Their Eyes Were Watching God

Daniel Furman, Michelle Baker, and Amy Cohen


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Their Eyes Were Watching God was written by Zora Neale Hurston. It was written in 1937, and published in 1990.


Summary


The novel begins with Janie recounting to her friend Phoeby why she is back in town and single by starting from the beginning of her life. She lived with her grandmother, and began her obsession with independence after a sexual awakening under a pear tree. She acts upon this by kissing Johnny Taylor. Her grandmother catches this and forces her to marry Logan Killicks, a rich man. He does everything for her, but is bothered when she does not return the favor. She leaves him for Jody when he promises her a black Utopia called Eatonville. When she arrives, Jody becomes the mayor and she the mayor’s wife. However, she is not allowed to interact with the other members of the community because she is too high class. This frustrates her when she is working at the general store and wants to contribute to the conversations concerning women that take place on the front porch. She becomes so fed up with Jody’s control that she insults him in public about his age. He eventually dies giving Janie the freedom she needs. At the funeral, she realizes that her grandmother instated within her to value wealth and comfort over independence and decides to change her life. She meets younger Tea Cake through a game of checkers and follows him to Jacksonville. They work together and fall in love. He even teaches her how to fire a gun. However, Janie notices that the Native Americans are moving out because of a hurricane and she tries to warn Tea Cake to leave. He instead forms a community for safety with characters such as Motor Boat. The hurricane arrives and Tea Cake is bit by a rabid dog to save Janie. However, he contracts rabies and becomes so crazy that he threatens to kill Janie. To protect herself, Janie kills Tea Cake and faces the law. She is let of with self-defense and returns to Eatonville to tell Phoeby her story.


Major Characters


Janie Crawford: Janie is the story's protagonist. She is on a life-long journey to discover her identity. At both the beginning and the end of the novel, Janie is alone, single, and in the same town. However, her journey around Florida and her various husbands (especially Tea Cake), contribute to her completion of her quest for identity. Even though she is in the same situation to start and end the novel, she has found inner peace, and is happy with herself.

Pheoby Watson: Janie's best friend. Pheoby is the only one throughout the novel that gives Janie the benefit of the doubt. She is the one who listens to Janie's story, and provides support for her in Eatonville, the setting of the novel.

Nanny: Janie's grandmother and escaped slave. Nanny's time as a slave instilled the necessity for social standards and acceptance into society above all. With this in mind, she forced Janie into marriage with a man whom Janie did not love.

Logan Killicks: Janie's first husband. Janie's marriage to Logan is an arranged marriage, set up by Janie's grandmother. Logan is a wealthy land owner, and Nanny wanted Janie to be able to live a life of luxury, not a life of a typical black woman. Logan, however, only treats Janie with respect for the first year of their marriage. After that, Janie leaves him for Jody Starks.

Jody Starks: Janie's second husband. Janie ran off with Jody after meeting him as Logan's wife. Fed up with Logan's treatment of her, and amazed by Jody, Janie decided to leave Logan for Jody. However, Janie later learns that Jody is not interested in her, but interested in social status. He is very ambitious and eventually treats Janie badly. Jody is obsessed with power, and treats everyone badly to maintain his power. Janie stays with Jody until he dies, then runs off with Tea Cake.

Tea Cake: Janie's third husband. Tea Cake is the only of Janie's three husbands that she actually love. Before his arrival, Janie has started to find her voice, as she learns to stand up for herself, and speak her mind. However, Tea Cake acts as a catalyst and allows her to assert her independence. Tea Cake treats Janie very well. He asks her opinions, tells the complete truth, and finally, treats her like an equal, not just a woman. Tea Cake eventually dies from rabies he contracted while saving Janie from a rabbid dog.


Theme/Major Conflicts


The main theme throughout the novel is the struggle for independence from the traditional male dominated society. Janie tries to establish an identity from the moment she has her awakening under the pear tree. At this moment, she realizes that her ultimate goal is to reach the horizon and explore more of the natural in order to become familiar with herself. However, her grandmother represents the societal idea that Janie needs to be defined by a man and arranges a marriage between her and Logan. This presents the first example of the major conflict between what Janie wants and what society wants. During the marriage, Janie is unhappy because she is not in love and is prohibited from finding her independence by Logan’s constant pampering. Her grandmother again acts as the voice of society and forces her to stay in the marriage since a woman’s feelings did not matter during that time.
The next conflict in the novel occurs between the different classes in society. When Janie marries Jody, she is considered upper class because Jody is the self-proclaimed town mayor. However, Janie yearns to interact with the lower class since they are free to sit outside and discuss whatever they please while Jody keeps her locked in the store. Janie wants the independence that the lower class people have while her marriage to Jody represents traditional values where the woman has no power and cannot interact with anyone the husband does not see fit.
The only marriage that is semi successful is the one between her and Tea Cake because he gives her the most independence. He allows her to work and teaches her how to fire a gun. Even though he has represents some traditional values, such as hitting Janie in public to establish control, Janie finds love and happiness since she has found a balance between societal values and her thirst for independence.


Key Quotes


These quotes refer to a central theme of Janie being the "God" of the novel. Instead of Their Eyes Were Watching God it should be Their Eyes Were Watching Janie.

“’She aint even worth talkin’ after,’ Lulu Moss drawled through her nose. ‘She sits high but she looks low. Dat’s what Ah say bout dese ole women runnin after young boys” (Hurston, 3). This takes place in the beginning of the novel, when Janie walks through Eatonville covered in mud. Janie, although gone for quite a while, is still the center of attention. The frequent gossip and spreading of rumors and talk about Janie shows how they were just one group of people that always had their eye on her.

“So he stopped and looked hard, and then he asked her for a cool drink of water” (Hurston, 27). This is said by Joe, when Janie is still Logan's wife. Although she is married, she still attracts the eyes of men. Although this is the literal interpretation of watching Janie, it still fits to show that throughout the novel, men continuously watch her.

“People wouldn’t know me lak dey know you” (Hurston, 94). This is part of one of the first conversations that Janie and Tea Cake have. Tea Cake references that Janie is well known in and around Eatonville. She is always being watched and is in the public eye. In addition to the public's consistent judgment, Tea Cake begins to take an interest in Janie, and has his eye on her.

"All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped." (Hurston, 174) This quote is by Mrs. Turner. She constantly sought Janie's approval, and worshipped the ground upon which Janie walked. Mrs. Turner respected Janie so much because she was not "too negro," and therefore deserved a higher status among the other blacks. In this sense, Janie is the literal God of the novel. While Janie lived in the muck, Turner always attempted to befriend Janie, and always kept her eye on her.



Pivotal Scenes

1. Kissing the boy
During this scene, Janie experiences her first kiss with Johnny Taylor. However, she is caught be her grandmother, who is not pleased. Her grandmother makes the decision to marry her off so Janie will be protected and will not be stuck with a local poor boy. This is the first example of the novel where Janie’s desire to be sexually independent is squashed by her grandmother’s traditional view of women in that they cannot stand on their own.

2. Insulting Joe
During this scene, Janie is sick of Jody degrading her in public in their general store. She finally gets so fed up that she begins to insult him back by commenting on his age and his lackluster appearance in bed. This is one of Janie’s powerful moments where she shows the male population that she is just as feisty as they are and can handle herself on her own. Her outburst is not proper behavior, yet she becomes more liberated and closer to achieving independence.


3. Plays checkers with Tea Cake
Shortly after Jody’s death, Janie meets a younger man named Tea Cake. He teaches her a game of checkers on the porch. This teaches Janie that she can have the independence she craves while caring for another person. First, she is on the porch, a place that Jody did not approve of because it would make her seems too equal to everyone else. Second, she is playing checkers, a game where she can control the outcome and does not need to rely on any other input. Third, Tea Cake is giving her this independence, which makes her fall in love with him.



Historical Context


Zora Neale Hurston was a huge participator in the Harlem Renaissance, working alongside Langston Hughes. Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, was written just after the Harlem Renaissance had died out. World War I had been over for some time, and the Great Depression had started as Hurston was writing this novel. Although the Renaissance was essentially over, Hurston continued to write in this style, which won nothing but criticism from readers and fellow authors. The literature of the 1930s responded to the Depression by ending the cultural exploration experienced during the Renaissance and exhibiting social realism instead- the notion that all forms of art should make political statements, perhaps exposing the social injustices in the world (1). Even though she was criticized and and ignored, Hurston refused to conform to creating political pieces, responding to the new movement by continuing to practice the old, dead movement.

Moreover, Hurston herself grew up in the South in Eatonville, the setting of this novel(3). Thus, perhaps some aspects of the town as depicted in the novel are not completely fictional and may serve some historical basis from her experience in the town.


Harlem Renaissance


The Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s celebrated post-World War I prosperity, and the freedom and exploration it allowed members of the black community, particularly in the North, to have (2). The major themes of this movement in the literary arts were 'twoness,' primitive behavior, the blues tradition, alienation, and folk material (1,2,3). Although Their Eyes Were Watching God was written just after this movement, it is still considered to be a product of it, as Hurston was one of the Harlem Renaissance's leading ladies.

The theme of twoness is best described as a divided identity (2), or an internal battle between two contrasting defining characteristics. This theme can be seen throughout the novel, especially with Janie's first two husbands. With Logan, Janie's grandmother encouraged this marriage because of the security Janie was to receive. Janie recognizes this benefit, but is torn between her secure yet monotone life that pleases Nanny and her own quest for happiness, which cannot be found in such a loveless lifestyle. Similarly, in her marriage to Jody, Janie is once again torn between her lifestyle and happiness. She is not happy with nor in love with Jody, but she recognizes the security, superior social status, and ease of her rich lifestyle with him. Furthermore, in Janie's marriage with Tea Cake, she is divided between the happiness that she knows he will provide and the scandal it would cause to be with someone much younger than her. Because one of the main themes in the novel is the persuit of happiness against the oppression found in Southern societies, the Harlem Renaissance theme of, essentially, an identity crisis is embedded into the novel. While she is torn between happiness and social obligations/restraints, she always chooses happiness, which helps her attain the inner peace she finds at the conclusion of the work.

Another lesser theme from the Harlem Renaissance is primitive behavior. Survival without technology or any modern advances is key in discussing primitive actions. Towards the end of the novel, the protagonists must endure a hurricane, seeking refuge on high grounds and generally trying to leave the area. When Janie is in danger from the attacking dog in the water, Tea Cake follows his native instincts, jumps in the water, and wrestles with the dog, where in a less primitive situation one might simply use technology such as a gun to ward off the dog. Primitive behavior is associated with nature, and there is a slight theme of the pastoral in this novel. Before Jody's town gets built, Janie doesn't realize that she is just his trophy wife, and thus is relatively happy. However, once the mas nature gets build up into a vast town, her unhappiness persues. She was more comfortable as Jody's wife in nature in a more primitive lifestyle.
Other themes of the Harlem Renaissance include the music of this movement and alienation. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, blues music and music in general are associated with Tea Cake and thus associated with happiness. For example, Tea Cake plays the guitar and his "box" is particularly special to him. Also, several of Tea Cake and Janie's buddies are musicians that play for the town, uniting people and creating a aura of enjoyment. Moreover, alienation can be seen in the 'present' frame of the frame story. The disapproval and almost shunning that Janie receives upon her return to Eatonville displays the alienation she endures, although it does not phase her since she has achieve inner happiness, which none of her critics can say they have.

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Zora Neale Hurston, http://www-tc.pbs.org/wnet/americannovel/timeline/images/hurston_pic.jpg?Log=0




References

1. www.42explore2.com/harlem.htm

2. www.pbs.org/newshour/forum/february98/harlem1.html

3. www.womenshistory.about.com/od/harlemrenaissance/Harlem_Renaissance_Women.htm