'Their Eyes Were Watching God' Summary

Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel Their Eyes Were Watching God recounts the events of Janie Crawford’s life, a Black woman who lives in Florida during the early 1900s. The story falls into sections based on Janie’s marriages to three very different men.

The novel begins as Janie returns to the town of Eatonville. Her appearance spurs the judgment of the local women, who gossip cruelly about the protagonist. Janie then sits down with her best friend, Pheoby, to tell her about her life from girlhood on.

Janie’s First Marriage

Janie begins with her childhood—she never knew her father or mother, and was raised by her grandma, Nanny. Janie decides that her “conscious” life began when she let a local boy named Johnny Taylor kiss her at the age of sixteen. Nanny sees him kiss her, and tells Janie that she should get married straight away.

Nanny then elaborates on her own life. She tells Janie that she was enslaved from birth, and her enslaver raped and impregnated her. It was at the time of the Civil War, and he left to fight shortly after. His wife, the mistress of the house, confronted Nanny and beat her. She was furious that her husband had a child with a woman he enslaved. She planned to have the baby, called Leafy, sold. Nanny escaped before this could happen and found a better home after the war ended, down in Florida. She hoped for a better life for her daughter and wanted her to become a schoolteacher. However, Leafy suffered the same fate as her mother, and was raped by her teacher at the age of seventeen. She gave birth to Janie and then ran away, leaving Nanny to care for the child. Nanny transferred her hopes for a better life on to Janie.

Nanny wants Janie to marry Logan Killicks, a local, older, wealthy farmer. She believes he will give her stability, especially since Nanny knows she is getting old and won’t be around much longer. Janie relents, naively thinking that marriage will lead to love and will put an end to her loneliness. But their marriage is not one of romance. Logan often tells Janie that she is spoiled, and puts her to work doing manual labor. Janie feels like a mule, and grows distraught over her circumstances. When Nanny passes away, Janie notes that she has finally become a woman, because her first dream has died.

One day, Janie happens to meet a charming, handsome stranger named Joe Starks. They flirt, and he asks her to call him “Jody,” and shares with her his many ambitious plans. He tells her that he is moving to a new town being built by a Black community. Janie is invigorated by his dreams, and they continue to meet in secret.

Janie’s Second Marriage

After an argument with Logan, Janie runs off with Jody and marries him, and together they move to Eatonville. Jody has enough money to buy 200 acres of land, which he divides into plots and sells off to newcomers. Eventually, Jody becomes mayor of the town, and builds both a general store and a post office. But despite all of this success, Janie is still lonely. She realizes that Jody treats her like just another piece of his property. Because the couple holds so much power, Janie is respected by the townspeople, but also resented, and Jody forbids her from socializing with the “common” folk.

Jody commands Janie to work at the store, which she dislikes. He also makes her cover her beautiful, long hair in a head-rag. He is controlling and jealous, and doesn’t want other men lusting after her beauty. Janie is constantly belittled and silenced by her husband.

Janie finds herself submitting in defeat, and detaching from her emotional self so that she can survive her loveless marriage. The two begin to argue more and more. Jody is getting old and sick, and as his health deteriorates, his harmful treatment towards his wife escalates. He even begins to hit her. One day Janie cuts tobacco for a customer crookedly, and Jody berates her, insulting her looks and her competence. Janie insults him back, publicly. Jody is so angry and embarrassed that he beats his wife in front of everyone and drives her away from the store.

Soon after, Jody is bedridden, and refuses to see Janie, even as he lays dying. She talks to him anyways, and tells him that he never knew her because he wouldn’t grant her any freedom. After he dies, she finally takes off her head-rag. Janie knows that she is still a great beauty, though she is much older now. She also inherited a lot of money from Jody and is financially independent. There are many suitors who wish to marry her, but Janie refuses them all until she meets one—a man nicknamed Tea Cake. Immediately, Janie feels like she has always known him. They fall deeply in love, although the rest of the town disapproves, since he is a drifter and so much younger than she is.

Janie’s Third Marriage

The two leave for Jacksonville to get married. One morning, Janie wakes up and Tea Cake is gone, along with the $200 she had stowed away. Janie frets. She thinks he used her and ran off. When he returns finally, he tells her that he spent her money on a big feast. He did not invite Janie because he thought the crowd was too low class for her likes. She tells Tea Cake that she wants to do everything with him, and they promise to be truthful with each other thereafter. Tea Cake vows to pay her back, and returns from gambling with $322. He has earned Janie’s trust, and she tells him about the rest of the money she has in the bank. 

They then move to Belle Glade, where they work planting beans, and Tea Cake teaches Janie how to shoot a gun and hunt. Crowds of people come and camp out in the fields during planting season, and because Tea Cake is so outgoing, their home in Belle Glade becomes the center of the social scene. Though they remain madly in love, their marriage has its share of ups and downs—Janie is especially jealous of a girl named Nunkie, who endlessly flirts with Tea Cake. Janie catches them play wrestling, but Tea Cake assures her that Nunkie means nothing to him, and their argument transforms into passion. Their marriage is wild, intense and consuming. It stokes the envy of all those around, except for Mrs. Turner. Mrs. Turner runs a small restaurant with her husband, and Janie spends a good amount of time with her. She greatly admires Janie’s features, and wants Janie to marry her brother. She doesn’t understand Janie’s love and attraction for Tea Cake.

In 1928, the Okeechobee hurricane wreaks havoc throughout Florida. Tea Cake and Janie survive the storm and end up in Palm Beach. However, as they were swimming through rough waters, a dog attacked Janie and Tea Cake was bitten as he fought off the animal. They return to what is left of their home. Tea Cake soon grows sick, and it’s apparent that the dog gave him rabies. He becomes violently jealous, believing that Janie is cheating on him. He tries to shoot her. Janie kills Tea Cake in self-defense, and is charged with his murder.

At the trial, Tea Cake’s friends take a stance against Janie. But all the White women in the area come to support her, and the White, all male jury acquits her. She gives Tea Cake an extravagant funeral, and his friends forgive her. Janie then decides to return to Eatonville, since Belle Glade is meaningless without her husband. The story then picks up where it started, in Eatonville, with Janie’s arrival back in town. Janie tells Pheoby that she is happy to have returned, after living out her dream and experiencing real love. She thinks about how she killed Tea Cake, but grows peaceful knowing that he gave her so much and that he will be with her always.