The Life and Work of Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston was born in Eatonville, Florida. Her exact birthdate is unknown, but the most reliable sources put it at either 1891 or 1901. She was the daughter of John Hurston, a Baptist preacher, and Lucy Potts Hurston, a schoolteacher. Zora was the fifth of eight children, and in her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston fondly remembers growing up in an eight-room house with two big chinaberry trees shading the front gate. Eatonville was a self-governing, independent, all-black town. Her father was mayor for three terms and helped codify the town laws. Hurston grew up believing that blacks were equal, if not superior to whites, and was very proud of her heritage. Hurston used her hometown as a basis for the fictional Eatonville in Their Eyes Were Watching God and even borrowed some real names for her characters.
Hurston came to New York in 1925 after receiving an Associate's Degree from Howard University. While at Howard, she was accepted into the prestigious campus literary group and published her first story, John Redding Goes to Sea, in the campus magazine in 1921. In 1925, she submitted Drenched in Light to Opportunity magazine in New York, and it became her first nationally published piece. She then came to New York to continue her literary career. Hurston received a scholarship to Barnard and was its only black student; she graduated in 1928.
While at Barnard, Hurston developed an interest in anthropology. She studied for years and received several fellowships and grants. Her field of interest was folklore, and she used that extensively in her writings, always seeking to fuse folklore and fiction. Their Eyes Were Watching God was written in seven weeks while she was in Haiti working on a book about voodoo.
Hurston was one of the leading writers during the Harlem Renaissance, a period during the 1920s and 1930s when black writers came to the forefront of popular American culture. They were trying to repudiate the stereotypes of blacks in literature by bringing an individual character's consciousness to life. Through her associations with Opportunity, Hurston quickly became a popular guest at fashionable New York literary parties and became very friendly with Langston Hughes and other notable black writers.
Unlike many of her contemporaries, Hurston was nonpolitical and believed in art for art's sake. She wanted to express black folklore, which had long been rejected as a product of slavery, and bring it to a wider audience. In addition to her novels, Hurston wrote a play, an opera, several articles, and two anthologies of folklore. Her most famous article was called How It Feels to be Colored Me, published in 1928.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, was Hurston's third novel. Sadly, the novel received mostly indifferent reviews when first released, including reviews by notable contemporaries. Many of her peers, such as Richard Wright, criticized the novel's lack of social relevance. They felt that the book was not pertinent in what Mary Helen Washington called "a decade dominated by Wright and by the stormy fiction of social realism." Angered by the negative reviews, she began traveling again, and at the request of her publisher, wrote her autobiography in 1942. Her last novel, published in 1948 and called Seraph on the Swanee, was fueled by this anger and was about whites, not blacks. She felt she would be less open to criticism. Around the same time, Hurston was arrested and falsely accused of a morals violation. Although the charges were dismissed, she was demoralized and sick, and retreated to Florida. She spent the last years of her life in poverty, working in various odd jobs.
Zora Neale Hurston died on January 28, 1960. After her death, her books enjoyed a popular revival, partly due to the efforts of Alice Walker, who was greatly influenced by Hurston. Walker also edited and released a collection of Hurston's works. Today, Hurston remains one of the most influential black writers in America.
Hurston arrived in New York in the middle of the Harlem Renaissance. This was part of a historical process which altered black life in America, although it is usually thought of in literary terms. During the 1920s and 30s blacks were migrating to Harlem to escape the racism and oppression of the South. A community of blacks, was forming there and was attracting artists and intellectuals. When she first came to New York, Hurston became involved with Opportunity, a magazine dedicated to New Negro thought, the thought that blacks would not accept a subordinate role in society. Hurston was very much a part of this group, and Their Eyes Were Watching God is, among other things, a story of a woman who refuses to be subordinate.
However, the only books by blacks that were critically well-received and big sellers during this time were books about the race problem. Hurston didn't write about this. She tried to create a sense of black people as complete, complex, undiminished human beings. For her lack of bitterness, she was seen as a traitor by some; others simply didn't take her seriously, calling her work "folklore fiction".
Additionally, many prominent blacks began to embrace communism, as it was the only political party that called for an end to segregation. Hurston stayed away from politics and was censured for it.
Their Eyes Were Watching God was severely criticized for being socially unimportant and actually detrimental to the black cause. Hurston's peers wanted to be part of the revolution; all she wanted was to tell her story.
Master List of Characters
Janie Crawford (Killicks, Starks, Woods) - The protagonist of the story, a woman who searches for romantic love and equality in a male-dominated world.
Tea Cake (Vergible) Woods - Janie's third husband, a caring and fun-loving man who shares with Janie the romantic love she's been looking for.
Joe (Jody) Starks - The mayor of Eatonville and Janie'ss second husband. He treats Janie as property rather than his partner.
Nanny - Janie'ss grandmother. She brought Janie up after her daughter (Janie'ss mother) abandoned her. She forces Janie to marry Logan Killicks so that Janie will be protected.
Johnny Taylor - The young man who gives Janie her first kiss.
Logan Killicks - Janie's first husband, a farmer whom Janie was forced to marry and does not love.
Pheoby Watson - Janie's best friend. She is married to Sam Watson.
Sam Watson, Lige Moss, and Walter Thomas - Three men who endlessly talk in front of Joe Starks' store. Sam is Pheoby Watson's husband.
Pearl Stone, Lulu Moss, and Mrs. Sumpkins - Residents of Eatonville and gossip hounds who are envious of Janie.
Lee Coker, Amos Hicks, and Tony Taylor - Early residents of Eatonville.
Hezekiah Potts - The delivery boy of Joe Starksk' general store.
Hambo and Lum - Two men who help around at Starks' store.
Matt Bonner - An Eatonville resident who sells a mule that he mistreated to Joe Starks.
Mrs. Robbins - A woman who always begs at Starks' store.
Mrs. Bogle - An old woman who lives in Eatonville.
Rev. and Mrs. Pearson - Eatonville's pastor and his wife.
Charlie Jones - A womanizer who lives in Eatonville.
Daisy Blunt - A pretty young woman who lives in Eatonville.
Ike Green - One of the many men who tries to marry Janie after Joe's death.
Steve Mixon - A customer who buys tobacco at Starks' store.
Joe Lindsay and Jim Stone - Customers at Starks' store
The Washburn family - A white family that lived in West Florida. Nanny was their servant and Janie lived with them when she was a young girl.
Sop-de-Bottom, Ed Dockery, Bootyny, Stew Beef, Motor Boat - Tea Cake's friends in the Everglades.
Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
Janie Crawford, the main character of Hurston’s most important novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is the granddaughter of a slave woman, Nanny, who was raped by her owner, and the daughter of a woman who was raped by her schoolteacher. It is against the heritage of this racial and sexual violence that Janie tries to find a personally fulfilling life. The novel begins with Janie returning to Eatonville after the death of her third husband, Tea Cake Woods. Janie sits with her old friend, Pheoby, to tell her story, and the bulk of the novel, although narrated in the third-person voice, is the story Janie tells.
Her story begins when Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, spies her enjoying her first romantic kiss....
(The entire section is 785 words.)
Summary (Identities & Issues in Literature)
Their Eyes Were Watching God is Zora Neale Hurston’s most lauded work. It is the story of Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods, a thrice-married, twice-widowed woman who learns the hard way: through her own experience. Granddaughter of a slave and daughter of a runaway mother, Janie grows up not realizing her color till she sees a picture of herself among white children. Rather than worry about Janie in her adolescence, her grandmother marries her off to Logan Killicks, an old, narrow-minded, and abusive husband. Hoping for more to life than she has, Janie ends that marriage herself by walking off with Joe Starks, a passerby with a dream, who becomes the mayor of Eatonville, Florida, a new all-black town. Janie reigns as...
(The entire section is 390 words.)
Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Their Eyes Were Watching God is narrated in third person, but as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and other critics have noticed, Zora Neale Hurston is careful to give the novel the feel of first person. She accomplishes this by having the main character, Janie, tell the story to her friend Phoeby on the front porch. The novel opens with Janie returning to Eatonville at around the age of forty after having wandered. People up and down the streets are gossiping not only about what she has done on her journey away from home and her relationship with a younger man but also about the audacity of a woman her age wearing long hair and dressing provocatively. As Janie tells her story to Phoeby, she establishes the parameters of the...
(The entire section is 1060 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Janie Starks returns to town. One sundown, the Eatonville inhabitants watch and gossip as Janie walks the street toward her house, dressed in overalls, with her long braid hanging down her back. Only her friend Pheoby has the kindness to greet her. Pheoby sits down to hear her friend’s story.
As a little girl, Janie assumed she was white. She lived with her grandmother and played constantly with the children of the Washburns, for whom Nanny worked. Only when a photographer took the children’s picture did Janie realize that she was the black girl in the photo. Nanny was protective of her and worried when she became a teenager. To Nanny, the easiest way to protect Janie from the attentions of useless men was to marry...
(The entire section is 952 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: African American Literature, Revised Edition)
Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Janie Crawford’s quest to fulfill her ideals of life and love during a thirty-year period beginning soon after the turn of the century. The novel is framed by a narrator’s description of a conversation between Janie and Pheoby Watson that takes place on Janie’s back porch in Eatonville, Florida. The point of view soon shifts to Janie’s perspective, and she tells Pheoby the story of her life, beginning with her sheltered childhood in western Florida. The two points of view merge to become one perspective, carrying the narrative through to its violent climax and eventual return to the placid back-porch setting.
The first conflict that Janie recalls concerns her...
(The entire section is 539 words.)
Summary and Analysis
Chapter 1: Summary and Analysis
Janie Crawford (Killicks, Starks, Woods): the protagonist of Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Pheoby Watson: Janie’s best friend who lives in Eatonville.
Pearl Stone, Lulu Moss, and Mrs. Sumpkins: Residents of Eatonville and gossip hounds who are envious of Janie.
The sun is setting in Eatonville, Florida, and everyone is sitting around in front of their houses along the main road at the end of a long day. After a day at work, “it was the time to hear things and talk.” Since the city is small, everyone notices the woman walking down the road.
The townspeople are shocked to see this woman coming through the city, apparently after a long...
(The entire section is 1315 words.)
Chapter 2: Summary and Analysis
Nanny: Janie’s grandmother. She brought Janie up after her daughter (Janie’s mother) abandoned her. She forces Janie to marry Logan Killicks so that Janie will be protected.
Johnny Taylor: A young man who kissed Janie.
The Washburn family: A white family who lived in West Florida. Nanny was their servant and Janie lived with them when she was a young girl.
Janie’s recollections take her to her childhood, when she grew up with her grandmother, who was a live-in servant for a white family. One of her favorite memories is of sitting under a peach tree when she was a young woman, and it is under this tree that she first kisses a boy. Her...
(The entire section is 1140 words.)
Chapter 3: Summary and Analysis
Janie is left to think about her marriage to Logan Killicks. She wonders about the connection between love and marriage, but convinces herself that they will love each other after they are married. They are married at the Washburn place, and Janie leaves to live at the Killicks’ farm. After two-and-a-half months, Janie returns to Nanny for advice. She lets her know that she is not satisfied with the marriage. Logan isn’t a cruel man, but Janie is bored, and he is too callous to see that she is unhappy with him. Nanny advises Janie to be patient and that it is “better [to] leave things de way dey is,” since Janie is still young. So, Janie returns to Logan, prepared to wait for things to improve. A month...
(The entire section is 611 words.)
Chapter 4: Summary and Analysis
Logan Killicks: Janie’s first husband, a farmer whom Janie was forced to marry and does not love.
Joe (Jody) Starks: A savvy businessman from Georgia who meets Janie along the road.
A few months have passed since Nanny’s death, and Janie notices that Logan has been treating her with less respect. Logan begins to resent Janie’s unhappiness, and feels that she thinks she is better than he is. He decides that she has been “spoiled” by her grandmother and that she expects him to continue spoiling her. One day, Logan heads into town with the intention of buying a new mule, implying to Janie that she will have to help him in the garden next year with the...
(The entire section is 1149 words.)
Chapter 5: Summary and Analysis
Lee Coker, Amos Hicks, and Tony Taylor: Early residents of Eatonville.
Sam Watson: A man who endlessly talks in front of Joe Starks’ store. Sam is Pheoby Watson’s husband.
Sim Jones, Jeff Bruce, and Oscar Scott: Three residents of Eatonville.
Mrs. Bogle: An old woman who lives in Eatonville.
As the chapter begins, Janie and Joe are on the train to the new town. Janie is impressed with Joe’s demeanor and attitude, which she thinks is “like rich white folks.” Joe buys her presents, but is more excited about arriving and starting to work on the ideas he has spent so long preparing. However, once they arrive in Eatonville, they...
(The entire section is 1701 words.)
Chapter 6: Summary and Analysis
Matt Bonner: An Eatonville resident who sells a mule that he mistreated to Joe Starks.
Lige Moss and Walter Thomas: Two men who pass time by sitting in front of the store and talking with Sam Watson.
Hambo and Lum: Two men who help out at Starks’ store.
Rev. and Mrs. Pearson: Eatonville’s pastor and his wife.
Charlie Jones and Jim Weston: Two men who compete for Daisy Blunt.
Daisy Blunt: A pretty young woman who lives in Eatonville.
Mrs. Robbins: A woman who always begs at Starks’ store.
Joe Lindsay and Jim Stone: Two customers at Starks’ store.
Many years will pass in Chapter 6,...
(The entire section is 1785 words.)
Chapter 7: Summary and Analysis
Steve Mixon: A customer who buys tobacco at the Starks’ store.
Time passes in the same manner as Chapter 6, and Janie finds herself unsatisfied with the way Joe treats her but is resigned to it. Occasionally she fantasizes about going away again but dismisses the idea because she is 35 years old now. She still feels the need to support him because if he isn’t anybody special “life won’t be nothin’ but uh store and uh house.”
Joe has become an old man, and knows it himself. Joe starts to comment about Janie’s age and appearance, thinking that it will deflect attention about his own age. One day Janie makes a mistake in the store, which allows Joe...
(The entire section is 819 words.)
Chapter 8: Summary and Analysis
Pheoby Watson: Janie’s best friend and Sam Watson’s wife.
Immediately after the scene in Chapter 7, Joe moves out of the bedroom in their house. They seldom talk to each other now. In spite of everything, Janie still wants Joe to be on good terms with her but knows by now that her words cannot make him reasonable. She takes his silence philosophically and waits for him to “get over his mad spell.”
Joe’s health continues to fail him. As he takes to bed, he becomes more sullen and refuses to see Janie. It seems that everyone can now visit Joe except her. Janie is terribly hurt by his isolation and tries to get her friends to convince him to change his...
(The entire section is 1033 words.)
Chapter 9: Summary and Analysis
Ike Green: One of the many men who tries to marry Janie after Joe’s death.
Chapter 9 begins with Joe’s funeral, which is described as “the finest thing Orange County had ever seen with Negro eyes.” Janie attends the funeral and appears somber and unhappy, but she is still hiding her true emotions. Inside, she is preparing for her new life, which she begins by burning all the head rags she wore and wearing her hair in a braid that hangs below her waist.
She continues to run the store but slowly lets Hezekiah adopt the duties that Joe used to do. She has no interest in the store and contemplates her next move. She thinks about returning to her...
(The entire section is 812 words.)
Chapter 10: Summary and Analysis
Tea Cake (Vergible) Woods: A fun-loving man who lives a few miles from Eatonville.
Janie is alone in the store one day because the rest of the town, including Hezekiah, is in Winter Park watching a baseball game. Since no one has come to the store, Janie decides to close up early. Just then, Tea Cake Woods walks into the store, and explains that he thought the game was at a different park. Janie and Tea Cake immediately trade jokes, and Tea Cake teaches her how to play checkers.
Tea Cake pretends to leave, but ends up staying until late in the evening, joking with her and the other customers who have walked in from the finished ball game. As Janie closes up...
(The entire section is 417 words.)
Chapter 11: Summary and Analysis
A week has passed since Janie’s first meeting with Tea Cake, and Janie has made up her mind not to pay any attention to him if she should see him again. Once he comes in, however, she can’t help but join in the fun. They spend the day laughing and playing checkers and end up spending the entire night fishing by the lake. The next day, Hezekiah offers to take her home and warns her against Tea Cake, even though he doesn’t have a reputation for being wicked or violent.
Tea Cake shows up at Janie’s house the following night with some fish. After dinner, Tea Cake starts to sing and puts Janie to sleep. Janie wakes up and finds Tea Cake combing her hair. As he compliments her appearance, Janie...
(The entire section is 989 words.)
Chapter 12: Summary and Analysis
The town becomes a little disturbed after they see Tea Cake and Janie together at the picnic. After their first appearance together in a place other than the store, it seems like Tea Cake and Janie can be seen together everywhere. Rumors start to fly around town, and all of the townspeople believe that Tea Cake is trying to swindle Janie out of her money. These rumors reach Sam Watson, who discusses these rumors with his wife, Pheoby. Pheoby dismisses them as jealousy, but is concerned about Janie and what she is doing. She makes up her mind to see Janie to find out what is going on.
Janie tells Pheoby that she and Tea Cake plan to get married and leave Eatonville. Pheoby is wary of this and asks...
(The entire section is 636 words.)
Chapter 13: Summary and Analysis
Mrs. Samuels: A landlady in Jacksonville.
A few days after the end of Chapter 12, Janie receives a letter from Tea Cake that says that he is in Jacksonville. Janie leaves for Jacksonville, and she and Tea Cake are married that same morning. Tea Cake then takes her to a room that he has rented from a widow. Pheoby insists that Janie hide two hundred dollars in a special pocket of her dress, just to be safe. After a week passes, Janie wants to tell Tea Cake about the money but isn’t sure how to do it.
One morning Tea Cake goes out, saying that he will buy her some fish. When Janie realizes that it is already noon and he is still gone, she decides to get up...
(The entire section is 1277 words.)
Chapter 14: Summary and Analysis
Ed Dockery, Bootyny, and Sop-de-Bottom: Three men who are playing a card game in the Everglades.
Janie and Tea Cake get into the Everglades before the bean season starts, quickly find work with a planter, and move into one of the houses built alongside Lake Okechobee. Tea Cake plants beans while Janie settles into their new house. After the beans are planted, Tea Cake and Janie decide to pass the time by hunting. When Janie confesses that she doesn’t know how to shoot, Tea Cake teaches her until she becomes a better shot than he is.
As they pass the time, more people come in from the surrounding areas and the area becomes more lively. The clubs are full of...
(The entire section is 764 words.)
Chapter 15: Summary and Analysis
Nunkie: A young girl who is interested in Tea Cake.
A problem arises on the farm when Nunkie, a girl who works in the fields, begins to play around with Tea Cake. Nunkie is clearly interested in him and even though Tea Cake fends her off, Janie starts to become suspicious. It becomes even worse when other people on the farm begin to notice the strange way Nunkie is acting.
One day Janie notices both Tea Cake and Nunkie are missing from the farm. She hurries to a field and sees Tea Cake struggling with Nunkie over some working tickets which she took from him. Janie chases Nunkie off and starts to fight Tea Cake in their quarters. Tea Cake holds Janie in his...
(The entire section is 414 words.)
Chapter 16: Summary and Analysis
Mrs. and Mr. Turner: A café owner and her husband.
The season ends and most of the workers leave the Everglades. Janie and Tea Cake decide to stay because they want to work in the farm one more year. With less to do in the off-season, Janie spends more time in a café and begins to talk more with Mrs. Turner. Mrs. Turner is a light-skinned woman who wants to befriend Janie because she is also light-skinned. Mrs. Turner hates dark-skinned blacks and accuses them of “holding us back.” Janie feels uncomfortable when she talks to her but doesn’t know how to get rid of her.
Tea Cake hates Mrs. Turner, because she insults him at every opportunity. He also...
(The entire section is 619 words.)
Chapter 17: Summary and Analysis
Stew Beef: A worker and friend of Tea Cake.
Coodemay and Sterrett: Two would-be patrons of Mrs. Turner’s café.
The new season starts, and Tea Cake and Janie are reunited with their old friends. Tea Cake is still harassed by Mrs. Turner and her desire to introduce Janie to her brother. When Mrs. Turner brings her brother over to visit Janie, Tea Cake decides to slap Janie “to show he was boss.” As a result, Mrs. Turner’s brother leaves them alone, and the farmers talk enviously about Tea Cake and Janie and their marriage.
As Sop-de-Bottom talks with Tea Cake, they decide that Mrs. Turner and her family are nothing but trouble and devise a...
(The entire section is 874 words.)
Chapter 18: Summary and Analysis
Motor Boat: A fellow worker and friend of Tea Cake.
Janie notices that the Seminoles that live around the area are starting to leave the Everglades. When she asks one of them, she is told that a hurricane is coming and they are moving to higher ground. The workers dismiss the warning, even though they notice animals leaving as well. When the sky gets dark a few days later, some workers get frightened and move east. One of the Bahaman workers asks Tea Cake and Janie if they would like to go with him, but they decide to stay, like most of the workers.
A few friends gather at the Woods’ house for a party. Tea Cake and Motor Boat are caught up in a dice game and...
(The entire section is 944 words.)
Chapter 19: Summary and Analysis
Mr. Prescott: A district attorney in the Everglades.
Dr. Simmons: A doctor who works in the Everglades.
Two days later, Tea Cake decides to go out to look for work, despite Janie’s warnings that every fit male is now being pressed into service to bury the dead. Two white men see Tea Cake and force him to work with other men. In the evening, Tea Cake gets worried about Janie and escapes. He rushes home to find Janie scared and crying, and they decide to return to the Everglades.
They return home, and Tea Cake reunites with most of his old friends. He quickly finds work, since people are needed to clear up and repair the dam. Three weeks later, he...
(The entire section is 1304 words.)
Chapter 20: Summary and Analysis
The other workers of the Everglades want to forget their cruelty to Janie, and they want Janie to forgive them. They blame Mrs. Turner’s brother for starting the rumors and drive him from the Everglades. They also beg Janie to stay in the Everglades, but without Tea Cake, there is nothing left for Janie to see here. She gives away everything to Tea Cake’s friends and returns home to Eatonville.
The setting abruptly changes to Janie, back in her house, talking to Pheoby. Janie’s story is finished. Pheoby is inspired by Janie’s story and promises to defend her against anybody else in the town who might say something negative about her. Pheoby also says that after hearing Janie, “Ah ain’t...
(The entire section is 500 words.)