'Their Eyes Were Watching God' Overview

Zora Neale Hurston's Most Lauded Work

Carl Van Vechten portrait of Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston, the author of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

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Published in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is regarded as a groundbreaking piece of literature for its exploration of the self through the eyes of Janie Crawford, a romantic, resilient Black woman navigating three marriages in the early 20th century. A commentary on self-construction in the face of oppression and weighted power dynamics, Their Eyes Were Watching God remains a beloved classic today.

Fast Facts: Their Eyes Were Watching God

  • Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Author: Zora Neale Hurston
  • Publisher: J. B. Lippincott
  • Year Published: 1937
  • Genre: Drama
  • Type of Work: Novel
  • Original Language: English
  • Themes: Gender roles, language, love, nature
  • Characters: Janie Crawford, Nanny, Logan Killicks, Joe "Jody" Starks, Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods, Mrs. Turner, Pheoby
  • Notable Adaptations: 1983 play based on the novel titled To Gleam it Around, To Show my Shine; 2005 made-for-TV adaption produced by Oprah Winfrey; 2011 radio play for BBC drama
  • Fun Fact: Hurston wrote the novel while in Haiti doing ethnographic fieldwork.

Plot Summary

The story begins with Janie’s return to the town of Eatonville. Janie shares the story of her life with her friend Pheoby, in what becomes an extended flashback. At the age of 16, Janie experiences her sexual awakening by gazing at a pear tree, and then she is kissed by a local boy. Nanny, Janie's grandmother, then marries her off to a local farmer named Logan Killicks. Logan gives Janie financial stability but fails to give her any emotional fulfillment. He treats Janie like a worker and she becomes deeply unhappy. She runs away with Jody, a handsome, enterprising man with big dreams.

Together they move to the all-Black community of Eatonville, where Jody opens a general store and is elected mayor. Janie is quick to realize that Jody only wants a wife that will act as a trophy to bolster his all-powerful image. Their relationship deteriorates under his misogyny and abuse, and years pass while Janie works at the store. One day, Janie talks back to Jody, eviscerating his ego and severing their relationship. He dies soon after.

Now a widow, Janie is free of her controlling husband and becomes financially independent. She meets Tea Cake, a charming young drifter who delights her with his warm respect. They fall in love and move to the Everglades, where they live happily working together harvesting beans. The Okeechobee Hurricane disrupts their happy life when Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog and loses his mind. Janie kills him in self-defense and is put on trial for his murder. She is acquitted, however, and returns to Eatonville, closing the novel as it started, sitting on the porch talking with her best friend Pheoby.

Major Characters

Janie. Janie is the protagonist of the story. The novel follows her journey from girlhood into adulthood and depicts the development of her voice, sexuality, and autonomy as she navigates the politics of her three marriages in the search for love and identity.

Nanny. Janie’s grandmother, who was enslaved from birth and lived through the Civil War. Her experiences shape her values and dreams for Janie. She views marital and financial stability as paramount and disregards Janie’s lust for love and emotional depth.

Logan Killicks. Logan is Janie’s first husband. He is an older farmer who treats Janie like a worker, and their marriage is transactional at best.

Joe “Jody” Starks. Janie’s second husband, with whom she runs away. Jody is misogynistic and treats Janie like an object, believing women to be far inferior to men. He provides Janie with many beautiful things, but keeps her socially isolated and silences her.

Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods. Tea Cake is Janie’s third husband and her true love. Tea Cake treats Janie with respect and includes her in all aspects of his life. They have a full, passionate relationship until his death.

Mrs. Turner. Janie’s neighbor in Belle Glade. Mrs. Turner is biracial and worships "Whiteness" while hating "Blackness." She is drawn to Janie's lighter complexion and White features.

Pheoby. Janie’s best friend from Eatonville. Pheoby is a stand-in for the reader, as she is the one listening to Janie tell her life story.

Major Themes

Gender. The novel ostensibly begins with Janie’s sexual awakening, and the story’s following structure is built around Janie’s three marriages. Throughout Janie’s life, the concepts of femininity and masculinity inform perceptions of power. Many of the obstacles she faces stem from the way gender roles factor into her relationships. 

Voice. Voice is one of the most important sources of power. Janie’s search for identity is then a simultaneous search for her voice. She is silenced at the beginning of the novel by abusive, overbearing men, and finds her autonomy only when she begins to speak out, standing up for herself and other women. 

Love. Love is the force that guides Janie on her journey to find herself. First signified in the pear tree, which becomes a motif of ideal passion and wholeness, love is at the core of all that she seeks. By the end of the novel, and by her third marriage, Janie has found emotional unity with herself and her husband Tea Cake.

Literary Style

Their Eyes Were Watching God was not initially praised nor popular, mostly due to its literary style. Writing as a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston chose to narrate the novel in a blend of prose and idiomatic dialect. This was thought to be regressive at the time, due to the racialized history of vernacular speech in literature. Hurston’s novel was also controversial among her contemporaries because she focused on the individual life of a Black woman without emphasizing the issues of race. It wasn’t until decades later that her novel was rejuvenated and celebrated for capturing the experience of someone of such a marginalized identity, without shying away from portraying that experience in all aspects—through language, sexuality, and hope.

About the Author

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891. She was a critical figure of the Harlem Renaissance, writing in New York City in the 1920s and producing Fire!!, a literary magazine with other writers such as Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. Also an anthropologist, folklorist, and ethnographer, Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 while in Haiti, where she was conducting ethnographic research on a Guggenheim Fellowship. It was her second novel and would become her most notable work, celebrated for its deft rendering of the Black female experience in the early 20th century.

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Pearson, Julia. "'Their Eyes Were Watching God' Overview." ThoughtCo, Feb. 17, 2021, thoughtco.com/their-eyes-were-watching-god-overview-4770563. Pearson, Julia. (2021, February 17). 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' Overview. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/their-eyes-were-watching-god-overview-4770563 Pearson, Julia. "'Their Eyes Were Watching God' Overview." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/their-eyes-were-watching-god-overview-4770563 (accessed June 4, 2023).