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.