Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston

Published in 1937

Key Quotes:

“Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches” (8).
At this point in the novel Janie is just becoming an adult. Nanny has chosen to have her married to Logan Killicks in order to provide safety and security; the opposite of her own past. Janie’s perception of her own life in reference to nature portrays her picturesque understanding of life itself, life as a combination of the past, present and future. The past sufferings of her grandmother who was born into slavery and the rapes that led to her mother Leafy’s birth and Janie’s own birth that serve as the soil for the growth of her future - the soil in which she is aware that she must root herself in yet at the same time grow out of and find her own happiness. Such happiness Janie has sought in love, the love she cultivates with Joe Starks and ultimately Tea Cake represent both experiences enjoyed and undone in her life. Her marriage to Joe Starks is one of growth, endurance as she learns and eventually speaks her own voice when he tries to silence her. She overcomes that period of doom amidst the leaves of her life when she finds love in Tea Cake.

"Janie pulled back a long time because he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance” (28).
The above quote portrays the influence of one’s elders on one’s perception of life and what one should and should not want. Janie’s “pulling back” from the temptation of Joe Stark’s promises for the future is due to her Nanny’s warning and hope for her future. The life that Nanny had arranged for was with Logan Killicks; one not of love but of farm work and stability. Janie’s youthful desires caused her to distance herself from the plans her Nanny had set and instead to follow the whims of her heart. The far horizon that Joe spoke of remained far. Even when Janie gained her position as the trophy wife, she realized that it was not the horizon she was seeking. Change and chance are significant themes throughout the novel as Janie endures a multitude of change in her three marriages and also takes many chances. It is significant that Joe spoke of change and chance as during her relationship with him it was always he who spoke and Janie listening and bending her soul to the sound of his voice. After Joe’s death Janie is able to find her own voice and pursue a chance of her own in marrying Tea Cake. Janie’s life with Tea Cake also embodies the themes of change and chance but in a more stable and self sought manner. This is true as Tea Cake and Janie decide together as they travel, make friends, work and most importantly form a mutual loving bond.

“Day by day now, the hordes of workers poured in. Some came limpin in with their shoes and sore feet from walking. It’s hard trying to follow your shoe instead of your shoe following you” (131).
- Hurston’s imagery mirrors the travel of slavery that the Everglades community has experienced and has now created a parallel of their struggles to their independence. It is ironic that the community finds freedom and happiness in a life which they previously fought to escape.
Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God examines the successfulness of African-American communities forged during the post-Civil War era from a socio-economic perspective. The marked differences in Janie’s overall happiness within these settings serve to define the author’s criteria of what a successful community entails. Hurston extols the virtues of socio-economic egalitarianism as evidenced by her characterizations of plantation existence reminiscent of Southern slave life in the Everglades of Florida in contrast with the trappings of a white, capitalistic society manifested in Eatonville.

"Janie loved the conversation and sometimes she thought up good stories on the mule, but Joe had forbidden her to indulge. He didn't want her talking after such trashy people” (50).
The above quote depicts a period in Janie’s life where she allowed herself to live according to the will of Joe Starks. Throughout Janie’s entire life she allowed others to influence and determine her path and place within life. Whether it was a specific individual such as her Nanny or that of society as a whole who discriminated against her based on her gender and race Janie rarely chose how others saw her. Her attachment to her opinions about the mule showed her desire to be a part of the society in Eatonville and proved to herself that her viewpoints were worthy. However, Joe Stark’s hold on her position in society, as her husband, was dominant and maintained the silence that he thought a trophy wife ought to have. Furthermore, the diction of this quote shows how Hurston wished to portray the difficulties women suffered under the societal expectations of the time.

"Here was peace. She 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” (184).
The horizon represents what Janie has searched for her entire life - what she had searched for along with her Nanny’s dreams, Joe’s plans, along side Tea Cake, and finally returned to Eatonville with the horizon she reached behind her. Her horizon represents the love that one needs in life, the almost insatiable need for dependence and the desire to have another depend on you. When Janie returned to Eatonville she had achieved that horizon through her relationship with Tea Cake. She and Tea Cake had loved each other and most importantly, acknowledged each other as equals. All of the discrimination manifested during this time period both racial and gender discrimination took a toll on her soul; this explains Janie’s immense need for equality and love. While Janie was still in Eatonville living unhappily according to the will of Joe, she was concerned with their society and how she was placed within the community. However, after achieving her “horizon” Janie returned to Eatonville and was able to reject their community and their perceptions of her. This shows a maturity that could only have been achieved through living a thorough and fulfilling life, one lived, according to the will of her own voice and no one else's.

Pivotal Scenes:storm_tewwg.jpeg

1) The mule funeral: The scene leading up to the mule funeral is a pivotal one as it is one of the first instances where Janie speaks out to the town. Janie takes pride in Joe’s attempt to save the mule from its last days of suffering by buying it off of Mat Bonner. She praises his efforts to the townspeople and even goes as far as to compare his action to the abolition of slavery. This scene not only marks the development of Janie’s voice but a greater break in her marriage. Joe was so set on having Janie live on the “high chair” as an observer of the life that he created. He would not allow Janie to attend the mule funeral with the rest of the town and was even appalled that she would want to.

2)Tea Cake being bitten by the dog: Janie and Tea Cake’s marriage was as strong as ever and they had relied on each other’s strengths and love to make it through the storm. At one point during the storm Janie is struggling to climb onto a cow to prevent from drowning when she is nearly attacked by a rabid dog. Instead, Tea Cake comes to her rescue and murders the dog but unfortunately is first bitten on the cheek. This attempt to save the love of his life is ultimately his downfall and the demise of their marriage as the rabies causes him to break from sanity and even attempt to shoot Janie.

3)The Trial: After Janie is forced to shoot Tea Cake in defense for her life she is brought to trial. This scene is especially interesting as the society of the Everglades, those whom she had loved and earned their love in return, were against her in the trial. The trial also manifests clear imagery of a division between the races as the African Americans are against her while the all- white male jury find her innocent. It is also important to note that during this scene Janie truly finds her voice as she expresses her love for Tea Cake in her testimony thus, she has genuinely found herself.

Major Characters

Janie Crawford: Janie is the central character of the novel. Janie is African American, but has some white physical characteristics due to a mixed ancestry. Although she at first marries a wealthy man to please her grandmother, Janie ultimately decides to go her own path. Throughout the novel Janie is keen in trying to experience the world and acquire an independence from societal views. During her stay in Eatonville as the wife of Joe Starks, Janie realizes that she is nothing more than part of Stark’s arrangement of being rich and powerful. As she enters into a relationship with a man named Tea Cake, Janie begins to understand her equality among men and whites. Her struggle to “find herself” essentially ends at the end of the story as she finds her true identity with Tea Cake.

Tea Cake: Tea Cake is Janie’s third and final husband. Tea Cake treated Janie as an equal and after one incident did not exclude Janie in anything he did. He tries to treat Janie with as much respect and care and allows Janie to become independent. Additionally, Tea Cake is a man of honor, for he will not take anymore of Janie's money after a certain incident. Eventually Tea Cake is bit by a dog and obtains rabies, which causes him to go insane and try to kill Janie. Furthermore, Janie kills Tea Cake in self defense.

Joe Starks: Joe is Janie’s second husband. They meet while her first marriage with Logan Killicks was failing. She runs away with Joe and they move to a town called Eatonville. After seeing how the town has no form of government, Joe proclaims himself mayor. Everyone in the town complies, due to his strong and loud voice, and seemingly natural power of leadership. His personality is very controlling, as shown in the fact that he wants to run the town his way, and also wants to control all aspects of Janie’s life. He doesn’t allow her to have an opinion, or give him advice on how to run Eatonville, he just wants her to sit on the porch, and be his arm candy, or trophy wife. He doesn’t think of Janie as a person with feelings, just a beautiful object that he can use to get what he wants. He eventually passes away, and Janie moves on to better things.

Logan Killicks: Logan is Janie’s first husband. Janie’s Nanny saw Janie kissing a neighborhood boy, and this worries her. She arranges her to marry Logan, who is single, older, and needs help tending his farm. His view of marriage is that the wife is a worker in the farm, and it’s not based on love. He wasn’t looking for love in the first place. He has a very traditional way of thinking when it came to marriage. Janie believes that marriage should be about love, and leaves him for Joe Starks.


Women’s struggle for their own independence
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie struggles to find her own independence. She lives in a male-dominated society, and can’t escape that. In her first marriage, Logan wanted her to work on the farm, and she didn’t want that. To escape this, she marries Joe Starks, but he turns out to be much worse. Joe considers Janie an object, not his wife. She is pretty, and he thinks that this is the “ideal” that the mayor’s wife should be. So he makes her his trophy wife. He has her sit on the porch of their large home, and isn’t allowed to comment on anything going on in the town, or criticize his opinions. She eventually snaps back at him in the general store, in front of a lot of people, and here is the turning point where she starts to feel independent. When Janie meets Tea Cake, she is treated as an equal, and this is why she falls in love with him. When they get married, they both share the farming and housekeeping duties. Perhaps the ultimate point of her independence is when she controls Tea Cake’s life, and kills him, after he becomes crazy, and tries to kill her.

Historical Context

Migration: In the late nineteenth century thousand of blacks fled the racially segregate South and packed into Northern cities. After the Plessy v. Ferguson trial in 1896 racial segregation became more apparent and Jim Crow laws forced more African Americans to take flight from the South.[1] Additionally, during World War I African American men filled the void for jobs in the North left by the whites who when off to war. Harlem, NY became a very attractive place for African Americans to settle and by the end of the war 100,000 people lived in Harlem. Harlem became the home of creativity for African American artists, which became known as the Harlem Renaissance. [1]

The author of the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God Zora Neale Hurston can be seen as a part of this migration and the Harlem Renaissance. Zora was born in Eatonville, Florida and attended Howard University in Washington D.C.[5] She arrived in Harlem in 1925, studied at numerous other universities including Columbia, and than returned to the South.[5] Accordingly Zora’s journey and Janie’s constant travel throughout the novel depict the overall migration of blacks during the late 19th century and early 20th century. African Americans did not have a permanent home during this time period and were often on a constant move. Thus because of this constant move, community and family ties were often not as strong as those of their white counterparts.

Eatonville: The author of Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston grew up in Eatonville, the setting for much of the novel. Eatonville was established in 1887 and was the nation’s first incorporated black town.[2] African Americans governed the town and tried to emulate their white counterparts with similar laws and structure. Black achievement reached great heights in the township of Eatonville. However, Zora responds to this historical town in her novel by displaying the flaws of such a town. Joe Starks basically becomes a dictator in the town where no one else will make decisions for the town. Greed and wealth rules over Eatonville, just like every American town across the nation. Additionally, people are often cruel to each other as seen in the scene with Matt Bonner’s mule. Thus, although it was an achievement for African Americans across the nation, Eatonville was far from perfect.

Great Depression: The Great Depression devastated southern farmers, both black and white. However, farm families across the nation seemed to stick together during these hard times and help out their neighbors. Community life became stronger as times got harder.[4] Communities found ways to have fun in such a terrible time by having dances, playing games, and going to movies. Nonetheless, African American farmers were the hardest hit by the depression. Additionally, although the number of African Americans on relief during the depression was much higher than whites, African Americans were treated poorly by these relief organizations. [4]

The tight-nit community that was found during the Great Depression is clearly evident in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Eatonville was a town in which African American farmers came together and tried to make the most out of their lives. However, some farmers had a difficult time surviving in the story, including Matt Bonner. Nonetheless, by having town-sponsored events and such, the members of Eatonville were able to emulate other communities across the nation.

Central Conflict

The central conflict of the story is Janie against the harmony and pleasure she would like to experience. Until the end of the novel, Janie, the protagonist, lives through others' expectations of her, before she is able to find herself and experience happiness. This idea is demonstrated in Janie's relationship with two antagonists, Joe Starks and Nanny. Joe Starks often mistreats Janie and uses her as a symbol of his power and wealth. He is oblivious to the idea that his reverence of Janie does not make up for his poor treatment of her. Janie goes along with Joe's entire scheme and acts as his prize for much of her life. Although Joe feels that he treats her with respect and care, Janie expresses her complete dissatisfaction with their marriage shortly before Joe dies. Another antagonist in the story is Nanny, who is Janie's grandmother. Nanny has Janie marry a wealthy man by the name of Logan, in order for her to have a secure life. However, these are the wishes of Nanny and in order to find herself and experience the world, she must break away from Logan and the hopes of her grandmother. Thus, throughout the novel Janie has to continously battle others' expectations and wishes for her in order to find her way of life.

The novel takes a turn after Joe Starks dies and Janie meets a man by the name of Tea Cake. Tea Cake treats Janie with the respect and care she has sought and views her as an equal in their marriage. However, Janie is forced to kill Tea Cake in self-defense after Tea Cake receives rabbis and attempts to kill her. Therefore, the conflict continues as Janie seeks happiness and content in her life and also defies mainstream expectations placed upon her.

Literary Movement

Their Eyes Were Watching God was written long after the Harlem Renaissance, but the Great Depression of the 1930s caused a greater sense of openness, freedom and expression. These feelings caused another wave of the Harlem Renaissance to sweep the nation. Zora Neale Hurston was a prodominant female writer that wrote during and after the Harlem Reniassance; although the novel was published after the movement, it still qualifies as a strong work of literature that aided in the global awareness of the inequality African Americans were facing. [7]

Key Charactaristics of Harlem Renaissance Writing

-Strong sense of racial pride: "'No wonder things ain't no better,' Joe commented. 'Ah'm buyin' in here, and buyin' in big. Soon's we fidn some place to sleep tonight us menfolk got to call people together and form a committee. Then we can get things movin' round here" (35). The sense of racial pride comes to play when Joe and Jainey move to Eattonville and there is no mayor or head of their town. Joe feels it is his duty to run, and protect the people of his own race, displayign racial pride.

-Inequality and the desire for equality: "Kind of portly like rich white folks. Strange trains, and people and places didn't scare him neither. Where they got off the train at Maitland he found a buggy to carry them over to the colored town right away" (34). The inequality is shown here through the fact that Joe and Jainey have to move to a separate town filled with only African Americans to feel safe. Even though Joe wasn't afraid of the white people or their places or trains, it was in their best interest to be with their own where they wont be judged.

"It was bad enough for white people, but when one of your own color could be so different it put you to wonder...A familiar strangeness."(48) Here Hurston displays inequality in ones own race, which was possibly seen as racism in race. This also ties into the Harlem Renaissance theme of inequality because blacks were still treated differently, even with their own kind.

"Then she saw all of the colored people standing up in the back of the courtroom. Packed tight like a case of celery, only much darker than that. They were all against her." (185) Here again Hurston displays racism in ones one race. What Hurston is trying to display is that there is such a struggle for equality during the novel (which reflects on the real life strggle outside the novel) that it began to effect the brotherhoods and sisterhoods of the black race.

-Identity Issues: "She pointed to de dark one and said, 'Dat's you, Alphabet, don't you know yo' ownself?'"(9) In Harlem Renaissance writing, they search and discovery of identity was a popular theme. The search for identity was very important because after the blacks lost everything during the times before the Renaissance they felt like they didn’t know who they were. in the novel Jainey constantly had identity issues because she is never told the right answer, again reflecting on how blacks were treated just before this book was published.

"'Ah told you in de first beginnin' dat Ah aimed tuh be uh big voice. You oughta be glad, 'cause dat makes you uh big woman outa you.' A feelign of coldness and fear took hold of her. She felt far away from things and lonely" (46). Hurston presents the sadly true fact of how women were treated. Not only were black females outcasted by the white world but they were still seen as unequal through the eyes of black males as well.

-Faith and Love in God: "'Naw it ain't, it's nature, cause nature makes caution. It's de strongest thing dat God ever made, now. Fate is it's the onliest thing God ever made, He made nature and natures made everything else.'" (65) In this novel Hurston uses faith in God as her main give-away that this is a Harlem Renaissance work. The African Americans believed that God put a curse on them, making them unequal and separated. They constantly looked and played to god to take the curse away and to help them, and make the suffering go away. The constant reference to God was a sign of faith that they were not going to give up, showing their strength and acceptance.

“It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do for theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped… Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.”(145)
“’They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves’”(192)
These quotes show an African Americans point of view on what a God should be and what you should do to be required as faithful. As the reader can see, belief in a God was required if there was any hope in becoming an equal nation. The reader can clearly see this example in the text and further look into what inner workings of the Harlem Renaissance to further understand the obedience African Americans had to God.

Works Cited

[1] "African American Migration." 27 Apr 2008 <>.

[2] Boyd, Valerie. "Zora Neale Hurston ." 2007. Estate of Zora Neale Hurston and HarperCollins. 27 Apr 2008 <>.

[3]"Characteristics of Harlem Renaissance Writing." 28 Apr 2008 <'s%20group/literature/Webpages/characteristics.htm>.

[4] Reinhardt, Claudia . "Family Life During The Great Depression". Wessels Living History Farm. 27 April 2008 <>.</span>

[5] "Zora Neale Hurston." 2007. Microsoft® Encarta® Online Encyclopedia . 27 Apr 2008 <[[|>.</span]]>

[6] "Zora Neale Hurston. " Zora Neale Hurston Web Site. 28 April 2008

[7]Wintz, Cary DeCordova . "Harlem Renaissance." MSN Encarta. 2007. 28 Apr 2008 <>.