Study Guide

Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God Analysis

Places Discussed (Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

West Florida

West Florida. Region in which Janie Crawford spends the early years of her life. The initial part of the novel is set in her maternal grandmother’s house and charts Janie’s coming into womanhood. Janie has been raised by her maternal grandmother Nanny who fled slavery with her infant daughter and later migrated to West Florida with her employers, the Washburn family. With the Washburns’ assistance, Nanny purchases her own home so that she can properly raise and protect Janie from derision following the tragic rape and subsequent disappearance of her mother Leafy. On a particular spring afternoon, Janie experiences her budding sexuality beneath a blooming pear tree as a bee enters the inner sanctum of a pear blossom in the act of pollination.

When Nanny spies Janie kissing the shiftless Johnny Taylor, she immediately arranges for young Janie to marry Logan Killicks, a much older man who owns a house and some property, so that Janie will be protected from men whom Nanny fears will take advantage of her granddaughter. While Janie objects to this marriage, she nevertheless tries to make the best of it for awhile, until it becomes quite clear that she will never be able to live for herself in these circumstances. Thus West Florida becomes associated with her grandmother’s dream and Logan Killicks’s dream but not her own dream. When Janie meets Joe Starks, a traveler from Georgia, she walks out of her marriage with Killicks and casts her lot with Joe to pursue the far horizon.

*Eatonville

*Eatonville. All-black town in central Florida just north of Orlando near Maitland. Janie comes here with her new husband Joe in pursuit of the horizon. When they arrive in Eatonville, Joe is disappointed with the place. Through Joe’s energy and foresight Eatonville is soon transformed into a thriving town, but as the years pass Janie discovers once again that this is not the place of her dreams, but of Joe’s. She becomes alienated from the townspeople and forbidden to participate in any of the community’s rituals. In addition, as a woman in a male-dominated world Janie is oppressed, as evidenced by her being forced to wear her hair tied up and by the brutal way that Joe verbally humiliates her in the presence of the men of the town. When Joe dies of a lingering illness, Janie is liberated. Soon she meets a considerably younger man, Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods. Finally deciding that widowhood and life in Eatonville are too confining, she follows Tea Cake to Jacksonville where they marry.

De muck

De muck. Name for the portion of the Florida Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee near Clewiston and Belle Glade. The name is derived from the rich black soil that grew lush vegetation. It represents a certain earthiness, a certain carpe diem spirit, as Janie and Tea Cake quit Jacksonville to live and work among the hordes of migrant workers. Like the weeds and vegetables, Janie flourishes in this locale among the folk with a man who loves her for who she is. Thus de muck represents the horizon for Janie, a place where she can finally realize the fullness of life and live out her dreams. Unfortunately this bliss is short-lived, for in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane, Janie is tried and acquitted for killing Tea Cake in a tragic act of self-defense. After she buries him in a lavish ceremony, Janie returns to her home in Eatonville where she intends to grow old.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Form and Content (Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

By introducing each chapter of Their Eyes Were Watching God with a thematic image, Zora Neale Hurston artistically changes the focus of the novel from an emphasis on Janie Crawford’s linear chronology of her life to her internal development. For example, the “far horizon” to which ships sail and from which they return identified in the first line of chapter 1 becomes the protagonist’s standard in evaluating the imaginative vision of each of her three husbands. By the concluding chapter, Janie reveals that she herself has traveled to and returned from the “far horizon,” thus expressing her personal voyage of internal discovery.

Their Eyes Were Watching God begins as weary black workers sit on their porches and witness the return of Janie to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida. Expressing the superficial standards of society, these people believe that the widow of their deceased mayor, in returning alone and wearing overalls, has been financially exploited and abandoned by the young man with whom she had departed. When Janie’s best friend, Pheoby Watson, questions the circumstances of her return, Janie responds that Pheoby can only understand if she knows the whole of Janie’s life. It is within this framework that Janie proceeds to tell her story.

Janie’s grandmother, a former slave, is determined to leave her granddaughter with a protector, in the hope that Janie can avoid the black woman’s experience of being “the mule of the world.”

At the age of sixteen, Janie marries her grandmother’s choice, an older, lugubrious owner of a farm, Logan Killicks. Ironically, when Killicks expresses his intention to buy a mule, “gentle enough for a woman,” Janie foresees a future very like the one from which her grandmother had sought to save her, and she leaves him to marry Jody Starks.

Although Janie knows that Jody is not the “dust-blossoming bee” of her dreams, he does speak of “far horizons,” the word “horizon” expressing Janie’s intention of fulfilling her dreamed destiny. While Jody fulfills his own dream of fortune and importance by setting up a general store and becoming the mayor of Eatonville, he relegates his wife to a lonely, subordinate position. At Jody’s death, Janie savors the freedom of making her own decisions.

Her independent lifestyle is disturbed by the arrival of Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods, whom she intuitively believes to be the “dust-blossoming bee” of her dreams. In spite of the difference in their ages and fortunes and the criticism of the townspeople, Janie leaves Eatonville with Tea Cake and marries him. They travel south to the Everglades to work as migrant workers on the Muck. To all appearances as Janie works beside her husband in the fields, she would seem to be the “mule of the world” that her grandmother decried. The difference is that Janie works in the fields not because she has to, but because she and Tea Cake prefer to be together as much as possible.

Unfortunately, a hurricane destroys their idyll, and Tea Cake, in trying to protect Janie from a rabid dog, is himself bitten. In a hydrophobic rage, he attacks Janie, who shoots him in self-defense. After a brief trial that exonerates her, Janie returns to Eatonville.

At the conclusion of Janie’s tale to Pheoby, her friend is so impressed that she claims to feel magnified by hearing the tale. Pheoby’s response universalizes Janie’s personal defiance of conventions into a challenge to all women to satisfy their personal dreams.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Form and Content (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Zora Neale Hurston wrote most of Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 during a seven-week period she spent in Haiti. Hurston, the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, spent her days gathering anthropological data about life in Haiti, but she spent her evenings working on what was to become her greatest novel. The impetus for such an outpouring of words was a love affair with Albert Price III, a young graduate student of West Indian descent whom she had left in New York. Hurston undoubtedly realized that her relationship with Price was doomed, and thus she invested much of her own emotional life in the creation of her protagonist, Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods. The reader witnesses the internal maturation of Janie as she embarks on a journey for self-knowledge.

Janie tells the story of her life to Pheoby, her best friend, a woman who sympathizes with her and who is eager to hear Janie’s story. Although Janie’s brief narration is introduced by and then taken over by a third-person, or “public,” narrator, the narrative voices that speak throughout the text always move toward convergence with Janie’s voice. Janie’s conscious life begins in her grandmother’s backyard, where she first experiences sexual ecstasy. When Nanny sees Janie kissing Johnny Taylor, she insists that Janie marry Logan Killicks. Nanny tells Janie that the white man gives his workload to the black man, and the black man gives his workload to the black woman; therefore, the “nigger” woman is the mule of the world. After her marriage to Killicks, Janie quickly discovers that marriage does not equal love, and when the opportunity presents itself, Janie simply walks away and never looks back.

Janie’s opportunity to leave Killicks presents itself in the form of Joe Starks. Starks is on his way to a town in Florida that has been established by and for African Americans. He is a man of the world and plans to be a “big voice” in the town of Eatonville. Janie marries Joe and moves with him to Eatonville. She is soon disappointed in her marriage, however, because Joe Starks places Janie on a pedestal, far above the common riffraff of the town, and thus effectively silences her. Janie ceases to love Joe, and their marriage moves from the bedroom into the parlor. During the years of her marriage to Joe, Janie’s self-awareness grows. She discovers that she has a “jewel” inside her. Janie discovers that she understands Joe’s motives, that she can see a man’s head “naked of its skull.” Finally, after twenty years of marriage, Joe dies. Janie, rejoicing in her newfound freedom, rejects the community’s efforts to marry her to another man.

Janie is unwilling to allow the community of Eatonville to find her another husband; however, she finds a new mate when Teacake Woods enters her store. Although he is much younger than Janie, Teacake teaches her to laugh and to play again, and together they leave Eatonville to work in the Everglades as farm laborers. In the Everglades, or the Muck, their relationship is challenged by the community of laborers, a community whose attitudes and activities present a microcosm of African American society. Janie and Teacake are also challenged by god, or nature, in the form of a hurricane. During their struggle to survive the hurricane, Teacake is bitten by a rabid dog and becomes rabid himself; Janie is forced to shoot him. Janie is brought to trial and acquitted by a white jury. The circularity of the novel is completed as Janie returns to Eatonville. The narrative ends as Janie pulls her life in about her and drapes it over her shoulders like a great fishnet.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Context (Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a groundbreaking narrative. Hurston’s protagonist, Janie Woods, is a new kind of African American woman. Hurston revised the images of women presented in earlier African American narratives in which African American women were modeled upon white protagonists or were dedicated to the notion of “uplifting” the entire race. Through Janie, Hurston calls attention to the silencing of women and to their exclusion as storytellers within the African American community. She also demonstrates how the men of Eatonville, the “porch talkers,” set the boundaries of discourse for the entire community. The language of the men, unlike the language used by Janie, is a game, a competition; it reveals no internal development. Although Hurston is somewhat ambivalent toward Janie and allows her husband, Teacake, to beat her, she nevertheless depicts her as a questing hero, as a woman who moves from object to subject. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a feminist novel, and it may be considered the first such novel in the African American tradition.

Hurston’s life and work provided a model for later African American writers. Alice Walker has stated that Their Eyes Were Watching God had a profound effect upon her writing and that if she were marooned on a desert island with only ten books, Hurston’s masterpiece would be among those she would choose to take with her. Literary critics believe that one of Walker’s protagonists, Shug, of The Color Purple, is a re-creation of Hurston herself. Hurston has become a literary “foremother” not only for Walker but also for other African American women writers, including Gayl Jones, Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, and Toni Morrison. Although Hurston failed to define new parameters for discourse between men and women, she gave her protagonist a voice that allowed her to speak for herself. Their Eyes Were Watching God offers a point of departure for a new generation of African American women writers who are attempting to bridge the communicative chasm that exists between men and women.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Historical Context

The Great Depression
For southern farmers, both black and white, who did not enjoy the prosperity of northern industrial...

(The entire section is 831 words.)

Their Eyes Were Watching God Setting

Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place during the 1920s and '30s and is set in a series of all-black communities in rural Florida....

(The entire section is 120 words.)

Their Eyes Were Watching God Quizzes

Chapter 1: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. According to the book, what has the woman come back from doing?

2. Why did all the people see her come?

3. What do they remember about the woman?

4. What do the men notice about Janie as she walks down the street, and what do the women notice about her?

5. What does Pheoby bring for Janie?

6. What is Janie doing as Pheoby walks in?

7. According to Sam Watson, why do the residents of Eatonville want to rise on Judgment Day?

8. Why does Sam want to rise as well?

9. Does Janie intend to tell the residents of Eatonville what happened while she was gone?

10. What does Janie mean when she says...

(The entire section is 344 words.)

Chapter 2: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why is it hard for Janie to start her story?

2. Why was Janie called Alphabet?

3. Why had Janie been spending so much time underneath the pear tree?

4. Who is the “glorious being” that Janie sees coming up the road?

5. Why is Nanny scared for Janie?

6. Why does Nanny want Janie to marry Logan Killicks?

7. What happened to Nanny’s lover?

8. Why did Nanny run away from the plantation in Savannah?

9. Who was Janie’s father?

10. Why does Nanny call herself a “cracked plate”?

Answers
1. Janie finds it hard to begin since her early childhood has been so hard to...

(The entire section is 323 words.)

Chapter 3: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does Janie ask herself as the marriage approaches?

2. Who arranges Janie’s wedding ceremony?

3. When Janie asks Nanny for “information” why does Nanny laugh?

4. What does Janie want Nanny to do?

5. What does Nanny mean when she says “bein’ a fool don’t kill nobody. It just makes you sweat”?

6. What doesn’t Janie like about Logan’s appearance?

7. What does Nanny do after Janie leaves her?

8. What is “a bloom time, a green time, and an orange time?”

9. What does she tell the seeds, and why?

10. What “failed” Janie, and what does she do about this?

...

(The entire section is 306 words.)

Chapter 4: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How does Logan treat Janie differently in the months that follow Nanny’s death?

2. What does Janie do when Logan threatens not to chop any wood for her?

3. Why does Logan want an extra mule?

4. Describe Joe as Janie first sees him.

5. As Joe walked down the road, “he acted like Mr. Washburn or somebody like that to Janie.” What does this imply?

6. Why does Joe want Janie to shake her head?

7. What does Janie mean when she says to Logan, “you don’t take nothin’ to count but sow-belly and cornbread”?

8. Why does Logan ask Janie to come to the barn while she is in the middle of cooking breakfast?

...

(The entire section is 416 words.)

Chapter 5: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What does Joe buy for Janie as they are traveling to Eatonville?

2. Describe the town as it is when Joe and Janie first arrive.

3. When Joe leaves town for the first time, who stays behind, and why?

4. How does Lee Coker respond to Amos Hicks and his criticism of Janie?

5. How does Hicks respond to Joe’s announcement that he is going to get a post office for Eatonville?

6. Why is Tony Taylor upset at Lige Moss during the party celebrating the store’s grand opening?

7. How does Joe decide to celebrate the arrival of the street lamp?

8. Describe the Starks’ new house.

9. What did the phrase “Our...

(The entire section is 414 words.)

Chapter 6: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Sam tells Matt that his mule is in trouble by the lake. What has supposedly happened with the mule?

2. What does Joe do before he buys the mule?

3. How much does Matt get for the mule?

4. What is Sam and Lige’s argument about?

5. What position does each man hold in this argument, and what proof do they offer?

6. Why are Jim and Dave arguing in the store?

7. How does Joe ruin the argument for Janie?

8. According to Joe, what is the difference between him and Janie?

9. Why does Joe pretend to read the paper when Mrs. Robbins walks in?

10. What does God supposedly tell Janie?

...

(The entire section is 331 words.)

Chapter 7: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What did Janie get from Joe?

2. Explain the following sentence. “She sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending store and prostrating itself before Jody, while all the time she herself sat under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair and her clothes.”

3. Why does Joe tell Janie to stop playing croquet?

4. How does Joe look older?

5. What mistake does Janie make in the store?

6. Why do people stop laughing at Joe’s insult of Janie’s body?

7. According to Janie, what has Joe “mixed up”?

8. How does Janie describe herself to Joe?

9. Who starts to tease Joe after...

(The entire section is 352 words.)

Chapter 8: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Where does Joe sleep after the fight from the preceding
chapter?

2. Explain the following sentence: “Well, if she must eat out of a long-handled spoon, she must.”

3. Since Joe is refusing to see Janie, who is cooking and cleaning for him?

4. What does Pheoby advise Janie to do about the rumor that she is poisoning her husband?

5. What does Pheoby know about the medicine man who started the rumor about Janie?

6. What medical problem does Joe have?

7. Describe the character of Death.

8. Joe claims that Janie never had sympathy for him. Does Janie agree?

9. What does Janie want Joe to do before he...

(The entire section is 303 words.)

Chapter 9: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. What song does the Elks band play during Joe’s funeral?

2. Why is Janie content to keep things as they are for now?

3. What does Janie do during the evenings?

4. Why does Janie consider returning to where she came from?

5. How long has Joe been dead when Ike Green proposes to help Janie?

6. How does Janie get rid of Ike Green?

7. How long does Janie wear black?

8. How does Hezekiah become more like Joe?

9. How do the townspeople treat Janie after she starts to wear white?

10. Who is pressuring Pheoby to introduce him to Janie?

Answers
1. The band plays the song...

(The entire section is 284 words.)

Chapter 10: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. At what time does Tea Cake come into the store?

2. What does Tea Cake buy at the store?

3. Does Janie like checkers?

4. Why does Janie complain about their game?

5. How does Tea Cake intend to get home?

6. Why didn’t Tea Cake tell Janie his name until she asks for it?

7. How does Janie joke about his nickname?

8. What is “knuckle puddin’”?

9. What name does Janie call Tea Cake, and how does he like this name?

10. What does Janie do after Tea Cake walks away?

Answers
1. Tea Cake comes into the store at five-thirty.

2. Tea Cake buys a pack of...

(The entire section is 249 words.)

Chapter 11: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why does Tea Cake tell Janie to have another Coca-Cola?

2. Where do Janie and Tea Cake go fishing?

3. How is Tea Cake prepared to play with Janie’s hair?

4. What kind of fish does Tea Cake catch for Janie?

5. What does Janie wish about herself?

6. How much does Tea Cake want to bet Janie that he loves her?

7. Why does Tea Cake wake Janie up a couple of days after their fight?

8. What is Tea Cake doing in Janie’s hammock?

9. Why does Tea Cake bring a car to Janie’s store?

10. How long has Tea Cake been saving money to take Janie to the picnic?

Answers
1. Janie had...

(The entire section is 234 words.)

Chapter 12: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How long has Joe been dead in this chapter?

2. What color does Janie usually wear?

3. What does the Pastor say about Tea Cake?

4. Where does Pheoby stop before she goes to Janie’s house?

5. Why doesn’t Janie wear mourning clothes anymore?

6. Why is Pheoby scared that Janie is becoming like a possum?

7. Why does Janie decide to sell the store?

8. What does Janie mean when she says, “ah done lived Grandma’s way, now ah means to live mine”?

9. How is Pheoby like a chicken?

10. What costume is Janie preparing for her marriage to Tea Cake?

Answers
1. Joe has been...

(The entire section is 327 words.)

Chapter 13: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Does anybody from Eatonville see Janie leave?

2. What does Janie send Pheoby after a week in Jacksonville?

3. Why does Mrs. Samuels ask Janie to drink coffee with her?

4. How did Annie Tyler get her money?

5. How much money does Janie still have in Eatonville?

6. How does Janie know Tea Cake is coming back?

7. What does Tea Cake do with the ugly women who want to get into the party?

8. What happens with two men who want to fight each other at Tea Cake’s party?

9. What does God know about Tea Cake?

10. What is the name of the man who cuts Tea Cake with a razor?

Answers
...

(The entire section is 288 words.)

Chapter 14: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. When does the bean season open?

2. Why is Tea Cake waiting for his new boss?

3. Why doesn’t Tea Cake gamble while they are waiting for the beans to grow?

4. How does Tea Cake make Janie practice shooting?

5. What is Tea Cake’s favorite dish?

6. Why does Janie make dessert every night?

7. What happens when the houses fill up?

8. Why do people come to Tea Cake and Janie’s house every night?

9. How often does Tea Cake win at gambling?

10. Who won the card game?

Answers
1. The bean season opens near the end of September.

2. Tea Cake’s boss left to get...

(The entire section is 231 words.)

Chapter 15: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Describe Nunkie.

2. How would Nunkie play with Tea Cake?

3. How does Janie react to Nunkie’s games?

4. How does Janie find out where Tea Cake is?

5. Why does Janie go home instead of to work?

6. What does Tea Cake do to keep Janie from running away?

7. How does Tea Cake “bruise” Janie’s ears?

8. Does Janie believe that Tea Cake was ever interested in Nunkie?

9. Why does Janie want to hear Tea Cake’s denial once again?

10. How does Tea Cake describe Nunkie to Janie?

Answers
1. She is a “little, chunky girl.”

2. Nunkie would continue to hit Tea...

(The entire section is 238 words.)

Chapter 16: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Where do Tea Cake and Janie go now that the season is over and most of the people are leaving?

2. Describe Mrs. Turner.

3. How does Tea Cake joke about Mrs. Turner’s appearance?

4. Mrs. Turner guesses to Janie that Tea Cake is very rich. Why?

5. What does Mrs. Turner believe should be done about the “black race”?

6. According to Janie, why do white people want to stay away from blacks?

7. Why is Mrs. Turner so proud of her brother?

8. What does Tea Cake intend to do about Mrs. Turner’s insults?

9. Why does Tea Cake accuse Mrs. Turner of “making God look foolish”?

10. How does Mrs....

(The entire section is 315 words.)

Chapter 17: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How many times does Tea Cake slap Janie?

2. Why doesn’t Sop-de-Bottom hit his wife anymore?

3. Why don’t the police arrest drunks on the weekend?

4. Why is the whole gang at Mrs. Turner’s café?

5. What do Sterrett and Coodemay order at the café?

6. What does Coodemay ask the waitress to do?

7. How does the fight start?

8. Why does Mrs. Turner try to refuse Tea Cake’s help?

9. What happens when everyone decides to make up?

10. What do Coodemay and Sterrett do on Monday morning?

Answers
1. Tea Cake slaps her “two or three” times.

2. Sop-de-Bottom...

(The entire section is 294 words.)

Chapter 18: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How much money are the workers making picking beans?

2. Who begins to sing and dance to Tea Cake’s guitar?

3. How much money does Tea Cake win from Motor Boat?

4. Why does Tea Cake go out while Janie is packing up their things?

5. How deep is the water when they leave the house?

6. What does Tea Cake have to abandon because of the strength of the storm?

7. How long and wide is Lake Okechobee according to Tea Cake?

8. What does Motor Boat plan to do if the water gets into the house?

9. Why does the cow panic when Janie grabs on to her tail?

10. How could that dog “raised hell” with Tea...

(The entire section is 242 words.)

Chapter 19: Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. Why does Tea Cake believe he can walk through the streets without being forced to work?

2. What do the white men call Tea Cake?

3. Whom has Tea Cake seen alive, and who has died in the flood?

4. What does Tea Cake refuse from Janie?

5. Whom does Janie meet as she goes to the see the doctor about the medicine?

6. Does the doctor have the medicine for Tea Cake?

7. Why does Tea Cake tell Janie not to work in the front yard?

8. What does Janie do after Tea Cake falls dead on her?

9. What is worse than death to Janie?

10. Why did Sop and the others try to hurt Janie?

Answers
...

(The entire section is 286 words.)

Chapter 20 Questions and Answers

Study Questions
1. How does Sop-de-Bottom explain the town’s attack on Mrs. Turner’s brother?

2. How does the town make itself feel better after what they did to Janie?

3. How long had the town’s anger lasted against Janie?

4. What is the Everglades to Janie without Tea Cake?

5. What does Janie keep for herself from the Everglades?

6. What is love like, according to Janie?

7. What does Pheoby plan to do tomorrow?

8. What are the two things that everybody has to do for themselves?

9. What is Tea Cake wearing for a shawl?

10. Where is peace for Janie?

Answers
1. Sop-de-Bottom says...

(The entire section is 233 words.)