Their Eyes Were Watching God Summary

Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Their Eyes Were Watching God Summary

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Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel about finding one’s identity and voice. The story is told through the eyes of Janie Crawford, as she relates it to her friend Pheoby. Janie and Pheoby are reunited after twenty years, and Janie begins by telling Pheoby about her childhood.

Janie’s grandmother raises her after her mother runs away to escape the horror of having been raped. Janie’s grandmother had been similarly abused during the era when slavery was legal. Because of slavery and the discrimination that followed, Janie’s grandmother never had a voice. Both Janie and her grandmother want great things for Janie, but because of their different backgrounds, they seek different solutions.

Janie’s grandmother’s solution is to marry her off to Logan Killicks. Despite her grandmother’s hope that Janie will benefit from this marriage, she is miserable. Logan does not care about Janie’s opinions, so while her material needs are provided for, he offers her no opportunity to self-identify or find her voice. He maintains his oppressive control over her by forcing her to work hard.

Janie, who had hoped for a more loving marriage, becomes enamored of Joe Starks, a well-dressed dreamer. She is certain he can give her the love and respect that Logan never could. She leaves Logan to marry Joe Starks. The pair relocates to Eatonville, where Janie’s hopes are dashed. Although Joe is not as careless toward her as Logan had been, after he becomes mayor, his ambitions overshadow Janie’s attempts to find her voice. After he dies, a man named Tea Cake spends time with Janie.

Janie falls in love. Tea Cake, a carefree man, loves Janie for who she is, allowing her to claim her identity and find her voice. Together, they leave Eatonville and move to the Everglades to work the land—or muck as it were—growing sugar cane and beans. Life is going well for them until they are attacked by a dog. Tea Cake saves Janie, but is bitten. The dog was rabid, passing rabies onto Tea Cake. He begins to get sick and enters a state of delirium during which he attempts to kill Janie. Defending herself, she shoots Tea Cake, killing him. Losing the man she loves, Janie’s heart is shattered. She is put on trial but found not guilty as Tea Cake was infected with rabies. She concludes her story with Pheoby telling her friend that though she lost the man she loved, she was grateful to have had the opportunity to love someone so much.

She was also able to find herself and be loved for who she was instead of what she was. As the book ends, Janie bids Pheoby goodnight. As she retires for the evening, she feels as though Tea Cake is still with her. He has become a part of her identity and with her voice, she tells his story along with hers. Janie feels satisfied and happy.

By structuring the story as one friend telling another what happened in the time since they last met, Zora Neale Hurston creates an approachable narrator who hooks the reader, keeping the reader’s attention throughout the book. Written in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in Florida.

The racial climate of the early twentieth century plays a large role in Their Eyes were Watching God. The Jim Crow Laws had, in the prior century, disenfranchised African Americans. Even though slavery in the United States had been abolished, discrimination was still rampant. Not only were groups like the Ku Klux Klan active in the region at the time, ordinary citizens who did not participate in such groups still acted in a discriminatory manner. Their Eyes Were Watching God was written in the wake of the Harlem Renaissance, a period of artistic expression and growth among the African American population in New York City. Despite this, many of Hurston’s contemporary critics claimed her work was not aligned with the movement, accusing the novel of failing to breach the confines previously applied to African American artists.

The scholarly community revived interest in the book during the 1970s and 1980s, granting more space to the study of African American artists. The Black Feminist movement highlighted Hurston’s work, putting Their Eyes Were Watching God back on the map. Since then, the book has enjoyed popularity in and out of schools, with film, television, and radio play adaptations.