Janie Crawford, the main character of Hurston’s most important novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is the granddaughter of a slave woman, Nanny, who was raped by her owner, and the daughter of a woman who was raped by her schoolteacher. It is against the heritage of this racial and sexual violence that Janie tries to find a personally fulfilling life. The novel begins with Janie returning to Eatonville after the death of her third husband, Tea Cake Woods. Janie sits with her old friend, Pheoby, to tell her story, and the bulk of the novel, although narrated in the third-person voice, is the story Janie tells.
Her story begins when Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, spies her enjoying her first romantic kiss. Realizing that Janie, at the age of sixteen, is almost a woman and that Nanny herself will not be around much longer to take care of her, Nanny quickly arranges Janie’s marriage with a local farmer so Janie can be protected. Janie, however, finds no happiness in being Mrs. Logan Killicks, so when Joe Starks comes by, Janie happily runs off and marries him.
Joe has heard about a black town being formed, Eatonville, to which he wants to move and become a “big voice.” From the first day he is there, Joe starts organizing the town around his own principles, opening the first store, then a post office, and finally becoming the first mayor. As the wealthiest man in town, he also builds himself the grandest home. Janie’s place in all of this, it turns out, is to reign over the town at his side—but without speaking, and to work in the store while he entertains friends out on the porch.
Starks is a deliberately contradictory character. On one hand, the reader can admire him for his organizational ability. On the other hand, he organizes Eatonville into a model of the white towns in which he has lived, except with himself at the head of it. Janie gets lost in the shuffle. Joe...
(The entire section is 785 words.)
Their Eyes Were Watching God is narrated in third person, but as Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and other critics have noticed, Zora Neale Hurston is careful to give the novel the feel of first person. She accomplishes this by having the main character, Janie, tell the story to her friend Phoeby on the front porch. The novel opens with Janie returning to Eatonville at around the age of forty after having wandered. People up and down the streets are gossiping not only about what she has done on her journey away from home and her relationship with a younger man but also about the audacity of a woman her age wearing long hair and dressing provocatively. As Janie tells her story to Phoeby, she establishes the parameters of the coming-of-age pattern that the novel will follow.
In most novels of this sort, the main character leaves home and discovers love and fortune out in the world. Janie experiences love, but she returns without a man and without any large amount of money. Despite the absence of these things, she is satisfied with what she has gained and tells Phoeby, “Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons.” The trajectory of the novel is circular rather than linear, allowing the author to focus the reader’s attention on self-discovery rather than world discovery. Indeed, Janie discovers herself through the men with whom she becomes involved. When the novel ends she has only herself.
Janie’s first husband is chosen by her grandmother Nanny after she recognizes Janie’s dawning sexuality, symbolized in the novel by a blooming pear tree. Nanny finds Janie kissing Johnny Taylor under the pear tree and immediately arranges a marriage for her with Logan Killicks, a much older man who has forty acres of land and more material possessions than any other man in the community. Nanny explains to Janie that “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world,” and therefore, she must take what she can find. Logan will provide Janie what Nanny calls “protection.” He will provide for her, and he will not beat her. To Nanny, the marriage is ideal. To Janie, it “desecrates the pear tree,” in that she can find no romantic or sexual satisfaction in Logan. Though Logan treats Janie well, he treats her as a possession.
Janie leaves Logan for Joe Starks. Joe (or Jody) is a man of great ambition, planning “to be a big voice.” He coaxes Janie to go with him, and when they find themselves in Eatonville, a “colored town,” without a mayor, he immediately takes charge. With his own money, he expands the town....
(The entire section is 1060 words.)
Janie Starks returns to town. One sundown, the Eatonville inhabitants watch and gossip as Janie walks the street toward her house, dressed in overalls, with her long braid hanging down her back. Only her friend Pheoby has the kindness to greet her. Pheoby sits down to hear her friend’s story.
As a little girl, Janie assumed she was white. She lived with her grandmother and played constantly with the children of the Washburns, for whom Nanny worked. Only when a photographer took the children’s picture did Janie realize that she was the black girl in the photo. Nanny was protective of her and worried when she became a teenager. To Nanny, the easiest way to protect Janie from the attentions of useless men was to marry...
(The entire section is 952 words.)
Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Janie Crawford’s quest to fulfill her ideals of life and love during a thirty-year period beginning soon after the turn of the century. The novel is framed by a narrator’s description of a conversation between Janie and Pheoby Watson that takes place on Janie’s back porch in Eatonville, Florida. The point of view soon shifts to Janie’s perspective, and she tells Pheoby the story of her life, beginning with her sheltered childhood in western Florida. The two points of view merge to become one perspective, carrying the narrative through to its violent climax and eventual return to the placid back-porch setting.
The first conflict that Janie recalls concerns her...
(The entire section is 539 words.)