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Their Eyes Were Watching God

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English Literature

16-year-old Janie Crawford expects her love and life to blossom like the pear tree she sits under while basking in the golden light. Instead, she is married off to an old man who treats her like a working mule, runs away with another man who treats her as an aid for his own ambitions, and finally finds the deep love she desires—just to watch it deteriorate after a hurricane. Their Eyes Were Were Watching God (1937) is Zora Neale Hurston's lyrical coming of age novel about a fair-skinned black woman pushed out into the world to become her own strength.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Novel Summary StudySmarterA blossoming pear tree like the one Janie lies under at the beginning of the novelPixabay.com

Content warning: contains themes of violence and rape.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Information Overview
AuthorZora Neale Hurston
Date of PublicationSeptember 18, 1937
MovementHarlem Renaissance
GenreComing of age/bildungsroman, novel, fiction
Setting1920s/30s Florida: Eatonville, Jacksonville, and the Everglades
Main CharacterJanie Crawford
ThemesLove and relationships, self-discovery, speech and voice, control and power, masculinity vs. femininity, freedom/independence, humanity vs. nature, God vs. man

Their Eyes Were Watching God Summary

Janie Crawford returns to a small, all-black town after years of no one hearing from her. The townspeople are quick to gossip, but the 40-year-old Janie is a force to be reckoned with. She makes quite the entrance in her dirty overalls and long hair. She is radiant, strong, and self-assured. Janie catches up with her old friend, Phoeby Walker, and tells her the story of what happened to her for most of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Janie was raised by her grandmother, Nanny, who was a domestic servant and previously a slave. Nanny was raped by her slavemaster, and bore a daughter named Leafy. Leafy was also raped, and she bore Janie before she disappeared. Nanny wants to spare Janie from the hardships she faced, and she thinks the best way to do that is to marry her to someone of a higher social standing.

At 16, Janie lies under a blooming pear tree surrounded by buzzing bees, greatly desiring the passion, exuberance, and beauty reflected in nature for her own life. As she is blossoming herself, she kisses a young neighbor, Johnny Taylor, as he passes by the yard fence. Nanny sees this, is frightened by Janie getting involved with a delinquent boy, and decides it is time for her to marry. Janie protests, but it is no use.

The time periods of Janie's life from this point become marked by men. Janie's first husband, Logan Killicks, is a 60-year-old man with a farm, a nice house, and lots of land. Janie finds him dirty, unattractive, and boring. He makes her do lots of work around the farm, but he thinks she is ungrateful because her attitude is often gloomy. She longs for true love, yet his idea of showing love is to get her a mule to help her with her work.

While Logan Killicks is out of town, Janie encounters Joe Starks, or Jody, a charismatic, confident, and convincing young man who has grand plans. He convinces Janie to come away with him to an all-black town called Eatonville. They marry, he builds up the town, elects himself mayor, and wants Janie's only identity to be his wife.

Starks controls her so that she is almost always working in his shop or at their home. He causally belittles her in front of others and will not let her play checkers with him and his friends because he claims she does not have the mind for it. Joe Starks and Janie stay together for 20 years up until his death, when Janie claims he never knew her and never let her be free.

Soon after Joe's death, Vergible Woods, known as Tea Cake, wanders into Eatonville. He is full of life, funny, naturally confident, and 12 years younger than Janie. Tea Cake and Janie develop a fond friendship. The townspeople are convinced Tea Cake is only after her money, but she ignores them and they eventually marry in Jacksonville.

Their love is imperfect, and they have fights and struggles. Ultimately, Tea Cake is the love Janie has been waiting for, as he desires to know, understand, and take care of her in the way that she wants.

Janie and Tea Cake move to the Everglades and get caught in a hurricane. Tea Cake gets bitten by a dog with rabies while saving Janie from drowning. Tea Cake contracts rabies and goes mad. As a result, Janie ends up having to shoot him in order to spare her own life and save him from what he has become. Janie ends up charged with murder, but is found not guilty.

She then returns to Eatonville after burying Tea Cake. Phoeby is inspired by Janie's story and decides to try to better enjoy the rest of her married life with her husband, Sam. Janie returns to the home Joe Starks built, where she once felt trapped, but is now self-sufficient, free, and at peace.

The hurricane in Their Eyes Were Watching God was based on the 1928 Lake Okeechobee Hurricane, one of the deadliest hurricanes in the United States, which killed about 2,500 people. It was a Category 5 hurricane that swept through Puerto Rico and Florida.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Author, Background and History

Their Eyes Were Watching God was written by Zora Neale Hurston, an African

Their Eyes Were Watching God Zora Neale Hurston StudySmarter Zora Neale Hurstonclassrooomclipart.com

American author, folklorist, and anthropologist who lived from 1891 to 1960. Hurston spent the majority of her life in Eatonville, Florida—an all-black town where her father become the mayor.

Like the heroine of Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston was a strong, resilient, woman who married three times. Hurston reported that the character of Tea Cake was based on an attractive, intelligent, younger man she fell deeply in love with after the end of her third marriage, but could not marry because he asked her to give up her work. Their Eyes Were Watching God was written in seven weeks, a few weeks after the end of her passionate, tumultuous relationship.

Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in the 1920s to 1930s. This was a time period about 50 years after the freedom of slaves, but a time still greatly impacted by slavery, as can be seen in Nanny Crawford's speech and mentality.

Zora Neale Hurston stays true to the black southern dialect and harsh realities of the time, yet the novel is ultimately a tale of self-discovery and liberation amidst adversity. This time period was also known for the Harlem Renaissance, the golden age of African American culture, to which Zora Neale Hurston contributed.

When it was released in 1937, the novel was not met with high reviews and faded somewhat into obscurity. However, in 1975 Pulitzer Prize winner Alice Walker published an article titled "In Search of Zora Neale Hurston", which revitalized interest in her work.

Maya Angelou, Zadie Smith, and Toni Morrison have also cited Zora Neale Hurston as a significant influence on their writing. In 2005, Oprah Winfrey produced a film adaptation of the novel, featuring Halle Berry as Janie.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Characters

CharacterRoleDescription
Janie CrawfordProtagonistJanie Crawford is a fair, black woman with strength in her appearance and resilience in her character. She is often characterized by her long, straight, dark hair. Janie longs for passionate and beautiful love and self-actualization. Though at the outlook she is passive, after following the paths of many men, she has a strong sense of self and of what she wants, which carries her towards finding peace on her own.
Nanny CrawfordJanie's grandmotherNanny is a domestic servant and previous slave, who was raped by her slavemaster and bore a daughter, Leafy. Leafy was also raped, bore Janie and ran away. Nanny raises and shelters Janie, but ultimately marries her off at the age of 16 when she sees Janie kissing the neighbor, Johnny Taylor. Nanny believes the best way to protect Janie from the hardship she suffered is to marry her to a man with a higher social status. Nanny is a spiritual women who prays that God takes care of Janie. She dies a month after Janie is married to Logan Killicks.
Phoeby WatsonJanie's friend to whom she narrates her storyPhoeby is Janie's best friend. Her relationship with Janie frames the entire story, as Phoeby brings Janie a bowl of mulatto rice upon her return and asks her what happened. Janie transfers the power of her story to Phoeby, who comes away inspired by it. She resolves to enjoy the rest of the years she has with her husband, Sam.
Johnny TaylorThe boy Janie kisses at 16Johnny Taylor is the neighborhood boy who kisses Janie over the fence. He is disapproved of for being lazy. when Nanny witnesses their kiss, she decides Janie must be married off to someone respectable before she gets herself into trouble.
Logan KillicksJanie's first husbandLogan Killicks is a 60-year-old man who is unattractive and often dirty from doing farm work. He owns a nice house, lots of land, and does practical things to take care of Janie, but he also requires her to do a lot of work too. Logan Killicks does not fulfill the passionate, understanding love Janie seeks. She is bored by her life on the farm, and Logan feels she is ungrateful. He sees her as more of a workmate than a woman.
Joe Starks (Jody)Janie's second husbandJoe Starks is a confident man with vision and ambition, and he meets Janie while Logan is away. He convinces her to run away with him to Eatonville, Florida. They marry, he builds up the town, elects himself mayor, and wants Janie's only identity to be his wife. He controls her so that she is almost always only working in his shop or in their home. Joe Starks and Janie stay together for 20 years, up until his death, when Janie claims he never knew her and never let her be free.
Vergible Woods"Tea Cake"Janie's third husbandTea Cake is full of life, funny, naturally confident, and 12 years younger than Janie. Tea Cake and Janie develop a fond friendship. The townspeople are convinced Tea Cake is only after her money, but she ignores them and they eventually marry in Jacksonville. Their love is imperfect, and they have fights and struggles. Ultimately, Tea Cake is the love Janie has been waiting for, as he desires to know and understand her.
Sam WatsonPhoeby's husband, Janie's friend Sam Watson is a good-humored man who is a porch sitter, but defends Janey from the town gossip. Sam and Phoeby's relationship represents a lighthearted, steady, but real love that contrasts the relationships Janie has experienced.

A porch sitter is a person who sits on the front porch of a house. Porch sitting is considered a leisurely activity often associated with people watching and gossiping with neighbors. It is particularly popular in the United States.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Themes

Their Eyes Were Watching God contains a number of interrelated themes that can best be understood through Janie's relationships with people and with nature at various stages of her life. Love and relationships affect Janie's sense of freedom and lead to her self-discovery. Her ability to find and use her speech and voice relate to aspects of freedom and control in her relationships. The theme of masculinity vs. femininity is explored through observation of both environmental and human nature, and humanity is understood through its relationship to nature and God.

Themes of Love and Relationships, Freedom, and Self-Discovery

The structure of Their Eyes Were Watching God follows Janie Crawford's relationships and her quest for real love. She experiences many different types of love from different people. Each love and relationship is characterized by how it affects her freedom and independence:

  1. Nanny—Nanny's relationship with Janie is based on deep care and concern, but ultimately takes on the form of tough love. Nanny does not want Janie to suffer as she and Janie's mother have. To protect her, Nanny deems it is best for her to marry the financially secure, and stable Logan Killicks. However, by forcing this marriage despite Janie's protest, Nanny denies Janie freedom and desire for passionate love.
  2. Logan Killicks—Logan's marriage to Janie is one of practicality rather than deep love. Janie's boredom in her life with Logan leaves her longing for more excitement, adventure, and passion. Logan shows caring in simple, practical ways that are unromantic, but he has patience with Janie despite her evident dissatisfaction.
  3. Joe Starks—Jody's relationship with Janie is exciting at first, but later it is seen to be based on power and control. Jody doesn't care for Janie as an individual. In his eyes, her existence is to be what he expects of a wife. Janie appears to fade during the 20 years she is married to Jody, taking a backseat on her own life. When he is on his deathbed, Janie makes it evident to him that she never knew her or let her be free.
  4. Tea Cake—Tea Cake's relationship with Janie represents the fulfillment of the love Janie has been looking for—a love that ultimately leads to her own freedom and strength. Tea Cake cares and understands Janie, and they feed off of one another. Even through his death, Janie is able to discover her own power, as she makes a clear choice to save herself and shoot him to save him from what rabies has turned him into.

Janie Crawford's journey of self-discovery is by no means a solitary one; she grows and travels through relationships and her quest for love. Janie always maintains clarity in seeking more, even though she has had to settle for less. Though she may seem to submit to men, she never takes her worth or value from what they tell her she is. She knows who she is, but only through her all-encompassing love for Tea Cake is she able to make her strength, power, and independent agency visible to herself.

Themes of Speech and Voice, Control and Power

Language is essential toTheir Eyes Were Watching God, as much of its power lies in Zora Neale Hurston's mastery of lyrical writing and the rural southern African American dialect. Regarding Janie, the novel features the reoccurring theme of her struggling to be heard and to find her own voice.

At a young age, Nanny neglects Janie's pleas to not have to marry at 16, as Nanny seeks to control Janie's future to ensure that she does not suffer the way she and Janie's mother did. Nanny states that black women are the "mules" of the world and the "mules" of men.

Though Nanny is an opinionated, independent woman, she has been forced to resign herself to the fate of being a suppressed, mistreated, and undervalued worker. Though she speaks, she is not heard. Joe Starks blatantly stunts Janie's speech and voice as he writes her off as having nothing intelligent to say. Starks constricts Janie's voice and allows her no means of self-expression.

The theme of masculinity vs. femininity is ingrained from the start of the novel, when Janie is lying under the pear tree and admiring the interaction between the tree’s blooms and the bees. Janie’s admiration of nature represents her own physical blooming into womanhood and desire for passion and beauty. Femininity is equated with a flower, and at this stage, Janie has a flowery view of life, which meets disappointment in her next two marriages to men who do not love and respect her in the way she desires.

Joe Starts exhibits stereotypical traits of masculinity as he is the type to lead, make decisions and control others, as well as a powerful figure in the town. On the flip side, he expects Janie to be a stereotypical traditional housewife who has no identity other than to serve him.

Starks constantly uses his powerful voice to belittle Janie, and he beats her the one time she turns things back on him. Only when Starks is on his deathbed is Janie able to speak her truth of feeling trapped in their marriage, and her ability to say this clearly is a form of freedom.

Themes of Humanity vs. Nature and God vs. Man

The ideas of God and nature are intertwined in Their Eyes Were Watching God. God is seen as the force of nature. Against God and nature, humans are small and powerless, but they can find strength in finding a connection with it. Janie craves a connection with nature, and the power and beauty seen through symbols such as the pear tree, the horizon, and the hurricane.

Symbolism in Their Eyes Were Watching God

These five significant symbols in Their Eyes Were Watching God are all connected with nature:

  1. The Pear Tree—Janie lies under a pear tree in Nanny's yard at the beginning of the novel. The pear tree symbolizes Janie's sexual awakening and blossoming into adulthood. It also represents the passion, exuberance, and beauty she longs for from love and life.
  2. The Horizon—Janie looks to the horizon on many occasions, most notably at the end of the novel. The horizon represents the mystery of nature and the unknown that Janie seeks to be united with.
  3. The Hurricane—Tea Cake ultimately dies when he and Janie get caught in a hurricane. The hurricane represents the destruction, power, and seemingly indifferent force of nature. The hurricane is a form of natural cleansing through destruction, which parallels Janie's self-discovery through her progressively painstaking journey ending in peace.
  4. The Mule—The mule symbolizes suppression, bondage, and mistreatment. Nanny refers to black women as the "mules" of men and society. Janie experiences this attitude in her marriage to Logan Killicks, who treats her like a working mule. When a meek mule comes to Eatonville, Janie sympathizes with it, and Joe Starks buys it to appease her and boost his image. In her marriage to Starks, Janie feels domesticated and caged like a poor animal.
  5. Janie's Hair—Janie's long, dark hair, often worn in a braid, is symbolic of her power, sexuality, individuality, and status. Janie is admired for her hair because it is distinctive from that of most black women. Janie's hair points to her whiteness and introduces the idea of unreasoned racial superiority when Mrs. Turner, Janie and Tea Cake's neighbor, praises her for her Caucasian features and looks down on Tea Cake for having darker skin.

Theme of Masculinity vs. Femininity

The theme of masculinity vs. femininity is presented at the beginning of the novel with the scene of Janie sitting under the blossoming pear tree watching the flowers and the bees at the age of 16. The blossoming pear tree signifies Janie’s own blooming and her desires for a passionate and beautiful love. She wants a complimentary relationship such as that of the flowers and bees for her own life. However, the idea of men and women having different natures is also evident.

In Janie’s relationship with Joe Starks there are stereotypical expectations set between the roles of men and women. Joe Starks is depicted as the ideal traditional man, a provider and a leader, while he expects Janie to be an obedient wife who is there to serve and support him. In this scenario, Janie’s identity becomes lost in the shadow of Starks’ expression of his masculinity, which is power and control.

Though Starks’ traditional idea of femininity is linked to obedience and keeping Janie in the her “proper” place in the home and working in the shop, this idea is void of Janie’s own thoughts and desires. Janie comes to realize and embrace the power of her femininity as she gets older. This can be seen in her return to Eatonville, where she makes a confident entrance in dirty overalls while presenting power in her sexuality.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Quotes and Analysis

This opening quote of Their Eyes Were Watching God points to the differences in the nature of men and women, immediately introducing the theme of masculinity vs. femininity in a way that does not hoist one above the other, but reveals and accepts the differences in their ways of living. While men's dreams and desires come and go, women's dreams and desires become a fixed point around which they base all decisions. Janie Crawford's desire for true love and accompanying self-discovery is ultimately what guides her through life.

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 same horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

Add your text here...

Their Eyes Were Watching God Quotes StudySmarterA ship at a distance Pixabey.com

Zora Neale Hurston often uses elements of nature to uncover truths in a paradoxical, lyrical style. In these quotes, she points to the ideas of nature encompassing both consistency and change; life contains a perpetual shift between times of asking and answering, ignorance and knowledge. Hurston emphasizes the themes of love and relationships, suggesting they are alive, changing, and different with every individual.

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”

Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore."

Their Eyes Were Watching God - Key Takeaways

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God was written by Zora Neale Hurston in 1937.
  • It is a coming-of-age novel about a light-skinned black woman named Janie Crawford who endures three marriages and ultimately comes to find her strength and peace.
  • The novel was written during the Harlem Renaissance.
  • The town in Their Eyes Were Watching God is based on the all-black town Zora Neale Hurston grew up in called Eatonville, Florida.
  • Common themes in the book are love and relationships, self-discovery, speech and voice, control and power, masculinity vs. femininity, freedom/independence, humanity vs. nature, God vs. man.

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a coming of age story about Janie Crawford, an African American woman who discovers her own strength and identity through difficult experiences spanning three distinctive marriages.

Zora Neale Hurston (1891-1960) wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God.

The author's purpose in writing Their Eyes Were Watching God was to represent a black women's journey of self-discovery. The author, Zora Neale Hurston sought to capture the passion of her intense relationship that ended shortly before she wrote the novel, and to AUTHENTICALLY represent her hometown of Eatonville.

Their Eyes Were Watching God was written in 1936 and was published in 1937. Zora Neale Hurston wrote the novel in 7 weeks during a research trip to Haiti after a bad breakup. 

Some symbols in Their Eyes Were Watching God are: 

  • Janie's hair, which symbolizes her power, strength, individuality, and sexuality 
  • The pear tree, which symbolizes her blooming into adulthood, and the beauty and passion of nature she longs to have in her personal life.
  • The horizon, which symbolizes the mystery of nature and the unknown Janie seeks to be united with.
  • The hurricane, which symbolizes the destructive, indifference of nature, and a form of cleansing or purification through pain.
  • The mule, which symbolizes suppression, bondage, mistreatment, and being undervalued.  

Final Their Eyes Were Watching God Quiz

Question

What happens to Janie when she is 16?

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Answer

Nanny sees her kissing the lazy neighborhood boy, Johnny Taylor, and marries her off to 60-year-old, Logan Killicks.

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Question

What does the pear tree symbolize?

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Answer

Janie's sexual awakening, her blossoming, and desire for love as passionate, exuberant, and beautiful as nature. 

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Question

What are the names of Janie's three husbands? (preferably in order)

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Answer

  1. Logan Killicks
  2. Joe Starks/Jody
  3. Tea Cake

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Question

What happened to Janie's mother?


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Answer

Janie's mother, leafy, was raped by a school teacher, gave birth to Janie, and then disappeared. 

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Question


Which of the following is not a reason why Nanny marries Janie to Logan Killicks?

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Answer

Nanny wants Janie out of the house because she is tired of working to support her.

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Question

Why is Janie unhappy with Logan Killicks?

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Answer

Logan is 60, unattractive, often dirty from working outside, and treats her like a farm animal who is there to work. Janie seeks a more romantic love. 

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Where does Janie spend most of her time while married to Joe Starks?

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Answer

Working at their shop. 

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Question

Which of the following is not true about Joe Starks?

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Answer

Joe lets Janie speak her mind freely.

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What does Janie tell Joe Starks on his deathbed?

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Answer

Janie tells Joe that he never knew her and never let her be free.

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Why do the townspeople think Tea Cake has taken an interest in Janie?


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Answer

The townspeople think Tea Cake wants Janie's money.

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What is Janie wearing when she makes a reappearance in town?

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Dirty overalls

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How does Tea Cake die?

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Answer

Tea Cake goes mad after getting rabies and Janie has to shoot him to save herself.

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Who is Janie telling this story to?


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Answer

Her friend, Phoeby Watson.

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Question

What does Janie's hair symbolize?

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Answer

Her beauty, power, sexuality, individuality, and whiteness. 

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Question

Which of the following is not a theme found in the novel?

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Answer

Revenge

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