learns at the end of the novel is that there are "two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves" (192). In essence, a major theme of TEWWG is that one has not lived a complete life until one has taken risks to discover the world for oneself.
Notice how the novel begins: "Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time" (1). "Time" is capitalized, indicating that Hurston is portraying Time as a deity that has control over human lives. Since Time is mocking an individual's dreams to death, it is the ultimate destroyer of life. The tide coming in is controlled by forces of nature. The horizon is a symbol of Janie's aspirations. I'm not sure if I'm interpreting this quote correctly, but I believe that the ships coming in with the tide are those that have accomplished their goals. In returning, they have taken a piece of the horizon with them. Those that sail forever on the horizon are lost, and the dreams that they carry are mocked to death. In the end, 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" (193). Janie feels that she has genuinely lived life because her ship has sailed back to shore. She has seen the effect of fate on her life, but has taken a step further to come back to shore by allowing herself to become enlightened. Unlike the ships that are lost at sea, forever drifting toward the horizon, allowing themselves to be owned by the sea, Janie sails back in with the tide, applying the understanding she has gained from living with Joe and Tea Cake. She has brought her life back to a full circle upon discovering life for herself, thus bringing about the sense of enlightenment and fulfillment learned from the divine forces she encountered and defied.
Another example in which we see divine forces mentioned occurs in Sam and Lige's brawl over whether nature or caution prevents a baby from touching a hot stove: "it's nature, cause nature makes caution. It's de strongest thing dat God ever made, now. Fact is it's de onliest thing God ever made. He made nature and nature made everything else" (65). It is important to notice that this argument takes place after Janie expresses her discontent about not being able to attend the mule's burial. The hot stove represents a life of adventure that Joe forbids Janie from living. Nature, or fate, is holding Janie back. When she goes to defy her fate of a dull life, she is ultimately burned by the death of Tea Cake. However, in this encounter with the wrathful forces of fate, Janie truly discovers herself and feels satisfied with her life.