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Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

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Special Commissioned Entry on Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston Margaret Earley Whitt

Written by noted Hurston scholar Margaret Early Whitt of the University of Denver, the following special essay provides in-depth analysis and explication of Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). For discussion of Hurston's complete works, see CLC, Volumes 7, 30, and 61.

When in 1942 Zora Neale Hurston published her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, she named Eatonville, Florida “a pure Negro town—charter, mayor, council, town marshal and all.” She died January 28, 1960, in relative obscurity in the Saint Lucie County Welfare Home in southern Florida. Though her obituary in the New York Times (“Zora Hurston, 57, Writer, Is Dead,” 5 Feb. 1960: 27) gives her age as fifty-seven, placing her birth year in 1903, Hurston herself claimed birthdates from 1898 to 1903, most often using 1901, but the census of 1900 lists a Zora L. Hurston born to Lucy Potts (American National Biography, vol. 11, eds. John Garraty and Mark Carnes [New York: Oxford University Press, 1999]). Hurston actually died when she was sixty-nine. The recasting of her story in her autobiography suggests that Hurston used facts creatively. It is easy for readers today to understand that Eatonville is the dominant place in young Zora's conscious memory. Alice Walker writes that “everything Zora Neale Hurston wrote came out of her experience in Eatonville” (Alice Walker, ed., I Love Myself When I Am Laughing … and Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader [New York: Feminist Press, 1979] 176).

The fifth of eight children, Hurston enjoyed the relative prosperity of her parents in Eatonville. Her father owned land and a substantial house. He served Eatonville as a three-term mayor and was the preacher of Zion Hope Baptist Church in nearby Sanford (though Wall's Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings also says her father was pastor of Macedonia Baptist Church). Her mother was a former country schoolteacher. After the untimely death of her mother in 1904 and the subsequent remarriage of her father to a stepmother with whom she developed a stormy relationship, Hurston's mooring in her once stable community of Eatonville shifted dramatically. Living with various family members in different places for short increments of time also disrupted her schooling, while providing her experience in domestic work, an economic necessity. By 1915 she attached herself to the Gilbert and Sullivan traveling dramatic troupe as a maid (Robert Hemenway's Zora Neal Hurston: A Literary Biography lists her role with the company as that of a “wardrobe girl”) and went with them from Jacksonville to Baltimore. Here she enrolled in Morgan Academy (now Morgan State University), moved on to Howard University in Washington, and eventually graduated from Barnard College in New York in 1928. Hurston's educational path through school was far from direct; she was constantly challenged by her economic situation. However, her fiercely savvy street wisdom, obvious creative talent, and assertive personality combined to open doors to the leading lights of the Harlem Renaissance.

Hurston arrived in New York's Harlem neighborhood in 1925, and the flowering of Negro arts was already underway. The Urban League's magazine, Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Life, edited by Charles S. Johnson, had published one of her stories, and its editor was supportive during her early days in New York. Hurston had had earlier encouragement from Alain Locke, whose seminal work The New Negro would define and represent the exploding Negro arts movement, when he published her first story while she was still a student at Howard University. Hurston became a presence at literary salons, where she met Jean Toomer, author of Cane, W. E. B. Du Bois, author of Souls of Black Folk, and fiction writers Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Jessie Fauset, to name a few of the prominent talents.

Soon after her arrival in Harlem, Hurston met the first of three important white women who significantly contributed to her life. She accepted a position with the well-known novelist Fannie Hurst, who hired her as a live-in secretary, despite Hurston's rather poor clerical skills. The two met when Hurst served as a judge in a contest in which Hurston's story “Spunk” had won a prize. The arrangement provided Hurston a much-needed roof over her head. Around this time, Hurston attracted the attention of novelist Annie Nathan Meyer, one of the founders of Barnard College, who arranged for a scholarship so that Hurston could continue her schooling.

As a student at Barnard, Hurston anticipated that she would be an English major. Along the way, however, she enrolled in an anthropology course, and her professor brought her work for the class to the attention of Dr. Franz Boas, one of the country's leading anthropologists. Hurston soon changed her major and began attending departmental social gatherings, where she continued to impress him. In February of 1927 Boas arranged a fellowship for her to travel south and record the stories of her people.

The third white woman, and clearly the most important person for the next five years of Hurston's life, was Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason (Charlotte), a socially prominent patron of the Negro arts. Hurston met Mrs. Mason in September 1927; they signed a legal contract in December of that year that assured Hurston $200 each month plus the use of a car to travel to the South to begin a serious collection of black folklore. A formal arrangement lasted until the end of March 1931 and continued with irregular payments until September 1932. The major downside of the agreement for Hurston was that the collection was to become the property of Mrs. Mason, with whom Hurston developed a spiritual and psychic connection. Referred to as “godmother” by her proteges, Mrs. Mason was a patron for a number of talented, young, black writers and artists of the Harlem Renaissance—most notably, Langston Hughes, whose relationship with her was also a struggle against censorship and excessive dependence.

The first six months on her collecting trip were unsuccessful as Hurston tried to use her northern, Barnard style of talk, which was not the way to open conversation with the kind of people she knew could tell her stories. Not until she reached Polk County in Florida and met a local legend known as Big Sweet did her collecting begin to prosper. Hurston gained acceptance in the community through her friendship with Big Sweet, who had easy access to the best liars/storytellers. Big Sweet saved Hurston's skin as well. When a fight broke out among the locals, Hurston managed to get out of the jook joint safely, collect her belongings, and get on the road to New Orleans for another round of research, this time on the study of hoodoo.

From New Orleans, she traveled to south Florida and on to the Bahamas. Her stay in the Bahamas was devoted mostly to the collection of native songs and learning about the Jumping Dance. During her stay in the Bahamas in 1929, she experienced a five-day hurricane, which resulted in the deaths of animals and people and the washing away of hundreds of homes. Hurston called on the memory a few years later to develop and duplicate the terror in her Everglades hurricane in Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is actually based on the Okeechobee Hurricane, which struck Florida in 1928 and caused severe flooding. She repeated her trips to the Bahamas during the latter part of the 1920s and early 1930s.

In the midst of her research trips, Hurston took time to marry medical student Herbert Sheen in St. Augustine, Florida, on May 19, 1927. They had met and fallen in love while students at Howard. Sheen and Hurston were both driven individuals, intent upon professional success in different fields of study. Hurston believed that she could have both her man and her work, but she had second thoughts almost immediately. Sheen became aware that his bride would never follow him in his career if it meant sacrificing her own. In less than eight months, they declared a separation, but the divorce was not final until July 7, 1931. Her second marriage, also brief, was to Albert Price III, whom she wed on June 27, 1939 in Fernandina, Florida. Price was younger than Hurston, and the relationship was strained from the beginning. The divorce was eventually granted on November 9, 1943, but the couple never lived together more than two weeks at a time, and the marriage itself, for all practical purposes, was over within the first year (Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography [Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977] 273–74). The first marriage involved two people who had a long history with each other and remained on good terms for the rest of Hurston's life. On the other hand, Price's involvement appears to have been of a much shorter duration. Long before the days of no-fault divorce, reasons couples gave for seeking a divorce were often fabricated. While the records and the stated reasons for obtaining the divorce are available, they may have little connection with the truth of the situation.

After publishing a dozen short stories, Hurston began her first novel in 1929 by transcribing a preacher's sermon, which she later used in Jonah's Gourd Vine. (Wall's Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings states that she only transcribed a preacher's sermon, later used in Jonah's Gourd Vine, in 1929; chronology further states that she began to write Jonah's Gourd Vine in Sanford, Florida in 1933, mailing the completed manuscript Oct. 3, which Lippincott accepted Oct. 16). As she explains in her autobiography, she knew she was “supposed to write about the Race Problem,” but she declares herself “thoroughly sick of the subject.” (Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 713). In 1933 she began to write the novel in earnest, spending about three months on the writing, and when Lippincott responded positively to the manuscript and offered her a $200 advance, she immediately accepted their terms. No book to follow was as exciting to her as the first one; Jonah's Gourd Vine affirmed her own belief in herself, that she did possess artistic talent. The book was published in 1934 and was greeted with mixed reviews. While her ability to capture the “pungent, expressive idiom of the country Negro, full of humor and folk-notions” (Josephine Pinckney, “A Pungent, Poetic Novel about Negroes,” New York Herald Tribune Books [6 May 1934]: 7) and “the lusciousness and beauty of the Negro dialect” (Andrew Burris, “The Browing Reader,” The Crisis [June 1934]: 167) was consistently lauded, the book fell short of pleasing those writers associated with the New Negro movement. The reception of the first novel repeated itself with her three following novels: Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937); Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939); and Seraph on the Suwanee (1948). Because Hurston simply refused to reduce her fictional writing to polemical tirades on race, she was plagued by reviews calling attention again and again to what was widely considered her shortcoming.

Two collections of folklore—Mules and Men in 1935 and Tell My Horse in 1938—puzzled reviewers as well. Her work refused to fit comfortably into known paradigms. Hurston eschewed what she no doubt considered a dry, scientific style of reporting ethnographic material. She chose, instead, to write in such a way that the reader, whom Hurston imagined as an outsider to the community, could “hear” the stories, as though the reader were present on the porch, at the jook joint, or in the car, listening. Hurston evoked the oral tradition in her choice of delivery. The audience for Hurston's folklore collections, though, was difficult to assess. Many black readers saw racist slights and overtones—was she simply making fun of her own people? Those who held this particular view were concerned about how white readers would interpret the stories—would they understand? How would they begin to grasp the context, the subtext?

Divided in two parts—seventy folk tales in ten groupings and thirty rituals and brief introductions to hoodoo practitioners—Mules and Men, underappreciated in the 1930s, had to wait almost half a century to be rediscovered. Tell My Horse is a book in three parts that continues Hurston's pursuit of voodoo practice. She moves from Jamaica to political commentary to Haiti. Most criticized for the middle section, her attempts at analyzing politics, Hurston was encouraged to stick with genres she knew better.

Her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, was published in 1942. Writing her own story was not her idea; Lippincott suggested the enterprise. Late in 1941 Hurston was in California with a friend, busy with the details of her own story, yet frustrated by the assignment—preferring fiction to nonfiction. While Hurston delivered what was asked of her, the autobiography was a loose play between fact and fantasy. Critics generally agree this is her least noteworthy effort, yet until Robert Hemenway's literary biography in 1977, Hurston's own account of her life was the best available source.

In 1948 Hurston's last novel was published, and she was accused of sexually molesting a minor. Out of the country at the time of the alleged offense, Hurston still made headlines in the black press. Though the charges were dropped, Hurston sunk into personal depression. Though her emotional health at length rallied, she was plagued with recurring physical ailments and an unsteady income for the remainder of her life. She continued to write but began meeting with less success. Her achievements were with essays, opinion pieces for newspapers, and reviews.

During the first half of the 1950s, she lived in Eau Gallie, Florida, where she became known as a gardener of some repute. In the last years of her life, she moved to Fort Pierce, where she wrote columns for the local black newspaper, the Chronicle, and continued to work on her novel of Herod the Great, although her publishers had rejected the manuscript. She believed in the story and hoped it would make a grand movie in the biblical epic genre. Those who knew her at the end of her life report on the gardens she planted at her rented home. She was out of touch with the literati with whom she had once rubbed shoulders; she had limited financial income. A few months after entering the Saint Lucie County Welfare Home, she died. She was buried in a segregated cemetery at the north end of 17th Street in Fort Pierce, the grave unmarked for nearly two decades.


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SOURCE: “An Analysis of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Twentieth-Century Literary Criticism, Vol. 121. Farmington Hills, Mich.: Gale Group, 2002.

[In the following original essay, Whitt examines Hurston's work on a number of levels, assessing the plot, characters, themes, evolution of the work, the novel's historical significance, and how the work has been studied since its publication. The parenthetical page numbers that appear throughout this essay refer to the edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God published by J. B. Lippincott (Philadelphia) in 1937.]


Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods is the protagonist of the novel. In most critical commentaries she is referred to as Janie Crawford, her birth name. Janie was born after her mother was raped by her white schoolteacher; Janie is raised by her maternal grandmother. Janie moves through three husbands, learning significant lessons with each one, but not finding love and partnership until her third try. Perhaps because her third marriage was successful, some critics use the name Janie Woods. It would be most appropriate, however, to refer to her simply as Janie, because all the other names represent her connections with another person, which removes Janie from the woman she is striving to become, the woman who will serve as a model for female literary characters in years to come.

Janie is unlike any other female protagonist at the time of her creation. As soon as she is caught kissing the neighborhood ne'er-do-well, Nanny marries her off to an old man for protection. Janie discovers that when she goes into his house “to wait for love to begin” (22), it does not. By the time she is ready to make her way alone in the world, after Tea Cake is dead, she is clear in her knowledge that “you got tuh go there tuh know there” (192) and that having known the kind of love she shared with Tea Cake is enough to last her for the rest of her days. She understands aloneness differently from loneliness.

By the end of the book, which returns to the beginning of the frame story, readers hear in the story of Janie's life the journey of her life. That journey is both a literal trip that moves through time, physical space, and place and a figurative trip into Janie's interior space. When Janie moves inside Logan's house, Joe Starks' store, and to the muck of the Everglades with Tea Cake, she learns more about the woman she is. That trip into interiority serves as the sustaining value of the novel.

Pheoby Watson is Janie's best friend. Janie and Pheoby meet in Eatonville, the all-black community in Florida that Janie and Joe Starks help establish. Their friendship has weathered twenty years, and it is to Pheoby that Janie tells her story upon her return from her time away with Tea Cake. Pheoby acts as a conduit from the porch to Janie and potentially from Janie back to the porch. She moves directly toward Janie by way of the “intimate gate” (4) on the side of the house, bypassing the front door, where less familiar friends would go. She brings food, knowing also that Janie must be hungry. Though more than a year has come between them, together they instantly “laugh easily” (5). While both women know that the rest of the porch-sitting group is already telling one another the story of Janie, Pheoby wants the story to be told correctly, and Janie no longer cares what others think. She will tell Pheoby the story, and Pheoby can do what she wants with it because her telling it will be just the same, “'cause mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf” (6).

Pheoby is the means through which Hurston tells Janie's story. Pheoby serves to clarify points, express necessary amazement, sympathize in the grieving process, and parallel the reader's responses to Janie. In fact, it is her “hungry listening” that helps Janie tell her story (10). In case the reader does not understand by the end of the novel what Janie has learned from her trip to “de big 'ssociation of life … de Grand Lodge, de big convention of livin'” (6), she can tell Pheoby and the reader simultaneously that lesson: “Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves” (192).

Nanny is Janie's maternal grandmother, with whom Janie's earliest memories are connected, for Nanny is the only parental figure Janie ever knows. Nanny's most important role in the novel is to explain how “de nigger woman is de mule uh de world” (14) and to “preach a great sermon about colored women sittin' on high” (16). Because Janie hears the mule story, she will later be able to see in her own life parallel moments with mules. Nanny's sermon is one of hope for Janie, but not for herself. She was born into slavery and impregnated by her master. When he left to avenge his son's death at Chickamauga, her mistress, seeing the white face of Nanny's newborn daughter, plans to have Nanny severely beaten and thrown off the property. Nanny is able to escape that night, but she sacrifices her own joy in life for the sake of her child, who goes astray, and for Janie.

Protection of and for Janie, the child she loves more than the one she birthed, is paramount for Nanny; it is the highest form of love. Every decision she has made in life, since leaving that night while the Civil War still raged, has been for her child's and then her grandchild's best interest—as she understands the world. Her plan to marry Janie to Logan Killicks leads to a permanent separation from Nanny in Janie's mind; however, it will be years before Janie realizes it. To Janie she cautions, “Put me down easy, Janie. Ah'm a cracked plate” (20). Janie attempts to talk with Nanny about love, a talk that kills Janie's first dream. Soon after, Nanny dies. Not until Joe Starks is dead, more than twenty years later, and Janie is thinking about returning to tend her grandmother's grave, does she realize that she “hated her grandmother and had hidden it from herself all these years under a cloak of pity” (89). Nanny sought protection above all else; Janie sought love.

In spite of Janie's declared feelings for Nanny, the message in her long-ago sermon is the text that Janie will discover; she will take her “stand on high ground” (16). Nanny told her that “nothin' Ah been through ain't too much” if she would take that course of action. It is in Nanny's voice, through her text, that Janie does triumph. In doing so, then, Nanny's lifetime of sacrifices and suffering have a worthwhile end.

Leafy is Janie's mother, Nanny's daughter, who is raped by her white schoolteacher. Nanny's sermon was meant for Leafy, but she never hears it. After giving birth to Janie, she leaves. Janie does not miss Leafy because she has no memory of her. Leafy is present only in the novel in Nanny's voice, necessary as the connecting, yet absent, link through which Janie is tied to Nanny.

Johnny Taylor is the first boy that Janie ever kisses. He happens by while she is leaning over the front gate. Johnny benefits from Janie having listened to the bees visit the succulent blossoms and having connected mental images of sex, love, and marriage to the activity of the bees on their blooms. Johnny does not speak a single word in the novel; he is present only to give a kiss. He is an impulsive twinkling for Janie, but Nanny sees the kiss as “lacerating” her granddaughter (12), turning Janie's innocent delight into a “manure pile after a rain” (13).

Logan Killicks is Janie's first husband, who comes to her through negotiation with Nanny, as though Janie herself is property. His presence in the novel is strictly to serve as a foil for Janie; Hurston uses him as a means to show the reader how Janie changes. With his sixty acres and a mule, Logan represents protection for Janie. After the Civil War, General William Tecumseh Sherman issued Special Field Order Number 15, which granted forty acres of tillable ground to “respectable negroes.” Some forty thousand blacks were settled on forty-acre tracts on the Sea Islands.1 For Logan to have twenty acres more and the means to acquire two mules establishes him as a prosperous catch. Logan is an old man, physically unattractive to Janie, resistant to washing his feet before bedtime, but he is kind to her. Through her time with Logan—“a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time” (25), as Hurston ticks off the seasons—Janie becomes a woman; she learns that marriage can exist without love. Logan, however, does care for Janie; he waits on her, makes few demands, and is resigned to letting her, for the most part, have her way. But when Logan decides to buy a second mule for Janie to do her share of the field work, he does not ask her input; Logan wishes to be good to Janie, but only on his terms. When she wakes him in the night to try to converse again about her unhappiness, she suggests she might leave him, but he will not take her seriously, choosing to insult her instead. Logan never learns what to do with Janie's talk; he is hurt by her stinging words, but he never lets her know. He only knows to “hurt her as she had hurt him” (31). Logan's last order to Janie is to help move a manure pile, the literal reality of what Nanny had figuratively turned Johnny Taylor's kiss into. The manure pile is the last subject of discussion between Logan and Janie. He drops out of the book at this point; Janie moves on to the next man.

Joe Starks, whom Janie has known only for a week or two before marrying him, is her second husband, the one she will stay with for more than twenty years. Joe Starks is a dreamer, and he attracts Janie with sweet talk and big plans for the future. Joe takes Janie to a new town he has heard of that will be entirely comprised of colored people. As soon as they arrive in Eatonville, Florida, Joe's language starts to shift. He uses the expression “I god” repeatedly, does all the talking, and maps out his plan for the developing city: buy two hundred acres of land, build a store, get permission for a post office, incorporate, and establish a local government. Joe is named mayor by acclamation. He begins to give Janie orders—how to dress, when to speak. Joe shuts her down the first time she is asked to speak a few words: “[M]ah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin'. … She's uh woman and her place is in de home” (43). Joe did not know it at the time, but those very words “took the bloom off of things” (43).

The “I god” Joe also brings light to the town by purchasing the first street lamp. With similarities to the biblical God, who speaks light into the world, Joe has only to think it to have it be done. Joe's last good deed, in Janie's eye, is to purchase the overworked mule of Matt Bonner. Joe's estrangement from Janie increases during the sportive days of mule-baiting and the mule's subsequent dragging-out ceremony. When Joe strikes Janie for a failed meal and she insults his manhood, the silence deepens between the two. Joe loses the Janie he never chose to know long before their twenty years together pass. Even on his deathbed, Joe cannot listen to Janie because he is still full of being the boss of everybody in his world. For Janie, the Joe of big ideas and exciting possibilities with whom she headed into the horizon died years before death came calling.

Lee Coker, Guv'nor Amos Hicks; Tony Taylor, Lige Moss; Hambo and Pearson; Brother Davis and Mrs. Bogle; Sim Jones, Sam Watson, Henry Pitts; Oscar Scott, Jeff Bruce; Walter Thomas, Charlie Jones; Jim Weston, Dave, Lum; Ike Green, Hezekiah, Tripp Crawford; Joe Lindsay and Jim Stone are among the town dwellers and porch sitters who people Eatonville. The characters are introduced in the novel in pairs, never fully described, and are interchangeable in many ways. Names are often secondary to roles they play in the community—barbecue chef, preacher, alto singer, thief, shopkeeper, and carpenter, among others. Their interchangeability serves to enhance the representation of a big, collective, town voice that laughs and tells lies; each person competitively strives to contribute the most outlandish story, to create the heartiest laugh, to gain a reputation as the lord of the porch revelry. A successful night, however, does not guarantee the title; the contest begins anew each evening. The many voices also provide a means through which the reader sees and hears how the town perceives Joe and Janie Starks. The porch sitters are judge and jury, with court constantly in session—no recess, no verdict, only endless assessment of Eatonville's First Couple. After Joe's death, the jockeying continues as various men try to usurp Joe's position. They mimic his favorite verbal expressions and try to win Janie over by suggesting what is good for her, showing how little they understand the woman who “was just basking in freedom for the most part without the need for thought” (93).

Matt Bonner and his mule are present in the novel as a reminder of Nanny's “nigger woman is mule of world” story. The verbal assaults that are launched toward Matt Bonner for abusing his mule suggest, on the one hand, a figurative defense of the treatment of women. All too soon, however, after Joe purchases the mule, the attention, the ribald language, and the resulting riotous laughter focus on the mule. The mule becomes the target of Joe's “big heh, heh laugh” (54), and when the “big picture talkers” appear, Janie, like the mule that cannot defend itself, gets hustled off “inside the store to sell something” (54). The mule, firmly established as symbol of mistreated woman, at its demise is left to the buzzards, picked over by birds of prey, peered at by man, and probed and policed by curious children. Even after death, the mule remains a stockpile of familiar and funny memories.

Mrs. Tony Robbins is the Eatonville resident who comes to Joe's store to beg a bit of food for her poor, starving children. Joe treats her no better than Matt Bonner treats his mule. She is placed in the humiliating position of asking for a handout and then having to bow and scrape to the mocking Joe. He gives her a stingy-sized piece of salt pork and then charges her husband for it. Mrs. Robbins becomes a human example of the mule of the world metaphor.

Vergible (Tea Cake) Woods is Janie's third and final husband, the bee to her blossom, a “glance from God” (106). After spending the day with him the first time she meets him, Janie feels as though “she had known him all her life” (99). With a nickname that points to his own sweetness, Tea Cake teaches her to play checkers; they fish together; he publicly declares his love by escorting her to the Sunday School picnic. He teaches her how to drive and to shoot a gun. When the time comes to marry, Janie makes the decision alone. Tea Cake is not the protection that Nanny saw in Logan, and he is not Joe, the big talker who fills space so vastly there is no room left for Janie. Tea Cake wins Janie's heart because he knows how to treat her as an equal; she has her space to tell the big stories. When they travel to the Everglades muck together, Tea Cake encourages Janie to pick beans alongside him, simply because he misses her too much during the day. From the first time they catch fish together, the division of labor is clear: “Ah'll clean 'em, you fry 'em and let's eat” (103). Tea Cake is her equal partner, and Janie recognizes his worth precisely because she has learned, from her time with Logan and Joe, what she does not want.

Tea Cake is a tall gambler, a good-time hustler, a guitar-playing jokester, and he is passionately devoted to Janie. Tea Cake is also younger than Janie. Literature is ripe with older-men-younger-women relationships, but much more rare is the older-woman-younger-man relationship. Thus, Tea Cake runs against the tide; he is the older, independent, freedom-loving woman's fantasy man. He dotes on Janie, and the two of them are the First Couple at the center of life on the muck. Tea Cake weathers the hurricane with Janie, but at severe cost. First, he loses tangible items that mean a great deal to him: “Tea Cake had to throw his box away, and Janie saw how it hurt him” (161). Next, in what turns out to be a final act of heroism, Tea Cake saves Janie from a rabid dog, but the dog manages “to bite Tea Cake high up on his cheek-bone” (166). Before Tea Cake can get medical help, he turns crazy from the poisonous bite, and, more importantly, he turns against his own wife. Janie is forced to shoot Tea Cake in order to save her own life.

Tea Cake, who had first been described as a “glance from God,” becomes the means by which Janie examines intensely her own belief system. She questions God, wondering how and what this situation will teach her about how God works in this world. While she is puzzled at this painful point, the moment pales next to prying “the dead Tea Cake's teeth from her arm.” That moment becomes “the meanest moment of eternity” (184). Tea Cake, fortunately, is replaced by “something else looking out of his face” (181). The Tea Cake Janie knew and loved remains with her, always a “glance from God”; Tea Cake could never be dead “until she herself had finished feeling and thinking” (193).

Nunkie is a young woman who casts too favorable an eye on Tea Cake. Nunkie exists solely to show the reader Janie's jealous fury. She is ready to go to the mats, literally, for her man, and she does so with Tea Cake. Janie needs to hear Tea Cake declare he does not love Nunkie and never did. Once Janie has clarity of her place in Tea Cake's heart, Nunkie drops out of the novel.

Mrs. Turner becomes “visiting friends” with Janie during the off-season on the muck. She is attracted to Janie because of her color. Mrs. Turner is a “milky sort of woman” (139), who cannot stand the “common niggers” with whom Janie and Tea Cake keep company. She wants to partner with Janie and “class off” (141) against the darker hues. Mrs. Turner is simply “color-struck” (149), a term Hurston uses to title one of her one-act plays and which refers to those black people who are ultra-conscious of skin color—jealous of those lighter-toned and despising of those darker. Tea Cake, who associates Mrs. Turner's looks with being kicked by a cow or “an ironing board with things throwed at it” (140), organizes a planned evening of bedlam in her restaurant in order to drive her off the muck. His work is successful.

Sop-de-Bottom, Stew Beef, Bootnyny, Motor Boat, Coodemay, Sterrett, and Dockrey are among the good-time friends Tea Cake and Janie keep company with on the muck. Hurston uses mostly nicknames for these men, which contrast markedly with the names of characters who are the porch sitters and big talkers in Eatonville. Once again, though, the muck dwellers are interchangeable with one another. All of them participate in the evening of destruction at Mrs. Turner's eating house.


(Chapter 1) As Their Eyes Were Watching God begins, Janie Woods returns to Eatonville, an all-black town, and its inhabitants, who think they know her well. The townsfolk are gathered on the porch, where nightly they engage in big talk. When Janie passes by them with only a brief greeting, they are left hungry for her story. Janie's best friend, Pheoby Watson, follows shortly after her to hear what the townsfolk are desperate to know.

(Chapter 2) Delighted to see Pheoby again, Janie is not quite sure where to begin in the telling of her story, so she starts with her early days. Not knowing her mother or father, she was raised by her grandmother, Nanny, who provided a childhood in which Janie played with white children and only realized she was colored when she saw a photograph of herself with her playmates. When Janie has her first kiss over the back fence, Nanny reacts with a fierce desire to protect Janie from the world as Nanny understands it. She arranges for Janie to be married to an old man, a property owner named Logan Killicks. Nanny tells Janie the story of the colored woman's role as “the mule of the world.” She knows she will die soon and wants Janie to have the dreams that have not been possible for her. Nanny tells her, as well, the story of her mother, Leafy, who was raped by a white schoolteacher, Janie's birth father.

(Chapter 3) Janie and Logan get married, and Janie, whose imagination has earlier been ignited by a bee pollinating a pear blossom, decides marriage must be similar. When Janie discovers that love does not follow in her marriage to Logan, she returns to ask Nanny about love, but Nanny does not understand love the way Janie has interpreted it to be by watching the pear tree blossom in spring. Janie wants what she does not have, and her first dream dies.

(Chapter 4) When Logan leaves one day to go purchase a mule so that his wife can work in the field with him, Janie meets Joe Starks, a man with big plans off in the horizon about an all-colored town in Florida. After a brief flirtation, Janie chooses to cast her lot with Joe and meets him in the early hours, thinking that he could well be the “bee for her bloom.” Without a divorce from Logan, Janie marries Joe Starks before sundown on their way to the town Eatonville, which will be her home for the next twenty years.

(Chapter 5) Upon arriving, Joe buys some land and shares his vision of the future with others. He becomes a powerful leader almost from the moment he appears on the scene. He employs others to help him build a store and a big house. When the townsfolk begin to gather routinely on the porch, Joe makes it clear to Janie that she is not one of the common people and sets her apart from them. In so doing, he isolates her. While Joe is center stage, she feels lonely.

(Chapter 6) As the talk continues on the porch, Janie remains inside, tending the store, remaining peripheral to the ongoing jokes about Matt's mule. When Joe buys the abused mule, he becomes a hero through his deed and speech, and when the mule dies, Joe leads the dragging-out of the mule. Janie, however, is not permitted to attend. Janie realizes that the plan she thought would play out in their lives together is not to be, so she separates her inside and outside selves. When she does try to enter the conversation to defend women, she is quickly silenced by Joe, who sends her inside to tend the store.

(Chapter 7) Over the years, the distance and the silence grow between Janie and Joe. He directs attention away from his aging self by humiliating Janie. When Janie responds, she emasculates him in front of his friends. Joe strikes her and banishes her from the store, incapable of receiving in kind what he so easily delivers.

(Chapter 8) Joe separates himself even more from Janie and places his trust in root doctors and others who feed his growing paranoia about her. When Janie visits him on his death bed, he turns a deaf ear toward her, but she has her say. She lets him know that their life together did not have to be the way it turned out, that after these twenty years, he does not know her. He dies, but her grief is only an outer grief. She has lived two lives—the inner and outer ones—too long.

(Chapter 9) Janie goes through the motions at Joe's funeral. Over time, though, her inner and outer selves begin to merge as she comes to enjoy her freedom. She begins to share in the talk on the porch. She is not interested in the men's advice about what she ought to do with the store, the house, or her life. As she begins to care less about what other people say about her, she relishes the honesty she feels in her daily living.

(Chapter 10) One day when the town empties to attend a big game in a neighboring town, Janie is in the store alone when a tall stranger comes in. He teaches her to play checkers, and she spends the day with the man, who introduces himself as Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods. Treating her as his equal, he helps her close the store and walks her home. She feels as though she has known him forever.

(Chapter 11) Tea Cake courts Janie—they go fishing at night, and he wants to escort her to the Sunday School picnic. Tea Cake becomes the bee to Janie's blossom. Their relationship is accompanied by laughter, honesty, and equality. She elevates this love over her two marriages, raising it to the spiritual level by calling Tea Cake “a glance from God.”

(Chapter 12) The town is annoyed by Tea Cake usurping Janie's time and attention. Janie confides to her friend Pheoby that she and Tea Cake are getting married. For the first time, Janie is doing not what Nanny wants, not what the townsfolk want, but what she wants. This control over her own life is a new feeling for Janie.

(Chapter 13) The two get married, and Tea Cake leaves Janie in the boarding house in Jacksonville alone while he parties with her two hundred dollars she had concealed in her clothing. When he returns, they vow to each other a new level of commitment and trust. He will return the money he spent—earning it through gambling—and she can return it to the bank. The two will live on Tea Cake's earnings. He proposes life and work down in the Everglades. Together, they head for the muck.

(Chapter 14) Once they have set up housekeeping, Janie joins Tea Cake in harvesting the beans in the field. She works beside him, not behind him, because they enjoy being together. He, in turn, helps with dinner upon their return home in the evening. He also teaches her to shoot a gun, and she becomes the better shot. The two of them become the center of life and laughter on the muck.

(Chapter 15) Janie becomes jealous when Nunkie diverts Tea Cake's attentions. When she discovers them alone in a field together, she goes home to think through the matter. Tea Cake follows shortly thereafter, and she physically lights into him. They fight, exhausting each other, but in the end, Janie knows that Tea Cake loves only her.

(Chapter 16) They decide to spend the off-season on the muck, where they learn to appreciate Bahaman music. Janie and Mrs. Turner, a woman that Tea Cake cannot stand, become friends. Mrs. Turner launches a diatribe against the ugliness of the Negro race, and Tea Cake tells Janie to keep her distance from this woman, who is color struck. Mrs. Turner boasts about her own features, which are more Caucasian, and favors Janie because of her light skin.

(Chapter 17) In the only chapter in the novel where she speaks no words of her own, Tea Cake slaps Janie around to show others, particularly Mrs. Turner, that he is the boss. Unbeknown to Mrs. Turner, Tea Cake, with the help of his friends, orchestrates a big brawl in her eating establishment. In appearing to help her, he causes more destruction. Because of the wreckage and the uncivilized behavior, Mrs. Turner decides to return to Miami. Never wise to what is happening, Mrs. Turner unwittingly helps Tea Cake accomplish his goal of running her out of town.

(Chapter 18) Indians and animals leave the muck, a sure sign that a hurricane is on the way. Tea Cake refuses chances to leave. The wind and the rain prove too powerful for Janie and Tea Cake, so, in the midst of the storm, they decide to walk and swim out of the muck. Tea Cake has to abandon his beloved guitar, as he and Janie are taxed to their physical limits in trying to reach safety. When Janie finds momentary rescue on the back of a cow, she is surprised by a rabid dog. As the dog leaps to attack her, Tea Cake plunges his knife into the dog. Before Tea Cake can successfully kill the dog, he is bitten on the face.

(Chapter 19) In the aftermath of the storm, the turmoil of burying the dead pushes aside Janie's plan for Tea Cake to see a doctor about that dog bite. Within weeks the poison has gone to Tea Cake's brain, and now, too late for the life-saving serum to work, the doctor lets Janie know the end is near for Tea Cake. In a sudden turn of events, Tea Cake aims a gun on Janie, who has to kill him in order to save her own life. On the day of Tea Cake's death she is jailed, but with amazing speed she goes to trial, and a jury comprised of white men declare her innocent after a five-minute deliberation. The funeral she organizes for Tea Cake is huge, expensive, and lavish, and her reasons are twofold: for his friends, from whom she must curry good will, for above all she does not want any misunderstanding about Tea Cake's death; and for herself, for Tea Cake was indeed the bee to her blossom. She loved him, and she loves him still.

(Chapter 20) Life on the muck without Tea Cake is too painful, so after a time of nurturing good will with their friends, Janie leaves. Her return to Eatonville, where the novel begins, marks the end of her story to Pheoby. She has discovered that love is like the sea, which takes its shape from every “shore it meets.” It is now Pheoby's responsibility to tell Janie's story to those who wait on the porch; Janie is tired and goes up to bed with thoughts of Tea Cake, who would be with her as long as she herself was not finished thinking of him. She has been to the horizon; finally, she knows life and love.


In Hurston's handwriting, on some of her papers housed at Yale University, is the inscription “For the James Weldon Johnson Collection of Negro Arts and Letters at Yale University through the efforts of Carl Van Vechten to enrich it.” Besides a limited number of miscellaneous letters, Yale is also the repository for four of her more lengthy works: Dust Tracks on a Road; Tell My Horse; Moses, Man of the Mountain; and Their Eyes Were Watching God. This latter work is contained in three folders (Zora Neale Hurston Collection, JWJ MSS 9, Box 2, folders 27–29). On the last page of the original draft, Hurston dated the manuscript 19 December 1936 and indicated the place of composition: Port-Au-Prince, Haiti.

The original manuscript is handwritten in pencil on unlined paper. Hurston's penmanship is easily legible, as though she knew another would do the typing for her. She averaged from thirty-five to forty-four lines on a single page, writing mainly on one side of the paper. The back side is used only for an addition or new start, which is rare. The first six chapters of this handwritten draft are remarkably close to the published version available today. Differences of more than a paragraph begin in chapter 6, which Hurston begins with a false start, the only such instance in the manuscript and the longest material crossed out. The stumbling here concerns Joe Starks; once she arrived at the character of Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods at the start of chapter 10 she was back on track again—as though Hurston saw the full range of possibilities in the relationship or was infusing the qualities of a real, similar relationship into her fictional prose. The remainder of the original draft is remarkably free of erasures; the prose is tightly compact, as though she were either running short of paper or knew so well where and how she would develop the dialogue, the action, and the direction.

Hurston introduces Tea Cake to the reader before she names him. Along with Janie, the reader is kindly disposed toward this man. This character teaches Janie the rules of checkers, crowns her king, and declares his willingness to walk home seven miles if need be. Then, finally, Hurston names him. When she wrote his name for the first time in the manuscript, “Vergible,” written over something she erased, his name is the largest word on the page. The name calls attention to itself—though she never wrote it again, except once more in the courtroom scene, when some unidentified white male, either juror or judge, finds the “death of Vergible Woods to be entirely accidental” (188). When Hurston places the name in Tea Cake's mouth, its presence on the page is commanding, much like John Hancock's signature on the Declaration of Independence.

Hurston's style flourishes in strong images, analogies, and imposing adjectives. The adjectives are often so exactly right, so memorable, that the reader might reasonably expect Hurston to have struggled to achieve such seeming perfection and that the text would indicate this struggle by crossed-out phrases, words squeezed above or below the lines, or other attempts. This is not the case. Hurston's lyrical flow strikes the manuscript viewer as just that, a lyrical flow straight from its source—the heart? the head?—directly to the hand that holds that pencil.

In the handwritten version, Hurston began Their Eyes Were Watching God with a brief, false start, which she crossed out, then flipped the page over and began again: “Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some people they come in with the tide. For others, they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing, till the watcher forgets and turns his eyes away.” In the published version she altered the third sentence and added a final, fourth sentence: “For others they sail forever on the 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” (1). In the published version Hurston makes clear that men are the subject of the first paragraph; whereas the original draft is more inclusive, less concerned with men and more concerned with people.

In the handwritten version Hurston says, “Women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. Then they act and do things according.” In the published version she inserts a sentence after the first: “The dream is the truth” (1).

When women can be included as part of the “watchers” in the original draft, those lines open up Janie's vigilance for the reader. She chooses the side of the road to watch the horizon shift, when Johnny Taylor saunters up the road. She chooses to sit out by the road, instead of staying in the barn, peeling potatoes as Logan asked her, and thus she first encounters Joe Starks' presence in her horizon. As the years wear on with Joe, it is simply the “thought of a country road at sun-up” that helps her to consider flight (76).

Immediately, however, the sitters on Joe Starks' porch are also the watchers, and Janie becomes the ship as she sails back into their horizon after being adrift from them for almost two years. Her timing is perfect; earlier in the day, there would have been no watchers on the porch, and later in the dark of night, a woman alone would not have been good common sense. These watchers are identified as being without gender, for all day long they have been “tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences,” merely “skins” occupied by “mules and other brutes” (1). Once the sun goes down, though, those skins fill out again, becoming the men and women that they are. The two opening paragraphs prepare the reader for the different ways that men and women will respond to Janie's return. It will be Pheoby, a woman, who will remember everything she does not want to forget, who will accept that “the dream is the truth.”

In the original manuscript Hurston, upon occasion, would sum up an emotion with a telling statement, but she knew when a detail began to tell, not show, and so erased it. For example, after the image of the manure pile—meant to suggest the instant power of Nanny's response to Janie's suddenly altered view of her innocent first kiss, Hurston wrote: “She drooped in silent shame.” Hurston crossed the statement out. Whether the deletion came later in a rereading or at once, we cannot know. Another such alteration appears in Hurston's delicate description of Nanny: “Put me down easy, Janie. Ah'm a cracked plate” (20). Hurston added, “Ah love you so,” but erased it. Later on, when Janie remembers Nanny, after Joe Starks has died, Hurston has her hating her grandmother and having hid it from herself “all these years under a cloak of pity” (89). If Nanny had said the words, “Ah love you so,” then it would have been callous for Janie to declare her hatred.

Small details are altered in the printed version, and whether these are editorial mistakes or Hurston's choosing is difficult to know. For example, from the handwritten draft to the published version, Mrs. Lumpkin becomes Mrs. Sumpkins (40); Steve Nixon becomes Steve Mixon (78); Live Oak tree becomes a “fine oak tree” (27). One month and two weeks stretches to two months and two weeks (22). If Lippincott worked from Hurston's handwritten manuscript, it is easy to understand how a northern typesetter could be unfamiliar with one of the most common trees in the South, the live oak (Quercus virginiana), an evergreen species widely planted as an ornamental tree in the southern part of the United States. Her first biographer, Robert Hemenway, reports that after Hurston had completed the novel, she indeed mailed it to Lippincott's; the implication is that she did so directly. After all, the novel was written on a folklore-collecting trip in 1936 to Haiti, where typewriters and typists were mostly unavailable or inaccessible. According to the 1936 World Almanac and Book of Facts, Haiti's illiteracy rate was about 85 percent; education was only “nominally” compulsory. Hurston's budget, as well, would never have included money to pay for the typing of a novel. She was on her own with the project. Her work was collecting, and that work was rarely a prescribed number of set hours each day. In the time that she defined as her own, she chose to write this novel. Because the novel was written in seven weeks, there must have been many a day when she was exhausted, yet driven in ways unrecorded and unknown to contemporary readers of her book.

A general familiarity with Hurston's oeuvre makes reading any piece more illuminating. Joe Starks is described as a “seal-brown” color (27), which suggests for the uninitiated reader a visual picture; simply having seen a seal at a local zoo or perhaps on the Pacific Northwest coast might enable the reader to draw a clearer picture of Joe. However, to the initiated reader, Hurston's choice of “seal-brown” slots Joe into a pecking order, which she describes elsewhere in her work: 1) high yaller, 2) yaller, 3) high brown, 4) Vaseline brown, 5) seal brown, 6) low brown, 7) dark black. Joe's color places him only two rungs up from the bottom of some recognized power structure. Joe's color then, for one who reads “seal-brown” in all the possible inside-the-community ways, suggests how it might be easily possible for others to laugh at Joe behind his back.2 Images from short stories repeat themselves in her works. For example, a “gut reaching over and grabbing that little one” (30) is also used in “Now You Cookin' with Gas.” More helpful, however, is to realize that when Hurston pairs Logan Killicks with the image of the bear (31), she is suggesting the idea of the confession of poverty.

In other places small re-writes may have been better left alone. Since they are not part of the original manuscript, they could be the work of a well-meaning but obviously less-talented editor. In the original the colorful “dat man talks wid books in his jaws” becomes “dat man talks like a section foreman” (35). When Janie wants Tea Cake out of the rather sophisticated “maw of storms” in the original, that “maw” disintegrates into a generalized “way of storms” (188). In a reference to soft drinks that Janie asks Hezekiah to bring from their holding place, in the original she writes, “'Kiah bring us two bottles uh dope from de bottom uh de box,” which stays the same in the published version with the omission of the word “dope.” Bottles on the bottom would be the coldest because they would have been placed in the box first and would have had the longest time to chill in the ice placed on top of all the bottles. Many soft drinks, especially colas, were developed in the late 1800s in the southern United States; in part because of the region's weather, the South became the marketing target for these drinks. In the early days, they were sold in drugstore soda fountains as tonics, and individual druggists mixed their own special tonics as syrups. It was not uncommon for some form of dope to be an ingredient. When Hurston uses the expression “bottle uh dope,” her words would have been commonplace to the southern ear and quite possibly a mystery to the northern typesetter.

In the original manuscript, Nanny's story of the mule of the world, which becomes an important extended metaphor as the novel develops, is added on the back side of the page. It is also with Nanny that Hurston places her first pairing of singing-sobbing: “Nanny half sung, half sobbed a running chantprayer over the head of the weeping girl” (14)—Janie weeping because she has been told that Logan Killicks is to be her husband, and her vision of him “was desecrating the pear tree” (14). Hurston concludes the book with a return to a similar match; only this time Janie is the active one who embraces the paradoxical activity: “Commenced to sing, commenced to sob and sigh, singing and sobbing” (192-193).

Nanny's sermon, along with the story of Leafy's birth and their running away before the promised lashing, is launched in the original draft and remains the same in the published version. Word choices that deliver a perfect, clear image, such as Nanny's peering out the window and noticing Johnny Taylor “lacerating” Janie with a kiss, are present from the beginning—no erasure, no cross-out. From the onset, in Hurston's mind, Nanny's perception of the kiss as “lacerating” (12) was perfect.

By the time Janie has reluctantly married Logan Killicks, Hurston writes in the original draft, “And Janie commenced to wait impatiently for love to begin.” She followed that line with a movement into the future: “Days and days went by on rusty ankles, but no voice …” and then appears to have had second thoughts and crossed it out. Hurston is more likely in the original draft to erase only a word, at most two, and simply cross out groups of words. Obviously, the erased word is lost forever, but longer groupings crossed out could be remembered later, either recast or relocated. In the published version, the line above becomes “Janie went on inside to wait for love to begin” (22).

Near the conclusion of chapter 6 in the published version, Joe Starks baits Mrs. Tony Robbins, and he does so to be “friendly with [Janie] again. His big, big laugh was as much for [Janie] as for the baiting” (72). Joe continues to bait Mrs. Robbins in front of all of Eatonville for the next three pages (72–75); her purpose as a character is to be useful to Joe, so that he can score some positive points with Janie. But his plan does not work, and Janie does what “she had never done before, that is, thrust herself into the conversation” (75). She lets Joe know that he does not know as much as he thinks he does about women. However, when Mrs. Robbins is first introduced in the original draft, Hurston creates the character whole—uninterrupted by what will eventually be the sparring dialogue with Joe:

She was rather a good looking woman in her early thirties who had a devoted husband and fine tawny-colored children. She had the habit of beggin for things she already had. Her voice could be heard all over the village every morning as soon as her husband was off tuh work. It was “Miz Pearson, gimme uh lil handful uh collard greens fuh me and mah pooh lil chillen! Lawd knows we'se so hungry. Tony don't fee-eed me!” Then it was heard at the Mosley's gate, crying for perhaps peas and okra. Then at the Roberts for a handful of meal. Then at Lester's for a gallon or so of milk. Crying, begging, bull-dozing, making the same rounds two or three times a week. Somehow she had felt like telling Janie about her half-starved childhood. And her fear that it might happen to her own children. A little “off” on the subject of food. So now and then, she thought back over things to try and see how they came to be as they were.

The original draft at this point lacks transition from the paragraph about Mrs. Robbins, which is of a whole and to itself, to the concluding sentence in the next paragraph, which turns the focus back on Janie, who appears lost in her own life story.

In the original manuscript Hurston borrows from her earlier published “The Eatonville Anthology.” This collection of brief character sketches based on the personalities of people around whom she grew up begins with “The Pleading Woman,” a Mrs. Tony Roberts in this version who “just loves to ask for things.”3 As “the pleading woman” makes her way in this account, she begins in the Eatonville store, begging Mr. Joe Clarke for a bit of meat, then moves on to Sister Pierson's house for a “bunch of greens” to accompany the salt pork. With slight variations in name spellings, what Hurston writes in the draft above and what she wrote a few years earlier in her “Eatonville Anthology” is a near duplication. Hurston would often draw on the real names of Eatonville residents for her minor characters.

During the anxious departure of the characters from the muck in the hours before the hurricane unleashes its fury, Hurston uses the popular farewell line, “If Ah never see you no mo' on earth, Ah'll meet you in Africa” (156). She had written a variation of this line earlier in “Now You Cookin' with Gas,” an unpublished story during her lifetime, now available in her The Complete Stories: “If I dont see you no more in this world, I'll meet you in Africa.”4 The expression, however, is not Hurston's creation, but a borrowed line she often heard in her folklore collecting days. There is an African spiritual belief that the soul will return home to Africa after it “dies” in America.

Hurston prepared for Their Eyes Were Watching God, in part, by honing her writing skills through all her previous work, before putting pen to paper to write this second novel in Haiti. Because she borrowed from her earlier stories, the resulting novel's first draft—in places and pieces—had been worked out in previously published material. The published version of this novel is more a product of prewriting than of excessive revising.


The characters in Their Eyes Were Watching God who change over time are Janie and her three husbands: Logan Killicks, Joe Starks, and Tea Cake Woods. It is useful to look at the husbands' changes first because they also serve to reflect and measure the degree of change in Janie. It is in relation to each of these three men that Janie develops into the woman she becomes by the end of the book.

Logan Killicks: This first husband occupies the least amount of space in the book—chapters 2 through 4. The reader has limited background information on Logan; he conveniently appears in the text when Nanny needs a husband who will be protection for Janie. The first references to Logan establish him paradoxically. To Nanny he is “Brother Logan,” a “good man” (13). To Janie he is “some ole skullhead in de grave yard,” who has been “hangin' round” (13); he is “Mr. Killicks” (15), not Logan. The reader is left to wonder why a “good man” would be interested in someone obviously young enough to be his daughter, someone so young, in fact, that she has only experienced an isolated and random first kiss, not even a first boyfriend, let alone an actual relationship.

Logan himself is given no language until after he is married to Janie. Apparently, he speaks with Janie, but the reader hears his words indirectly; Janie reports them to Nanny: “He says he never mean to lay de weight uh his hand on me in malice” (22). Janie is responding to Nanny's query about the possibility of a beating. The “good man” that Nanny had proclaimed Logan to be, in her mind, was also a man she fully expected to beat her granddaughter, just not so soon. The “good man” and “Brother” suddenly becomes a “grassgut, liver-lipted nigger,” to whom Nanny would gladly “take a stick and salivate 'im” for beating her baby “already” (22). The “ole skullhead” Janie had tagged him is actually a man who chops wood, totes it inside the kitchen for her, and keeps her water buckets full. Logan does all these chores apparently without asking Janie what she wants or needs, for he gives to her according to what “he think [she] wants” (23). The reader is told that Logan “wants” Janie, and she is despondent because she wants to want him, too, but she simply cannot. His head is all wrong; his belly, too big; and his feet, too dirty. For the first year of their marriage, Logan appears to speak no words in the text. He is simply reported on and about in chapter 3.

However, chapter 4 backs up time. Logan, “long before the year was up, … had stopped talking in rhymes to her” (26), had stopped playing with her long black hair. The narrator here casts Logan as an erstwhile romantic poet, one who spoke in rhymes, clearly a positive endeavor. Logan, in his own words, threatens to stop chopping wood and for the first time mentions his first wife, who gladly would have chopped wood “lak uh man” (26). Janie stands her ground, and he immediately backs down, but he does so because he believes her grandmother and he have spoiled Janie so that she is used to such treatment and cannot be changed. He does not really hear Janie's argument, which is her first effort at speaking of and for equality around the house. Logan dismisses her point—that if he does his share (bring in the wood) she will do her share (cook the meal). His first wife's strength, or what brings her into the conversation, was her willingness to work like a man. Janie does not want to be manlike or his partner as a man would be, but Logan cannot grasp her position as she states it. Logan only acknowledges that work being done is his doing; he cannot see her contributions.

In the only use of an affectionate nickname for her, “LilBit,” he calls on Janie to help him out by cutting up the seed taters, while he goes off to buy a mule for her. Logan's talk, when directly delivered by him, is never solicitous. Every word the reader hears him speak borders on nagging, goading Janie in some way about household responsibilities and chores. When she tries to have a talk with him in bed in the middle of the night about their relationship, he shuts her down, puts her in her place, reminds her of her family background. Logan does want some kind of affection from Janie, some kind of appreciation for what he has provided her; he just does not have the courage to express his emotional need. Nanny had wanted protection for Janie, and Logan is convinced he has provided that. His is from a different generation than Janie; she wants something more.

When Janie threatens to leave him, she speaks the words he most fears. He evades the topic she most wants to discuss with him. His silence and refusal to enter into a discussion about their relationship is his way of hurting her “as she had hurt him” (31). He keeps pointing the finger at her—every problem she has comes from her pitiful background. Every way in which she may be miserable has nothing to do with him. When morning breaks, Logan needs help with moving the manure pile, but it is his telling her she has “no particular place. It's wherever Ah need yuh” (31) that causes the final snap in her. Janie's retort only causes him further agony. This time his language is as bad as Hurston could have written—Logan threatens to kill her: “Ah'll take holt uh dat ax and come in dere and kill yuh!” (31). The last words he ever speaks to her are blasphemous: “God damn yo' hide!” (32). Logan Killicks, the once “good man,” who spoke in rhymes and offered kindness by toting wood, becomes a raging and demanding monster, too proud and stubborn to listen, really listen, to Janie's words and to her heart.

Joe Starks: Joe Starks enters the novel by way of a whistle “coming down the road” (27) in chapter 4; he dies at the close of chapter 8 (87), but talk of his funeral and references to Janie as “Mrs. Mayor Starks” continue through chapter 12 (110). For sixty pages (27–87), Joe is front and center. His first appeal is that he is not Logan Killicks, but rather a man with “cityfied” (27) manners and dress, a man who knows where he is going. Joe sees Janie as a child; he refers to her as “a lil girl-chile,” who is “hardly old enough to be weaned,” who still “craves sugar-tits” (28), and is “a pretty doll-baby,” who should not be doing anything but sitting pretty on a front porch, rocking and fanning herself while others take care of her. Janie has only to contrast this image of ease with that of the soon-to-return Logan with a second mule for her to plow the fields. Joe is not physically unattractive, yet he does not “represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees”; his lure for Janie is that of the “far horizon” (29). At their meeting, Joe, at almost thirty to her seventeen, is still a much older man. For him, Janie is not a partner, but a prize; he is aware that her charm elevate him in the brand-new, all-colored town to which they are heading.

Unlike Logan, even in the early stages of their relationship, Joe does not deliver speeches with rhymes. His view of life is not romantic; he is the consummate businessman. Hurston overtly states, through Janie's gaze, that Joe is “kind of portly, like rich white folks” (34). In the settling-in period at Eatonville, Joe assumes the black community's stereotypical characteristics of the white bossman. He has no fear of strange people, places, or trains. In part, his confidence, which is perceived by some more jealous members of Eatonville as arrogance, comes from the fact that he has money in his pocket—almost $300—with which he plans to buy more land, space for the town to grow. He is not waiting for a hand out; he does not expect something for nothing. Once Joe has negotiated with unseen, unspecified, white men and paid cash for the land, he knows that a town needs a store, which can serve as its center and heart.

It is Joe alone who decides and designates the order of developing this community out of its dormant baby days through its bustling toddler period. Alone, with his cigar between his teeth, Joe parents the town. He declares himself, through his repeated expletive and common sentence-starter, “I god,” and he makes himself, his wife, and others who wish to join them, a world. First, he must have the store, then a post office, next a committee to cut out a road coming in and going out of the town. After he incorporates the town and is elected its mayor, he brings light into darkness through the first street lamp and then orders a town ditch to drain the street in front of the store. Finally, he constructs his home, huge and “gloaty, sparkly white” (47). It is the town's big house, deliberately so, and by which all the other houses appear as mere “servants' quarters” (47).

Joe also understands that along the way, it is appropriate to humor the workers, to celebrate with them now that he has created a place for them. In the grand opening of the store, he breaks out the soda crackers and cheese while Janie serves lemonade. No one pays this evening—it is a social gathering, a time for feeling good. He initiates a barbecue around the lamp-lighting ceremony, on the grounds that “'tain't nothin' people laks better'n barbecue” (44). He also spends a great deal of time traveling around encouraging others to join their community, then selling them land at his profit. He talks and fixes things—too much for Janie's satisfaction. Not only is he the mayor, he is the postmaster, the landlord, the storekeeper—in short, the quintessential marketer and master force behind the town's drive toward adolescence.

As could be expected, the townspeople either admire or envy him. Behind his back, people talk back, expressing their disgruntlement. Apparently, Joe chooses not to notice, for he is too busy with his projects. He follows the only model he has ever seen in a position of authority—the white men for whom he once worked and with whom he does business in Maitland. His home has two stories, with porches outside and banisters inside, but it appears to be the small touches that so irk the other residents. The swivel chair in which he sits and does business at his store; the gold-painted spittoon that eliminates the necessity of walking to the door to spit; and the smaller, lady-sized, flower-bedecked spitting pot for Janie—these appear to be the acquisitions that inflame the townspeople's resentment. Joe is a show-off, a “whirlwind among breezes”; he makes the others feel like fools. They see that he is a “man dat changes everything, but nothin' don't change him” (49). In chapter 4 Joe had expressed his plan to be a “big voice” (28); in chapter 5 he is successful, but the voice has become so loud that it impairs his hearing and his seeing.

Matt Bonner's mule upstages Joe in chapter 6, but Joe wins back the spotlight and what will be the last praise from his wife when he buys the mule to give him a rest. The townspeople see Joe's act as noble; Janie, in her one uninterrupted speech, declares Joe, with his power to free things, “lak uh king uh something” (58). At the dragging-out, Joe's eulogy at the ceremony “made him more solid than building the schoolhouse” (60). Through saving and extending the mule's life and his speech at the mule's death, Joe reenergizes the townspeople's feelings about him; he garners a new wave of respect. Joe now can give his “heh-heh laugh” on the porch, and the only person it appears to irritate is Janie, and this is because he sends her into the store to take care of customers while he stays outside to enjoy the big talk—such moments as the debate on caution vs. nature (64–65) and the acting-out courtship drama (67–68).

Joe is not one of the big talkers, but he appears after the mule episode to be part of the crowd, one among equals in the story-sharing that fills his porch. Ironically, as Joe grows closer to the people of the community, he becomes increasingly estranged from his wife. When Janie continues to assert herself, Joe becomes more despotic. To him she is no longer the beautiful girl he wants to show off, but a brainless moron, incapable of the simplest acts of commerce. When one of her meals turns out a disaster, Joe slaps Janie “until she had a ringing sound in her ears,” insults her brain, and stalks away (72). This is a different Joe Starks, one who, though successful and respected in the community, has somehow bought into the insulting, sometimes-violent, negative woman-talk of his own porch; he has become a stranger to his wife.

As the years pass, Eatonville appears to have weathered its adolescence and is now stagnant in its middle age. Joe's life, as well, has settled into routine. The town, no longer young and struggling, offers Joe no challenge; he maintains the store. Janie wonders silently if he is fully aware of how his own body is betraying him—squatting over his ankles when he walks, a belly that sags “like a load suspended from his loins” (77). Silence between Joe and Janie is interrupted by his bursts of insult, his frustrations with what she still does not do well in the store. When he insults her for cutting a plug of tobacco incorrectly, he also chooses to insult her body: “Don't stand dere rollin' yo' pop eyes at me wid yo' rump hangin' nearly to yo' knees!” (78). But Janie can't be quiet this round; she takes the middle of the floor and retaliates: “Talkin' 'bout me lookin' old! When you pull down yo' britches, you look lak de change uh life” (79). The exchange, of course, is a public one. Joe has received the worst possible humiliation in front of other men. Janie has won at playing the dozens, but this is the worst kind of Pyrrhic victory. Joe's helpless, wordless moment erupts into a physical blow: “So he struck Janie with all his might and drove her from the store” (80).

Joe immediately moves out of the bedroom to a room downstairs. In time the townspeople assume that all is patched up between them, but such is not the case and will never be. Joe distances himself from Janie and invites into his inner circle those who earlier would not have been permitted on his porch. Joe demonstrates a trust in root doctors, abandoning in his final days any semblance of emulating the white man's ways. He closes off Janie permanently, ignoring her last words. From the first to the last depiction of Joe Starks, he moves ever forward, yet ever downward. A sympathetic, positive man loses his humanity in his dream—the “big voice” swallows up the hopeful groom of Janie. He moves from “I god” to the devil incarnate. His last words to Janie are not that much different from Logan's—both threaten to kill her: “Shut up! Ah wish thunder and lightnin' would kill yuh!” (86). As death, “the square-toed one,” cuts off his breath, his hands are left “in a pose of agonizing protest” (87) at Janie's ongoing words of disappointment about their relationship. Joe, who could not be a white man and forsook his wife for fuller acceptance within the black male community, shows a larger frustration about how his life and his dream disappointed him.

Vergible (Tea Cake) Woods: Sauntering into the store, Janie's life, and the novel in chapter 10, Tea Cake banters with Janie about his foolish mistake of the baseball game location as though they have always known each other. They make small talk before they do business—his purchase of a pack of Camels; they compete in a game—once he teaches her to play checkers—before she learns his name. Perhaps most importantly, before he compliments her looks, he compliments her brain: “Folks is playin' [checkers] wid sense and folks is playin' it without. But you got good meat on yo' head. You'll learn” (96). Tea Cake reverses the flow of normal order; he backs into the relationship with Janie, assuming a depth of connection that Janie surprisingly discovers she shares: “Tea Cake wasn't strange. Seemed as if she had known him all her life” (99). Tea Cake's presence in the novel quickly develops into his being the antithesis of both Logan and Joe. They were older than Janie; he is younger. They thought for Janie; he encourages Janie to think for herself. They praised her youth and beauty; he adores her brains and companionship. They thought of how Janie could work for them; he thinks of how Janie can play with him. They liked how she enhanced their lives; he seeks to enhance hers. However, Tea Cake as antithesis alone does not make for a complicated, developing character. So Tea Cake as simply not Logan and Joe is quickly diminished for the more intriguing depiction of a man maturing, a man of surprises. Until his death in chapter 19 (184), Tea Cake constantly evolves, emerging and transforming so that his presence after death appears to be as powerful as during his life.

Before Tea Cake becomes Janie's husband, Hurston gives him two chapters in which to court Janie. Presumably putting his best foot forward, Tea Cake shows that he has learned to share, to expect a partnership with his woman. Instead of telling Janie his dream, he offers the dream to her—does she want a passenger train or a battleship? In reality, he establishes a team approach. He picks and squeezes the lemons; she makes the lemonade. He cleans the fish; she fries them. He plays the piano and sings; she listens and falls asleep. He combs her hair; she relaxes and feels comfortable. Chores are divided equally, and both profit from the results; gestures of kindness from him to her become mutually satisfying to him. In short, her happiness is his happiness. Tea Cake is a man perceived by the community not to have “doodly squat” (103). In a good week, he may make four days with pay, which suggests he is a day laborer when he can get the work. During the courting days, every hand that he turns appears to be for her—money earned is money spent on her: for a car to get to her home, for groceries she will pick out for the Sunday School picnic. Tea Cake is twelve years younger than Janie, and he falls in love with her. What the community will say about the difference in their ages concerns Janie; Tea Cake is indifferent. During their courting, Tea Cake lives and loves in the present. He has no savings, no life plan, no dream to pursue. When Janie comes into his life, though, he knows without question that for him she “got de keys to de kingdom” (109), and God himself can kill Tea Cake if he is lying.

Tea Cake has declared his preferences for Janie in blue, and she wears blue at their wedding because it pleases him. He wants no comparisons with Joe Starks from the townspeople, so he has the idea to go elsewhere, and Janie agrees. Tea Cake's assertiveness, once he knows Janie is committed to him, emerges. Earlier he placed her welfare above his own, attaching his desires to hers. By chapter 13 the tables are turned; his happiness has become her own.

The second day of their marriage, Tea Cake, just before going out to find some fish for their breakfast, inadvertently stumbles upon Janie's hidden $200. Tea Cake spends all that day and night having a good time at his macaroni and chicken dinner out in Callahan, a small, country town north of Jacksonville, while he lets Janie worry about his whereabouts. When he returns to Janie the following morning, with guitar in hand, he wants to tell her about his party. Tea Cake's focus is first on himself—what he did, who he was with, where he went. He then responds to Janie's insecurities about her position in his life, about her fear that she will be replaced for another, a younger woman. Tea Cake assures her, but his maturity and willingness to accept the responsibilities of a married man lag behind Janie's assumptions. He could have brought her to the party, but he chose to stay—to fight, to insult ugly women at the door, to play music, to laugh with old friends. In order to get back Janie's money, he plans to gamble with her remaining $12, so he prepares with his dice and new deck of playing cards and purchases a new switchblade. For the second time within the week, he sets out again, leaving Janie alone to worry. Tea Cake's winnings that night are at a cost to him; he returns with deep razor wounds. However, he makes a declaration to Janie: whatever he eats, she will eat. The money they live on will be from his earnings, and where they can best do this will be on the muck of the Everglades. When Tea Cake returns this evening, Janie calls him “chile” (126), and when Tea Cake declares their move to the muck, he calls her “mama” (128). Indeed, Tea Cake places himself in the care of the older woman who will nurse his wounds, incurred in the risky, adult game of chance.

Down on the muck, Tea Cake is the leader. He has been here before, and he knows the ropes: arrive early, get hired by the best boss, secure convenient housing, and prepare to laugh, play, and work hard. During the waiting days, however, Tea Cake teaches Janie to shoot a gun. Not only does this provide entertainment for the two of them, but it also is a means to put food on the table. Tea Cake does not mind working hard because he is able to balance that with playing equally as hard. He accepts Janie as his full partner. He wants her by his side during the day in the fields and at night in their home.

Tea Cake is still a boy at heart, however; he loves Janie but is tempted by Nunkie. When Janie catches them wrestling on the ground in the cane fields, Tea Cake is quick to defend himself. Later that day, when Tea Cake approaches Janie in their home, she hits him first: “She cut him short with a blow and they fought from one room to the other” (137). The story of Tea Cake on the muck is also a story of jealousy. Tea Cake worries about the ability of others to lead Janie astray, especially Mrs. Turner, the color-struck woman who owns one of the eating establishments. In order to defend his turf, Tea Cake hits Janie, showing their world he is boss. He also arranges a scene of chaos in Mrs. Turner's diner that serves multiple purposes. It scares Mrs. Turner right off the muck, and it is one more high-level prank wherein Tea Cake and his friends can release their pent-up energy and laugh about it later.

Not until the hurricane comes does Tea Cake show any change in maturity. His delay in departing from the muck is typical Tea Cake; he does not listen to any of the messages—those from the animals, the Indians, the direct invitations for a ride out from friends. When he does decide to leave, it is already too late, and only by blind fortune do he and Janie make the journey. However, the hurricane brings out the best in Tea Cake. When he sees that a rabid dog is about to attack Janie, “Tea Cake split the water like an otter, opening his knife as he dived” (166). When Janie is in a serious, life-threatening position, Tea Cake rises to meet the challenge. He will do anything for Janie, even if it means sacrificing his life for hers. He is bit by the rabid dog, and as a result of that bite Tea Cake loses his mind. Several weeks later, in a mad fit, he aims a pistol at Janie and starts shooting. In order to save her own life, she must use her rifle and kill Tea Cake.

Until the very end, Tea Cake manages to live his whole life in laughter. It takes a hurricane and unmitigated fear that Janie may be harmed to propel him forward—without thought, acting on pure adrenaline. Tea Cake does not live long enough to worry about the future. His whole life is lived in the present, but in that present he finds love, one great enough to die for.

Janie: While Janie's husbands appear in successive, not overlapping, order, one following the other in discrete fashion, Janie has a continual presence in the book. Her growth occurs inside the framing chapters that begin and end the novel. Through Pheoby the reader learns the story of Janie's life, which is a story of love—love for someone else and love for herself.

Janie Crawford: For Janie, the story of love begins with her awareness of the “dust-bearing bee sink[ing] into the sanctum of a bloom,” with the “thousand sister-calyxes arch[ing] to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight” (11). Janie calls this marriage, but she is, of course, describing a sexual union with a pulsating climax. The short thrill that comes over her when she kisses Johnny Taylor through “the golden dust of pollen” that “beglamored his rags and her eyes” (12) dies when Nanny's call sends the kiss to the “manure pile” (13). Nanny explains love to Janie through the idea of protection and security, but Janie knows this is not her idea of love.

Janie Killicks: She enters marriage blindly but assumes that when she goes inside the house, she can “wait for love to begin” (22). In a short while—a “bloom time, and a green time and an orange time” (25)—she learns that marriage does not make love. Janie's time with Logan makes her a woman. She comes to understand that she has the right to expect his help, his partnership in their marriage—that if he brings the wood, she will make the dinner. She is willing to do her share, but Logan discounts her share. She grows to resent his attitude. Life with Logan is contained within his sixty acres, and the work she must do does not afford her the opportunity to envision a world beyond these confines. When spring comes, and with it the association of the bees' return to their blooms, Janie moves to where she can see the road, acting upon an unstated hope that off in the horizon her idea of love might somehow appear.

The possibility for love does approach. Joe comes bearing a vision about a town made “all outa colored folks” (28), a town where he could be a major player; he has tired of being bossed around by the white man. Janie's hesitancy to leave with Joe Starks rests in the metaphor of the bees and their bloom: she “pulled back a long time because he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees” (29). However, in Joe she sees the “far horizon” and “change and chance” (29). Joe represents, as well, escape from the confinement and the endless dreariness she has with Logan. Joe offers her not only the chance to live elsewhere but also the opportunity to share in his dream. With Joe, she will follow behind no mule; rather, she will “leave de s'posin' and everything else” to Joe (29). Janie's departure from Logan is a chance at springtime—“a bee for her bloom”—sprinkled over everything for the rest of her life (32).

Janie Starks: Once Janie is alone with Joe, she is proud of what she sees. Even though he does not speak to her in rhymes, he immediately begins pampering Janie. Nanny would have approved of his spending on the best-available food items. To Janie there is something about Joe that reminds her of “rich white folks” (34). Reality sets in quickly when they arrive in Eatonville, however. Janie immediately is taken for Joe's daughter, not his wife, and several local men move promptly to make a pass at her. Janie speaks aloud of her disappointment at the size of the town, and Joe agrees with her; this moment—Joe and Janie on the same side of an issue—is worth remembering because it will not often be repeated.

Janie observes the quick profits from Joe's investment in the land purchase, but there is no talk between the two about his successes. Janie is never asked for her opinions; she is informed of and directed about what she is to do. Joe appears to have a plan for Janie just as he has a plan for the town. First on his list is for her always to look good—better than the other women in town. At the store opening, she wears silken ruffles to their percale and calico. She dips up the lemonade “like he told her” (41). In the opening speech of thanks, Tony, trying to speak gratitude for all of the townspeople, lavishes praise on Janie, comparing her to the Queen of England before the others hush him. In Joe's speech Janie becomes his appendage as he welcomes “on behalf uh me and mah wife” (43) those gathered. When Joe is elected mayor, Janie loses her name as the people begin calling her Mrs. Mayor Starks. When she is invited to give her speech, she loses her voice as well; Joe speaks for her, claiming she does not know how to make a speech: “She's uh woman and her place is in de home” (43). Janie and Joe are still newlyweds, but her assumption that a life with Joe would mean springtime sprinkled over everything undergoes a seasonal change that very night. When Joe speaks words for her, he “took the bloom off of things,” and she follows him home “feeling cold” (43).

Joe sets Janie up to stay home, to have no thoughts of her own, but then he expects her to help in the store. While she counters by offering to help him only when things get busy in the store, she is suggesting some fear about this leadership role that Joe takes no time to explore. “I god,” she is supposed to do what he says, when he says it! Janie finds the store a pleasant place “if only she didn't have to sell things” (51). What she learns to love most about the store are the gatherings of the people who sit around and talk. Through their stories, they drew “crayon enlargements of life” (51), but every time Janie wants to talk, Joe sends her into the store to help someone. Finally, the first talk she does make is one that praises Joe for his generosity in buying Matt Bonner's mule. The speech attracts the attention of the people, and she receives the first compliment of her life about something other than her good looks. However, the compliment does not go straight to her; rather, Hambo compliments Joe, as though it were somehow his doing that she could speak so well: “Yo' wife is uh born orator, Starks. Us never knowed dat befo'. She put jus' de right words tuh our thoughts” (58).

Joe beams, as though to take the credit for himself. Janie is, after all, his wife. Janie, still trying hard to connect with Joe, to find common ground in this world of storytelling and colorful talk, is denied even a thank-you from her husband. When the mule dies, Janie is not permitted inclusion in the mule dragging-out celebration. According to Joe, the event would be full of “pushin' and shovin'” from a bunch of “no-manners selves,” and the mayor's wife is “somethin' different again” (60). By this time, Janie sees all too clearly Joe's definition of her role, but she does not give up hoping or trying to change his mind. Upon his return from the dragging-out, Janie speaks for the necessity of laughter and play among the people, but to Joe this is simply “foolishness” (62). Janie continues to enjoy, even “wallow” in the laughter of the porch (69), but the split in Janie's psyche, the separation of her inside from her outside self, is close at hand.

Near the close of chapter 6, Janie speaks back when Joe berates her in public. His harangue is directed at her but includes all women—on the same level as children, chicken, and cows. They just do not know how to think for themselves. When Janie defends herself specifically and “womenfolks” generally, Joe is determined to have the last word: women only think they are thinking. The scene is Janie's epiphany; she sees, finally, that Joe wants submission. No words in the world will affect or alter his view of women, Janie in particular. So, Janie does with Joe much the same thing on a figurative level that she did on the literal level with Logan. With the first husband, she went inside the house and waited for love to begin (22). With this second husband, she learns how to go inside herself—figuratively, to leave the bedroom and start living in the parlor: “The bed was no longer a daisy-field for her and Joe to play in. It was a place where she went and laid down when she was sleepy and tired” (71). Seven years earlier she had not really expected Joe to be the “bee for her bloom,” but she chose to go with him because of the promise of “far horizons.” Clearly, Janie held out hope that she could find her idea of love with Joe somewhere in those horizons. But the hope dies; Janie closes shop: “She wasn't petal-open anymore with him” (71).

Shortly after, when she is slapped for cooking a disastrous meal, her response is studied. Joe has offered an affront to her outside self. Inside herself, all that Joe was to her—the “something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over” (72)—she turned her back on. When Joe slaps her, she knows for certain that she has “packed up and put away in parts of her heart” (72), things Joe can never hurt. When Joe slaps her this time, she knows as well that another man is to be in her future. She is saving up for him. It is the most profound slap Janie ever receives. It helps her see clearly her situation, her relationship, and a way to weather time until her inside heals, and she can merge once more with her outside self.

Once Janie has adjusted to her two separate selves, she begins to take steps to assert herself. After Joe mocks Mrs. Tony Roberts, Janie, for the first time, now that she has nothing to lose, “thrust[s] herself into the conversation” to speak again for women, but this time, she goes on the offensive, making charges about men (75). She speaks from good authority, too, claiming God tells her how surprised he is about men's behavior. Joe's admonishment is slight: she is only “too moufy” (75). Janie's comment here is significant because she has fully entered a new, higher level of dealing with Joe. She is beyond his hurting her physically or emotionally. The divided selves serve as her own idea of divorce. She enters her silent period and sees her outside self “prostrating” before Joe in the store, while her inside self enjoys the shade of a tree and makes “summertime out of lonesomeness” (77). Janie has learned to live backwards, in opposite fashion. She is literally inside the store but figuratively outside in nature. What is real is always the inside self, but she finds her greatest happiness when she takes that inside self and places it outside, ready to experience either horizons or bees at their blossoms.

As the years pass, Janie endures. The penultimate moment of growth for Janie while in her relationship with Joe is when they attack each other's bodies with words. Over a plug of ill-cut tobacco, Joe insults her “pop eyes” and hanging rump (78). She then responds with a second cut—this time with an oral emasculation that publicly slices his manhood: he “big-bellies” around, and when he drops his britches, he looks like “de change uh life” (79). Joe's response is to strike her. Though he uses “all his might and drove her from the store” (80), the physical force does not hurt as much as the first time, the bad-meal slap that illuminated for Janie so clearly the means through which she could continue to coexist in a relationship with this husband.

In the final verbal exchange with Joe, Janie demonstrates a maturity that these years have given her. She knows that her “own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for [his] in [her]” (86). Janie knows, at last, to watch out for herself alone, that alone, she is worthy of respect. When Joe dies, Janie has only to starch and iron her face to match what people in the town expect to see. Her outside self reflects nothing of the inside indifference she had developed toward Joe. She knows, as well, what kind of behavior to expose at the funeral. She sits inside the church, but her inside self relocates to the outside where she can go “rollicking with the springtime across the world” (88).

Janie Starks, Widow: Hurston gives Janie chapters 9 through 13 to be unmarried before her final husband comes along, but she is only alone for one chapter. As far as the local Eatonville dwellers are concerned, Janie's only change has to do with her hair: she burns her head rags and wears one thick braid that swings “well below her waist” (89). She continues to spend her days at the store and her nights “under the weight of lonesomeness” (89). However, the time by herself is well spent, for she learns to move through the lonesomeness to a feeling of freedom. She reflects on her life not only before Joe Starks and Logan Killicks, but she wonders about the home she shared with Nanny and briefly about the mother she never knew. Janie is not one to live backward, though, and she begins to enjoy the new attention that men pay her, without getting sucked into their fast sweet talk. She knows the game from years spent listening to courting dramas on her own front porch. Her two marriages have been a double disappointment for Janie. Lonesomeness soon became aloneness, which meant freedom. She learned to bask in it “without the need for thought” (93). She grew into herself, at least enough to demonstrate that mourning for Joe did not need to last longer than her grief, which dissipated the night he first slapped her, and her “image of Jody tumbled down and shattered” (72). What she thought could be love ended then, and she could not grieve now for what she did not love.

In chapter 10 Janie's life changes when Tea Cake walks into the store and into her world. At the end of their first meeting, Janie already feels as though she has known him forever. Unlike the quickness with which she was thrust upon Logan and then chose to thrust herself into Joe's waiting carriage, Tea Cake does not hurry her, nor she him. Everything she knows has been turned upside down: Logan and Joe were both older men; Tea Cake is younger. In Janie's head, she warily enters into a relationship with Tea Cake, but outwardly and in the reality of the day, she eagerly and easily spends time with him. Janie quickly comes to see that with Tea Cake, she has the one thing she never had with her previous husbands—laughter. Tea Cake provides Janie with the wonder of the gift of laughter, a companionship that from its genesis is balanced, competitive yet friendly. She falls in love for the first time in her life—moving from his being only ephemeral, looking like “the love thoughts of women” (106) to a corporeal reality, where she can finally embrace him as the “bee to her blossom,” for which she has spent a lifetime waiting.

Janie Woods: Janie's third and final marriage takes place in Jacksonville, about a four-hour train ride north of Eatonville. It only takes a day for Janie to discover that Tea Cake is capable of surprising her in ways not always positive. When he takes the money she has hidden and does not return for more than twenty-four hours, Janie, despite her worry, listens to his story and forgives him. She does not argue with him about his gambling to get her money back; she only worries. By the end of chapter 13, she accepts his plan to share with him whatever he earns, and when he has nothing that is what she will have. He delights that she accepts “things the way he wanted her to” (128). He offers the muck to her, a place where “folks don't do nothin' down dere but make money and fun and foolishness” (128). She agrees. At the start of this marriage, Janie appears to have reverted to her old ways, subordinating her own wishes and plans to the whims of her husband. Yet, Hurston would have the reader believe she does so with thought and with trust. Janie is so much in love that the healing process is fully underway; she has “a self-crushing love,” one consuming enough to let her soul crawl “out from its hiding place” (128).

Once on the muck, Janie experiences some unprecedented ways to approach life. She learns to shoot with a better eye than Tea Cake. She does not hesitate to enter into the telling of big stories; in fact, she and Tea Cake become the center of life and laughter on the muck. She leaves the house and works side-by-side with Tea Cake picking beans, and when she becomes jealous of young Nunkie, who flirts with her man, she does not waste time in letting both of them know her rage. In fact, Janie hits Tea Cake first: “She cut him short with a blow and they fought from one room to the other” (137). Janie learns to receive what she dishes out. If she is going to raise her hand against Tea Cake, then he will reciprocate in kind.

Janie willingly agrees to stay on the muck during the off-season, when life becomes quieter. She begins to spend time with Mrs. Turner, the woman who is attracted to Janie for her “Caucasian characteristics” (145). Janie realizes that Mrs. Turner is color-struck, a woman who despises the blackness of her people and wants to “class off” with Janie. It is now Tea Cake's turn to show his jealous rage. Just as Janie makes the first strike at Tea Cake over Nunkie, Tea Cake now raises his hand against Janie. Mrs. Turner's position on color is threatening to the darker-skinned Tea Cake; he worries that Janie will come to reject him, so he becomes physical—nothing “brutal,” just a slapping “her around a bit to show he was boss” (147). The next day, in front of the others in the field, his petting and pampering her and her hanging on him make the others envious. Tea Cake speaks honestly with them; he is not the big, bully bossman with Janie, but rather his slapping her is his way of indirectly attacking Mrs. Turner, whom he loathes. In chapter 17 Tea Cake evens the physical attacks with Janie, but he also speaks for her in her absence: “Janie is wherever Ah wants tuh be. Dat's de kind uh wife she is and Ah love her for it” (148). It is also the only chapter in the book where Janie has no say whatsoever. Here she is silent.

That silence continues in chapter 18 when the hurricane comes. Janie does not challenge Tea Cake's decision to stay when Indians and animals leave for higher ground. She does not encourage Tea Cake to accept the personal invitation for a ride off the muck. The gathering that night at their home is the same as always—laughter and stories with the additional “stuffing courage into each other's ears” (156). Janie does what she always does, bakes a pan of beans and some sweet biscuits. All too soon, however, Janie realizes that something more powerful is going on. It is she who requests the men to stop the crap-shooting; it is she who commands them to keep quiet. Janie yields first to the superior force—this is bigger than the white man; this is Old Massa. Through Janie's words, the others fall in line and all of them collectively question God (159).

Janie's love for Tea Cake during the hurricane is expressed in sacred terms. Earlier Tea Cake had been described as “a glance from God” (106), but now Janie knows he is the means by which she will learn the most about love, ever. To Janie he is the light at daybreak. While she “wuz fumblin' round …, God opened de door” (159). Tea Cake is a gift from God, but now both of them have to turn their attention to God's work in the power of the hurricane. Secure in their knowledge of love for each other, they face their greatest challenge. Simultaneously, the rabid dog leaps for Janie as Tea Cake leaps for the rabid dog. Janie is safe, but Tea Cake is bitten. Janie has to pull the trigger in “the meanest moment of eternity” (184), but she knows that the man she loves has already died. The funeral service for Tea Cake is the grandest parade she can provide. The grief she feels is unlike the display of mourning for Joe Clarke. Here is real grief; she is “too busy feeling grief to dress like grief” (189). The trial for her life takes not quite four pages in the novel (185-188), and the jury of twelve white, male strangers takes five minutes to arrive at a decision. Tea Cake's death was accidental; no blame is placed on Janie.

Janie Woods, Widow: Without Tea Cake, the muck is too painful. As a widow for the second time, Janie has to make the same decision as earlier—where will she go? After Joe's death she chose to stay in Eatonville, to move through the mourning, and arrive at freedom. She returns to Eatonville, for there is still her home. This time she will work through her grief and live in the freedom that she never lost when she found Tea Cake. When Janie returns to Eatonville and silences those on the porch, who spot her coming into their view, she walks with confidence, indifferent to what they may be thinking. She knows herself now; she has met herself on the muck. She is an integrated whole. As she climbs the steps to her bedroom for her first night back in her Eatonville home, she feels Tea Cake's presence with her, knows that as long as she has feeling and memory, he will be with her. The horizon upon which she had used so long ago to dream her dreams—to take off with Joe, to head out to the muck with Tea Cake—she now gathers around herself. The horizon is no longer out there, off in the distance; it is with her, she lives in it. She no longer has the inside or outside selves. Her soul, which she had let crawl out of its hiding place the night she agreed to trust Tea Cake completely and go to the muck with him (128), she now calls back (193). Her soul did not need to be separated from her, somewhere off in the horizon; she is home at last; everything she needs is here. She is at peace.


Above all, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel that explores thematically a journey into interiority. As Janie makes her way from an innocent young girl who is experiencing the first signs of her own sexual awakening to a mature woman who has moved through three husbands, she travels far. Literally, she moves deeper into Florida geography, and figuratively, she moves into her own self, understanding more completely who she is and how sex becomes a significant part of but not the whole of lasting and satisfying marital love. Along the way, Hurston takes the reader into the meaning of the book's enigmatic title Their Eyes Were Watching God as a way to demonstrate thematically the hierarchy of power. During the Okeechobee Hurricane, Hurston leaves no question that God is in charge, that God's power is so much greater than that of the white man. In so doing, Hurston challenges the prevailing contemporary notion that black writers should use their talents to portray the injustices done to blacks by white Americans. Hurston repeatedly commented on how pleased she was to be who she was, that she did not belong to that great school of sobbing Negrohood. Among her own people there was much to celebrate and to understand.

Hurston also uses Janie's story as the means through which she thematically explores the treatment and role of women in her day. Janie is married, married again, widowed, married yet again, and then widowed again. While most of the book covers Janie's life in a marital state, Hurston does make room in her plot for time for Janie to be alone, to come to understand freedom and to hang on to that freedom once she remarries. Images of trees—branches and leaves—and blossoms and bees in nature are all powerful, continuing metaphors that assist the reader in delving into Janie's development as a woman. Mules and husbands are used as well to indicate women's treatment. Literal mules appear with both Logan and Joe. For the first husband, she is to be assigned to work with the mule; with the second husband, Janie is excluded from the ceremonies surrounding the mule, which in turn excludes her from the community as well.

Finally, another important component of the novel is signifying, a form of oral wordplay used in the African American community to layer meaning in such a way as to deliver separate messages to different audiences. Janie wants to be a part of this oral tradition; she wants to be among those colorful porch talkers who pass their time telling big lies, acting out courtship, and extending the opportunities for laughter. Although Janie tries thrusting herself into conversations because she wants the luxury of wallowing in easy laughter, she does not find a way to do so until Tea Cake provides the space for, the encouragement of, and the insistence on Janie's participation. She eagerly enters this world long denied her.

Hurston grew up in an all-black town in the South and eventually moved north to Harlem during the peak of the flowering of black arts. She was educated in anthropology at Barnard and returned to her home state of Florida to collect folklore and then did the same in Louisiana, Haiti, and Jamaica. Several events and places are tied closely to thematic issues of the novel: the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane; the Harlem Renaissance; oral tradition; white patronage; segregation in the American South; Eatonville, Florida; horizons; and the Great Depression of the 1930s.


Perhaps the most important theme in Their Eyes Were Watching God is the journey into interiority. As Janie travels through time and place, she simultaneously travels deeper and deeper inside herself. This descending into the “inside self” corresponds with a similar geographic movement downward—a movement from north to south. The book opens somewhere in or around West Florida, within stepping-off distance to Lake City, where Logan Killicks goes to buy his second mule. Logan's land is probably located within one hundred miles of the approximate region where, since the Civil War, black homesteaders tended their forty acres granted by Sherman's Field Order, after his historic and horrific March to the Sea. When Janie meets Joe Starks, he is identified as coming from “in and through Georgy” (28), and they are able to make it to Green Cove Springs, a small town about fifty miles south of Jacksonville, before sundown on their first day of travel. Headed south, Joe and Janie travel on to Eatonville, which is very near Orlando. From there Janie and Tea Cake also move south, to the Everglades and the muck. The blackness of the muck's fecund land, an agrarian dream, corresponds to the external blackness of the people who work that land. Traveling south becomes a descent into blackness both literally and figuratively.

Beginning with Janie's marriage to Logan, when she goes inside to wait for love to begin, her literal movement from outside of the house to inside the house has a corresponding figurative move: Janie comes to understand that love does not necessarily follow marriage. Janie's earlier enchantment with the blooming pear tree has moved from her body to her head. The marriage to Joe also gives her ample opportunity to move inside—literally to the store to tend customers, but also into a store that is figuratively inside herself: “She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her” (72). In the store that exists metaphorically within Janie, Joe falls off the shelf and shatters. Janie's discovery is that Joe ceases to be a flesh and blood figure but something that stood in its place, something that she used to “drape her dreams over” (72). The thoughts that she had wanted to speak to him she now “packed up and put away in parts of her heart where he could never find them”; Janie's self separates into inside and outside parts at this point—she “knew how not to mix them” (72).

What matters most to Janie in these relatively early years of her marriage to Joe happens inside herself. This is her secret place; she does not fully understand all that is here. Inside her is the storage for thoughts too deep and perhaps too unknown for words, but at this point, while still with Joe, Janie knows that “she was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen” (72). The outside of herself is now free to belong to Joe and the town, for it has little meaning for her. She easily and comfortably gives her outside self to others, dresses and shines it up so that it reflects positively on the Mayor, to provide the necessary arm charm that she understands is important for his ego.

While Janie knows not to mix those different selves, upon occasion she lets her growing inside confidence break through and show itself on the outside by thrusting herself into conversation, letting Joe know that he does not know as much about women as he thinks he does (75). When Janie is hushed by Joe and shooed inside the store, she learns to say less. She expects less from him and gives to him only “what she didn't value” (76). She begins to function in his world as a shadow, while the inside part of her grows substantively. She is able to separate that part and take it under a shady tree or into the wind; she becomes “somebody near about making summertime out of lonesomeness” (77). When Joe insults her for poorly cutting a piece of tobacco, she retaliates with a verbal slap at his manhood in front of others. Joe strikes Janie so hard that he “drove her from the store” (80), suggesting that his physical slap to her outside self reverberated in such a way that it intruded inside, that she was not alone in her figurative inside “store,” nor was she welcome anymore in Joe's literal store.

Joe separates himself from Janie after this incident by moving out of the bedroom, which only serves to give Janie the space she needs to expunge Joe from his intrusion upon her inside self. By the time of his death, her inside/outside worlds are settled once again in their respective and distinct places; her face goes to the funeral, while her inside self dances away, “rollicking with the springtime across the world” (88). For the first time in her life Janie is free to decide for herself what she wants to do, so she “[digs] around inside herself” (89) and finds “a jewel down inside.” Janie finds that the jewel shines brightest when she is celebrating her freedom. It is during the days of freedom, the days between Joe and Tea Cake, that Janie's inside self, that deep-down jewel, begins to shine through to the outside self. Once Janie meshes her inside and outside selves, she is finally whole and at peace with herself. She is now in a position to descend more deeply into herself to explore one of life's biggest questions—the human's relationship with his or her maker.

From the beginning of his courtship with Janie, Tea Cake enters the literal world simultaneously with Janie. He teaches her checkers inside the store; they go fishing outside. They divide their labor—she cuts the pound cake; he makes the lemonade. He cleans the fish; she fries them. When Tea Cake is not physically present, Janie sees him in her head; he becomes a “glance from God.” The association Janie makes connecting Tea Cake and God begins yet a deeper movement inside herself. When Tea Cake and Janie go inside the literal house together, their laughter rings out; when they are apart, Janie feels a similar joy. Figuratively, Tea Cake is with her on the inside of herself. She has to open the window and let him out, let him “mount to the sky on a wind” (107). Symbolically, Tea Cake becomes another way to know God—to see God, to feel God, to believe in God. By the time Tea Cake dies he has become a Christ figure, who gives his life so that Janie may have hers and, because she has known him, have it more abundantly.

Once Tea Cake and Janie settle on the muck, the relationship symbolically moves to a higher plane, and the title of the book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, significantly expands thematically. Hurston places the literal title into the text in the midst of historically one of the worst hurricanes to ever strike the United States, the deadly Lake Okeechobee Hurricane of 16 September 1928. Certainly, one of the most enigmatic questions about Hurston's masterpiece is why this title was chosen. On the evening of the storm's mounting fury, Tea Cake and Motor Boat are showing off their ability to throw dice. When they both stop to listen to “Ole Massa's” work, Janie joins them; six eyes focus “on questioning God” (159). Janie reassures Tea Cake that he is “de light at daybreak” in her life, admitting to her own “fumblin' round and God opened the door” (159). God at Janie's door is Tea Cake, or, at least, Tea Cake is the means through which Janie comes to understand God's love. Shortly thereafter, when the wind comes back, Hurston writes, “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God” (160).

By the end of the novel Tea Cake becomes the symbolic dove of peace: “Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees” (193). Tea Cake becomes peace itself, and so long as Janie is not finished “feeling and thinking,” she, too, can have that peace because her own eyes are continually watching God.

Hurston uses the hurricane itself to establish a hierarchy of power in the characters' world. When the storm is first announced—“hurricane coming” (154)—the Seminole Indians are on their way to higher ground, but Tea Cake dismisses what they know: “Indians don't know much uh nothin', tuh tell de truth” (156). They are put on the same level as the animals: “Indians and rabbits and snakes and coons” (156) all appear to be leaving the muck. Next banana trees and palms talk with the rain, and the buzzards leave, but Tea Cake notices the boss man and the whites are not leaving, so the other signs must be wrong. Games and big talk and carrying on continue until Janie calls attention to “Ole Massa,” who begins “His work now” (159). Once God is in charge, all people are silenced. It becomes a world of only wind and water, and Tea Cake realizes too late that he has made a mistake in not taking that first offer to leave.

Hurston accurately describes the hurricane's progressive destruction. The wind, probably closer to 135 miles per hour instead of the 200 miles per hour the narrator reports, has “loosed his chains” (161), blowing across Lake Okeechobee's northern shore. Shallow waters claimed heights of more than fifteen feet as it surged southward, breaking the barriers that unleashed the lake and flooded the low-lying muck. Most of the 1,836 deaths reported by the Red Cross were migrant workers, who met death, what Hurston refers to as “the square-toed monster,” by drowning or by bites from venomous water moccasins. Though another 1,849 were reported injured, it is suspected that the fatality record is considerably higher. After the hurricane, President Herbert Hoover supported the building of a dike by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. The Hoover Dike, which stands today, was a significant engineering feat of the time and did much to restore confidence in life in the area around Lake Okeechobee.5 Because Hurston spent her childhood and adolescence in central Florida, she was no stranger to the annual hurricane season. Janie's statement of support to Tea Cake, when he berates himself for not leaving earlier, is credible: “You didn't know. … And when yuh don't know, yuh just don't know. De storms might not of come sho nuff” (162). Hurston's choice of this particular storm leaves no question that God is in charge, not the white man. In a system of rating storms that would be determined long after Hurston had chosen her example, this storm was classified as a Category 4, one with winds measured at 131-155 miles per hour, with surges from 13-18 feet, and with extreme damage.6

At the beginning of Janie's story, as she relates it to Pheoby after her return from the muck, she uses the pear tree in bloom and the visiting bee as an exploring metaphor for her budding ideas of love as identified through sexual yearnings. Once Janie has that metaphor in place with Tea Cake, once he becomes the bee to her blossom, once she feels with him what she had years earlier gotten excited about—the time when she “saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight” (11)—Hurston moves the relationship from erotic love to a higher form of agape love. Janie had thought that to get to the horizons would be enough, but with Tea Cake she literally and figuratively travels a road back from the depths of her inward journey, a more complete trip than the metaphor attached to nature could possibly hold. The horizon is no longer some place out there, some destination she has to travel toward. To her surprise, the horizon is with her, and she has some power over it. With Tea Cake's help she is able to be larger than this material world. She pulls in “her horizon like a great fish-net” (193). The fish-net metaphor evokes the biblical scene wherein Jesus proclaims to his apostles that he would make them fishers of men if they would lay down their nets and follow him. Janie has had a conversion experience. She has stepped up to walk the “highway through de wilderness,” to take the text of Nanny's sermon and to make it her own, to be the “colored [woman] sittin' on high” (16), the best vantage point, after all, from which to take the fish-net, pull it from the waist of the world, and drape it over her shoulders. Tea Cake and God are love; through the human connection in a secular world, Janie watches God and comes to understand a spiritual unity in the sacred world.

Janie has come a long way from reading herself into the metaphor of the mule of the world. Janie first hears this story from Nanny, and then a mule literally appears in her first two marriages and haunts her figuratively. Proud owner of one mule, Logan makes a trip to purchase a second mule so that Janie can work in the field. Logan does not ask Janie about his plan, nor does he express any desire for her company. He simply states what will happen: “Ah aims tuh run two plows, and dis man Ah'm talkin' 'bout is got uh mule all gentled up so even uh woman kin handle 'im” (27). Janie never agrees to his plan to work that mule, because she has no intention of becoming mule-like.

With Joe, Janie witnesses the buying of Matt Bonner's abused mule, which soon becomes the main topic of porch talk, but not for Janie. She is shut out of the conversation and the mock funeral service; Janie starts to identify with the treatment the mule receives. When she is constantly sent into the store in the midst of porch laughter, Joe berates her: “Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don't think none theirselves” (71). Joe always knows more than Janie, and he knows more about what Janie thinks, what Janie feels, and what Janie should be doing; for Joe, Janie may as well be a mule. Janie's inside self resists being made the mule. Joe wants submission, and Janie complies with her outside self: “She wasn't petal-open anymore with him” (71).

As soon as Joe arrives in Eatonville, Hurston gives him the expression “I god.” Joe uses these words at least eighteen times; “I god” becomes the expletive of choice to introduce almost every sentence in which he wants to establish his authority over the person or situation he is addressing. God created the world in seven days, and Joe wants to replicate as quickly the creation of his world in Eatonville. In the Bible, God speaks his world into existence; Joe tries for the appearance of a similar miracle. He purchases land and expands his “kingdom”; he becomes its mayor and reigns over all from the front porch of his store; and he brings light into the darkness through the purchase of a Sears and Roebuck catalog street lamp. The lamp becomes Joe's “let there be light” command. The lighting of the lamp is cause for a celebratory barbecue. Joe has the fatted hogs slain and cooked. When the lamp lighting occurs, it is accompanied by a speech, a prayer, and a hymn. The event begins in the secular, practical world and culminates in the sacred with the singing of “We'll walk in de light, de beautiful light …,” which shines out in such a way that the light itself in the hymn becomes “Jesus, the light of the world” (46)—most appropriate from “I god” himself. The singing of the hymn embodies a life of its own, for once through does not give the lamp lighting its due; rather, the hymn is sung “over and over until it was wrung dry, and no further innovations of tone and tempo were conceivable” (46). Joe wants the occasion to be “something tuh remember tuh our dyin' day” (45). The ceremony around the lamp lighting assures this as people have partied, laughed, and told their stories and lies, sung their hearts out, and, now fully spent, “hushed and ate barbecue” (46). The sentence that ends the festivities is a picture of silence and good food; the townspeople have come to a common table together—in the light—to commune finally in reverential quietness. Joe Starks' place in the community of Eatonville is assured; he is the light.

Signifying is a word in African American culture for a kind of verbal play or sparring, talking within a community that understands what is meant underneath or behind what is being said, so the talk itself can be around the subject, letting encoded messages come through indirection. In this novel another major theme is Janie's movement toward and eventual success in the game of signifying. Janie gains her voice among the porch talkers. When they are still new in town, Joe silences her when she is invited to speak. Not until Joe buys the mule does Janie offer her voice in such a way that it receives compliments from the others. She compares Joe to Lincoln, who freed the Negroes because he had a country to rule; whereas Joe has a town to rule, so he freed the mule. While Lincoln, of course, remains the president, she elevates Joe to “uh king uh something” (58). The porch dwellers acknowledge her verbal accomplishment: “Yo' wife is uh born orator. … She put jus' de right words tuh our thoughts” (58).

Signifying is commonplace among all the men in Eatonville and on the muck; in the book this kind of talk is ongoing. For Janie, however, signifying moves from a relatively safe offensive strategy used in backhanded compliments to Joe toward the more dangerous, yet liberating, defensive strategy when she emasculates him in front of his peers: “When you pull down yo' britches, you look lak de change uh life” (79). While signifying is a more generic term and encompasses much innocent word play, Janie's verbal dart thrusts the game to a more personal and sexual level, one called “playing the dozens,” which invariably is humiliating. Joe's place in the community, in his mind, is forever lost; he may get outward respect, but he knows every man and boy in town will be laughing at him on the sly. Signifying liberates Janie. Joe may physically strike her, but she understands fully her own verbal prowess.

Throughout the novel images of trees abound. The condition of a tree or a tree part and a gathering of many trees all reflect the health of Janie and her world. Upon Janie's return to Eatonville, which is at the beginning of the novel, Janie knows that her time with Tea Cake had turned her life into a “great tree in leaf” (8), but Janie had to travel significantly—both literally and figuratively—to arrive in this healthy place. Nanny makes the first of what will be a series of references to trees: “us colored folks is branches without roots. … You in particular” (16). Janie's mother runs off and leaves Janie with Nanny, so Janie never knows her mother, who gave birth to Janie after being raped by a white schoolteacher. Janie's father is a non-character; thus Janie is a rootless branch on her paternal side. Leafy is the name Hurston chooses for Janie's mother, who all too quickly drops from the tree that is Nanny and leaves. Like the daughter she delivers, Leafy is the product of a father she never knew. Janie's presence in Leafy's world would have been a constant reminder of the rape she manages to survive.

When Janie marries Logan, she moves into a place that is a “stump in the middle of the woods” (21), an image of a tree cut off, cut down, the better part of itself removed. This dwelling place for Janie is “lonesome,” so isolated that it is “where nobody had ever been” (22). How long Janie will wait it out with Logan before departing with Joe is measured in seasons denoted by the changing colors in the life of trees: “a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time” (25). The place she meets Joe predicts what will happen to Janie once she willingly goes off with him, for their encounters occur in the scrub oaks across the road. Upon arrival in Eatonville, both of them find it to be only “a raw place in the woods” (34). Though Joe will cover over the rawness, he will never permit Janie to bloom.

Not until Janie meets Vergible Woods does she awaken from her state of dormancy, which dates back to that long-ago springtime day when she hung over the gatepost and kissed Johnny Taylor. Tea Cake's given name, Vergible, certainly an unusual name, has a phonetic similarity to the word “verdure,” which means green vegetation, a definition that could function in its adjectival form with his last name, suggesting a woods full of lush, green vegetation. Figuratively, Tea Cake is that sentence; he is the exact opposite of the stump in the middle of the woods, the scrub oaks, and a raw place in the woods. From their first meeting, Tea Cake is described with words associated with the natural world and new growth: he crushes scent with his footsteps, aromatic herbs with every step, and spices hang about him (106). When he takes Janie to the Everglades, it is a place of “big beans, big cane, big weeds, big everything. Weeds … were eight and often ten feet tall down there” (129).

When it is time for Janie to leave the muck, she only takes with her Tea Cake's garden seed, for he was always getting ready to plant something new. The seeds are to be a remembrance of Tea Cake, but at the end of the novel, as Janie mounts the stairs for the first night in her old home, Tea Cake is already there with her. The seeds are hardly necessary, for he has taken flight and “lit in the top of the pine tree” (193). A pine tree is an evergreen; Janie has only to look out the window in any season to be reminded of the verdant warmth of his love. On the other hand, the earlier scrub oaks and stumps suggest deciduous trees, and with deciduous trees, as Southern writer Mary Hood phrases it, there is not much difference between a dead tree and a tree in winter; only when the leaves bud can the eye tell. There will be no more wintertime in the days ahead for Janie. She can live in the verdurous woods with the presence of Vergible Woods at her side, where he has been from their beginning.

Tea Cake is also an example of a man who lives out the sermon “Behold de Rib!” In Mules and Men, Hurston recounts the story in “Sermon by Travelling Preacher.” In a surprise visit, a preacher passing through indicates how valuable it is to women that God chose to make them made from a rib. Had God chosen a bone out of man's foot or back, woman would be in a different relationship to man, but because God chose the rib, located on the side of the body, that places woman beside man: “male and female like God make us / Side by side.”

Tea Cake is also referred to as the “son of Evening Sun” (189). While Hurston provides many clues that she reshapes the ancient myth of the Egyptian god Osiris in the characteristics of Tea Cake, in naming him the son of Evening Sun she points directly to the myth.7 Plutarch is the principal authority for the legend of Osiris. Though there are many variations of the story, Rhea (Nut, the goddess of the sky) was married to Helios (Ra, god of the sun), but she also granted her favors to Kronos (Geb, god of earth). Jealous Ra then placed a curse on Nut that she would be unable to bring forth children. She went to Thoth, god of wisdom, who also loved her. To help Nut, Thoth played tables with Silene, the moon goddess. Thoth convinced Silene to stake some of her light, which she promptly lost. Thoth then took the extra light and created five more days, in order that on the added days, Nut, with Geb, could bring forth five children. So it was in the time when the light waned and dwindled that Osiris came to life, son of that evening sun. Osiris became a great and wise king, and under his leadership Egypt flourished. He was said to be a gentle, good, and pleasant king who advanced civilization throughout his country. The nickname Tea Cake is, as Janie asks when she first hears it, “So you sweet as all dat?” (97), a reminder of the gentle spirit of the man she would soon grow to love.

Of the various stories about Osiris, one proposes that his skin had a green color, which reflects him as a vegetation or earth god, once again suggesting the phonetic links with Tea Cake's given name, Vergible Woods. In one telling, when Isis, his faithful wife and sister, locates his coffin at rest in Byblos, it was entangled in the growth of a tree. Further, Osiris is the king of eternity, the ruler of everlastingness. His repeated death and resurrection were manifested by the Nile River as it yearly swelled and dwindled. From this rich soil, much akin to Hurston's depiction of the muck, came forth abundant crops and vegetation. Tea Cake is much at home on the muck, and he is also the center of life there, another connection with Osiris. Osiris is called in other versions of his story the god of the dead, of resurrection, of the whole earth, a teacher of the arts of civilization and the potential power of nature. Like Osiris, Tea Cake's body went into the earth, but his soul flew to the pine tree outside Janie's window. Osiris is a symbol of the liberation of the soul, and Tea Cake provides that liberation for Janie when she called in “her soul to come and see” (193), the last lines of the novel.

The Osiris myth is only half of the story. If Tea Cake can be illuminated through an understanding of this myth, then Janie's story can be expanded as well by looking at the myth of Isis. Isis is one of the five offspring of Nut and Geb (earth and sky), Osiris's sister, but also his wife. Among the stories about Osiris is one in which he is murdered by a jealous brother, and his body is dismembered and scattered throughout Egypt. Faithful Isis searches throughout the kingdom for her love. Ultimately, Isis rescues Osiris, and his body, though dismembered, is sufficient in its virility to impregnate Isis, so that she may bear Horus, who avenges his father's death. Isis is credited with bringing Osiris back to life.

The novel does not parallel the birthing part of Isis's story, but Janie's love for Tea Cake and her search for him is all-consuming, even before she meets him. When Janie separates her inside and outside self in her relationship with Joe, she begins “saving up feelings for some man she had never seen” (72). Still earlier, in her relationship with Logan, Janie makes a discovery about the deepest part of herself, that part that precedes her conscious ability to know to save up feelings; as Hurston describes it: “There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought” (24). All of the stories that mention Isis and Osiris are about the eternal mystery of life and death—where life comes from, what happens after death, hope for life after death. Those mysteries are a part of the story of Janie and Tea Cake as well—what will Tea Cake's death mean in Janie's life?

Janie knows there is love before she does love, and she loves Tea Cake long before she meets Tea Cake; it is as though she has always loved him. The metaphor of the basin in the mind is a visual means by which the reader can understand what lies beneath visible basin. Somewhere in the pipes below, deep in the bowels of the plumbing, are those feelings. As they move upward through the metaphorical pipes, those feelings become thoughts. As they rise higher in the pipes, spilling out onto the surface of the metaphorical basin, at last they become words. The words come when Tea Cake is present to pull them up and out onto visible territory. As Isis searched all over Egypt for parts of Osiris's body, Janie searches all over her relationships with Logan and Joe, storing up the parts of love inside her, before the love becomes corporeal in Tea Cake, the man himself.


At the time of Hurston's writing, many of the voices whose ideas and opinions were widely expressed called for gifted black writers to use their talents to contribute to the themes of protest literature. Since the days of the first well-known black poet, Phillis Wheatley, back in the time of slavery, talented black writers have used their skills to play a major role in the fight against racism in America. Protest literature attempts to challenge conditions confronting all blacks, stresses the equality of all people, exposes psychological and physical brutality, and does all of these things with an ironic stance. In a country that prides itself on being religious and democratic, the realities of slavery, discrimination, and segregation invite irony.

Protest literature crosses genre boundaries. In poetry Phillis Wheatley (1753?–1784) and George Moses Horton (1797?–1883?), the man who tried to buy his freedom on the strength of his poetry, are excellent examples. Both Wheatley and Horton play to their white audiences through the use of Greek mythology and a Christian God. Their poems evoke pity and sympathy, often reminding the reader of the arduousness of the middle passage and the search for the philanthropic soul who will be the human representative of Providence, willing to stay the hand that bodes no good will. Slave narratives, especially popular during the days prior to the outbreak of the Civil War, contributed to the rhetoric of the abolitionists' movement for compassion, good common sense, and human decency. Among slave narratives' memorable moments, Frederick Douglass's story details the pain in the slaves' songs as they make their way to the Big House; in Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, she relates her seven years in hiding in a dismal hole, deprived of air and light, feeling the rain when it leaks into her tight space, but staying to watch over her two children, from a distance. In the first African American novel, Clotel, William Wells Brown introduces the tragic mulatto theme. Ways to understand and feel the security and love of both parents were limited or nonexistent for the offspring of a white man and a black woman. This reality, during the days of slavery and afterward, repeated itself millions of times. Often sentimental and manipulative, but effective and convincing, protest literature made good reading and good sense.

In 1925 Alain Locke edited The New Negro, a compilation of fiction, poetry, drama, music, art, and essays that, as Locke introduces it, are offered as “the first fruits of the Negro Renaissance” (xi). For the anthology he draws heavily from the periodicals of the NAACP and the Urban League, The Crisis and Opportunity. In his foreword Locke emphasizes the newness of the day, repeatedly using the word “new”: “the New Negro must be seen in the perspective of a New World, and especially a New America” (ix). He suggests that “yesterday” was the “darkened Ghetto of a segregated race life,” “a mind and soul bizarre and alien as the mind of a savage” (x). The young people of the day are stepping forward; they will not be judged by old ideas, by former stereotypes. Locke's purpose here has to be minimally twofold: he speaks to other Negroes who must also embrace a new way of seeing themselves and the talent among them, and he speaks to a white audience encouraging them to see race as “but an idiom of experience, a sort of added enriching adventure and discipline” (48). The time had come to expand beyond protest literature, for that alone, in and of itself, was an acknowledgment of the power of white oppression within the mind of the Negro writer. To be limited to protest literature was contrary to the aims of building a distinctive literature that stood on its own. On the other hand, warned Du Bois, black art that was not also propaganda was worthless.

Protest literature did not, of course, disappear. Richard Wright's 1940 Native Son is perhaps the most famous example of this style. The tradition continued in the modern civil rights movement in the South (1954–1968) and expanded most pronouncedly in song. Clearly the movement without its songs would have languished.

Locke also claimed that younger writers had “shaken themselves free from the minstrel tradition and the fowling-nets of dialect, and through acquiring ease and simplicity in serious expression, have carried the folk-gift to the altitudes of art” (48). It is in this net that Hurston appears to be caught. Part of her condemnation by her male peers in contemporary reviews was in response to her use of Negro dialect, which they felt catered to minstrelsy. The minstrel tradition dates from the early days of blackface minstrel shows, a popular form of commercial entertainment in which white men applied grease paint or burnt cork to their faces and in exaggerated dress, dance, speech, and song parodied black expression. Most successful in this endeavor were the shows of George Washington Dixon and T. D. Rice, the latter being the man who popularized the name “Jim Crow.” The minstrel shows developed stereotypes: the wily but witless rustic slave (Jim Crow) and the ridiculous urban dandy (Zip Coon).

After the Civil War, African American blackface became popular, mocking the white perception of blacks, in competing minstrel show versions called “Coon Shows.” Black performers showed black audiences what white people thought of black people in exaggerated expression. To black people these shows could be instructive and disgusting; to white audiences they could have been hilarious. As in the double meanings of the Br'er Rabbit stories and other slave tales, the whites could have seen nothing more than blacks mocking themselves for sport. Adding to the stereotypes of the “coon shows,” black performers contributed the razor-toting hustlers and the chicken-stealing loafers. At the time, these shows were the only mainstream outlet for African American stage talent.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a celebratory novel that draws heavily upon folk literature, where settings, patterns, themes, and characters come from the oral tradition. Folk creativity finds inspiration in nature and in the Bible. The three major settings, West Florida, Eatonville, and the muck of the Everglades, all repeat the pattern of a world apart in nature—these are black worlds, of soil and of people. The colorful language is often made so by allusions, either correctly stated or misstated, from the Bible. In folk literature characters are most likely to be rural, illiterate, fundamentalist, and/or superstitious. Common also will be folk expressions, colorful language, and references to quilting and hog-killing. Each of Hurston's settings is more rural than urban, and her characters are talkers, lie tellers. The Bible they know is far more likely to be the Bible they hear preached in Sunday morning service than the Bible they read. Women's work is mostly cooking—for example, Janie and her big pot of baked beans, the kind Tea Cake loves and could eat two or three times during the week—stripped of its detail and set apart from the center of the novel's action. No one quilts in Hurston's world, and the biggest animal killing is the natural death of Matt Bonner's mule, but the novel is chock-full of folk expressions and colorful language. When Hurston published her book in 1937, she was reviewed (in Time and by Richard Wright in New Masses) with Waters Turpin's These Low Grounds, a novel about four generations of an African American family that resides on the eastern shore of Maryland, Turpin's home territory. Turpin's novel has also been assigned to this category of folk literature.

Also present in folk literature are links between Jewish people of the biblical stories who were enslaved in Egypt and people of African descent who were enslaved in the American South. This is the subject of Hurston's third novel, Moses, Man of the Mountain, a blending of the biblical Moses and the chief hoodoo priest of them all, Moses as Damballah. Folk literature contains as well references to blues lyrics, “toasts,” which is a kind of folk poetry that serves to inform the agility of wit needed to play the dozens effectively, and the presence of tricksters. Hurston uses talking buzzards at the mule dragging-out ceremony, references to High John de Conquer, and to death itself as she personifies the inanimate noun with its anthropomorphic depiction as Him-with-the-square-toes. Death stalks in his waiting and takes. Death comes right out of folklore and briefly becomes a character in the story: “He stood once more and again in his high flat house without sides to it and without a roof with his soulless sword standing upright in his hand. His pale white horse had galloped over waters, and thundered over land” (168). This use of folklore within folk literature helps define character, enhance themes, develop plot, and give a sense of the setting and locale. Folklore brings to life the “crayon enlargements” of Hurston's novel.



The all-important hurricane is based on the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane. According to a 1961 detailed account written by Lawrence Will of the destruction of that hurricane, Hurston's accuracy in depicting the amount of rainfall, the timing and order of the progressive intensity of the hurricane, the muck itself, and the economy based on the successful harvesting of the bean crop is on target. In Okeechobee Hurricane and the Hoover Dike, a book that purports to be an “eyewitness account of the nation's third largest calamity” at that time, Will echoes Hurston's knowledge of Florida's geography, agriculture, and tropical storms.8 Will describes the speed with which the wind changed directions; how cars were upended, plunged into the waters of the undammed lake, and battered to fragments; how families clinging desperately to one another nevertheless were separated by great distances by the onslaught of wind and water; how multi-storied buildings, small residential dwellings, and helpless family pets alike were within the course of an hour demolished, vanquished, and eradicated.

Thematically, Hurston uses the hurricane to suggest a hierarchy that exists in the world beyond the white man's control; in fact, the hurricane's power is such that any superiority the whites may feel becomes ludicrous beside its wrath. During the walk away from their home, Tea Cake and Janie are dwarfed by the mammoth activity of God's work. Hurston shrinks their individual personalities: Tea Cake throws away his box; Janie notices the hurt—then the tempest takes over. In the lengthy paragraph that continues (161-162), their names do not reappear; they do not talk. Hurston uses a narrator to deliver the language of this storm. As the literal hurricane ravages the world Janie and Tea Cake had come to know so well, Hurston employs a parallel destruction in her syntax and diction. Sentences become fragments: “A house down, here and there, frightened cattle. But above all the drive of the wind and the water. And the lake” (161). Hurston reaches out for the most gargantuan images she can find: the wall advances in front of the waters “like a road crusher on a cosmic scale” (161). The water turns into a “monstropolous beast,” who has “loosed his chains” (161). The quarters, which had been home to all the migrant community who worked the bean crop on the muck, became like “grass” and the beast “rolled” everything: “rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the house along with other timbers” (162). As the paragraph concludes, nature consumes all: the beast is now the “sea … walking the earth with a heavy heel” (162). Confusion reigns as it simultaneously terrifies.

Only steps ahead of this hurricane's “heavy heel” come the weak and pedestrian voices of Tea Cake and Janie. Hurston's choices here for what these colorful characters have to say to each other are flattened; in the midst of this storm no attempt is made to display that “crayon enlargement of life,” which characterizes this novel. Tea Cake reports that the lake is coming, Motor Boat repeats only “de lake,” and Janie confirms it's “comin' behind us” (162). Hurston's choices suggest a measure being taken; human language beside this storm's power is absurd—and pitiful. Colorful talk won't soothe this savage beast, now “muttering and grumbling onward like a tired mammoth” (163). Unnamed people appear, each of them struggling—living or dying; it's a random call: “Wind and rain beating on old folks and beating on babies” (164). This is a world without order. There is no hierarchy here; further, there is no racial tension—old and young, experienced and innocent, black and white—what difference does it make? The struggle to live is everyone's struggle. Some will make it; many will not.

While Hurston's historical account is accurate, she was in Louisiana studying hoodoo in the fall of 1928 when the hurricane did its business in southern Florida. Most likely, Hurston drew heavily from her personal experience in Nassau, Bahamas, in October 1929, when she endured a five-day hurricane during her two-week stay there. For the most part Hurston alternated her stays between Florida and New York until April 1936, when she departed for Kingston, Jamaica. She moved on to Haiti at the end of September and began writing the novel, completing it on 19 December. Her Nassau experience with the hurricane, only seven years old, and her presumable familiarity with Florida's hurricane season provided in her memory enough details to re-create the Okeechobee Hurricane of 1928.

Hurston is also accurate in her knowledge of the bean picking she describes that takes place on the muck. During the late 1920s, Lawrence Will reports in his account of the hurricane, the area Hurston describes in her novel, “the area from Canal Point around to South Bay and Bean City was the greatest string bean producing section of the United States” (172). Further, locals refer to the area as the muckland or the muckway. When Tea Cake and Janie return to the muck after his day of enforced service of burying the dead (which included making sure that black and whites are separated from each other so that the dead whites can be provided with a cheap pine coffin) Tea Cake is able to find work at once: “Help clearin' up things in general, and then dey goin' build dat dike sho nuff. Dat ground got to be cleared off too. Plenty work” (173). Will reports too that the “removal of water was an urgent but stupendous task” (171). Within two months, big pumps were in place; by week's end, 2500 acres of land were dry and ready to be replanted for the winter market. Hurston gives Tea Cake only “three hearty weeks” (173) of work before his headaches set in and Janie has to experience the “meanest moment of eternity” (184) by taking his life in order to save her own. However, in reality, the dike Tea Cake refers to building was not approved for funding for another two years, when the River and Harbor Act of 1930 was passed. Though a dike of sand and muck dates from around 1915, what would become the elaborate and costly Herbert Hoover Dike is still a bit removed from Tea Cake's reach.


Most historians would agree that the Harlem Renaissance, from its nascent days to its last hurrah, covered the years 1917–1935. Others would end its days with the great stock market crash in 1929. Some want to locate its birth as late as the publication of Alain Locke's The New Negro in 1925. Recent anthologies set the dates from 1900–1940 to indicate a more inclusive period of time in which a flowering of artistic freedom, with its wellspring in New York's Harlem, attracted national attention to African Americans' contributions to music, art, literature, and politics. The Harlem Renaissance is a movement that takes its name retrospectively, as historians and scholars looking back enter into critical debate about their individual and collective awareness of African American artistic richness. Boundaries blur in this movement—the various arts feed one other; the political agenda is encouraged by the NAACP's The Crisis and the Urban League's Opportunity, which contain essays and editorials that not only denounce separate-but-equal (Jim Crow) laws but also offer a forum for creative writing. Art and politics merge.

From all over America, young artists of creative temperament were pulled to Harlem by a magnetic energy force. Hurston had studied under Alain Locke at Howard University. The rallying call of the day's new Negro as defined in The New Negro embraced the ideas of racial pride and self-determination. To Hurston, these ideas must have seemed long in coming, for Eatonville had served as a long-ago nurturing ground for this position. Once in Harlem, Hurston found a rich community of artists that shared this view—a celebration of things distinctively associated with the African American heritage. Their Eyes Were Watching God is perhaps most reflective of the underpinnings of the Harlem Renaissance in its broad use of the black vernacular, which highlights and draws attention to the oral tradition of African American culture.


A “speakerly text” is the term Henry Louis Gates, Jr. uses to differentiate Their Eyes Were Watching God from other novels being written at the time and, more specifically, other novels being written by African Americans. He argues that Hurston's novel negotiates territory between “a profoundly lyrical, densely metaphorical, quasi-musical, privileged black oral tradition on the one hand, and a received but not yet fully appropriated standard English literary tradition on the other hand.”9 Gayl Jones uses the verbs “coincide” and “co-mingle” in discussing the intersection or collision of oral tradition and the literary.10

The first Africans to make their way to the new America did not do so of their own free will. They came in bondage across the middle passage. Those that survived the arduous journey remained in bondage, slaves to an unknown people with unknown customs and with whom they did not share a common language or skin color. For the most part, slaves, forced into often physically exhausting manual labor, were denied access to education, especially to learning reading and writing. The ability to sing their songs and tell their tales was not only a means of connection with the countries from which they had been forced to depart, but a means of spiritual and emotional survival in a new, hard land.

More than three hundred years passed before Hurston wrote this novel; slavery had been abolished for more than seventy years. In the South, segregation was supported and enforced by the law. Though Plessy v. Ferguson (1896) mandated separate but equal, the reality was far different; only “separate” was a given. Hurston's childhood was full of biblical stories told in the black vernacular and folktales passed down from generation to generation that contained layered or coded messages, intended for the dominated audience but in danger of being overheard by the dominating audience. The trick was to use language in such a clever way that disparate audiences would interpret the same words in entirely different ways. Spirituals, gospels, the call and response method of the black church tradition—all were a part of Hurston's oral/aural world.

When Janie returns from her time with Tea Cake, Pheoby rushes over to see her old friend, but she does not rush Janie into the story she is hungry to hear. Pheoby's wait is part of her delayed gratification; they exchange pleasantries, entering the old, familiar days of their twenty-year-old friendship gently. At first, seeing Janie is enough, but the seeing is short-lived. Next, Janie has to eat the mulatto rice that Pheoby has brought. A hungry teller can be distracted; the storytelling could be diluted, out of focus. All the while, Pheoby is ravenous to hear Janie's story, and Janie is eager to tell it. By placing the story with Pheoby, Janie trusts that it will be repeated responsibly. After all, Janie's tongue “is in [her] friend's mouf” (6). Finally, the moment arrives; for both Janie and Pheoby the time is ripe. Listening gets sucked into the talk when Janie declares, at last, “Well then, we can set right where we is and talk” (7). Both know that Janie holds the stage; she will be the talker. However, Pheoby's presence as the listener is essential. Talk can only happen when a listener is present.

The oral tradition always assumes a listener, one who must be silenced long enough by a story funny, clever, and smart enough to command attention and respect. The more attentive the ear of the listener, the more commanding will be the eventual reply. To enter into the talk requires a finesse made possible by knowing what, how, and when to interrupt. Like Janie and Pheoby, the talker and listener are also “kissin'-friends” (7).


Though dates for the Harlem Renaissance often depend on varying perspectives and firm dates would be forced, by almost any measure Hurston's best work in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written after the heyday of the Harlem Renaissance. Yet, Hurston is often closely associated with this outburst of artistic energy, supported financially, in part, by white patronage. In December 1927 Hurston signed a legal contract with Mrs. Rufus Osgood Mason, a wealthy New York dowager. For the next five years, Hurston would come to depend on money from Mrs. Mason to support her fieldwork, collecting folklore throughout the South—mostly in central and southern Florida and in and around New Orleans, Louisiana. In return for the money, Hurston agreed to keep the source of her financial support quiet and to turn over her materials to Mrs. Mason. Hurston's own work was to be Mrs. Mason's property.

When Hurston settled in to write Their Eyes Were Watching God in the late fall of 1936, she was distantly removed from Mrs. Mason's money. However, the memory of her dependence on the white woman's dollar and her obvious awareness of the powerful control accepting that money had had on her creative output plays a significant part in the development of the thematic journey into black interiority. As Janie moves through her three husbands, the direction is always a descent—a geographical point as opposite New York as possible. She creates a world that is black-centered, black-focused, and black-oriented. While Mrs. Mason was curiously attracted to the notion of black people as “primitives,”11 Hurston, free from her financial control, celebrated her characters and her people in all their diversity. Hurston's depiction of her characters in a community is an immersion into the healthy and richly colorful world that she knows well. The knowledge is hers twofold—first, through living among the people with whom she populates her book; second, through her intensive period of “studying” their ways as a social scientist, trained by perhaps the foremost anthropologist in the country, Franz Boas.


The history of the American South is replete with racial discrimination—slavery and then institutionalized second-class citizenship. Racist laws, perhaps best referred to as the dominance of a Jim Crow world, prevailed until the events of the modern Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, with some of the most disturbing events occurring after Hurston's death. Hurston knew about Brown vs. Topeka Board of Education in 1954 and had some incendiary and often misunderstood remarks to say about it. On 1 August 1955 the Orlando Sentinel published her letter to the editor, which reflected her feelings about the Court's decision: “The whole matter revolves around the self-respect of my people. How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?” She found the ruling “as insulting rather than honoring [her] race,” a slap in the face at black schools, black teachers, and, in short, black competence. The letter was reprinted in the Richmond, Virginia, newspaper, as well as circulated, by request, throughout educational administrative structures in North Carolina. To those southern white men in powerful positions within the structures of segregated schools, who were reluctant to see the status quo shattered, Hurston's impressively well-written editorial seemed to support the ways things were. Hurston's opinion was that “Negro schools in the state are in very good shape and on the improve.” While a compliment to the strength of the black community and the wisdom and intelligence of many black teachers, even the most subjective eye cast upon the school buildings, equipment, supplies, upkeep, and maintenance could discern that funding had to have been grossly unevenly-distributed. Hurston's position goes overboard to emphasize one of her writing's most important thematic claims. Near the conclusion of this same editorial, she reminds the reader: “It is well known that I have no sympathy, nor respect for the ‘tragedy of color’ school of thought among us, whose fountain-head is the pressure group concerned in this court ruling. I can see no tragedy in being too dark to be invited in a white school social affair.”

The 1955 bus boycott in Montgomery, Alabama, and the 1957 integration of Central High School in Little Rock, Arkansas, happened within her lifetime. Hurston, however, did not live long enough to see the South explode as it did when four young black men sat down at a Woolworth's counter on 1 February 1960 in Greensboro, North Carolina, and launched the sit-in demonstrations across the South. She never saw Birmingham Negroes hosed in the streets by the tyrant Bull Connor in April 1963, the hundreds of thousands who participated in the August 1963 Walk on Washington, D.C., the September 1963 bombing of the Baptist church in Birmingham that killed four young girls, or the March 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a book of quiet action, set in an earlier time, before organized demonstrations rocked the South and changed forever the region of her birth. White characters are few in this novel. When they do appear, they range from being nondescript (the men from whom Joe Starks buys the land to extend Eatonville) to unsympathetic (Mis' Washburn and the men who press Tea Cake into the service of burying the dead in the aftermath of the hurricane) to loathsome (Janie's biological father, the schoolteacher who raped Leafy). Further, when black characters “act white,” as Joe Starks tries to do once he becomes the leading powerhouse of Eatonville, Hurston concocts a comeuppance. Thematically, then, the journey to the muck and into a blacker world is also a celebration of blackness in a world that is perfectly capable of honest labor, disagreements, incredible joy, deep laughter, passionate loving, and sustaining spiritual insight. While it would oversimplify Hurston's novel to say that Janie, as she moves deeper into the blackness of the muck, separates herself from the fierce and unjust politics embedded in segregation, she does move deeper into questions and concerns over which she has power—into a celebration of herself.


The dream of a town that would be exclusively Negro-centered—owned and operated predominately and primarily by and for Negroes—began in the head of Joseph E. Clarke. Thwarted in his first plan to buy land, Clarke was eventually successful when northern philanthropist Lewis Lawrence and local landowner Josiah Eaton agreed to sell him 112 acres. This land comprised the original city limits of what would be called Eatonville, a name suggested by Lawrence to honor Eaton. The first incorporated all-African-American town officially was launched on 15 August 1887; Clarke's dream had become a reality. After a first term as alderman, Clarke became the second mayor, and, along with Hurston's father, who moved his young family to Eatonville from Alabama in the early days of Eatonville's history, was undoubtedly a larger-than-life figure in Hurston's childhood days. Conveniently located on what was then Apopka Avenue (and today is Kennedy Boulevard) were both Clarke's general store and his home, the site of the “big lie” swapping, a visual and aural part of the environment that colored the days of young Zora's childhood. Apopka Avenue then and Kennedy Boulevard today was and is still the main road through town. Hurston's childhood home, today the site of the Eatonville Fire Department, was located on this road, diagonally across the street from the general store. Young Zora had but to go out into her own yard to hear and to see, to blend in to these “crayon enlargements of life,” to become one of the recipients when “the people sat around on the porch and passed around the pictures of their thoughts for the others to look at and see” (51). Something not altogether winning about Joe Clarke's manner, voice, and presence was planted in young Zora and stayed with her until the time was right to shape the character of Joe Starks for her novel.

According to information provided by the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community, from the beginning of its day, Eatonville, not unlike many other small towns of a hundred years ago, depended on the church, the school, and the family to establish and preserve the values of a healthy life. The first ten acres of the land that Lewis Lawrence bought became a gift to the trustees of the Methodist church, which became the St. Lawrence African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first African-American church in the area, founded six years before Eatonville had its name. Macedonia Baptist Church appeared a year after St. Lawrence. This latter was the church that John Hurston served as minister. It, too, was located on the main street within sight of St. Lawrence, within a brief walk from the Hurston home. These two churches today, each more than one hundred years old, are a part of the town's fourteen houses of worship. Surely theological debate or commitment to denominational ties was strong and important enough to the community to dedicate prominent space. Time has borne out their staying power.

According to her autobiography, Hurston's all-black school was often visited by announced white guests. Mr. and Mrs. Calhoun assured discipline and proper respect. As Hurston recalls, “we were threatened with a prompt and bloody death if we cut one caper while the visitors were present.”12 On a memorable day in fifth grade, Hurston impressed two unexpected white women with her ability to read with eloquence and fluidity. Russell and Mary Calhoun were the first and second principals of Hungerford Normal and Industrial School, a private boarding school based on Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee model, where students helped to raise their own food. Hungerford instilled racial pride in its students. That pride permeated the community and contributed to developing in Hurston the well-known positive racial health that is reflected in all her writings. In the Hungerford Elementary School of today, pictures of early town mayors, with the exception of John Hurston, are painted on the cafeteria walls. While this school came into existence after her childhood, a likeness entitled “Z. N. Hurston” graces the wall above the window, separating the kitchen from the dining hall, where students return their food trays.

When Hurston's mother, Lucy Potts, died in 1904, Zora was thirteen years old. Her father's subsequent marriage and various family stresses prompted her to be sent to Jacksonville for further schooling. Out of Eatonville for the first extended time of her life, Hurston responded to her new environment as a “twilight”; she missed the “bold sunlight” of home, “deprived of the loving pine, the lakes, the wild violets in the woods and the animals. … No more holding down first base on the team with my brothers and their friends. Just a jagged hole where my home used to be.”13 Though Hurston would return again and again to Eatonville, her days of uninterrupted living there had come to an end.

In geography Eatonville is the literal center as well as the heart of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Little about West Florida, home of Logan Killicks, as a place is memorable; Hurston never lived here. While the muck of the Everglades is depicted with ample detail, especially the hurricane's effect on the land, mostly place is subsumed by the intensity of the deepening relationship between Tea Cake and Janie. At novel's end, when Tea Cake is dead and the trial over, Janie's life on the muck alone is just a “jagged hole where [her] home used to be.” Eatonville molded the author, toughened and readied her for the world outside its safe confines, and Eatonville molded the fictional Janie. It is in Eatonville that Janie learns to pack things up and “put away in parts of her heart” (72), those things that Joe Starks has crushed. It is in Eatonville where Janie thoroughly grasps the differences in her inside and outside selves. At novel's end, Eatonville, literally as town and figuratively as home, merges in the line: “Here was peace” (193).


Hurston begins and ends Their Eyes Were Watching God with references to the horizon: “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 horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time” (1). So begins the novel with this image of ships and seas. While the literal sea is nowhere to be found in the events of the novel's story, the sea itself becomes an important simile for love near the conclusion of the book: “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” (191). The point where the sea meets the distant shore is the horizon to which Janie must travel. While Hurston uses the sea to attract the reader's attention to the horizon, it is this far spot, the farthest the human eye can see, where the sky and the land/water meet, that matters. By the close of the book, Janie has experienced the horizon, and she is able to pull “in her horizon like a great fish-net,” drape it over her shoulder, and, apparently, live comfortably there—back in Eatonville, at home—with her soul (193). So ends the novel. Janie has made the trip. As she tells Pheoby, “you got tuh go there tuh know there” (192). Hurston's choice to use the simile “like a great fish-net” for the horizon returns the story's frame to a sea image, while also serving as a Christian symbol, as several of Jesus's disciples were fishermen, whom he taught to be fishers of men.

Use of the horizon dates to Hurston's earliest published short story, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” which first appeared in the May 1921 issue of Stylus, the campus literary magazine of Howard University. Young John Redding spent a lifetime dreaming of the day he could leave for the sea, for that place where “the sky seemed to touch the water. No matter what he dreamed or who he fancied himself to be, he always ended by riding away to the horizon; for in his childish ignorance he thought this to be farthest land.”14 In “Drenched in Light,” her second story and first published in the national magazine Opportunity in December 1924, she allows her young female protagonist, Isie Watts, to enter a similar flight of fancy. When Isie crawls under the table, she lies on her back and imagines herself riding “white horses with flaring pink nostrils to the horizon.”15 Created by Hurston, John Redding, Isie Watts, and Janie, are all a reflection of Hurston.

Hurston reports that her happiest times of her adult life were spent in a small house in Eau Gallie, a town today subsumed on all sides by Melbourne. From here she had easy access to the Atlantic Ocean. When she was in school in Jacksonville, after the death of her mother, she had firsthand experience with the St. John's River, which she refers to by name in the John Redding story. By its location, Florida's best visual horizons are naturally along the coastline, where ocean meets shore. While the story was in Hurston's head long before she wrote it out, the writing took place in Haiti, in a location where Hurston's view of the ocean was omnipresent.

Before the invention of television and air-conditioning, no child grew up during the early days of the last century who did not spend hour after hour reclined on some grassy or sandy knoll imagining whole new worlds in the clouds above. However, in Florida vegetation is often lush, dense, and obstructive to casting an eye to a far horizon. In order to see the horizon, to empower the child's imagination, the only place to do so around Eatonville was in the middle of the main road that divides the town. Even today it is possible to stand in the middle of Kennedy Boulevard and see far into the distant horizon.

This image of gazing down the road in search of a far horizon is repeated frequently in the novel. When Janie was a child, she “searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the road” (11). Through the “pollinated air” Johnny Taylor becomes a “glorious being” (11). Later she moves from the barn to “a place in the yard where she could see the road” (27). While watching the lacy patterns of oak leaves on the ground, Janie first hears the whistle of Joe Starks. Before Joe becomes incarnate, he is first but a whistle, a variation on a song, a possibility of potential harmony. Looking into the far horizon is an imaginative leap, enhanced by the childhood and adult pastime of gazing at clouds and ocean and speculating at the gatepost on travelers' lives and destinations as they ventured up and down the main road in front of Hurston's childhood home in Eatonville. When Janie gazes into the horizon she is like the Watcher of the novel's first paragraph; she is passive, and her “dreams [will be] mocked to death by Time” (1). Johnny's kiss is not from the “shiftless” boy of reality, and Joe's whistle is too little to know that it will become the call of a master to his lesser mate. Horizons are an invitation to actively go, not to passively receive. Only by Janie's own deliberate and intentional movement toward the horizon—her departure to Eatonville and later to the muck of the Everglades—will she gain the wisdom to be able to bring home the horizon and live within it.


When the stock market crashed in October 1929, the United States descended into a period of economic crisis and low business activity that lasted through most of the 1930s. While this crash directly affected the boom days of the Harlem Renaissance, it made little difference to the already poor people living in the southeastern states. Eudora Welty's photographs portray visually the message that poor people in Mississippi before, during, and after the Depression look much the same. In an introductory essay to those photographs, fellow southerner Reynolds Price points out the “apparent poverty of most of the black people and many of the white.”16

However, Hurston weathered the years of the Depression in a whirlwind of activity that took her from the Bahamas to New Orleans to the Bahamas to New Jersey to Harlem, to various cities in Florida—Winter Park, Eatonville, Sanford, Daytona, Loughman—and back to Harlem, and on to Jamaica and Haiti. Hurston was writing and directing plays, collecting folklore, starting and stopping a doctoral program at Columbia, teaching at Bethune-Cookman College, and publishing her first novel and collection of folklore. The years of the Great Depression for Hurston were arguably the most intellectually robust and productive years of her life.

The Depression altered the lifestyles of the rich and famous; the Dust Bowl of the Midwest prompted a great migration toward California. Many were hungry who had no previous knowledge of what that word meant. In the South the poor woke each day to a well-established and routine regimen of coming up short. Hunger was not new; the Depression became just another set of days to endure the yoke. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, written in Haiti in the waning days of the Depression, hunger is depicted by a rapacious appetite. Oddly, though, it is not an appetite sated by food. Hunger, so obviously real and food-related for so many during the Depression, is symbolic in the novel.

The porch dwellers of Eatonville pass nations through their mouths (1), chew up the back parts of their mind and swallow with relish (2). Mrs. Sumpkins sucks her teeth (3). Body parts metamorphose into food: buttocks become grape fruits (2); Sam Watson is a fish (75). Characters and their body parts are offered up to other characters: Janie knows she has entered into Mouth-Almighty on the porch (5); Tea Cake's teeth have to be removed from Janie's arm (184). Verbs and adjectives associated with fending off hunger but paired with other senses are brought into play: “Pheoby's hungry listening helped Janie to tell her story” (10), and the men on the muck “sat around stuffing courage into their ears” (156). Everybody wants to be filled, but food is the least of their concern. Tea Cake offers a chicken and macaroni supper to strangers out in Callahan, while hungry Janie waits and worries back in her Jacksonville boardinghouse room for the fish that Tea Cake went out to get for them (122). Tea Cake orchestrates a free-for-all in Mrs. Turner's eating house, where food itself becomes part of the arsenal for disruption and destruction (150–153). Pheoby comes through the intimate gate on the night of Janie's return, bearing mulatto rice, assuming that Janie could use sustenance, even though her offering “ain't so good dis time. Not enough bacon grease.” Pheoby knows that even when the food is not all it could be, “it'll kill hongry” (5). Hunger lurks; it is the enemy that must be killed. Hurston uses her characters' hunger metaphorically, directing the reader's attention to a larger thematic issue of human behavior.


J. B. Lippincott published Their Eyes Were Watching God on 18 September 1937; 286 pages long, it sold for $2. This was Hurston's second novel and her third published book. Further, her reputation as the leading female literary light of the Harlem Renaissance demanded critical attention in major publications. Throughout the novel's existence, critics have paid attention to it in three distinct blocks of time: upon its first being published in the fall of 1937, again in the 1970s when it was being discussed as one of the most unread masterpieces of American literature, and the full and mature exploration of its richness in the decade of the 1990s.

Hurston was alive for only the first wave of reviews. By the time Their Eyes Were Watching God appeared, she had already published Jonah's Gourd Vine, her first novel, and Mules and Men, her first collection of folklore. Both of these works were critically praised in periodicals aimed at a white audience. She had come to expect complimentary remarks. In Saturday Review of Literature, Time, New York Times Book Review, Nation, and New Republic, the reviews appeared within the first month after the publication of this second novel. Once again, Hurston's work earned her high praise. Where Hurston had just cause to be angry—and expressed that anger—was with two reviewers' comments: Richard Wright's review in New Masses and Alain Locke's brief paragraph in Opportunity.

Hurston knew that black writers were expected to write about the “Race Problem,” but she was “thoroughly sick of the subject.”17 For the most part, Hurston did not alter her writing—her topics, her position—based on any critical feedback. In fact, in the last years of her life, she had one rejection after another on her work on Herod the Great. Everywhere she turned, she was told to abandon the project. Until the day she died, Hurston believed in and continued work on Herod. Hurston never wrote for the critics.

Richard Wright's influential damning of the book in an October issue of New Masses is perhaps the most often referred to contemporary critical commentary on the novel. Reviews by whites in periodicals where a white audience was assumed, cautioned and encouraged potential readers not to let prejudices stand in the way. Others seem fixated on the Negro-ness of the text and the dialect that should not keep a white reader from trying; even though the book was about a black world, it really spoke about everyone. One male reviewer found Joe Starks more interesting than Janie, but all the female reviewers found Janie, especially in her egalitarian relationship with Tea Cake, the best part of the novel. Hurston was both praised for her use of Negro dialect and attacked for it. The attacks came from male black reviewers who felt that Hurston was pandering to the primitive and the minstrel tradition. Some had problems with the title, and Wright went so far as to claim the book was without ideas. Early on, one reviewer noted a connection with the Blues aesthetic. Hurston's folk speech and folklore fiction were pronounced as good as was available, but she was encouraged by these male reviewers not to hang back with the primitives but to move ahead and use her talents in the worthwhile service of social protest fiction. In short, what many saw as the beauty and strength of her use of language was seen by others as its greatest weakness for the primitive view presented of the race.

For the next three decades—during the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s—there were few readers of and very little critical attention paid to Their Eyes Were Watching God. The book was reissued by two separate presses during the 1960s, and yet another in 1970. During the 1970s, several events coincided that helped a new generation discover Hurston's novel and launched the second wave of critical attention. In the forefront of this activity were Robert Hemenway and Alice Walker. Hemenway's Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography in 1977 and a reissue of Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1978, both by the University of Illinois Press, and several important articles in Ms. magazine by the already well-known writer Alice Walker attracted widespread attention on college campuses, in literary circles, and among the country's many book clubs.

Those writing before Hemenway's biography was available attempted to establish biographical connections between Hurston and her characters, which yielded a limited view of the novel. Others began the work of placing Hurston within a literary context and wondered if she had created a new paradigm. One connected the search for identity with a search for Blackness, while another found the work a novel of Black Affirmation. Another saw that the protest novel was being redefined, suggesting that here was a feminine and individual protest. Yet another saw the novel as a triumph only in so much as it was separated from the white world, which apparently stood ready to destroy these black characters. Hemenway is the first to point out the organic metaphors in the book, making special reference to the pear blossom. One book-length study on the curriculum of women's studies courses noted the growing presence of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Finally, Hurston was associated with a black-woman identified woman movement, a tradition that was separate from and independent of other sub-sets of American literary traditions. At this time, it was expected that black female critics would write the best critical commentary on Hurston.

Another way to look at the critical attention that Hurston received through these three waves is to note that what began as comparatively short contemporary reviews of her novel in the first wave became assorted chapters within books or articles in many black journals in the second wave to, finally in the third wave, book-length studies of her work. Their Eyes Were Watching God is closing in on seventy years of age. Its presence on university women's studies and assorted literature class syllabi is ubiquitous. Within the decade of the 1990s, the novel has found its way into high school English classes as well. Most critics would agree that the seminal work of Henry Louis Gates, Jr. in The Signifying Monkey about Hurston ushered in this third wave.

Critics have looked at Hurston's work through economic, psychological, biographical, and folk lenses and most often used a feminist perspective until mid-way through the 1990s, when new consideration suggested the work was not the feminist-womanist manifesto that had been so long in vogue. Critics also looked at humor, the journey to spiritual wholeness, and the need to assert oneself through talking. Close readings on all her works by one critic determined that Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel of both traditional romance and a search for autonomy.



Before the book appeared, The Booklist [34 (1 September 1937): 71], a periodical of the American Library Association, announced its arrival. Clearly, the readership of this periodical was assumed to be white, and indicative of the times, if a book contained a “beautiful” female character, she was also assumed to be white. Something other than white was always specified. Janie is described as a “handsome, partly white Negro girl,” the location is a “Negro village,” and white readers are told that the “Negro speech is easy to read.” Within the paragraph, the unidentified writer names one of the locations as the Everglades. At this time, throughout the segregated South, public libraries meant “Whites Only.”

Herschel Brickell's New York Post (14 September 1937) review calls the novel a “woman's story … of a complete and happy woman” with a “refreshingly pagan undercurrent of the joy of life and an earthy wholesomeness that is both racial and universal.” Brickell applauds Hurston's ability to draw her characters “with an affection that completely transcends all self-consciousness.” Brickell wants people to read this book and addresses his dominantly white audience not to dismiss the book because it is about Negroes; he encourages these readers to “not let their prejudices cheat them of the pleasure of reading a book so stirring as this.” Brickell identifies the person to whom Hurston dedicates the book, Henry Allen Moe, as having connections with the Guggenheim Foundation. Both Moe and the Foundation should be proud.

George Stevens, writing for The Saturday Review of Literature [16 (18 September 1937): 3] on the first day of the book's availability for the public, begins by throwing doubt on Eatonville itself: “Whether or not there was ever a town in Florida inhabited and governed entirely by Negroes. …” Stevens assures the reader of his review that Eatonville's reality is of less importance since Hurston has either “reconstructed or imagined” the town with complete credibility. Stevens' curiosity took him to an atlas because he continues with “Eatonville is as real in these pages as Jacksonville is in the pages of Rand McNally.” In truth, it was almost sixty years before Rand McNally would indicate in print that “Eatonville” existed in the state of Florida. (The town is noted in the 2000 Rand McNally.) Its eventual appearance is related directly to the literary rise of Hurston, who, years after her death, would become its most famous citizen.

Stevens calls Hurston's title “misleading,” as “no religious element dominates this story of human relationships.” Joe Starks is his favorite character, calling to mind Sinclair Lewis's Babbitt (1922) and Eugene O'Neill's Emperor Jones (1920). Starks is “rewarding” to the reader, but a “disappointment to Janie.” While Stevens finds Janie less interesting than the men who court and marry her, he does sing praises for Hurston's ability to use language, especially the dialect of the dialogue: “No one has ever recounted the speech of Negroes with a more accurate ear for its raciness, its rich intention, and its music.”

Two days later Time [30 (20 September 1937): 71], in a short review coupled with Waters Edward Turpin's These Low Grounds, fabricates a word that serves as title, “Negropings.” From the tone of the piece, the word appears to suggest the idle gropings of Negro writers or the pings of Negro writers—neither interpretation is flattering to either writer being reviewed. The unidentified pen behind this review posits that Southerners would “simply disregard the equalitarian gropings implicit” in these novels and that Northerners would most likely find “some indigestible food for thought.” Both writers are identified as “Negro Authors,” and white readers are informed that they may well be opposed to “their violent brushwork,” but the reviewer's reply to the assumed white response is that “Negro life is violent.” Only a short paragraph of one sentence comments on Hurston's novel itself and each of its points is wrong—one point suggests that Janie outlives Tea Cake “because she was quicker on the trigger than he was,” which implies through omission a vindictive Janie; the other point claims that Janie has returned “to make her friends' eyes bug out” at her experiences, which suggests that Janie's motivations while away from Eatonville were aimed singularly at being able to take Joe's place among the porch dwellers. More than any other point, it calls attention to the fact that these books are the works of “Negro Authors”; what to do with Negro-ness appears to be the absorbing enigma.

Reviewing the book for The New York Times Book Review [(26 September 1937): 29], Lucy Tompkins comes closer to writing a summary report than a review, but she is the first to indicate Hurston's earlier works, though mistakenly referring to this second novel as her “third.” Tompkins also makes a comparison between Joe Starks and O'Neill's Emperor Jones: “But Jody, like the Emperor Jones, changed everything, and unlike the Emperor, nothing ever changed him.” Much of the review quotes Hurston's novel, so that Tompkins can illustrate what she considers beautiful prose. She frames her review with clear indications that she is writing for a white audience. Early on she states: “It is about Negroes, and a good deal of it is written in dialect, but really it is about every one.” She concludes by reasserting her affection for the book, praising it as a “well-nigh perfect story,” but reminding her readers, “In case there are readers who have a chronic laziness about dialect, it should be added that the dialect here is very easy to follow, and the images it carries are irresistible.” As long as the Negro speech is “easy,” then white readers need not fear it.

Appearing on the same day as the review in the Times was Sheila Hibben's commentary in New York Herald Tribune Books [(26 September 1937): 2]. To readers already familiar with Jonah's Vine Gourd and Mules and Men, Hibben suggests that the “vibrant Negro lingo” is to be found here as well. However, in this novel the “roots touch deeper levels of human life,” and “the story is filled with the ache of her own people” because “she is not too preoccupied with the current fetish of the primitive.” Hibben is the first to see that in Janie and Tea Cake's relationship, Hurston has succeeded in depicting “rapture and fun and tenderness and understanding—the perfect relationship of man and woman, whether they be black or white.” The equality in the relationship of Janie and Tea Cake, which will become a staple of the next wave of criticism, begins in this single comment. Though Hibben joins her contemporaries in not understanding the title, calling it “inept,” she vindicates Hurston by praising her depiction of “a swarming, passionate life, and in spite of Tea Cake's tragic end … there is a sense of triumph and glory.”

In New Masses [(5 October 1937): 22, 25], Richard Wright's condemnation of the novel occurs in several well-turned, yet thin paragraphs in a short review of both Hurston's and Turpin's novels, the same coupling as in the Time review. Wright claims both novelists lack “a basic idea or theme that lends itself to significant interpretation.” In summarizing the plot, Wright assigns the meanderings of Joe Starks, “from in and through Georgia,” to Tea Cake, and for some mysterious reason, Wright quotes the phrase and corrects Hurston's spelling—“Georgy”—even within the quotation marks. He suggests that Hurston should somehow know better and is surprised that she “voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theater” (Wright's emphasis), making a reference to the minstrel techniques that Wright claims make white readers laugh. He chides Hurston for keeping her world so narrow, and then trivializes her talent by summing up and dispensing with the novel that “carries no theme, no message, no thought.” He concludes by stating Hurston should have known better than to play to the expectations of a white audience that finds joy in seeing Negro life as “quaint,” enabling the “superior” race to evoke a “piteous smile.”

In contrast to the praise that the earliest reviewers granted Hurston for her ability to use language beautifully, Otis Ferguson, in New Republic [92 (13 October 1937): 276], suggests she is both “wordily pretty, even dull,” that her “dialect is sloppy,” and concludes that her “superwordy, flabby lyric discipline we are so sick of leaves a good story where it never should have been potentially: in the gray category of neuter gender, declension indefinite.” Ferguson offers the book faint praise through an opening litotes: “It isn't that this novel is bad, but that it deserves to be better.” He retells the plot of the story and gives his most positive comments inside a parentheses: “(the book is absolutely free of Uncle Toms, absolutely unlimbered of the clumsy formality, defiance and apology of a Minority Cause).”

Sterling Brown reviews the novel for Nation [145 (16 October 1937): 409–410] by identifying Hurston's “forte” as the “recording and the creation of folk-speech.” Brown is the first critic to make connections with the Blues aesthetics. Unlike Wright, he sees “bitterness,” sometimes “oblique” and sometimes “forthright” in Hurston's comments on the white race, particularly in the days of cleaning up and burying the dead in the aftermath of the hurricane. He does, however, refer to Joe Starks as Jody “Sparks,” which removes from Hurston's character the symbolic suggestions of the name of the man who provided Janie a “stark” existence by keeping her outside of the rich laughter of the porch dwellers.

Three January 1938 reviews conclude this early wave of response to Hurston's second novel. In the Journal of Negro History [23 (January 1938): 106–107], Ethel Forrest finds the novel “a gripping story” and the writing style “natural and easy.” Forrest suggests that “in order to acquaint herself with the customs and habits of the people portrayed,” Hurston “lived among the Negroes of Florida and southern Georgia.” She sees the book as the result of intentional study of the people who would become fictional characters: Hurston “understood the working of their minds, learned to speak their language.” Forrest applauds the love story of Janie and Tea Cake, suggesting its evocative power demonstrates Hurston's understanding of the South: “Every phase of the life of the Negro in the south, like self-segregation of the Negroes themselves and the race hatred displayed by the southern white man has been interwoven in this book.”

W. A. Hunton, in the Journal of Negro Education [7 (January 1938): 71–72], compares the light-heartedness of Tea Cake with Sportin' Life in George and Ira Gershwin's opera Porgy and Bess (1935). Hunton points out the “healthy scorn” that he believes Hurston has “for the Negro's endeavor to pattern his life according to white bourgeois standards.” While he praises her ability to “translate folk speech into written prose,” he believes that characters do best when they speak for themselves; when Hurston interprets them, they become “two-dimensional.” In other words, complications between the races are smoothed out; the two examples he gives include the trial scene and the apparent easy ability of Joe Starks to buy land in Eatonville from the white man. Hunton argues that “it is too late in the day for such myopia,” and that if she wants to make the best use of her talent, “she must likewise change her point of view—and her audience.”

To conclude this first wave, Alain Locke in Opportunity [16 (January 1938): 10] included his comments in an overview of ten works of fiction of the Negro in 1937. Locke gives the novel one substantive paragraph, claiming the book should not be retold, but rather the book should be read. He praises the book as “folklore fiction at its best,” but asks the question, politely, that is no longer a new one: “When will the Negro novelist of maturity who knows how to tell a story convincingly,—which is Miss Hurston's cradle-gift, come to grips with motive fiction and social document fiction?” Locke has had enough of “entertaining pseudo-primitives.” He sees Hurston's audience as the white reader, and he thinks that these laughing/joking characters suggest that all is right with the world—the way it is—in the 1937 American South.


Before Hemenway's biography and after Hurston's death in 1960, the best available source of biographical information about Hurston was her 1942 autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. From the beginning various critics have seen this source as unreliable. Depending on that autobiography, however, Darwin Turner's chapter, “Zora Neale Hurston: The Wandering Minstrel,” in his book, In a Minor Chord: Three Afro-American Writers and Their Search for Identity (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1970), suggests that the image of Hurston that takes shape is “an imaginative, somewhat shallow, quick-tempered woman, desperate for recognition and reassurance to assuage her feelings of inferiority.” In reference to this image, “one must examine her novels, her folklore, and her view of the Southern scene” (98). Turner sees her writing through a psychological lens, which limits and colors her characters to reflect Hurston's life and experiences, and about Their Eyes Were Watching God specifically, he picks on her “tendency to report dramatic incident rather than to involve the reader with the emotions of the characters” (106). He suggests that she was incapable of giving up caricature and connected Hurston herself with Mrs. Turner's color prejudices (106–107). Further, she did not fare well in integrating folk material into her story; Turner implies that Hurston's tales extend through digression the action of the story. Finally, he sees her “emphasis upon intraracial and intrafamilial hatred” (108) as the most obvious fiction writer before Richard Wright to describe violence with black families.

Addison Gayle, Jr.'s The Way of the New World: The Black Novel in America (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1975) places Hurston and her writing in a chapter about “The Outsider.” Gayle sees Hurston as creating in Janie an example of a black woman rebelling against the definition of the expected role of black women, especially in the South. Gayle submits that Janie, with Logan Killicks, is rejecting the traditional role of black woman; with Joe Starks, Janie is rejecting the role of white woman in the manner in which she was treated. Janie and Tea Cake together act against accepted standards. With Tea Cake, Janie “moved to validate her own womanhood in new terms. Neither sexual object, nor shallow imitation woman of the big house, she emerged from the novel as modern black woman” (146–147). Gayle's position is an historical one, as he tries to make sense of Hurston's place within the Harlem Renaissance and alongside of Fisher, Toomer, Hughes, and McKay, who all “went to the proletariat to seek values” (147). Most importantly, Gayle sees Janie as “not the completion of the new paradigm, but only evidence of an important beginning” (147).

Along with Gayle, Hemenway offers Mary Helen Washington (“Black Woman's Search for Identity,” Black World, 21 (August 1972): 68–75), as the other best critic of Hurston's novel. Washington is the first critic to connect Janie's search for identity with her search for Blackness: “The descent into the Everglades is the last in a series of steps by which Janie discovers and comes to terms with her Blackness.” Both Nanny and Joe Starks wanted for Janie a kind of separateness, a superior position to and treatment from those around her. Janie ultimately defines herself by her own good judgment. Washington also points out how Hurston escapes “one of the plagues of Black literature—the handicap of having its most passionate feelings directed at ‘The Man.’” As with every black female critic in the first two waves, Washington joins them in singing the praises of Hurston's depiction of the egalitarian love between Janie and Tea Cake.

Two years later and fourteen years after her death, Black World featured Hurston on the cover of their August 1974 issue. June Jordan, in “On Richard Wright and Zora Neale Hurston: Notes Toward a Balancing of Love and Hatred” (Black World, 23 [August 1974]: 4–8), warns that “we almost lost Zora to the choose-between games played with Black Art.” She expresses dismay that Hurston, until recently, was not read, not known, and that this was “an appalling matter of record.” Richard Wright wrote novels of Black Protest, and Hurston wrote novels of Black Affirmation. Jordan argues that both are necessary; the either/or, like choosing King or Malcolm X, is “both tragic and ridiculous.” Jordan praises Their Eyes Were Watching God as a novel of “contagious, full Blacklove that makes you want to go and seek and find, likewise, soon as you finish the book.”

In this same issue Ellease Southerland (Black World, 23 [August 1974]: 20–29) reviews each of Hurston's works. She identifies Their Eyes Were Watching God as being “widely read in universities, in Black Studies classes,” calling its “positive vibrations” a welcome departure from the “grim, death-ridden themes that weigh so many novels.” Southerland calls it the “first novel of a Black woman in search of joy, love, happiness,” but she also focuses attention on Hurston's oft-repeated references to the low opinion men hold of women's minds.

In Black Writers of the Thirties (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1973) James O. Young undercuts the critical definition of “protest novel” as Richard Wright used it by redefining the term and applying it to Hurston. She too, he claims, wrote protest novels—not about race or class, but about feminine and individual protest. Because of the mutual love in Janie and Tea Cake's relationship, their life represented “an act of rebellion against outer-imposed definitions—against things as they are supposed to be.” Wright protested things as they were; Hurston protested things as they were supposed to be. Young claims that Hurston is “less concerned than any other black writer during the period with the conventional problems of the Negro.” In spite of the fact that he finds much of significance in the novel, he still says it “suffers from a lack of plot and faulty structure.” As Young sees the writers of the thirties, however, they are by and large a male lot. Only Alice Dunbar-Nelson, Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Margaret Walker, along with Hurston, receive even the briefest of mention.

Roger Rosenblatt, in his book Black Fiction (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1974), writes of Hurston's novel in a chapter called “Eccentricities.” He sees Janie's progress as moving toward personal freedom, beginning “as a minor character in her own life story.” Rosenblatt points out the ongoing opposition to Janie's humanity and claims that Janie can only flourish with Tea Cake when they avoid the white world entirely. There is a world waiting, outside their “fantasy of independence,” to destroy them completely.

So the criticism went in the early 1970s. Meanwhile, Robert Hemenway was at work on Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), which took him eight years to research and write. The biography, still in print after almost a quarter of a century, has not been superceded by another in-depth study. Though others have added to the ongoing scholarship of the chronology and life of Hurston, Hemenway is still the most reliable and comprehensive biographical source. He places the writing of Their Eyes Were Watching God in Haiti, in the course of seven straight weeks. As to be expected, Hemenway begins with a biographical account of the novel; for example, attributing Tea Cake's model as Hurston's twenty-three-year-old lover; Joe Starks' model as Eatonville's Joe Clarke. From Hurston's affair, Hemenway believes she took from that relationship the “quality of its emotion,” more specifically “its tenderness, its intensity, and perhaps its sense of ultimate impossibility” (231). Hemenway calls the novel a culmination of a “fifteen-year effort to celebrate her birthright” and that in the act of writing this novel she was able to “reconcile public career and private emotion” (232). Up to this point in critical commentary, Hemenway points out that nobody had spent much time looking at the organic metaphors used to portray Janie's emotional life. He sees the blossoming pear tree that permeates the novel and suggests that its uses provide a “resolution of time and space, man and nature, subject and object, life and death” (234). When characters are not a part of the organic process of birth, growth, and death, they are left out of the rhythm of the universe and the essence of the novel's action.

Before Hemenway finished his biography, Alice Walker published in Ms. (March 1975) “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” a narrative about finding Hurston's grave and the decision to honor her memory with a gravestone. Walker's last several paragraphs of the essay attracted attention to and readers for the little-known woman upon whom Walker directs her eloquence: “There are times—and finding Zora Hurston's grave was one of them—when normal responses of grief, horror, and so on do not make sense because they bear no real relation to the depth of the emotion one feels.” Hemenway asked Walker to write the foreword to his biography. Her response was “Zora Neale Hurston—A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View.” While not a critical commentary on the novel, a single line from this foreword has had positive results in bringing new readers to Their Eyes Were Watching God. This novel would be one of ten Walker would take to the proverbial desert island because she claims: “I would want to enjoy myself while identifying with the black heroine, Janie Crawford, as she acted out many roles in a variety of settings, and functioned (with spectacular results!) in romantic and sensual love. There is no book more important to me than this one” (xiii). Walker's popular The Color Purple, published in 1982 and winner of the Pulitzer Prize and National Book Award, casts a spotlight on her and her opinions, which significantly helped attract a new generation of readers to Hurston's novel, which by 1978 was finally available in local bookstores everywhere. Walker and Hemenway deserve the credit not only for garnering a new reading audience for Hurston, but also for ushering in the beginning of more serious and thoughtful critical responses.

A final anthology in this second wave, one that contributed to preparing the way for the third wave, is Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith's All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men, but Some of Us Are Brave: Black Women's Studies (Old Westbury, N.Y.: The Feminist Press, 1982). Serving as a broad canvas for the early roots of black feminism, including black woman's place in women's studies courses, collection of sample syllabi of courses on black women writers, assorted essays on the critical reception of black women writers, this compendium offers frequent references to Hurston and Their Eyes Were Watching God. Important within this study is Lorraine Bethel's “‘This Infinity of Conscious Pain’: Zora Neale Hurston and the Black Female Literary Tradition.” Claiming an “intellectual lynching” by white and black men and white women, Bethel's argument is that Hurston belongs in “a separable and identifiable tradition of Black women writers simultaneously existing within and independent of the American, Afro-American and American female literary traditions” (178). She is not just Black-identified, but “Black-woman identified Black woman” (179), seeing and writing about her characters' experiences through the lens of both a woman and a Black in a “society where these areas of experience are generally regarded as valueless, insignificant, and inferior” (179).


The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988) by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. ushers in a period of more lengthy, considered responses to Hurston's work. His important chapter “Zora Neale Hurston and the Speakerly Text” acknowledges Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God as the “first example in [the black] tradition of ‘the speakerly text,’ by which [he] mean[s] a text whose rhetorical strategy is designed to represent an oral literary tradition” (181). In order to explore Hurston more thoughtfully, Gates brings into his discussion Wright's Native Son, Toomer's Cane, and Ellison's Invisible Man. Hurston's “legacy to Afro-American fiction is a lyrical and disembodied yet individual voice” that depicts a search for a black literary language, which “defines the search for the self” (183). Gates credits Hurston with introducing free indirect discourse into Afro-American narration, a term which suggests a merging in narrative commentary and direct discourse. For example, when Janie uses the metaphor of trees, with its dozens of repetitions, she “reveals precisely the point at which [her] voice assumes control over the text's narration” (186).

In Specifying: Black Women Writing the American Experience (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1987) Susan Willis argues that black women's writing is connected to history and that a character's individual personality develops “in relation to the historical forces that have shaped the migrations of her race, the struggles of her community, and the relationships that have developed within her family” (3). When Willis states that “the black woman's relationship to history is first of all a relationship to mother and grandmother” (5), she pegs Hurston's novel, for Janie learns of her identity and her heritage from her grandmother. Willis sees the novel as moving through “three historically produced economic modes” (46). Janie's first marriage to Logan represents the brutality of the sharecropping system, which stifled dreams, killed the spirit, and denied art, imagination, and creativity. Her second marriage represents “the nascent black bourgeoisie, hell-bent for progress and ready to beat white society at its own game” (47). Finally, in a departure from black Northern migration, Janie and Tea Cake, in their atypicality, go to the muck, which represents a “mythic space.” Willis's economic thesis breaks down before Hurston's more important agenda of depicting a “truly reciprocal relationship” (48).

In Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien's edited collection called Faith of a (Woman) Writer, Gay Wilentz contributes “Defeating the False God: Janie's Self-Determination in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: Greenwood Press, 1988. 285–291). Wilentz argues that the title of the book implies a dual God—one “to whom we look for answers and pray for help and … the other god, the cruel, false god who definitely needs watching” (286). Janie's experiences have helped her see that folks need to stop watching “god” and “find out what their own lives are about before they go to God” (290). Wilentz associates the god that needs watching with the white hegemony; for Hurston, what is worth paying attention to is the richness of Janie's fight for self-determination, the joy of experiencing herself in a world distinct from a white world.

The first edited collection, New Essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990), was the work of Michael Awkward. In his introductory essay, he gives an overview of Hurston's critical reception from the publication of Their Eyes to the rediscovery of the novel forty years later. He suggests that the earlier political climate, which did not favor Hurston's agenda, in time became a more favorable rediscovery and a new critical appreciation. The essays that comprise the book move from personal biographical links to a feminist perspective. Here, a sense of much to come is noted: “Their Eyes Were Watching God possesses a power and insight that should continue to compel, inspire, and fascinate readers of American novels” (21). The volume includes essays by Robert Hemenway, Nellie McKay, Hazel Carby, and Rachel Blau DuPlessis.

Zora in Florida (Orlando: University of Central Florida Press, 1991) is a collection of essays edited by Steve Glassman and Kathryn Lee Seidel, which focuses on “the place that gave [Hurston] her inspiration, the frontier wilderness of central Florida” (ix). While Their Eyes Were Watching God is often alluded to, most essays here respond to her nonfiction books, some short stories, and her less well-known novels.

Looking at humor in Hurston, John Lowe's Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston's Cosmic Comedy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994) features a significant chapter, “Laughin' Up a World: Their Eyes Were Watching God and the (Wo)Man of Words.” Lowe sees Jonah's Gourd Vine as having been good practice ground for Hurston in her preparation to develop the powerful Janie. She learns that humor “can be constructive, supportive, and joyous, and that it can create personal and communal harmony as well as discord” (157), from this starting point Lowe launches his argument.

Deborah G. Plant's Every Tub Must Sit on Its Own Bottom: The Philosophy and Politics of Zora Neale Hurston (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1995) attempts to reclaim Hurston's intellectual life. Plant admits to using a variety of critical approaches—“narratological, biographical, archetypal, womanist, psychoanalytic, expressive, sociological, Black aesthetic” (1). Plant reminds the reader that 1990s critics were beginning to question the “categorical and uncritical portrayal of … Their Eyes as the feminist-womanist manifesto” (169). A few of these overlooked moments in the novel that Plant alludes to include Janie's lack of female friends on the muck, male violence toward Janie from Tea Cake, the violent excessiveness of Tea Cake's demise, Janie's aloneness in the world as the pathway to “psychospiritual freedom” (173).

Among the women of Women of the Harlem Renaissance (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1995), Cheryl A. Wall examines most especially the movement's three central female literary artists: Jessie Fauset, Nella Larsen, and Zora Neale Hurston. The goal of the book “is to chart the journeys of the women of the Harlem Renaissance,” examining both “the journeys they traveled to create their literary texts and the journeys those texts depict” (xv). In the chapter called “Zora Neale Hurston's Traveling Blues,” Wall places Hurston in geographical locale during the writing of Their Eyes Were Watching God and matches incidents, characters, and moments in the novel with non-fictional personalities and places of Mules and Men. Wall argues that Janie's journey to spiritual wholeness “draws on hoodoo iconography as well as biblical allusion and blues stoicism” (192). Janie's search, as Hurston's search, is one of finding the language in which to contemplate the ideas. The hurricane becomes an “analogue to the initiation rituals” (193); it is only on the other side of that tempestuous rout that Janie can move from questioning God to watching God and understand the world turned upside down, understand God dwarfing the white man's hegemonic control.

Lynda Marion Hill explores Hurston's career as a dramatist and performing artist in Social Rituals and the Verbal Art of Zora Neale Hurston (Washington, D.C.: Howard University Press, 1996). Hill connects the plays of Hurston with her interest and deep knowledge of folklore. By extension, she draws links among moments of Hurston's life, the writing of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and her use of folklore in this novel in particular.

By the mid-nineties, scholarship on Hurston abounded. The time had come for Rose Parkman Davis to compile Zora Neale Hurston: An Annotated Bibliography and Reference Guide (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1997). In a helpful compendium, she catalogs 26 books about Hurston, 137 dissertations that included Hurston, 170 essays and book chapters about Hurston, and another 205 periodical essays about Hurston, dating from the 1930s to 1997. Her brief paragraph commentaries are clearly articulated.

In The Assertive Woman in Zora Neale Hurston's Fiction, Folklore, and Drama (New York: Garland, 1998), Pearlie Mae Fisher Peters examines the ways Hurston's female character “habitually uses male-female relationships in a courtship or a marriage situation to stress the importance of spoken language or folk speech in conveying one's sense of worth and self-respect” (xvi). In the concluding chapter on Janie, Peters shows how the “talk experience” is essential to shaping the total existence of an assertive woman. In short, she can become assertive only through her own talk, by using her own tongue, and that voice will always be the voice rooted, nourished, and in full bloom in the garden of folk wisdom of central Florida's African-American population.

Toward the end of the decade, another collection of essays on Hurston's work appeared. In Gloria L. Cronin's Critical Essays on Zora Neale Hurston (New York: G. K. Hall, 1998), she compiles seven responses to Hurston's Their Eyes from an historical perspective. While the first three are contemporary reviews of the novel upon its first publication in 1937, the latter essays move ahead by five decades, to the late 1980s. Cronin's span demonstrates the movement from early aspersions cast upon a black woman's love story to the later praise and celebration of a black woman's love story.

Susan Edwards Meisenhelder's Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Race and Gender in the Work of Zora Neale Hurston (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999) is a close textual analysis of Hurston's work. Claiming that Hurston has not been the subject of much close reading and that ungrounded generalizations can easily result, Meisenhelder explores the “complex interaction of race and gender in the lives of black people” (13). While Hurston might prefer to “specify” instead of “signify,” to lambaste rather than lampoon, the complications of a heterogeneous reading audience and the times in which she wrote, Hurston, Meisenhelder argues, was deliberate in the care with which she wrote about the inequities she saw in the dominant world. She sees Hurston's novel as both a story of traditional romance, but, perhaps more importantly, a “quest … of survival and self-affirming autonomy” (91). The narrator is Janus-faced; both readings are possible.


Psychological or biographical criticism focuses on the mental activities of writers, often analyzing works in such a way as to read the work through the author's personality or, conversely, to use the work to understand the author. This approach restricts both text and its writer by the assumption that the writer is no more than the story or that the story is no more than its writer. Often this approach is not necessarily theorized in critical terms.

However, psychoanalytical criticism uses a well-defined theoretical framework, with terminology coming from Sigmund Freud, who articulated clearly his position that the mind operates both consciously and unconsciously. Critics may approach the text by looking first for the moments in which the id, superego, and ego are delineated. The id is the unconscious part of the psyche, which insatiably seeks pleasure, while the superego serves as an outside check, for it has internalized the conventions of society. Between the two resides the ego, which, out of the conscious part of the psyche, offers rational, logical, and orderly views. The work of the ego is to mediate between the id and the superego, often helping to repress wishes and desires of the unconscious that can emerge in dreams, in language, in creative activity, or in neurotic behavior. Countering Freud's position is Carl Jung's idea of the collective unconscious, in which the whole human race shares memories that date back to the beginning of human experience. These memories are manifested in dreams, myths, and literature. Freudians would speak of a disguised expression of repressed wishes, but Jungians would suggest a manifestation of those desires once held by all people.

Psychoanalytic critics treat metaphors as dream condensations and metonymy, a figure of speech in which one thing suggests another, as dream displacements. In Hurston's book the organic metaphors of pear blossoms and trees, both full grown and as stumps and branches, lend themselves to psychoanalytical criticism.

Archetypal criticism, according to Jung, focuses on identifying the original model from which something is developed that universally crosses all cultures. When these archetypes are encountered within a text, memories are evoked that elicit primordial feelings that cannot be logically explained. Examples include the trickster figure, the flood, and the savior. Hurston's hurricane lends itself to archetypal exploration. Within the work of archetypal criticism, mythological criticism focuses on identifying repeating mythic structures and themes. An example from Hurston would be those critics who have examined Tea Cake, the son of Evening Sun, and Janie's love for him within the Osiris and Isis myths.

Marxist criticism posits that economics provides the base, or infrastructure, of society from which a superstructure consisting of law, politics, philosophy, and art emerges. Texts are material products that can be understood in broadly historical terms, as they are the product of work. Marxist critics emphasize the role of class and political convictions and address the role of material conditions in shaping the literary product. Susan Willis's work is such an example as she tracks Janie's marriages through economic development.

Structuralist critics believe that literature may be understood as part of a system of signs. Charles Sanders Pierce, Ferdinand de Saussure, and Claude Lévi-Strauss all contributed to the development of semiotics, the study of signs and how meaning is derived from them. In this text-centered approach, critics focus on a scientific analysis of the conventions and rules that govern how the text means what it does. The emphasis shifts from how authors write to how readers interpret. Semiotics is composed of the signifier, or sound image, (a reference to, but distinct from, the thing itself) and the signified, or abstract concept represented by the signifier, (more closely akin to the thing itself). Structuralist critics believed that a close study of the text itself would yield its unique meaning. However, post-structuralist critics, sometimes referred to as deconstructionist critics, work to subvert structuralists. They are unified in their opposition, but not their approaches. Some post-structuralists see all signifieds as also signifiers, making meaning within a text unstable and uncertain. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has found in his signifying monkey a cultural image for the rhetorical practices of indirection and irony. Gates, an adherent of sign systems as a structuralist, has moved toward post-structuralism in finding the sources for signs in African American texts within the Black tradition.

Feminist criticism embodies multiple concerns and approaches, representing varying ethnicities. One of the earliest concerns had to do with language and the discovery that language itself is phallocentric, biased toward masculine leanings in that it is considered, through an analysis of binary oppositions, to be full of light, reason, and activity, whereas feminine language is considered dark, emotive, and passive. Men's language is symbolic while women's is semiotic, leaning toward being rhythmic and unifying, less concerned with a hierarchical opposing and ranking. A French feminist critic declared feminine language diffusive and noted the connection between women's sexuality and women's language. In the United States feminist critics approached old canonical works through a close textual reading and historical scholarship to look anew at how women characters are portrayed, developing a gynocriticism, out of which women's history could be rediscovered. As a result of the work of feminist scholars, neglected works and forgotten writers have been brought into the literary canon, making it a canon that better represents the female perspective.

Feminist criticism, according to Annette Kolodny, should include a “playful pluralism,” in which issues of race, class, and culture can be explored, as well as religion and sexual orientation. Feminisms became plural to include the variety of its forms and goals. Personal and autobiographical criticism, in which critics included their own personal reactions and feelings about a text, came into vogue. A key example of this would be Alice Walker's statement that there was no book more important to her than Their Eyes Were Watching God. Early black female critics often commented that they would like to find a Tea Cake in their own lives.

To many black female scholars, feminist criticism was neither satisfactory nor comprehensive enough to suggest their unique and specific concerns. Barbara Smith, Barbara Christian, and Deborah McDowell called for and developed criteria for a black feminist criticism, while Alice Walker introduced anew the term womanist criticism to refer to African American feminism. Black feminist criticism couples the analytical and the pragmatic as a means to comprehend and dismantle gender- and race-related oppression. Black feminist critics pushed for a black canon that reflected a complete range of women's experiences, with characters that drew their strength from various identities and experiences. These critics encouraged a full exploration of women relying on their inner strengths to fight oppression in order to heal themselves—both in their personal relationships and on a public, political front within their greater communities.

Alice Walker develops her womanist concept in her 1983 collection of essays, which date from 1967 to the early 1980s, In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens: Womanist Prose. She defines the word as coming from a folk term, “womanish,” of African American origins, which means a boldness; premature adulthood; a spirit of inquiry inappropriate to children, especially girls; suggesting capability, responsibility, and leadership. A womanist loves women, womanhood, women's culture, and men (either sexual or platonic love) and is committed to the betterment of an entire people, relishing both the universality and diversity of the black race. A womanist loves herself and values the important characteristics of the African American experience in general. Walker felt that a womanist criticism accounted for sex, race, and class issues in African American women, while compensating for the shortcomings of feminist discourse that have disregarded issues pertinent to African American women. A womanist approach is neither restricted by nor limited to the traditional white feminist or the African American male discourse.

Hurston, of course, is seen as the most notable womanist writer and is considered the literary foremother by African American women writers of today. In her fiction, non-fiction, and drama Hurston addresses questions of gender, race, and class. Her anthropological writings depict an African presence in America that reflects a more global vision of the black race. Hurston serves as both a writer of womanist criticism and the subject best portrayed through the theoretical lens of womanist or black feminist criticism.


Janie's story is a woman's story, but more expressly so, it is a black woman's story. Hurston uses Janie's black hair as one of the ways she makes this point. Responses to Janie's hair not only separate the men's position from the women's, but also helps establish a clear standard of beauty and superiority to white women.

Hurston's third-person narrator opens the novel by noting a difference between men and women: men are realists; women are dreamers. For men, the things they wish for happen or they don't. Reality is less important to women, for reality exists only in what they choose to remember. Hurston calls immediate attention to the complexity of women's ways. In the dream and out of the dream, women make choices. This is the beginning, the return of a woman. Since women's ways are not measured by reality, the story hints at something far more interesting, a world that exists by its own making, a woman's world, a woman's story. Once the bossman, the mules, and the porches come into the picture, the woman's world is clearly a place of hard-working men who provide physical labor in a Southern climate. Women on the porch respond first: one laughs, another snorts, and yet another drawls, confirming that the setting is the South. The bantering conversation that ensues is unidentified, but it makes sense that women are the talkers. Men are still looking, having noticed Janie's body: her long-plumed black hair, her grapefruit buttocks, her pugnacious breasts. The narrative voice has the men noticing Janie unassembled, dismembered into body parts, the parts that interest them. By the time Pheoby leaves to take Janie some dinner, no man has spoken. The women want the story; they have not noticed the body parts, only the faded shirt and the muddy overalls. Men notice what is behind and under the clothes; women notice the clothes themselves. Minutes later with Pheoby in Janie's backyard, the eighteen months Janie has been away melt instantly. Janie will tell her story to another woman, one who can easily enter the dream with her. Pheoby will accept the story on Janie's terms; nothing needs to be justified, explained, ordered, prioritized. Pheoby has no interest in holding Janie accountable; the story she will tell is hers; the parts she includes are those she wants to remember. Nor is there need to edit her story; “young darkness” will become “a monstropolous old thing” before Janie finishes (7).

Hurston waits for the third page before she uses the first of her Negro dialect, but a reference to “quality white folks” (8), a house in the backyard, a bunch of children not related that all called her grandmother “Nanny,” while Janie calls their mother “Mis' Washburn” all contribute to definitively identifying Janie as not white before she self-identifies. Janie's choice is to do so by negating white; she “didn't know [she] wuzn't white” (8) until in a group picture she sees “a real dark little girl” (9). She recognizes neither her body nor her color, but her clothes and her hair confirm that she is “colored!” (9).

Throughout the book, of all Janie's physical attributes, her hair gets the most attention: Logan plays with it, Joe asks her to hide it from others' sight, and Tea Cake likes it long and swinging, just the way she wears it when she comes home to Eatonville. The part of her that Janie uses to identify herself as colored is repeated in Janie's telling; she knows her hair, and she knows its power—with men and with Mrs. Turner, the color-struck woman who, to Tea Cake, looks despicably “lak uh white woman! Wid dat meriny skin and hair jus' as close tuh her head as ninety-nine is tuh un hundred!” This is solidly a black world, and in this world the standard for physical beauty is measured against the beauty of colored Janie.

In the beginning, Logan must have been captivated with Janie's hair because the reader is told that before the year ended, “Janie noticed that her husband … had ceased to wonder at her long black hair and finger it” (26). As Logan apparently grows disenchanted with Janie's attitude toward him, Joe arrives from out of the horizon, and to attract the attention of the whistling man, Janie pumps water so hard that it “made her heavy hair fall down” (27). Joe, who had been minding his own business, stops and takes a look. Later, when he offers her that far horizon, he wants her to kiss him and shake her head: “When you do dat, yo' plentiful hair breaks lak day” (30). When Joe and Janie arrive in Eatonville, the men of the town are taken with Janie, but one declares, “'Tain't nothin' to her 'ceptin' dat long hair” (38). Since Janie's hair is what first attracted Joe, he knows better than to have a wife working in his store with her hair hanging down. One of the local men asks, “Whut make her keep her head tied up lak some old 'oman round de store? Nobody couldn't git me tuh tie no rag on mah head if Ah had hair lak dat” (49).

In Janie's dreams, though, her hair hangs free. After Joe slaps her so hard that Janie separates her inside self from her outside self, she still works in the store, but her inside self goes outside and rests “under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair and her clothes” (77). That headrag she wears in the store at Joe's bidding is not part of how she sees herself, the one that is beginning to matter most. When Joe dies, her self-esteem improves as she looks at herself in the mirror: “She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there” (87).

Once Tea Cake comes courting and Janie is in that temporary status—falling in love for the first time in her life and wanting someone who she is not sure wants her back—she turns again to the mirror: “she took a good look at her mouth, eyes and hair” (106). Janie's hair works like a magnet, not only to the men who are drawn to her through it, but also, in a way, to herself; her hair in all its glory sustains her. She, too, wants to see it. When Janie falls asleep for the first time in Tea Cake's presence, he wakes her with his combing her hair. He had brought the comb with him: “Come prepared tuh lay mah hands on it tonight” (103). Clearly, in Tea Cake's mind's eye when he is not with Janie, he sees her hair; he wants to tangle his fingers in its plentifulness.

Mrs. Turner's attraction to Janie includes not only her “coffee-and-cream complexion” but also her “luxurious hair” (140). While Mrs. Turner takes blackness as a personal affront, Hurston uses Tea Cake's wrath to show just how bad an idea it is to mock the skin she owns. It is his plan to destroy her eating house, and, as a bonus, the victorious bout also nets him freedom from this ugly woman, as she flees to Miami. Tea Cake's comparison of Mrs. Turner's hair to white hair serves to firmly establish the ugliness of one to the superior beauty of the other. Janie is the standard-bearer.

When the story of Janie passes through the ordinary days of life on the muck or the extraordinary time during the hurricane, Janie's hair subsides into the routine of daily work or the focused fury of the storm's dominance. After Tea Cake's death, life on the black muck is too painful without him, and there is no reason to stay. Home again, after she finishes telling her tale, Janie goes upstairs to bed, and the last thing she does before settling in for the night is to comb her hair: “Combing road-dust out of her hair. Thinking” (192). Hurston foregoes any reference to its glory, luxuriousness, or plentifulness and associates the activity of combing with thinking. Janie has, after all, come home from the muck. She has walked along dirt roads; the hair is just hair now; it must be tended to, and she has the rest of her life to think about. At this point, Janie does not need to bask in the beauty of her hair; she needs no mirror. Janie knows who she is, knows that she is more than her hair, because she has been—and will continue to be—“a delegate to de big 'ssociation of life” (6).



Charles Chesnutt's 1899 The Conjure Woman is a collection of short stories that draws heavily on folklore. The white narrator, John, and his wife leave Ohio to reside in North Carolina, where they meet Uncle Julius McAdoo, who becomes the coachman and tells stories about the conjure woman, Aunt Peggy. Chesnutt's stories include both an exterior frame, narrated by John, who offers an idyllic portrait of the postbellum South, and an interior story narrated by Uncle Julius, who informs John about Southern life and culture as he sees it. True to the form of slave tales, double meanings coexist. Uncle Julius's explanations appear simple on the surface but embedded within his telling are examples of his own cunning. He undercuts the wholesome picture of the South created by the external narrator, who is invariably and repeatedly outwitted by clever Uncle Julius. Chesnutt explores psychological intricacies of the lives of blacks in the midst of violence and racial hatred.

Chesnutt's tales make interesting reading beside Joel Chandler Harris's 1880 Uncle Remus: His Songs and His Sayings. Harris, a white man who spent some of his youth on a plantation near Eatonton, Georgia, during the days of the Civil War, learned firsthand the plantation lore that he later turned into commercially successful children's stories about the adventures of the ever-clever Br'er Rabbit. From Harris's artfully spelled Negro dialect, generations of southern, white children grew up hearing these tales read aloud by similarly naive white parents, who never understood the double meanings of the wily actions of Br'er Rabbit.

The inspiration for Jean Toomer's 1923 Cane came from a short hiatus in Sparta, Georgia, not far from Harris's home in Eatonton. Unlike any other book that existed at the time, Toomer's short, yet dense book is a compilation of songs, poetry, and short fiction that reflects the actual folk speech of the blacks he worked among in Sparta. The work today may be classified as a prose poem, with compact and precise images combined with the flowing cadence of prose. The book is divided into three parts; the first is set in a black, Southern, rural landscape and is an intellectual attempt to understand the rich texture and complexity of (white and black) men's attraction to black women. Particularly horrifying and yet beautiful in its language is the story “Blood-Burning Moon,” as Toomer makes clear the power and embedded violence and doom in black-white love relationships. The second part of Cane is set in Washington, D.C., and the third part tells the story of Kabnis, serving as the thematic coherence for the whole book. The African American experience is one of displacement—from Africa to America, from slavery to freedom, from the South to the North. Kabnis comes to the South to teach, but he loses his job and realizes that he does not fit in the world in which he finds himself. Toomer's work plays the paradox of feelings; it is simultaneously beautiful and disturbing. The book builds in its painful intensity in such a way that escape from it appears unreachable. Toomer and Hurston occupy prominent positions on the dais of captivating prose stylists.

Hurston's own Mules and Men (1935), Tell My Horse (1938), and Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) serve as essential supplementary preparation for reading Their Eyes Were Watching God. Not without its autobiographical references, her first novel, Jonah's Gourd Vine, with its protagonist a charismatic and attractive Baptist preacher, makes abundant use of biblical allusion and suggestions about the power and mystery of hexes. Her first compilation of folklore is the result of her days interviewing in Southern states and a lifetime listening. Mules and Men creates an intimacy in what appears to be an invitation to the reader to step onto the porch, come into the house, drop by the jook joint, and absorb the tales. After all, folklore, as Hurston writes it, is meant to be heard. Her second contribution to the work of anthropology goes deeper into mysterious worlds; in Jamaica she learns about Pocomania, and in Haiti she explores voodoo—from the inside. Many others have seen voodoo as “only a pagan religion with an African pantheon.” However, Hurston says up front, “let it be said that the Haitian gods, mysteres, or loa are not the catholic calendar of saints done over in black as has been stated by casual observers.”18 Certainly, Hurston's significant contribution to a study of voodoo is that as an initiate she becomes more than the casual observer.



Essential reading must include The Crisis Reader: Stories, Poetry, and Essays from the N.A.A.C.P's Crisis. The Crisis: A Record of the Darker Races, the official magazine of the NAACP, began a year after the organization itself. W. E. B. Du Bois was the editor from the first issue in 1910 until 1934 and again from 1944–1948. Designed as a journal for social and political thought from its earliest days, it published creative writing as well, becoming a major contributor to and development vehicle for the black literary movement that became known as the Harlem Renaissance. The Crisis, read far beyond its NAACP membership, provided a forum for young artists from across the country to read one another's work and showed readers that Harlem was fast becoming the center of and a magnet for artistic expression. Besides the impressive editor, the staff included James Weldon Johnson, Jessie Redmon Fauset, and Walter White. Both Du Bois and Johnson had reputations as accomplished and brilliant writers. While Du Bois lent his voice and talents primarily to the essay genre, developing positions on the political and social issues of the day, he placed the job of literary editor in the capable hands of Jessie Fauset. She has earned the unofficial title of “midwife” of the Harlem Renaissance for her work in discovering, encouraging, and publishing new talent, which included Langston Hughes, Jean Toomer, Claude McKay, Countee Cullen, and Arna Bontemps.

This anthology covers four of the major creative literary genres: poetry, short fiction, plays, and essays. The latter genre includes a collection of personal, literary and cultural, and social essays. Among the forty-six writers represented, the selections prove to be both historically important, such as Langston Hughes's first published poem, “The Negro Speaks of Rivers,” and a reminder of lesser-known to little-known pieces that encourage new attention to overlooked writers. The essays range widely: a short autobiographical sketch of the sculptor Augusta Savage, brought up in a poor Florida family of fourteen children, who manages to make her art in spite of but often limited by others' responses to her race and her ongoing shortfall of financial resources; commentary from Du Bois and Alain Locke on two novels by younger writers worth reading as they represent the future: Jean Toomer's Caneand Jessie Fauset's There Is Confusion.

Similar in purpose and focus to The Crisis Reader is its companion anthology, The Opportunity Reader: Stories, Poetry, and Essays from the Urban League's Opportunity Magazine. Charles Johnson was the first editor of Opportunity: A Journal of Negro Lifewhen it began in 1923. Under his leadership and the particular timing of the journal, new artists, who came to define the Harlem Renaissance, gravitated to this latest outlet for creative expression. Johnson and his staff took the initiative for helping the young artists find employment, scholarships, and white patronage to support their budding talents. This reader includes Hurston's first published short story, “John Redding Goes to Sea.”

Predating the Harlem Renaissance, James Weldon Johnson's 1912 Autobiography of an Ex-Coloured Man has historical importance to the movement. Johnson was also a talented writer of light operas, musical comedies, and popular songs, including the Negro national anthem, “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” He is remembered as the author of God's Trombones: Seven Negro Sermons in Verse (1927). His first novel is the story of a man from Georgia, who had a black mother and a white father, who decided to take a wife and sent his black mistress and son to Connecticut. Throughout the narrator's life, as he travels from the North to the South to Europe with his millionaire patron, he experiences a sense of isolation—not being permitted to enjoy either side of his heritage. He notices first others' reactions to his skin color, which prevents him from the growth that he sincerely wants in his own artistic expression in music. In order to have the kind of freedom that he desires, and as a result of the fear he feels while watching a lynching on a trip south, he decides to pass as a white man, denying his mother's contribution to his existence. Born in Jacksonville, Johnson shares Florida roots with Hurston.

Claude McKay's 1928 Home to Harlem is set around 1919 at the close of the first World War and during the boom years of the Great Migration (1916–1930) when about one million blacks made the move from the South to New York and Chicago. Jake, deserting his post, returns from a war in which he saw no fighting, but was assigned to unload ships. Jake heads to Harlem, where he takes a job as a longshoreman, only to find out that he has been hired to break a strike. He quits immediately and finds work on the Pennsylvania Rail Road as a chef. Here he meets a waiter named Ray, called the “Professor” because he prefers reading, studying, and his dreams of being a writer to the good times of Harlem's night life. Both will tire of Harlem; Ray finds employment on a boat leaving for Australia and Europe, and Jake seeks a reunion in Chicago with his girlfriend, the former prostitute Felice. Jake and Ray can be interpreted as a representation of the Booker T. Washington versus W. E. B. Du Bois debate. Though the positions of Washington and Du Bois are complex and need to be considered within their respective contexts, they can be simply reduced in McKay's text to accommodating white men's expectations of blacks' capabilities versus holding strong and certain to the dreams of wherever a person's intelligence can lead.

Released in 1928, Home to Harlem has been referred to as the first African American best seller, but the Stock Market Crash of 1929 and the Great Depression contributed to the end of the glory days of the Harlem Renaissance. Richard Wright's 1940 Native Son would be the next book to bring significant attention back to black writers. In McKay's most well-known novel, he gives perhaps one of the best and most honest representations of life in Harlem, with its rent parties, its music, and its underside of violence and prostitution: “Oh, to be in Harlem again after two years away. The deep-dyed color, the thickness, the closeness of it. The noises of Harlem. The sugared laughter. The honey-talk on its streets. And all night long, ragtime and ‘blues’ playing somewhere, dancing somewhere! Oh, the contagious fever of Harlem” (15). Hurston's novel was published during the “quiet days” of attention to black writers and their work, but McKay's novel sets the stage and gives ample flavor to the Harlem that Hurston called home in the late 1920s.

Langston Hughes's 1930 Not without Laughter is a coming-of-age story about a boy named Sandy, who must figure out the best way to combat racism, poverty, and oppression without being destroyed by them. The novel is set in Kansas in the first decades of the 1900s. Sandy lives with his mother, Annjee, who is a maid for a white family; his sometimes-present, irresponsible father, Jimboy; and his grandmother Hager Williams, who is a washerwoman. Two aunts, Annjee's sisters, Tempy and Harriet, are frequent visitors in and out of his grandmother's home. Young Sandy stands witness to the world of family conflicts and those conflicts complicated by being black and poor in a world ruled by whites. The book concludes after his mother's relocation to Detroit, Hager's death, and Harriet's eventual success in her musical career. Sandy now has to determine what choices he will make in his own life.

Considered one of the leading literary talents of the Harlem Renaissance, Hughes's gifts expanded to competency in many genres. He is perhaps best remembered as a distinguished and prolific poet. He also wrote novels, short stories, plays, essays, and edited various anthologies. Hughes's novel, published two years after McKay's, takes the reader out of the city to rural America, but not the South. His choice of Kansas is autobiographical, but it also serves to suggest that racism in America was not exclusive to the South. Hurston and Hughes, for a while, were close friends and collaborated on a play, Mule Bone: A Comedy of Negro Life. Before the play could ever be produced, they had a falling-out and never spoke to each other again.

Jessie Fauset (1882–1961), born nine years before Hurston and outliving her by a year, is Hurston's closest contemporary. Like Hurston, she also wrote four novels: There is Confusion (1924), Plum Bun: A Novel without a Moral (1929), The Chinaberry Tree: A Novel of American Life (1931), and Comedy: American Style (1933). She wrote her last novel before Hurston would write her first one, Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934). Reared in New Jersey, Fauset spent most of her adult life in New York City. Central in each of her novels are light-skinned, educated Negroes, some of whom pass for white. For Fauset the mulatto becomes a metaphor through which she explores identity and difference as they concern blacks. In her last novel, Comedy: American Style, Olivia Blanchard is obsessed with skin color. She seeks the lightest possible male as a means to producing white children. In Olivia Blanchard, Fauset has created a woman incapable of accepting herself in the culture in which she must live. Believing that her problems will be solved by passing for white, Olivia makes choices that are unhappy solutions for a far more complicated issue.

Like Hurston, Fauset's novels had a mixed critical reception, and each was written while she was employed full-time. She wrote her last three novels while teaching French (1927–1944) at DeWitt Clinton High School in New York. In correspondence with Du Bois, Fauset makes a remark that Hurston herself spent a lifetime advocating: it was “worthwhile to teach our colored men and women race pride, self-pride, self-sufficiency (the right kind) and the necessity of living our lives, as nearly as possible, absolutely instead of comparing them always with white standards” (quoted in Thadious M. Davis's introduction to Comedy: American Style, xix).



Maya Angelou's 1969 I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is set in the 1930s and 1940s in Arkansas, Missouri, and California. Angelou's memoir has also been called a novel. While Hurston's novel is clearly not a memoir, she does use her own childhood home as the geographical heart and center of the novel. Stamps, Arkansas, provides that physical place for Angelou's Marguerite (Maya) Johnson, who, like the younger Janie, is intelligent, curious, and fascinated by life around her. Though Janie never knows her mother or father and is raised by her grandmother, Maya knows her parents but feels safe and free with her grandmother in Stamps. Angelou's book is far more concerned with the intrusion of and treatment by whites, particularly the Ku Klux Klan, on her family's life, which is not of major significance in Hurston's novel.

Thematically, the novels compare in an interesting way around the treatment and role of women and talking. When Maya is eight years old, she is raped by her mother's lover. As a result of this incident, Maya chooses not to talk, except to her brother, Bailey, because talking, she perceives, is dangerous. The rapist is eventually arrested and is sentenced to a relatively short time in prison, though he never serves time. He is, however, murdered in a type of vigilante justice. While Janie wants to talk, Joe Starks deprives her of much opportunity to do so. To choose silence or to have silence thrust upon oneself—is one preferable to the other?

In Gloria Naylor's 1988 Mama Day, the story of Miranda (Mama) Day's grandniece Cocoa is, like Janie's story in Hurston's novel, the story of a journey into interiority. Mama Day, mother to no child of her own, but the deliverer of hundreds of babies on the mythical island of Willow Springs, is the embodiment of mystical powers. She knows that it will be through Cocoa that these powers will be passed on because she is the only one left that is a direct descendant of the great grandmother of them all, Sapphira Wade.

The novel opens in 1999 on Willow Springs, where Naylor introduces readers to a place different from all others, a place where “everybody knows, but nobody talks about the legend of Sapphira Wade” (3); moves to New York, where George and Cocoa have met each other; and then alternates between the reality of New York and the different kind of thinking that exists in Willow Springs. Cocoa is fortunate to meet her Tea Cake in her first husband, George, and like Tea Cake, he, too, will die too soon; he, too, will lose his life in trying to save his wife's life. When George finally visits Willow Springs with Cocoa and meets her grandmother and her great-aunt, he weathers a hurricane that wipes out the bridge to the mainland, a storm not quite as severe as Hurston's hurricane, but substantial in its fury and its destruction. Through the tempest and Cocoa's sickness, Mama Day has the opportunity to discover important information for the first time about Sapphira and Bascombe Wade. The journey into interiority happens for her as she connects more of an understanding of her own past with the future she sees in Cocoa. Cocoa's journey takes longer. The recovery from George's death, a second marriage to someone who will never be able to fill his shoes, two children who are not George's, and recurring visits to George's grave on Willow Springs, will finally, after fourteen years, yield in Cocoa “a face that's been given the meaning of peace” (312). Both Janie and Cocoa, at the end of their respective novels, know that the love of a good man is with them still.

This same theme of the journey into interiority plays major significance in Paule Marshall's 1983 Praisesong for the Widow. Avey Johnson is on a cruise at the beginning of Marshall's novel, but the planned vacation turns into a suffocating experience. All Avey knows is that she must get off the ship and return home, but she cannot name the reason she feels this way. Departing the ship on a small island where everyone speaks Patois, she begins her immersion into her own lost tradition: dreams, ring shout dances, cleansing baths, and, perhaps most importantly, meeting up with Lebert Joseph, who becomes her Papa Legba figure, the Lord of the Crossroads, who meets people in crises and leads them in the direction they are meant to go. It is through and with Joseph that Avey makes sense of her life—the early days with Jay before he became Jerome and the good times evaporated, and all the way back to her distant ancestors and the African tribe that claimed them. Janie's journey explores the horizons of love, while Avey's journey is a movement backward through time to connect with the parts of herself that were lost in her assimilation into American culture.

Hurston's influence on Marshall's prose can be seen in the description of Avey's response to her wait for her husband Jay to come home: “… something shattered in her mind. It seemed the china bowl which held her sanity and trust fell from its shelf in her mind and broke” (91). Hurston uses a similar image when Janie finally concludes what her life with Joe Starks will be like: “She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered” (72). In both novels this shattering of certain notions of life with Jay and Joe, respectively, does not halt the journey; rather, the realization helps both women to understand what they must do in the moment to survive.

By end of the novel Avey knows she must return to the house in Tatem, the former home of her own great-aunt, where Avey as a child had heard the story of her ancestors' arrival from Africa—“They took them out of the boats right here where we're standing” (256). She knows, too, that as the avatar, the embodiment or incarnation of a god, she must be the one to tell her grandchildren the story, so that the past can be a part of the future. Janie tells her story to Pheoby, who can then tell that story to others because Janie knows that when a story is told to an intimate friend, it is a means of telling others: “You can tell 'em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat's just de same as me 'cause mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf” (6). In both novels the story learned in the journey must be told.

Toni Morrison's 1977 prize-winning Song of Solomon also takes the protagonist, Milkman Dead, a young man, on an eventual search for his identity. A striking difference here is that Milkman sets out on this quest to find gold, but ends up with something greater than gold, an understanding of his paternal grandfather's real name and the story of his African heritage. While his mother, father, Aunt Pilate, his cousin and long-time lover Hagar, and best friend Guitar Bains all make demands on his time, energy, values, and lifestyle, Milkman comes to see that in his final leap, “if you surrendered to the air, you could ride it” (337). Ultimately, what matters in both books is the voyage to the horizon and the discovery for both Janie and Milkman not how someone else wants them to live and think, but their own increased and deepened sense of self-understanding, made clear by a connection with something greater than the self alone.

The journey into interiority in Ralph Ellison's prize-winning 1952 Invisible Man leads the narrator in the exact opposite direction from Janie's travels: the invisible man loses his scholarship in a southern college and must go north to Harlem to make his way; Janie, in her succession of marriages, travels deeper into the South to find her happiness. The mild-mannered narrator loses his innocence up North: unasked-for electric shock treatment after his accident at Liberty Paints turns him into an activist, and he draws the attention of the Brotherhood. However, by the end of the novel the narrator has fully discovered his invisibility and winds up living underground in a room with purloined light. He never does find happiness, which Janie does in her relationship with Tea Cake. The narrator is restricted and limited at every turn by the oppressiveness of the white, male power structure. On the other hand, Janie makes her way in the world where there is more to celebrate than to lament. At the close of Ellison's novel, he has the narrator conclude with questions that suggest clearly that the narrator's dilemma is not an isolated one: “What else [than tell his story of thwarted dreams] but try to tell you what was really happening when your eyes were looking through? And it is this which frightens me:

“Who know but that, on the lower frequencies, I speak for you?” (581). But Janie is not trying to speak for others. She concludes that life, because she has known love as she herself has defined it, is a wonder and a delight. It is enough to celebrate alone: “She called in her soul to come and see” (193).

Alice Walker's 1982 The Color Purple is set in Georgia, Tennessee, and Africa during the 1920s–1940s. In Walker's book it is her character Celie, who, with the help of her sister Nettie, her husband's mistress and her own short-time lover Shug, and God, makes the journey inward to discover a self worthy of love. Raped by her stepfather and beaten by her husband, Mr. ____, Celie accepts the abduction of her children and general ongoing abuse and neglect. She is called ugly and worthless enough times that she comes to believe this status must be her lot in life. The letters Celie writes to Nettie and to God are her only outlet of venting to a world that is deaf to her situation. Shug teaches her to stand up for herself, and, more importantly, that she is worth loving. Celie's move, literal and figurative, from isolation into community, parallels her emotional journey from despair to joy. As Hurston says in Jonah's Gourd Vine, and Celie learns when she leaves Mr. ____ to go to Memphis with Shug, “half the joy of quitting any place is the loneliness we leave behind” (156). Janie and Celie travel different paths, but both find peace in a place that has the literal and figurative meaning of home.


Though Hurston took seven weeks to write Their Eyes Were Watching God, she clearly had the idea for the book in her mind well before the actual writing took place in Haiti in November and December of 1936. She mentions a brief plan for Their Eyes Were Watching God in an unpublished letter to William Stanley Hoole of Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Alabama, on 7 March 1936; she explains the concept of the novel that was then in her mind:

My next book is to be a novel about a woman who was from childhood hungry for life and the earth, but because she had beautiful hair, was always being skotched upon a flag-pole by the men who loved her and forced to sit there. At forty she got her chance at mud. Mud, lush and fecund with a buck Negro called Teacake. He took her down into the Everglades where people worked and sweated and loved and died violently, where no such thing as flag-poles for women existed. Since I narrate mostly in dialogue, I can give you no feeling in these few lines of the life of this brown woman with her plentiful hair. But this is the barest statement of the story.

Another eight months were to pass before she was able to make the time, in the midst of folklore collecting, to write the book. Once the book was finished and sent to Lippincott in Philadelphia, it was another nine months before the book was ready for purchase, review, and, in Hurston's own lifetime, neglect. Hurston did not appear to linger over any of her books. In the 1930s writing meant finishing one work and rapid movement toward the next. She floated freely and comfortably between genres: from novel to folklore to novel to folklore to novel to autobiography to novel. Interspersed among the seven books that are Hurston's legacy are short stories, editorials, newspaper columns, magazine articles, and plays. She seemed unconfined by genre and ignited by ideas and language. While all of her work is in print today and her place in the literary canon is secure, the popularity of her second novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, has changed the way history has come to view her corpus.

Beginning in 1989, the town of Eatonville began sponsoring a Zora Neale Hurston Festival. To date, these annual gatherings held in late January of each year have attracted people from all over the world in growing numbers. Their Eyes Were Watching God has brought new life and energy to the beloved community of Hurston's youth, Janie and Joe Starks's home of twenty years, and the place to which Janie returns alone after Tea Cake's death. When Hurston died in January 1960, money had to be collected for Hurston's burial at a cemetery in Fort Pierce. For thirteen years no one bothered to note the whereabouts of this author. Alice Walker made the pilgrimage and placed the marker on Hurston's grave because, as Walker has stated, a people ought not to forget its geniuses. Another sixteen years passed before Eatonville celebrated its leading citizen.

When the eleventh annual Zora Neale Hurston Festival was held, Alice Grant proclaimed in “The Timeliness, the Timelessness of Zora Neale Hurston,” an article published in the ZORA! 2000 program booklet, that preschoolers, elementary school children, high school students, and adults all know who Zora is. Grant attributes to Hurston the awakening of a new spirit within the black community: “Because of Zora Neale Hurston, we have awakened to the significance of black communities, to recognizing the importance of preserving the structures and institutions that African Americans have built and are working to insure that black communities not only survive but thrive” (9). In the late 1930s black, male writers often dismissed Hurston because they perceived her writing as both minstrelsy and too folkloric; today those perceived weaknesses are cause for celebration. Her name resonates, claims Grant, “not just because of her charismatic personality, or because of the quality of her writings, but because the values she espoused of pride in self, pride in one's ethnic heritage, pride in one's community are both timely and timeless” (9). Eatonville has come at last to recognize this prophet in her own homeland. As the Orlando Sentinel, one of the sponsors of the ZORA! 2000 Festival, claims in their program advertisement: “In a perfect world, talent would always be recognized. Sadly, neither is the case. Too often, as with Zora Neale Hurston, true greatness comes and goes before the world perceives its magnitude. Learning late or not at all” (1).

When Hurston lived, she belonged to Eatonville in so many ways. She was a product of this small, historical community, but in her lifetime her books were not taught in the local schools. Many residents expressed displeasure at being named in her books, as Hurston made little effort to change names to protect the innocent. Today, Hurston is honored not only by the festival, but by a memorial—a huge rock atop a brick area with benches, dedicated in 1990. The plaque reads: “Zora Neale Hurston / Eatonville's Daughter / 1890–1960 / Anthropologist Folklorist Writer / “She Jumped at the Sun.” The old Sinclair station and local garage, Mack's Auto Repair during Hurston's day, has been transformed into the headquarters for the Association to Preserve the Eatonville Community. The station also serves as the home of the Zora Neale Hurston National Museum of Fine Arts. Hurston scholars from academic institutions across the country now join local enthusiasts to serve on the planning committee for future ZORA! festivals.


During the 1930s, Lippincott was a major trade publishing house. Hurston published five titles during the decade, each of them with Lippincott. In the 7 August 1937 issue of Publishers' Weekly, a small article appeared announcing Lippincott's plans for promotion of their fall line of books, which included “generous appropriations” for advertising. Large space had already been “scheduled for the most widely-used book media” (387). The plan included posters, postcards, and circulars. In the next issue of Publishers' Weekly, on 14 August 1937, full-page ads announced some of their titles, including Harbor Nights by Harvey Klemmer, Triumphant Pilgrimage by Owen Rutter, The Far East Comes Nearer by Hessell Tiltman, Transit U.S.A. by W. L. River, and Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora N. Hurston.

The ad for Hurston's book uses the top three-quarters of the page for the reprint of a three-paragraph review from Virginia Kirkus' Bookshop Service, worth quoting here in its entirety:

I loved Jonah's Gourd Vine: thought some of her early short stories very fine. I feel that this book measures up to the promise of her early books. Here is an authentic picture of negroes [sic], not in relation to white people, but to each other. An aging grandmother marries off her granddaughter, almost a child, to a middle aged man for security and she leaves him when she finds that her dreams are dying, and goes off with a dapper negro [sic], full of his own sense of power and go-getter qualities.

He takes her to a mushroom town, buys a lot, puts up a store and makes the town sit up and take notice. His success goes to his head. Their life becomes a mockery of her high hopes. So after his death she goes off with a youth who brings her happiness and tragedy. A poignant story, told with rhythmic beauty.

The bottom quarter of the page contains a bold, black box with white type: Their Eyes Were Watching God on two lines, followed by “A Novel by Zora N. Hurston.” Beside the box is a brief statement about Hurston's successes, including mention of her as a Guggenheim winner and her Honorable Mention in the Book-of-the-Month Fellowship Award. The ad announces the publication date as 23 September.

In that same 14 August issue, Publishers' Weekly includes the title in its “PW Forecast for Buyers.” Citing a 16 September publishing date, the blurb claims: “Rates Lippincott's biggest fiction ad. budget for September. The author of ‘Jonah's Gourd Vine’ and ‘Mules and Men,’ who is at present studying on a Guggenheim Fellowship, has written an absorbing novel of her own people.” As was common at the time, the writer of this short description wants to make clear that Hurston's people are separate from, not to be confused with, either people in general or this particular reviewer's people. The book does not appear again until it is listed as “ready” in the fall listing in the 18 September issue; then one final time in the 2 October listing of “This Week's New Books.” Here the comment is more reductive: “A story of a Negress, Janie and her love for Tea Cake, who was much younger than herself” (1458).

When Lippincott published Their Eyes Were Watching God in September 1937, this second novel joined two other Hurston works earlier published by Lippincott: the May 1934 release of Jonah's Gourd Vine, her first novel, and the October 1935 release of Mules and Men, her first collection of folklore. For readers familiar with the earlier works and for those readers who followed the creative outpourings of the black literati of the Harlem Renaissance, another offering from Hurston must have elicited some small excitement, but responses from 1937 readers can only be based in conjecture. No matter the advertising efforts on the part of Lippincott, the book went all too soon out of print.

The novel was widely reviewed by both the leading white and black periodicals of the day: Booklist, New York Post, Saturday Review of Literature, Time, New York Times Book Review, New York Herald Tribune Books, New Masses, New Republic, Nation, Journal of Negro History, Journal of Negro Education, and Opportunity, to name a few.

The publication history of Their Eyes Were Watching God, as recounted by Richard Wentworth, a former director of the University of Illinois Press, in a 2000 hardcover edition of the novel produced by HarperCollins, is a story worth knowing. University of Illinois Press got word from Michael Harper, an African American poet Illinois was publishing, that a friend of his, Robert Hemenway, was at work on a “major biography of a neglected African-American writer, Zora Neale Hurston.”19 Illinois published Hemenway's biography of Hurston in 1977, and upon Hemenway's encouragement, the press secured rights to publish Their Eyes Were Watching God. Though others had published the book, insufficient sales caused them to drop the title, and the rights reverted to Lippincott. Illinois bought the rights in January 1977 and published the book in 1978, selling a “modest 7,200 copies” that first year. Illinois had the title for ten years, selling 350,000 copies, “an amazing sales track for a university press,” before selling the rights to Harper and Row in 1989.20 Wentworth attributes the growth of sales of Their Eyes Were Watching God to two essays in Alice Walker's 1983 collection, In Search of Our Mother's Gardens: “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” originally published in Ms. magazine in March 1975, reprinted in the collection as “Looking for Zora,” and “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View,” the foreword to Hemenway's biography. Credit goes to as well other black authors who were rediscovering Hurston and black scholars who began teaching the book in women's studies courses in the late 1960s and early 1970s. The Modern Language Association petitioned for the reissue of the book in 1975.

Their Eyes Were Watching God and its author were lost and unknown names in many literature courses for almost three decades. Almost a half century after its original publication date, Their Eyes Were Watching God has become one of the leading titles in all of American literature.


  1. Lerone Bennett, Jr. The Shaping of Black America. New York: Penguin, 1993. 187–89.

  2. See Hurston's “Harlem Slanguage,” The Complete Stories (New York: Harper Perennial, 1996), 232.

  3. Hurston, “The Eatonville Anthology,” I Love Myself When I am Laughing … And Then Again When I Am Looking Mean and Impressive: A Zora Neale Hurston Reader. Ed. Alice Walker (New York: Feminist Press, 1979), 177.

  4. Hurston, “Now You Cookin' with Gas,” The Complete Stories, 240.

  5. John M. Williams and Iver W. Duedall, Florida Hurricanes and Tropical Storms (Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997) 14–15.

  6. Williams and Duedall, 67.

  7. A number of critics have paid close attention to the connection of Tea Cake with the Osiris myth. Among the most helpful are John Lowe, Jump at the Sun: Zora Neale Hurston's Cosmic Comedy (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1994) 195–96, and Susan Edwards Meisenhelder, Hitting a Straight Lick with a Crooked Stick: Race and Gender in the Work of Zora Neale Hurston, Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1999.

  8. See Lawrence E. Will, Okeechobee Hurricane and the Hoover Dike, 3rd ed. St. Petersburg, Fla.: Great Outdoors Publishing, 1961.

  9. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988), 174.

  10. Gayl Jones, “Dialect and Narrative: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God” in Prentice Hall Anthology of African American Literature, Rochelle Smith and Sharon L. Jones, eds. (Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 2000), 1107.

  11. Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977), 139.

  12. Zora Neale Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (New York: Library of America, 1995), 589.

  13. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, 622.

  14. Hurston, “John Redding Goes to Sea,” in The Complete Stories (New York: Harper Perennial, 1996), 2.

  15. Hurston, “Drenched in Light,” in The Complete Stories, 19.

  16. Reynolds Price, “Foreword,” in Eudora Welty: Photographs (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1989), xi. Welty's photographs are perhaps the best visual depiction available to help the reader understand what Hurston was always happy to celebrate—a deep innate sense of pride in and joy about being black.

  17. Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road, in Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writings, Cheryl A. Wall, ed. (New York: Library of America, 1995) 713.

  18. Hurston, Tell My Horse in Zora Neale Hurston: Folklore, Memoirs, and Other Writing, ed. Cheryl A. Wall (New York: Library of America, 1995) 376–77.

  19. Richard Wentworth, “Notes on Publication History,” Their Eyes Were Watching God (New York: HarperCollins, 2000) 229.

  20. Wentworth, 230.

Additional coverage of Hurston's life and career is contained in the following sources published by the Gale Group: African American Writers, Eds. 1, 2; American Writers Supplement, Vol. 6; Authors and Artists for Young Adults, Vol. 15; Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults, Vol. 12; Black Literature Criticism, Ed. 2; Black Writers, Eds. 1, 3; Concise Dictionary of American Literary Biography Supplement; Contemporary Authors, Vols. 85-88; Contemporary Authors New Revision Series, Vol. 61; Contemporary Literary Criticism, Vols. 7, 30, 61; Dictionary of Literary Biography, Vols. 51, 86; DISCovering Authors; DISCovering Authors: Canadian Edition; DISCovering Authors Modules: Most-studied Authors, Multicultural Authors, Novelists and Popular Fiction and Genres Authors; DISCovering Authors 3.0; Drama Criticism, Vol. 12; Drama for Students, Vol. 6; Exploring Novels; Exploring Short Stories; Feminist Writers; Literature and Its Times, Vol. 3; Literature Resource Center; Major 20th-Century Writers, Eds. 1, 2; Modern American Women Writers; Novels for Students, Vol. 3; Reference Guide to American Literature, Ed. 4; Reference Guide to Short Fiction, Ed. 2; St. James Guide to Young Adult Writers; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 4; Short Stories for Students, Vols. 1, 6, 11; and World Literature Criticism Supplement.

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