“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a novel published in 1937 by the African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston. Though initially critically panned, the book has come to be seen as an important and ground-breaking work in African-American and Women’s literature of the twentieth century. It has since been adapted into many different formats including theater shows, films, and radio serials.
The story is about a woman named Janie Crawford and her journey of self-discovery and finding her voice. In the beginning, Janie is a young girl whose grandmother marries her off to a rich farmer in pursuit of wealth and security for the girl. Janie spends many years married to the man before meeting a man named Joe Starks and running away with him to a town entirely run by African-Americans.
Joe’s persuasive attitude and lust for power soon make him into the mayor of the town, but his relationship with Janie sours. He seeks to silence her, believing that wives should be seen and not heard. Janie tries to pretend to be docile for many years but eventually she explodes in a rage and yells at Joe. Shortly afterward he dies and Janie is left a rich widow.
She spends a while trying to find herself and realize what her dreams are. Soon she meets a younger man named Vergible who is nicknamed Tea Cake. She and Tea Cake fall in love and marry, leaving town together to move to the Everglades so that he can find work. Janie and Tea Cake are married for many years before he is bitten by a stray dog and stricken with rabies. Janie must shoot and kill her husband in order to save her own life from one of the manic episodes that rabies has caused. She stands trial but is let off and returns to the town she was First Lady of to see her friends again. Though the town is now full of gossip about her, Janie brushes it off, saying that she doesn’t care what anyone thinks and she is happy to have found love even if it was brief.
In the Southern US just as the sun is setting, a woman named Janie Starks walks down the main road. She is a beautiful woman, with long, straight hair and the local residents of the town who have gathered on Pheoby Watson’s porch envy her beauty and jealousy speculate over the gossip surrounding her. Recently she ran off with a man named Tea Cake. However, shortly after she came back and no one in town knows the full story. They suspect that he took all of her money and ran off with a younger woman.
Pheoby stands up for Janie and admonishes the women on her porch for gossiping. She leaves and decides to visit Janie at home, bringing along a plate of food. Janie tells Pheoby that she has come back to town alone because she has split up with Tea Cake of her own choice. She lived with him in the Everglades but decided that it wasn’t the life for her and left. Pheoby doesn’t understand what she means so Janie begins to tell her story.
Chapter 2 begins Janie’s story. Janie was raised by her grandmother and grew up in a small house in the backyard of a white family. Janie regularly played with the white children of the family and until she saw a photo of herself, she did not know that she was black. The other children at her school tease her for living with a white family and for not having parents. They like to remind her that her father was hunted down by Mr. Washburn’s dogs after it was found out that he got her mother pregnant. But Janie internally adds that they always forget that her father did want to marry her mother. Soon, Janie’s grandmother saves up enough to buy a house of their own.
When Janie is sixteen she is caught kissing a local boy by her grandmother. Her grandmother decides to marry her to a wealthy, old farmer named Logan Killicks. Janie’s grandmother tells her she only wants to see her financially secure before she passes on and adds that because black women are the most beaten down by the society she feels that they are the mules of the world and she does not want to see Janie be a mule. When Janie argues her grandmother tells her the hardships she, herself faces.
Janie’s grandmother, Nanny was born into slavery and regularly raped by her master. She gave birth to a daughter named Leafy and a week later her master left to fight in the Civil War. The master’s wife discovered from Leafy’s light hair and eyes that she was mostly likely the master’s daughter. Furious, she planned to sell the girl once she was a month old and have Nanny whipped. Hearing this, Nanny decided to escape with her baby and managed to hide is swamps until the Civil War ended. Afterward she began working for the Washburns as a servant. She always dreamed that Leafy would have a better life but when the girl was a teenager, she was raped by her schoolteacher. As a result, Janie was born. Leafy fell into depression and became an alcoholic, soon running off and leaving town.
After this Nanny transferred all of the hopes that she’d had for her daughter to Janie. Hearing this, Janie begins to prepare for her marriage to Logan. She realizes that she doesn’t love him but holds out hope that she will grow to love him after spending some time with him. The wedding comes and goes and it is a big, festive gathering. However, months later Janie still does not feel any love of Logan. She visits her grandmother to advice and Nanny admonishes her for not being grateful for the good match she has made. She tells Janie that the love will come with more time and sends the girl back home. When she leaves, Nanny prays for Janie to be cared for by God. Shortly after this, Nanny dies. After a year, Janie still feels that she doesn’t love Logan and slowly becomes depressed.
Initially, Logan courted and pampered Janie but he begins to stop this and starts telling her that she is spoiled and trying to get her to do manual labor around the farm. One day while Logan is gone, Janie sees a man walking down the road and begins talking to him. This is Joe Starks, a smooth-talking, style-conscious man with big plans. He says that he is from Georgia and has come to Florida to move to a new town that is being built and run entirely by black people.
For a while, Joe and Janie meet in secret and flirt. Janie begins to wonder if she is in love with him. Joe admits after two weeks of their meetings that he wants her to leave her husband and marry him. That night, Janie fights with her husband again. She leaves the next morning to meet Joe and the two marry as soon as possible and leave for Florida. But when the two newlyweds arrive in the Florida town they are disappointed to find that it consists of little more than a few shacks thrown together and that the town has no mayor. Janie learns that the town, Eatonville, is only fifty acres. Joe pays cash to one of the donors of the town’s land for two hundred acres. The donor, Captain Eaton, attempts to flirt with Janie but is unsuccessful.
After they buy the land, Joe calls a town meeting to announce that he intends to build a store and a post office. Joe hires two men named Coker and Taylor to build the store. Then he instructs the rest of the town to help in recruiting more residents. The town beings to get new people and becomes successful. Joe is made the mayor and Taylor asks Janie to give a speech. However, Joe prevents this, saying that wives should not make speeches. This angers Janie but she does not protest.
Janie begins to feel alienated from Joe as he is spending so much time and money on the town. The townspeople begin to respect and envy Janie’s life. They feel that she and Joe are acting like they are better than the other residents and that it is unfair that they live in a large house while everyone else lives in shacks. Joe runs a man out of town that he suspects of stealing. The townspeople wonder how Janie can manage to get along with her husband as they begin to see him as a harsh, domineering man. Joe makes Janie tie up her beautiful hair in a rag when she is working at the town’s store, and the townspeople see this as controlling. However, they do not actively oppose Joe.
Janie dislikes working at the store and begins to become dissatisfied with her life again. One day, during an argument, Joe slaps her face. Janie reminds herself to keep her anger inside and maintain an air of respectfulness to her husband. However, later that day she is at the store when some of the men sitting on the porch begin talking about a local woman in a misogynistic manner. Janie can not keep herself from scolding them. She tells them that they don’t know as much about women as they think they do. She adds that it’s easy for them to act big and tough because only women and chickens are around for them to overpower. Her husband merely tells her to be quiet.
Years pass in much the same way, with Janie growing more and more disillusioned with her life. She considers running away but does not feel that there is anywhere for her to go. Janie realizes that Joe is starting to look old and that his body is starting to sag. He begins to point out her age whenever he can in an effort make her focus on her own looks and ignore his.
Joe begins to get more vicious as he ages and one day he berates Janie for making a mistake at the store. Janie finally releases her pent up anger and yells at him, claiming that he is old and insulting his sagging body. The insult stuns the men outside on the porch and the rest of the customers in the store. Joe feels insulted and angry, he worries that his reputation in the town has diminished and, as a result, he lashes out at his wife in a blind rage and hits her before driving her out of the store.
After this fight, Joe moves into another room in their house. His health begins to deteriorate and he soon learns from his doctor that his kidneys have stopped working. Hearing this news, Janie begins to feel bad for her husband and visits him in his room. Their conversation quickly turns to an argument and Janie releases the years of pent up anger that she has held back from him. Joe begins to sob in fear of dying.
Soon, Joe dies and Janie begins to reevaluate her life. She takes off the rag that Joe insisted she wears over her hair and tells everyone in town that he has died. She realizes that she is angry at her grandmother for raising her to believe that wealth, status, and security were the only important things in life. Janie realizes that she wants to chase her dreams instead.
Other men begin trying to flirt with Janie as she is now an attractive and wealthy widow, But Janie realizes that she would rather be alone for a while as the independence makes her happy. Having been friends with her for a while at this point, Pheoby tells her that she is worried that the townspeople will think that Janie isn’t sad that her husband died and Janie admits that she doesn’t care what the town thinks.
Janie continues to run the store. One day a tall, handsome younger man enters and begins flirting with Janie. He invites her to play a game of checkers and Janie is surprised by this, as it isn’t customary for men to respect women enough to want to play a game against them. They begin to play and afterward Janie asks him his name. He says that his name is Vergible Woods but that everyone calls him Tea Cake.
The two flirt for a while longer before saying goodnight. Janie continues to see Tea Cake for a while longer and the two meet up to play checkers and talk. She enjoys his company but the town begins to gossip about the time that they are spending together. Janie’s friends tell her that Tea Cake is not right for her and that he is low class. Tea Cake addresses the rumors to Janie and asks her if she thinks that he’s a scoundrel. Janie tells him that she likes him as a good friend and not a lover.
Tea Cake is upset by this and tells her that he likes her more than she likes him. Janie tells him that he’s young yet and he will feel differently soon. Tea Cake leaves town for several days and Janie fears that she has upset him. But he returns in a beat-up car and says that he intends to make their relationship public. Pheoby warns Janie that Tea Cake is taking advantage of her and that he is just after her money. Janie argues that with Tea Cake she has finally found a man who will treat her how she wants to be treated. She says that she intends to sell the store and leave town with Tea Cake.
She says that she has tried her grandmother’s way of living and she wants to live her own life now. Pheoby tries to argue but she is so overwhelmed by her friend’s happiness and energy that she laughs and shares in the good news. Janie and Tea Cake leave Eatonville together and marry in Jacksonville where Tea Cake is from. Janie is in love but still worried about getting ripped off by Tea Cake. She remembers another widow from Eatonville, Mrs. Tyler, who left town with a younger man and had all of her money stolen.
Janie pins two hundred dollars into her shirt and doesn’t tell Tea Cake about it. However, a week after they marry, Janie wakes up to find that her money is missing. Tea Cake is also gone and Janie worries that he has taken her money and deserted her. But soon Tea Cake returns. He tells her that he got so excited when he found the money that he rushed out to buy his fellow railroad workers a big dinner. The dinner turned into a night of laughter and music and time got away from him. Janie is offended that he would not invite her to the occasion and he confesses that he thought that the party would be below her dignity. Janie tells him that she wants to be with him and enjoy everything he does in the future.
Tea Cake promises to pay Janie back and takes up gambling in order to do so. One day, he wins three hundred and twenty-two dollars. Janie trusts Tea Cake enough to inform him that she has twelve hundred dollars in the bank. Tea Cake is pleased to hear this but insists that she will never have to touch it as he intends to provide for her. He tells her that they will go to the Everglades where he will find work.
Tea Cake and Janie move to the Everglades and Tea Cake begins to teach Janie how to hunt. Janie begins working with Tea Cake in the fields so that they may be together all day. She laughs as she wonders what the people of Eatonville would think if they could see her working hard and enjoying a talk with the local workers. Janie begins being friendly with a woman named Mrs. Turner. Although she is black, Mrs. Turner professes a hatred of her own race and says that, because Janie is light skinned, she should not be married to Tea Cake who is dark skinned. Mrs. Turner says that she has a brother who is also light skinned and that she wants to bring him to town to meet Janie.
This upsets Tea Cake, who tries to tell Janie to stop speaking to Mrs. Turner. Janie tries to but eventually Mrs. Turner does bring her brother to town. Tea Cake feels so threatened by this that he beats Janie to show that he still has power over her. Afterward, he apologizes to her and Janie doesn’t hold a grudge over the beating. A hurricane soon sweeps into town and Tea Cake and Janie, thinking that they can wait out the storm, end up waiting to flee until it has already hit. Tea Cake and Janie as well as another man nicknamed Motor Boat, are fleeing the storm when Lake Okeechobee’s dams burst and flood the town. The flooding gets so deep that they have to begin swimming, passing bodies and destruction on the way.
Tea Cake saves Janie from an angry, attacking dog along the way and when the couple reaches Palm Beach the next day she thanks him. Janie and Tea Cake quickly discover that Palm Beach is a very racist town after two men force Tea Cake to dig graves for the corpses from the hurricane at gun point and they notices that the white corpses get coffins while the black ones are merely thrown into a ditch and covered with quicklime.
The couple sneak away from the town in the night and return to their home to find that it has fared well. Most of their friends have survived the storm and the town is already rebuilding. Tea Cake helps with the rebuild but soon begins to feel ill and becomes unable to eat. The doctor is called and tells Janie that he suspects that the dog that bit Tea Cake when he was trying to save her was most likely rabid. He says that it is too late to save him.
Rabies begins to warp and delude Tea Cake’s mind and he begins accusing Janie of cheating on him with Mrs. Turner’s brother. Janie pacifies him but becomes afraid when she notices that he is sleeping with a gun under his pillow. Instead of unloading the gun, she arranges it so that it will run through three empty chambers before firing so that if he does fire at her she will have time to react. Soon, Tea Cake’s mind deteriorates to the point that he does pull the gun on her but it when he fires it clicks through an empty chamber. Janie attempts to wrestle the gun from him but he pulls the trigger two more times. Realizing that she has no choice, Janie shoots the gun at him.
Janie is immediately put on trial for the murder and all of the black people of the town come to watch. Many of Janie’s former friends begin to testify against her. The doctor who diagnosed Tea Cake takes the stand in defense of Janie. But it is Janie’s own emotional testimony that finally clears her in the eyes of the jury. Janie throws Tea Cake a funeral during which the men of the town realize that they have mistreated her. The guilt forces them to beat Mrs. Turner’s brother and run him out of town. Janie returns to Eatonville with only a packet of seeds that she plans to plant in remembrance of Tea Cake.
This ends all of Janie’s story to Pheoby. She finishes by telling her friend that she is happy to be back in Eatonville and feels that she has lived her dream with Tea Cake in the Everglades. She is aware that the town is gossiping about her but she doesn’t care. She feels that they don’t know what true love really is and have never really lived like she has. That night, laying in bed, Janie thinks about Tea Cake and becomes sad. But she realizes that Tea Cake will always be with her and that she is at peace now.
Janie Crawford (Killicks, Starks, Woods) – the main character of the story. Janie’s life story is told through the narrative device of her explaining her recent absence to a friend. Although most of the narrative revolves around Janie’s relationships with different husbands, it is primarily a story about her search for independence and a sense of her own identity. The first and last time we see Janie in the story she is alone. By the end of the story, she has returned to Eatonville as a proud and strong woman but at the beginning, she is a young girl who is unsure of who she is or what she wants out of life. She only knows that she wants to achieve harmony with nature and a reciprocal love.
When Janie meets Joe Starks she believes that his lust for life and big ideas are what she needs to break her free from the drudgery of her everyday life. Joe tells her that he will help her achieve her dreams but Janie quickly learns that Joe’s thirst for power suffocates her. Just before his death, she releases her anger at him for years of mistreatment in a powerful rant. Janie feels empowered by this and begin to realize that she doesn’t have to live up to societies standards in order to find herself. This is further represented by her throwing off the chains of her marriage to Joe by removing the headscarf that he made her wear to disguise her beautiful hair.
Janie soon marries Tea Cake and learns much about herself from the marriage although it does not turn out to be much different from her marriage to Joe. Janie primarily learns about using her own silence as a strength. At the end of the book, Janie tells Pheoby that talking doesn’t amount to a hill of beans if it isn’t backed up by experience.
Tea Cake (Vergible Woods) – Janie’s third husband. A younger man who professes his love for Janie and wishes to marry her soon after meeting her. Tea Cake is mainly set up as a catalyst for Janie developing her own sense of self and moving toward her goals. Before his arrival, Janie has already begun to find a voice of her own but he plays a crucial role in her spiritual growth. Whereas her first husband saw her only as a worker and her second only as a silent wife, Tea Cake enjoys talking to Janie and playing with her. He encourages her ideas and personality.
However, though Tea Cake is important for Janie’s development he is not necessary. She is capable of being independent after his death and goes back to Eatonville a stronger person on her own.
Joe Starks – Janie’s second husband. A cruel, power hungry man who is only interested in his own self-interest. Joe’s treatment of Janie is a result of his own upbringing and not a particular hatred of Janie herself. That said, he doesn’t seem to particularly love her either and seems to marry her only because he feels that she will help him meet his goals.
Joe relies on an exertion of power to feel secure in his position in the world. He is only happy when he is overpowering someone. As a result of this, Joe feels the need to dominate everyone in Eatonville. He becomes the mayor almost overnight and his life becomes consumed with political planning and how people view the town. Janie feels unhappy and unfulfilled in their marriage because of Joe’s need to keep her silent and stifled. Ultimately she rebels by attacking his sense of power and destroying his will to live.
Pheoby Watson – Janie’s best friend in Eatonville. Though she is only in a few scenes of the book, Pheoby is necessary to the narrative because it is through a conversation with her that Janie tells her story, the story of the novel.
As a character, Pheoby represents an everyday person. She wishes to seek out her dreams the way that Janie does but feels too tied down by her marriage. However, by the end of the story, she tells Janie that her story has inspired her. Through the lens of Pheoby, the author indicates her desire for readers to be moved into action just as she was by Janie’s story.
Nanny Crawford – Janie’s grandmother. A former slave who raises Janie after her mother runs away. Nanny makes it clear that she values money and security over true love and happiness in a marriage and only wishes Janie to be secure and wealthy before she dies. In this way, Nanny is expressing her love for Janie, however poorly. Nanny represents the thoughts and opinions of people from the slave era in her need for security and money. Janie only begins to seek her own happiness and freedom because she is rebelling from her grandmother.
Zora Neale Hurston Biography
Zora Neale Hurston was born on January 7th, 1891 in the town of Notasulga, Alabama. One of eight siblings, Hurston was the child of a Baptist preacher and a school teacher. In 1894, Hurston’s family moved to Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville was one of the first towns in the United States to be created and run entirely by black people. Hurston’s father was made the mayor of the town three years later and became the town’s main preacher.
Although she later moved away, Hurston always saw Eatonville as her home and later set many of her stories there as she found it an interesting way to show the lives of black people being entirely unaffected by whites.
In 1904, Hurston’s father remarried and sent her away to live at a boarding school in Jacksonville, Florida. Eventually, her father cut off paying her tuition and she was expelled. With nowhere else to go, Hurston began working as a maid to the head singer of the Gilbert and Sullivan theater company.
Hurston attended Morgan college, a black college in Baltimore, Maryland in 1917 when she was 26 years old. Graduating in 1918, Hurston then went on to Howard University where she co-founded the university’s student newspaper, ‘The Hilltop’ and later earned an associates degree in 1920.
In 1925, Hurston became one of the writers in the center of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement of black writers in New York City in the 1920’s. In the early 1930’s, Hurston’s most well-known novel, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ was published. By this time, Hurston was already a successful writer, having worked for several magazines and published many short stories. During this decade, Hurston also produced such titles as: ‘Jonah’s Gourd Vine'(1934) and ‘Moses, Man of the Mountain’ (1939).
Through the 1940’s and 50’s, Hurston continued to work at well know magazines and newspapers. Hurston also continued to attend college and went on to earn a B.A. In anthropology at the age of 37 and conducted ethnographic research.
However, later in life, Hurston’s work began to suffer some criticism and she feels into obscurity. She began to suffer financial difficulties and died of heart disease in January of 1960 when she was 69 years old. For 13 years, her grave remained unmarked until Novelist Alice Walker and literary scholar Charlotte Hunt found it and put up a gravestone. This caused a renewal of attention to Hurston and a revival of the public’s interest in her work. Today she is thought of as a classic author and her hometown of Eatonville holds an annual celebration in her honor.