Their Eyes Were Watching God - Alchetron, the free social encyclopedia (2024)

Racial Climate in the Early 1900s

With legislation like the Jim Crow laws, enacted from 1890 to 1910, many African-Americans were disfranchised. Groups like the Ku Klux Klan terrorized black citizens, leading to the steady decline of African-American political representation. Tenant farming and sharecropping systems constituted the de facto re-enslavement of African Americans in the South, where Hurston's novel is based.

Racism was gaining legitimacy in the decades leading up to Hurston's writing of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Baptist preacher Thomas Dixon, Jr. wrote The Leopard's Spots: A Romance of the White Man's Burden in 1902, asserting white supremacy amidst supposed African-American evil and corruption. The book was so popular that Dixon wrote a trilogy. His second novel, The Clansman, was adapted for the silent film Birth of a Nation, portraying African-American men in an unintelligent, sexually aggressive light (1915). Writers during the Harlem Renaissance, African-American writers were urged to write toward an Uplift program, to improve the image of African-Americans in society.

Hurston, Racial Uplift, and the Harlem Renaissance

Where many of her fellow writers were participating first in W. E. B. Du Bois' Uplift agenda and, later, in the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston refused to comply. The renaissance was meant to be a liberating response to the restrictive standards of the Racial Uplift program, encouraging writers and artists to expose racist oppression in American society. In an essay by Nick Aaron Ford, Hurston is quoted to have to said, "Many Negroes criticise my book, because I did not make it a lecture on the race problem." When asked why she choose not to comment on the race problem in her novel, Hurston replied, "Because I was writing a novel and not a treatise on sociology. [...] I have ceased to think in terms of race; I think only in terms of individuals. I am interested in you now, not as a Negro man but as a man. I am not interested in the race problem, but I am interested in the problems of individuals, white ones and black ones."

Similar to Hurston, Wallace Thurman rejected both the traditional Uplift politics and the agenda of the "New Negro". He organized a group of authors including Hurston to create their own magazine, FIRE!!, that would publish the African-American experience without any filters or censors. Hurston's contributions, like Their Eyes Were Watching God, used vernacular southern African-American English. Hurston viewed her work as distinct from the work of fellow Harlem Renaissance writers she described as the "sobbing school of Negrohood" that portrayed the lives of black people as constantly miserable, downtrodden and deprived. Instead, Hurston celebrated the rural, southern African-American communities as she found them. In addition, Hurston refused to censor women's sexuality, writing in beautiful innuendo to embrace the physical dimension of her main character's romances. Completely rejecting the Uplift agenda, the magazine also included hom*oerotic work as well as portrayals of prostitution. Foreshadowing the African-American community's response to Their Eyes Were Watching God, FIRE!! sold very poorly and was condemned as maligning the image of the community. A Baltimore Afro-American reviewer wrote that he "just tossed the first issue of FIRE!! into the fire".

Plot synopsis

The main character Janie Crawford, an African-American woman in her early forties, tells the story of her life to her best friend Pheoby Watson via an extended flashback. Readers receive the story of her life in three major periods corresponding to her marriages to three very different men.

The flashback in the book begins with Janie's sexual awakening which she compares to a pear blossom in spring. Not long after, Janie allows a local boy, Johnny Taylor, to kiss her, which Janie's grandmother, Nanny, witnesses.

Nanny is an elderly woman who, as a slave, was raped by her owner and gave birth to a mixed-race daughter Leafy. Nanny escaped from her jealous mistress and found a good home after the end of the American Civil War. Nanny tried to create a good life for her daughter, but Leafy was raped by her school teacher and became pregnant with Janie. Shortly after Janie's birth, Leafy began to drink and stay out at night. Eventually, she ran away, leaving her daughter Janie with Nanny.

Nanny, afraid for Janie's life to follow Leafy's or her own, transfers all the hopes she had for Leafy to Janie and arranges for Janie to marry Logan Killicks, an older farmer looking for a wife. Although Janie is not interested in either Logan or marriage, her grandmother wants her to have the stability she never had: legal marriage to Killicks, Nanny thinks, will give Janie opportunities. Nanny feels that Janie will be unable to take care of herself so she must marry a man who will take care of her.

Janie's image of the pear tree causes her to imagine that marriage must involve love—in Janie's pear tree scene, she sees bees pollinating a pear tree and believes that marriage is the human equivalent to this natural process. However, Killicks wants a domestic helper rather than a lover or partner; he thinks Janie does not do enough around the farm and that she is ungrateful. Janie speaks to Nanny about how she feels, but Nanny, too, accuses her of being spoiled. And so, Janie's idea of the pear tree is tarnished. Soon afterward, Nanny dies.

Unhappy, disillusioned, and lonely, Janie chooses to leave Killicks and runs off with the glib Jody (Joe) Starks, who takes her to Eatonville, Florida. Finding the small town residents unambitious, Starks arranges to buy more land, establishes a general store which he has built by local residents, and is soon elected as mayor of the town. Janie soon realises that Starks wants her as a trophy wife, to reinforce his powerful position in town. He asks her to run the store but forbids her from participating in the substantial social life that occurs on the store's front porch. He treats her as his property, controlling what she wears and says, and criticizes her mistakes. He also begins to strike her occasionally. As time passes, he teases her in public about being old, even though she is only in her thirties.

Eventually, she cannot bear it and snaps back at Joe to look at himself. Starks hits her as hard as he can. Later, he gets sick, and refuses to let Janie see him. He does not realize that he has a failing kidney, a likely fatal illness. When Janie learns that he might die, she goes to talk to him. She tells him who she really is and says that he never knew because he would not let her be free.

After Starks dies, Janie becomes financially independent through his estate. She is beset with suitors, some of whom are men of some means or have prestigious occupations, and all of whom she turns down. She meets a young drifter and gambler named Vergible Woods who goes by the name "Tea Cake". Tea Cake plays the guitar for her and initially treats her with kindness and respect. At first Janie is doubtful of his affections, as she is older and has wealth, but eventually falls in love with him.

Deciding to run away with him, Janie has a friend look after the store, and the two head to Jacksonville to marry. They move to the Everglades region ("the muck") where they find work planting and harvesting beans. While their relationship has its ups and downs, including mutual bouts of jealousy and an episode in which Tea Cake whips Janie in order to demonstrate his possession of her, Janie realizes she now has the marriage with love that she's always wanted; her image of the pear tree blossom is revived.

However, the area is hit by the great Okeechobee hurricane, and in the chaos of surviving, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog while saving Janie from drowning, and he contracts the disease. While the disease runs its course, he becomes increasingly jealous and unpredictable despite Janie's best efforts. He ultimately tries to shoot Janie with his pistol, and she is forced to shoot him first with a rifle in self-defense. She is charged with murder.

At the trial, Tea Cake's black male friends show up to oppose her, but a group of local white women arrive to support Janie. The all-white jury acquits Janie, and she gives Tea Cake a lavish funeral. Tea Cake's friends are apologetic and forgive her, and they want her to remain in the Everglades. However, she decides to return to Eatonville.

As she expected, the residents are gossiping about her when she arrives back in town. The story ends where it started, and Janie finishes telling her story to Pheoby.

Gender Roles

The novel explores traditional gender roles and the relationship between men and women. Nanny believes that Janie should marry a man not for love but for 'protection' Janie's first two husbands: Logan Killicks and Jody Starks both believe Janie should be defined by her marriage to them. Both men want her to be domesticated and silent. Her speech, or silence, is defined by her physical locations, most often. For example, Joe forces her silence in the store, a public—and therefore, male—space. Joe says, "...Muh wife don't know nothin' bout no speech-makin'. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home." Janie is also forbidden from socialising with the men on the porch. Her place is seen as in the home and not out on the porch, a public space which can be defined as male. Tea Cake is Janie's last husband who treats her as more of an equal than Killicks and Starks did, by talking to her and playing checkers with her. Despite his equal treatment in the beginning, Tea Cake does hit Janie in order to show his possession over her. Thus, Janie's life seems defined by her relation to male-centric spaces.

Liberated Woman

Janie is searching for her own identity throughout the novel. She is seen as separated from the other women in the novel who follow the traditions in place and do not find a life independent of men. Janie's womanliness is a source of jealousy for both Starks and Tea Cake who shame her for her looks. Starks orders Janie to cover her hair as other men found it a source of attraction. Similarly, Tea Cake is conscious of Janie's lighter skin and her appeal to Mrs. Turner's brother. Janie finds her independence as a woman after the death of Tea Cake. She returns to Eatonville with her hair down and she sits on her own porch chatting with her friend Pheoby. She has overcome the traditional roles of a woman by the end of the novel, thereby cultivating an image of the "liberated black woman."

Value of Women in a Relationship

Throughout the novel, Hurston vividly displays how African American women are valued, or devalued, in their marital relationships. By doing so, she takes the reader on a journey through Janie's life and her marriages. Janie formed her initial idea of marriage off the image of unity she witnessed once between a pear tree and a bee. This image and expectation sets Janie up for disappointment when it finally came time to marry. From her marriage to Logan Killicks to Tea Cake, Janie was forced to acknowledge where she stood as a female in her relationship.

Starting with her marriage to Logan, Janie was put in a place where she was expected to work. On top of all the physical labor expected from her, Janie endured physical beatings from her male counterpart. Hoping for more value, Janie decides to leave Logan and run off with Joe Starks. However, in reaction to this decision, she only faced more beating and devaluement. For Joe expected her stay in the home, work in the kitchen, and when she was in public, Janie was expected to cover her hair and avoid conversation with the locals. With one last hope, Janie engaged in a marriage with Tea Cake, a much younger soul, and things finally seemed to look up for her, even though she was still expected to help in the fields and tend to her womanly duties. Overall, throughout her marriages, Janie experienced the hardships that most African American women went through at that time. From the physical labor to the physical beatings, Janie was presented with the life that a woman was expected to live. [See detailed argument and synopsis in Addison Gayle, Jr.'s article, "The Outsider"]

Voice and Language

Janie is the narrator and protagonist of her own story. She spends the novel seeking a voice for herself which she achieves in the end of her story. Later in her life, Janie is able to sit on her own porch and chat just like the men. Throughout the novel, there is a strong use of dialect and colloquial language which reiterates that this is a story of a black woman from the South.


While the novel is written about black people in the South, it is not primarily a book about racism. Nanny is the first character to mention the notion of slavery. "Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn't for me to fulfil my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do. Dat's one of de hold-backs of slavery." The novel, while mentioning the issue of racism between the white and black communities, depicts the treatment of minorities within the black community. Starks is compared to as the master of the plantation due to his huge house in the centre of the town. "The rest of town looked like servants' quarters surrounding the 'big house'. Starks becomes a figure of authority in the town due to his access to money and his determination to create the first black town. However his plans of creating a town in which blacks can live as equals creates a hierarchy between the townsfolk. "Us talks about de white man keepin' us down! Shucks! He don't have tuh. Us keeps our own selves down." The divide between the black community is not only seen in Eatonville. When Janie marries Tea Cake and moves to the Everglades she becomes friendly with a woman named Mrs. Turner. Mrs. Turner compliments Janie on her light skin and her Caucasian features. She disagrees with Janie's marriage to Tea Cake, since he is darker skinned with more African features. Mrs. Turner tries to get Janie to leave Tea Cake and marry her brother, Mr. Turner. This results in Tea Cake's jealousy and distrust of Mrs. and Mr. Turner.

Inspirations and influences

Perhaps the strongest inspiration for Hurston's writing of Their Eyes Were Watching God was her former lover Percival Punter. Hurston writes in her autobiography that the romance between Janie and Tea Cake was inspired by a tumultuous love affair. She described falling in love with the man as "a parachute jump". Like Janie in the novel, Hurston was significantly older than her lover. Like Tea Cake, Punter was sexually dominant and sometimes violent. Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God three weeks after the tumultuous conclusion of her relationship with Punter. She wrote in her autobiography that she had "tried to embalm all the tenderness of [her] passion for him." With this emotional inspiration, Hurston went on to paint the picture of Their Eyes Were Watching God using her personal experience and research as a template.

In 1927, a decade before writing Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston traveled south to collect folk songs and folk tales through an anthropological research fellowship arranged by her Barnard College mentor Franz Boas. The all-black Eatonville of Their Eyes Were Watching God is based on the all-black town of the same name in which Hurston grew up. The town's weekly announced in 1889, "Colored People of the United States: Solve the great race problem by securing a home in Eatonville, Florida, a Negro city governed by negroes." The hurricane that symbolizes the climax of Hurston's story also has an historical inspiration; in 1928, "a hurricane ravaged both coastal and inland areas of Florida, bringing torrential rains that broke the dikes of Lake Okeechobee". Scholars of the African diaspora note the cultural practices common to the Caribbean, Africa, and the United States in Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God while on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Haiti to research Obeah practices in the West Indies.

Initial reception

Hurston's political views in Their Eyes Were Watching God were met with resistance from several leading Harlem Renaissance authors.

Novelist and essayist Richard Wright condemned Their Eyes Were Watching God, writing in a review for New Masses (1935):

Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever to move in the direction of serious fiction… [She] can write; but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phyllis Wheatley... Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between laughter and tears.

Ralph Ellison said the book contained a "blight of calculated burlesque."

Alain Locke writes in a review: "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?"

The New Republic's Otis Ferguson wrote: "it isn't that this novel is bad, but that it deserves to be better". But he went on to praise the work for depicting "Negro life in its naturally creative and unselfconscious grace".

Not all African-American critics had negative things to say about Hurston's work. Carter G. Woodson, founder of The Journal of Negro History wrote, "Their Eyes Were Watching God is a gripping story... the author deserves great praise for the skill and effectiveness shown in the writing of this book." The critic noted Hurston's anthropological approach to writing, "She studied them until she thoroughly understood the working of their minds, learned to speak their language".

Meanwhile, reviews of Hurston's book in the mainstream white press were largely positive, although they did not translate into significant retail sales. Writing for The New York Times, Ralph Thompson states: "the normal life of Negroes in the South today—the life with its holdovers from slave times, its social difficulties, childish excitements, and endless exuberances... compared to this sort of story, the ordinary narratives of Negroes in Harlem or Birmingham seem ordinary indeed."

For the New York Herald Tribune, Sheila Hibben described Hurston as writing "with her head as with her heart" creating a "warm, vibrant touch". She praised Their Eyes Were Watching God as filled with "a flashing, gleaming riot of black people, with a limitless sense of humor, and a wild, strange sadness".

New York Times critic Lucille Tompkins described Their Eyes Were Watching God: "It is about Negroes... but really it is about every one, or at least every one who isn't so civilized that he has lost the capacity for glory."


As universities across the country developed Black Studies programs in the 1970s and 1980s, they created greater space for Black literature and academia. Several prominent academics, including Henry Louis Gates, Jr. and Addison Gayle, Jr., established a new "Black Aesthetic" that "placed the sources of contemporary black literature and culture in the communal music and oral folk tradition". This new respect coupled with a growing Black feminism led by Mary Helen Washington, Audre Lorde, Alice Walker, and others would create the space for the rediscovery of Hurston.

Hurston first achieved a level of mainstream institutional support in the 1970s. Walker published an essay, "Looking for Zora," in Ms. magazine in 1975. In that work, she described how the Black community's general rejection of Hurston was like "throwing away a genius". The National Endowment for the Humanities went on to award Robert Hemenway two grants for his work to write Hurston's biography. The 1977 biography was followed in 1978 by the re-issue of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

In 1975, the Modern Language Association held a special seminar focusing on Hurston. In 1981 professor Ruth Sheffey of Baltimore's Morgan State University founded the Zora Neale Hurston Society. Hurston had attended the school, then known as Morgan Academy, in 1917.

In 1978, Harper and Row leased its rights to Their Eyes Were Watching God to the University of Illinois Press. However, the printing was so profitable that Harper and Row refused to renew the leasing contract and instead reprinted its own new edition. This new edition sold its total print of 75,000 in less than a month.

The New York Times's Virginia Heffernan explains that the book's "narrative technique, which is heavy on free-indirect discourse, lent itself to poststructuralist analysis". With so many new disciplines especially open to the themes and content of Hurston's work, Their Eyes Were Watching God achieved growing prominence in the last several decades. It is now firmly established in the literary canon.

Critical analysis

  • In Maria J. Johnson's article "'The World in a Jug and the Stopper in [Her] Hand': Their Eyes Were Watching God as Blues Performance," she states that Hurston's novel takes a similar structure and aesthetic to blues culture. Johnson also shows how the contrast of Hurston's images, such as the pleasure and pain dynamic of the bee, can be seen in songs by singers like Bessie Smith.
  • The article "The Cognitive Construction of the Self in Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God", by Patrick S. Bernard, highlights the connection between the construction of self and cognition in Hurston's novel. According to Bernard, cognition is the inner essence of an individual that embodies the idea of "thinking, seeing, speaking, and knowing", but is often determined by one's exterior environment. Janie, the protagonist, uses her cognitive skills in order to find her identity and throughout the novel develops her cognition further. While Janie is living in a sexist society, she continues to rise above her opposition, specifically that of her three husbands. Bernard demonstrates this,
  • In a conversation with Jody, Janie defends 'womenfolk,' disagreeing with the sexist claim that God made men "different" because they turn "out so smart" (70). When she states that men "don't know half as much as you think you do," Jody interrupts her saying, 'you getting too moufy Janie... Go fetch me de checker-board and de checkers' (70-71) so that he and the other men could play (Bernard 9).

    The comment from Jody, Janie's second husband, attempts to suppress her voice and manipulate her thoughts. Rather than acting submissive to Jody, Janie for a brief moment contends with Jody by telling him how men misunderstand women. Jody fears that Janie's thinking will lead to her gaining more knowledge and naturally to speaking her mind, eventually leading to Janie achieving the power of knowledge to recognize and change the mistreatment and unfairness she has been receiving. Bernard proposes the idea that Jody's relationship with Janie represents society's assumption that women are of limited cognition. This assumption positions women in subservient roles that limit their ways of thinking, speaking, and seeing.In addition to bringing up Janie's relationship with Jody, Bernard emphasizes how her relationships with her other husbands influenced her cognition. He points out the fact that Logan Killicks, Janie's first husband, mistreated her by severing any beginning form of self-construction by treating her as an infant. Bernard also brings forth the idea that Janie's construction of selfhood blossoms when Tea Cake, her third husband, allows her to participate in experiences unimaginable to her. While Logan Killicks gives her no opportunity of expressing herself, Jody overpowers her expressive voice; Tea Cake allows her construction of self to mature link between self construction and cognition. Bernard's main point therefore is that self-construction is influenced by cognition, that is, knowing, thinking, seeing and speaking are important to the construction of self in Zora Neale Hurston's novel.

  • In "The Hierarchy Itself: Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Sacrifice of Narrative Authority," Ryan Simmons argues that Hurston made a statement against models of authority that supplant an oppressive system with other oppressive systems and offered an alternative. By models of authority, Simmons means the narrative voice of the author and Janie's narrative voice. Hurston represented the different ideologies of Booker T. Washington and W. E. B. Du Bois through the characters of Logan Killicks and Joe ("Jody") Starks. Like Washington, Logan models the path of "gradual progress" that would not threaten the white-dominated sphere of power and Hurston presents his practices as a tradeoff between liberty and modest prosperity. Joe models the path advocated by Du Bois, which is one of assertion of dignity and less compromise. However, the issue shown by Joe's eventual isolation from the community dialogue he helped establish and Janie's overpowering of him through a usurpation of authority, Hurston shows that the weakness with Joe's approach is that it mirrors that of white suppression.
  • Instead, Hurston introduces a third way of achieving self-autonomy through Tea Cake. He represents an independence from reliance on communal validation, and instead serves as a mirror for Janie to discover her narrative power. In relation to the author's narrative power, Tea Cake is the epitome of a good reader, one that is receptive to the transformative message of the text. Language is the understanding and sharpening of one's identity while communication comes second. In Hurston's innovative narrative, she is attempting to fulfill the "ideal narrative", which is one that nurtures and changes both the reader and the author.

    Adaptations for theater, film and radio

  • In 1983, the graduate repertory Hilberry Theater at Wayne State University produced To Gleam It Around, To Show My Shine, which is based on Their Eyes Were Watching God. The play was written by Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner and directed by Von Washington.
  • In 1988, To Gleam It Around, To Show My Shine was produced by the Crossroads Theatre in New Brunswick, New Jersey. The production was enhanced by an award from The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts' Fund for New American Plays. Denise Nicholas played Janie, Novella Nelson played Pheoby. Rick Khan directed. Writing in The New York Times on October 16, 1988, in a review entitled "Luminous' Drama On Black Woman's Struggle", Alvin Klein said, of "the dialogue that is so pure and lyrical, it positively sings and pierces the heart. Out of an unutterably beautiful book, a luminous play has evolved."
  • In 2003, To Gleam It Around, To Show My Shine a.k.a. Eatonville was to have opened at the ATA (American Theatre for Actors) in co-production with Amas Musical Theatre and Sage Hill Productions, with a score composed by Wynton Marsalis. (see "Wynton Marsalis Pens Music for Rattner's 'Eatonville'", Playbill, August 21, 2003.)
  • In 2012, the new artistic director of the State Theater of Maryland, the Centerstage in Baltimore, chose to produce "Gleam" a.k.a. "To Gleam It Around, To Show My Shine" written by Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner. The play was directed by Marion McClinton. The production was enhanced by a grant of $55,000 from the National Endowment of the Arts. Writing in "DC Theatre Scene," Debbie Jackson says "Gleam hits a glorious stride at the Centerstage in Baltimore mainly because of the well-tuned script by Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner in the capable hands of director Marion McClinton."[January 18, 2012] Andrea Appleton writing in the "Citypaper" on 1/20/2012, wrote a headline that states "Gleam: A classic novel comes to breathtaking life." Donna Owen writing in Grio [1/18/2012] says GLEAM "practically leaps off the stage with power, witty dialect, and poignancy."
  • Oprah Winfrey served as executive producer of the made-for-TV adaptation Their Eyes Were Watching God in 2005. Harpo Productions sponsored the film directed by Darnell Martin and with a screenplay written by Suzan-Lori Parks, Misan Sagay, and Bobby Smith, Jr. The show was broadcast on ABC on March 6, 2005, at 9 pm. Catering to its TV audience, the film largely avoided the more controversial themes of race, gender, and power. Karen Valby of Entertainment Weekly comments, "While the book chews on meaty questions of race and identity, the movie largely resigns itself to the realm of sudsy romance." New York Times critic Virginia Heffernan writes, "the film is less a literary tribute than a visual fix of Harlequin Romance: Black Southern Series—all sensual soft-core scenes and contemporary, accessible language."
  • In 2011, the novel was adapted into a radio play for BBC World Drama, dramatized by Patricia Cumper. The play first aired on February 19, 2011.
  • In 2012, a live radio play performance of Their Eyes Were Watching God written by Arthur Yorinks was broadcast on February 29 and March 1 to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the book's publication.
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