At a Glance

  • Their Eyes Were Watching God is the classic story of Janie Crawford's search for true love. Janie is a romantic at heart, and her ideals often conflict with those of Logan and Joe, her first two husbands. Both of them treat her like a hired hand, placing her in a subservient role, according to traditional gender roles.
  • Janie's pear tree is a symbol of her blossoming sexuality. When she sits under it, she experiences a sexual awakening that makes her curious about love. Her grandmother, seeing this, quickly marries Janie off to Logan Killicks. This doesn't change Janie's nature, however, and she continues her search for love until she finds her match in Tea Cake.
  • Hurston is well-known for her use of dialect. Their Eyes Were Watching God incorporates distinctly African American and Southern dialects, which bring an added layer of realism to the novel. In particular, her use of dialect makes the dialogue more natural, better evoking the time and place she's writing about.


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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

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

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

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

Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

West Florida

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

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


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

De muck

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

Form and Content

(Survey of Young Adult Fiction)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


(Masterpieces of Women's Literature)

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

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

Historical Context

(Novels for Students)

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

(The entire section is 831 words.)


(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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

(The entire section is 120 words.)

Literary Qualities

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Although the framing device of Janie telling Pheoby her story sets up the novel as Janie's story, it is not told in the first person....

(The entire section is 618 words.)

Social Sensitivity

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

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

(The entire section is 729 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Novels for Students)

1920s and '30s: The number of unemployed African-Americans during the Great Depression was as much as 25% in northern cities, and well...

(The entire section is 310 words.)

Topics for Discussion

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Research the conditions under which southern blacks lived during the Great Depression and compare to the plight of migrant workers on the...

(The entire section is 66 words.)

Ideas for Reports and Papers

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

1. Study the relationships between wealthy white patrons and the writers of the Harlem Renaissance and argue whether Their Eyes Were...

(The entire section is 134 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Novels for Students)

Research the conditions under which southern blacks lived during the Great Depression and compare to the plight of migrant workers on the...

(The entire section is 153 words.)

Related Titles / Adaptations

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

A classic feminist novel, The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin, follows a well-to-do white woman from Louisiana on a perilous path of...

(The entire section is 254 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Novels for Students)

Claire Crabtree, "The Confluence of Folklore, Feminism and Black Self-Determination in Zora Neale Hurston's Their...

(The entire section is 501 words.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Bloom, Harold, ed. Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”: Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of selections and essays on the novel written by critics of African American literature. Bloom’s introduction places the novel in the world tradition of novels and discounts its role in the genealogy of African American writing. Bloom argues as well that Hurston’s writing transcends the limitations of feminist and racial political ideologies.

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2002. Detailed biography of Hurston, covering her personal and professional lives and relating them to the major historical events through which she lived.

Callahan, John F. “’Mah Tongue Is in Mah Friend’s Mouf’: The Rhetoric of Intimacy and Immensity in Their Eyes Were Watching God. ” In In the African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Callahan’s essay examines the most controversial aspect of Hurston’s novel, the role of narrative voice in the telling of Janie’s story. He emphasizes the novel’s utilization of African American folk forms of storytelling, which promote a democratic conception of culture.

Cooke, Michael G. “Solitude: The Beginnings of Self-Realization in Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.” In Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Cooke highlights the movement from materialism to self-fulfillment in the work of three very different African American writers.

Davies, Kathleen. “Zora Neale Hurston’s Poetics of Embalmment: Articulating the Rage of Black Women and Narrative Self-Defense.” African American Review 26 (Spring, 1992): 147-160. Davies argues that Hurston’s own relationships with abusive men are glossed over in her biography and the novel by her reliance on the ideology of love.

Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. The standard biography of Hurston; helped to establish her as a major writer. Includes material on her life as well as critical analyses of her novels and other work.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Edited by Carla Kaplan. New York: Doubleday, 2002. A collection of more than five hundred letters, annotated and arranged chronologically.

Woodson, Jon. “Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Marie Grubbe. ” African American Review 26 (Winter, 1992): 619-636. Woodson traces the similarities in the plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Fru Marie Grubbe (1876). He argues that Hurston turns the basic plot in Jacobsen’s tragic novel into the affirmative plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God in order to counteract the negative stereotypes of women in fiction.

Wright, Richard. “Between Laughter and Tears.” New Masses 25 (October 5, 1937): 22, 25. A diatribe against Their Eyes Were Watching God by the soon-to-be-famous African American novelist. Wright accuses Hurston of contributing to almost every stereotype concerning African Americans and also accuses her of accommodating her wealthy white audience.

Media Adaptations

(Novels for Students)

Their Eyes Were Watching God has been recorded on cassette in an abridged version by Caedmon. This recording, which came out in 1991,...

(The entire section is 67 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Novels for Students)

A classic feminist novel, The Awakening (1899) by Kate Chopin, follows a well-to-do white woman from Louisiana on a perilous path of...

(The entire section is 221 words.)

For Further Reference

(Beacham's Guide to Literature for Young Adults)

Davie, Sharon. "Free Mules, Talking Buzzards, and Cracked Plates: The Politics of Dislocation in Their Eyes Were Watching God." PMLA...

(The entire section is 213 words.)