Their Eyes Were Watching God is a captivating love story set in the South and written by Zora Neale Hurston. Her writing is full of humor and emotion, making it a timeless piece of literature.
Originally published in 1937, the novel didn’t gain popularity until it was reissued in 1978. It’s now considered a classic in African-American literature, despite facing initial rejection due to its portrayal of a strong black female lead character.
You do not have to read the entire book if you don’t have time. This book review provides an overview of everything you can learn from it.
Let’s get started without further ado.
In this Their Eyes Were Watching God book review, I’m going to cover the following topics:
Table of Contents
A young black woman battles a strong, iron-willed grandmother and a domineering husband until she finds a man who deeply loves her.
It is sundown in the small, all-black town of Eatonville, Florida, and people have begun to come out of their houses and clump together on the porch where, every evening, they gather and gossip.
This particular evening they see a woman walking in the road toward them; they recognize her immediately as being Janie Starks, a 40-year-old woman who left town in a blue satin dress. She has returned, her long hair hanging loose down her back, and wearing overalls. She speaks briefly to the porch sitters, then continues on until she reaches her gate.
One of the women, Pheoby Watson, stands up abruptly and tells the others that she’s Janie’s best friend and that she’s tired of the porch sitters badmouthing Janie. Pheoby intends to take Janie some mulatto rice.
Janie is delighted with the rice and finishes it quickly; then she begins cleaning her feet, readying herself to tell Pheoby about everything that’s happened to her after she left town a year and a half ago.
Janie recalls the time when she was a small child, Janie Crawford, raised by her grandmother, Nanny. She never saw her father and doesn’t recall ever seeing her mother. She played with the four grandchildren of the white woman whom Nanny worked for and was dressed in clothes that they’d outgrown.
School kids teased her about living with white folks and taunted her with tales about her father’s cruelty to her mother and about the bloodhounds that were set loose to try to find him. Nanny noticed that the little girl was continually depressed, so she bought them a small house of their own.
Years later, when she was 16, Janie suddenly was aware that a tall, lean boy, whom she’d always referred to as “shiftless Johnny Taylor,” had turned handsome overnight and was desirable. He kissed Janie just once—but Nanny knew and sat bolt-upright from her nap and saw him do it.
She knew instantly that it was time for Janie to get married. Nanny was not about to leave the choice of a husband to chance: she’d marry Janie to old Logan Killicks despite Janie’s protests. Janie’s mother’s life was ruined by the wrong kind of men, and Nanny vows that Janie’s life will be different. Killicks can give Janie protection and security, two things that she will need after Nanny dies.
Prophetically, Nanny tells her, “[M]ah head is ole and tilted towards de grave.” After being married in Nanny’s parlor, Janie struggles with the fear that she may never love her husband; she confesses her confusion to her grandmother, who has no easy answers for her. A month later, Nanny is dead. Logan Killicks changes.
He no longer teases and spoils Janie, delighting in fingering her long black hair and talking in rhymes. One day, he announces that he’s going to Lake City to talk to a man about a mule and tells Janie that he wants her to stay home and cut up seed potatoes. Sitting by the road, working at the potatoes, Janie sees a man approaching, well-dressed and whistling.
He doesn’t notice Janie, so she runs to the pump and begins jerking the handle to attract the man’s attention. The seal-brown man introduces himself as Joe Starks, bound for the town that he’s heard about—the one being built by an all-black population. He wants to settle there and be “a big voice.”
He compliments Janie on how young she looks and tells her that a “pretty doll-baby” like Janie shouldn’t be left home to cut up seed potatoes. Every day afterwards, Janie and Joe manage to find a secret place to talk, where he can tell Janie more about his big dreams.
Janie is mesmerized by this good-looking dreamer who says that he wants to marry her and take her to the all-black town. One morning, Janie decides to sneak out and go with Joe, and that morning, he appears with a hired rig. They are married before sundown.
Joe is good to Janie; she calls him Jody. On the train, he spoils her with candies and apples and continues to talk about “the colored town.” He feels that his destiny lies in that town, and that he has a mission to become a leading figure in it.
As soon as they get off the train, Joe finds a buggy for them. What they find at their destination is far from the Utopia Joe envisioned. About a dozen small houses stand in a sandy clearing. The bleak little collection of shacks, however, doesn’t daunt Joe’s ambitions.
Clearly, all this town needs is him. He is incredulous to hear that the town has no mayor—and even more amazed to discover that no one knows for sure what the name of the town is. Joe buys land and convinces the townspeople that they need a “heart” in their town, a large store where people can buy what they need, instead of going to another town to buy it.
The townspeople have never seen so much energy and enthusiasm as Joe Starks exudes. He’s easily able to organize the people and their axes, chopping away at scrub brush until a recognizable road leads in and out of town. Lots begin to sell, and Janie is busy all day working at the store, even before the roof is hammered on.
When the store is finished, the townspeople celebrate. Joe shares cheese and crackers with everyone and Janie pours lemonade. Jody is proclaimed mayor, and Janie is proclaimed Mrs. Mayor Starks. Joe sets up a Sears, Roebuck street light, people bring armloads of food, and again the town is filled with the songs and sounds of celebration.
Afterwards, Janie confesses that she feels inadequate; she’s a simple woman, and all this responsibility and power are frightening. Joe Starks, however, is in his element. He commands attention by merely stepping up on a porch. He builds Janie a big white house, smokes long cigars, and acquires a fascination with expensive spitting pots.
Months pass, and it isn’t long before his larger-than-life persona metamorphoses into overbearing, bragging behavior and some of the townspeople begin to resent his swaggering, almighty presence; moreover, he’s begun to be curt and censorious to Janie when she miscalculates while clerking in the store.
As for Janie, the author tells us that “the store itself was a pleasant place if only [Janie] didn’t have to sell things.” The little math she knows doesn’t include figuring half pounds or a dime’s worth. Joe, however, insists that Janie work all day in the store—and that she keep her luxuriant hair hidden under a head rag. Her hair belongs to his admiring gazes—and not to anyone else’s, male or female.
One day, when the townspeople tease a poor overworked mule, Janie is furious. She knows all too well that the way men treat a mule is similar to the way they treat their women. She yells to Joe and tells him to cease.
Shamed, Joe buys the miserable old mule, sets it free, and it grows fat and becomes a town favorite before it dies and is given a mock-serious funeral, which again rankles Janie’s good sense of what’s right and decent. Over time, Joe becomes even more oppressive; he wants Janie to feel her submission.
For a while, Janie refuses. Then one day, Joe slaps her and her once- ideal husband vanishes; in his stead is a tyrant and a man who enjoys flirting with trashy women. The urge to argue and fight with her husband slowly drains out of Janie. Joe becomes increasingly abusive with her, mentally and physically, and Janie realizes suddenly that he’s become an old man, 17 years older than she.
Impulsively, she taunts him about being old. Enough is enough, and Joe strikes Janie with all his strength. Afterward, Joe sleeps in a room downstairs, licking his wounded vanity. Gradually, he begins keeping to his bed, growing ever weaker.
Janie doesn’t spare him: she tells him that he’s going to die, which terrifies him. When Joe does die, the first thing Janie does after he stops breathing is jerk off the head rag he ordered her to wear. She fixes her hair and opens the window, crying out to Eatonville, “Jody is dead. Mah husband is gone from me.”
Joe’s funeral sparkles with the chrome and colored sheen of Cadillacs and Buicks; processions of people attend from hither and yon—poor people on mules and rich ones dressed in golds and reds.
Janie “sent her face to Joe’s funeral”; inside she was still celebrating her liberation from a man who’d grown so powerful so quickly that he’d become unbearable. That night she burns up every head rag in the house.
Six months of Janie’s wearing black mourning dresses passes—and not a single man has come to court her—until the day when most of the town has traveled to Winter Park to watch a ball game. She’s alone in her store when a tall man comes in, and she begins admiring his lazy eyes with curling lashes, his lean shoulders, and narrow waist.
Playing checkers with him, she rediscovers a laughing, freewheeling sense of fun that has lain buried for years. The man is Vergible Woods—Tea Cake, for short. A week later, Tea Cake visits the store again and jokes with Janie, sweet- talking her over glasses of lemonade. He kindles her zest for adventure when he coaxes her into going late-night fishing with him at Lake Sabelia.
The following night, he brings her a string of fresh-caught trout. Afterward, Tea Cake plays blues on the piano and, before long, he and Janie begin to talk about their affection for one another.
Janie points out to him that she’s nearly 12 years older than Tea Cake, a fact that doesn’t matter to Tea Cake. Janie closes up the store late one evening and discovers him sleeping in her hammock; they spend the night in laughter, making love throughout the house.
The neighbors begin to grumble when Tea Cake and Janie become less prudent about their growing intimacy. The town picnic gives everyone a close- up look at Tea Cake, a man certainly younger than Joe Starks, probably penniless, and possessing none of Joe’s confidence or capabilities. Janie, however, believes that she and Tea Cake can be happy together, and she plans to marry him.
She married old Logan Killicks to please her grandmother; she married an ambitious, rich man to please herself, but also to please her grandmother—had Nanny lived to see what a successful life Jody had created for them. Joe is dead, however, and now Janie plans to make new choices and live a life that she chooses for herself.
Tea Cake has picked her out a blue satin dress, and Janie warns her friend Pheoby that one morning Pheoby will wake up calling—and Janie’ll be gone.
Not many of the Eatonville townspeople see Janie climb aboard an early train to Jacksonville, Florida, but enough of them do and fix their eyes on the blue satin dress that Tea Cake has told her to wear because he plans to “marry her right from the train.”
Tea Cake is waiting for her and after they are married, they ride around on the Jacksonville trolley, getting a feel for the city. The next morning, Janie sleeps in while Tea Cake goes out. After breakfast, Janie discovers that the $200 that she pinned inside her pink silk vest is gone.
She sits and remembers foolish old Annie Tyler, easily seduced by men much younger, moving to Tampa and returning home broke and shamefaced. Janie vows not to be a carbon copy of Annie. Whatever happens, she’s not going back to Eatonville. When Tea Cake comes home, he’s got a guitar around his neck and joy in his smile.
He took her money—and he had a good time spending it, entertaining his friends. He now knows what it feels like to be rich. Janie tells him that she’ll kill him if he ever takes her money again.
She asks him to take her along when he’s leaving to have a good time, and Tea Cake is overjoyed to hear that she wants to meet his friends and become a part of his life—but he intends to do some high-stakes gambling and needs to be alone.
He sets out with two decks of cards and a switchblade knife and returns with two cuts on his back, $322, and the news that they’re going to set out for “de muck,” down in the Everglades, to work in fields of stringbeans and tomatoes.
Down at Lake Okechobee, Tea Cake plants beans and teaches Janie how to shoot a pistol, a shotgun, and a rifle. During bean-picking time, people who work the muck gather at night at Tea Cake’s to hear him sing and play his guitar, while they eat themselves full of Janie’s black-eyed peas, rice, navy beans, and hunks of bacon.
When Tea Cake confesses to being unbearably lonely around midday, Janie grabs a basket and joins him in the muck, relieved that this kind of work feels better than “clerkin’ in dat store.” She wonders what the Eatonville folks would think if they could see her now in her overalls and heavy shoes. She is deliciously happy.
Every night, the house is full of people, laughing and eating and listening to Tea Cake “pick trie box.” Like all things, however, perfect happiness can be shortlived and Janie’s happiness is ambushed one day by a little chunky girl named Nunkie who begins boldly eyeing Tea Cake while he’s working in the fields.
Janie catches Tea Cake and Nunkie tussling, and Tea Cake explains that the girl grabbed his work tickets and he was trying to get them back. Later, Janie wallops him and they fight until they both dissolve in kisses and sex on the floor.
The picking season closes, and Tea Cake and Janie decide to stay rather than move back to Jacksonville. Next season, many of the old crowd return, some of them surprised that a “high time woman” like Janie is still willing to work on the muck.
Tea Cake boasts that Janie does whatever he wants her to do, and he boasts of his physical control over her. When Janie is tired after all-night partying, though, Tea Cake is sympathetic and often tells her to stay home from the muck and rest.
One afternoon, when she’s at home, she sees a band of Seminoles passing by, laden like burros. They tell her that a hurricane is coming.
Rabbits begin scurrying by, possums slink by, and even snakes begin heading inland, toward the Palm Beach road. That night, people gather at Tea Cake’s to talk. The wind starts picking up and everybody decides to go home. By morning, Lake Okechobee is roaring with wrath.
Thunder and lightning crackle in the skies. In the shacks of the muck workers, eyes are keen—questioning and watching God. The wind screams and things begin crashing, as Okechobee pounds against the frail dike that holds its massive, roiling waters. Tea Cake yells at Janie to get their insurance papers and all their money; they’ve got to try to walk out, locking arms with a friend for support.
They step out in hip-deep water, amidst frightening struggling cattle. The water gushes faster as they manage to reach the bridge at Six Mile Bend, already filled with white people.
Tea Cake and Janie are swept away in the flood until Tea Cake sees a cow thrashing in the deep water and yells to Janie to grab the cow’s tail. Janie siezes it and holds fast, while Tea Cake reaches the cow and tries to toss off the angry dog that terrorizes them as it crouches astride the cow’s backbone. Tea Cake fails to dislodge the dog, and it bites him high up on his cheek bone. Next day, they trudge into Palm Beach.
Two days later, Tea Cake rouses himself and tells Janie that, somehow, they have to get out of town—maybe go back upstate. Palm Beach is thick with dead and dying bodies, and every time the Red Cross workers see an able-bodied man, they make him help them bury the dead.
When Tea Cake ventures out to look around at the crushed houses and smashed trees, he is forced to join other men who are digging a ditch as bodies are pitched into it and covered with quick-lime. When Tea Cake is able to return to Janie, he says that the safest place for them is probably back in the Everglades.
Next day, they are back on the muck, fixing up a house to live in and hailing old friends. About the middle of the fourth week back, Tea Cake awakens with a sick headache and a throat that fights against swallowing.
A doctor arrives and predicts that Tea Cake will die a horrible death from the infected dog bite. Tea Cake becomes delirious and Janie checks to see if his pistol is loaded.
For good measure, she loads the rifle, as well. Later, Tea Cake threatens Janie and she realizes that he’s gone mad. She fires at him and watches him crumple as he leaps forward and buries his teeth in her forearm.
After her trial and acquittal, following a plea that her killing Tea Cake was an act of mercy and self-defense, Janie buries his body in a strong vault, with a new guitar, in Palm Beach, far from the fury of future storms.
A band plays; it is a glorious funeral. Janie wears overalls to the service. Back in Eatonville, Janie pauses in her story, and Pheoby breathes heavily, promising to value her husband more than ever and to make him take her fishing; they need to spend more time together.
Climbing the stairs with a lamp, Janie knows for sure that Tea Cake will never really be dead—not really dead— until she herself has finished feeling and thinking about him.
Janie Crawford Starks: Teased as a child because she lived with her grandmother in a white family’s home, she runs away with a dreamer and doer, Joe Starks, and suddenly finds herself the wife of the mayor of the growing, all-black town of Eatonville, Florida. When Joe dies and she is widowed, she follows a man whom she deeply loves, Tea Cake Woods, to the Everglades, where she finds happiness working on the muck until Tea Cake dies, and she returns to Eatonville.
Nanny: After Janie’s mother and father desert their child, Nanny treasures her young granddaughter and tries to give her every material thing she can, as well as every possible advantage. However, when Janie enters puberty and begins finding shiftless boys desirable, Nanny marries Janie to a stable, prosperous old farmer who can offer her safety and security.
Joe (“Jody”) Starks: Ambitious, hardworking, visionary, Joe takes Janie to a town that is barely a town, but the important thing is that it is being built by black people. However, progress is at a standstill, almost stagnant, until Joe arrives and pumps energy and ideas into the townspeople. During the novel, his early adulation of Janie, who calls him Jody, is slowly transformed into chauvinist control over his uneducated wife to whom he gives orders to work as a clerk in the general store that he owns.
Vergible (“Tea Cake”) Woods: Much younger than Janie Starks, Tea Cake convinces her that he loves her and wants her to come to the Everglades and work on the muck with him. Janie goes and is happy with him and with the work, picking beans and tomatoes. Tragically, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog, goes mad, tries to kill Janie, and is killed by her when she acts in self-defense.
The Porch Sitters: This group of Eatonville people function much like a Greek chorus; they comment on Janie’s returning home and reveal their prejudices about this spirited, courageous young black woman who left town in a blue satin dress and returns in overalls.
Pheoby Watson: Janie’s closest friend in Eatonville, Pheoby sees Janie returning and takes her mulatto rice and listens to her narrative about Joe, about Tea Cake, and about Janie’s reasons for returning to Eatonville. Afterward, Pheoby vows to love her husband better and spend more time with him.
Themes and Ideas
1. The Rights of Women
Women, in Hurston’s era, especially black women, had few “rights.” Feminism was a word rarely uttered. White women had been allowed to vote for only a few years; black women, of course, weren’t allowed to vote at all. About the only “rights” that black women were concerned with were the choice of a husband and keeping a home comfortable.
Janie Crawford, the heroine of this novel, is enormously frustrated when she is only a teenager and her grandmother, Nanny, tells her that she must marry old Logan Killicks because he’s a man who won’t break her heart, beat her, and leave her. He’s a hardworking farmer with a mule and fair-size acreage for potatoes.
He also turns out to be demanding and demeaning after his initial infatuation with his young bride wears thin. Janie’s second husband seems like the very embodiment of Prince Charming until he begins seeing himself in a godlike role, laying down rules for the townspeople of Eatonville and demanding that Janie clerk in their general store—despite her lack of math and general feelings of doubtful self-worth.
Janie’s third husband, Tea Cake Woods, is far from ideal—for example, he slaps Janie around to prove to people he wants to impress that he’s “the boss.” Otherwise, however, he’s good to Janie, and we can see that he sincerely loves her. Most of all, Janie loves him, and she chose him. Nanny chose Logan Killicks for Janie; Joe Starks chose Janie for himself. But Janie herself chose Tea Cake.
There are three deaths that Janie must cope with in the novel: Nanny’s, Joe’s, and Tea Cake’s. In each case, Janie grows in maturity. Shortly after Janie has confessed to her grandmother that she fears that she may never come to love Logan Killicks, she learns that her grandmother offers no hope for Janie’s future.
Women of Nanny’s generation never worried unduly about the notion of love. Survival was all. Love was a luxury. When Joe dies, he’s become so sick and old and soured after wielding, metaphorically, his fist over Janie’s day-to-day existence that his death, when it finally comes, is an immense relief to Janie.
The first thing she does is jerk off the symbolically shackling head rag that he ordered her to wear. Like a good wife, she gives Joe a fitting funeral, but her heart is rejoicing even if her face is sober and empty. Tea Cake’s death is tragic.
Trying to save Janie and himself from the raging waters of the turbulently overspilling Lake Okeechobee, he is bitten by a rabid dog and, weeks later, exhibits the symptoms of rabies, finally going mad and trying to kill Janie. Having to shoot Tea Cake in self-defense is a nightmare of horror that she manages to heal by knowing, deep in her soul, that killing Tea Cake was an act of mercy—ultimately.
It is working on the muck that finally gives Janie a sense of purpose. When she was living with Logan Killicks, he did all the hard physical work; frequently, he referred to her being spoiled by Nanny.
When Janie married Joe Starks, she was never comfortable clerking in the store and complained to Joe that she felt inadequate when she had to make change. It is unlikely that Janie ever imagined that she would finally discover her happiness planting and harvesting beans and tomatoes alongside her husband.
1. Janie’s Head Rags
The head rags that Joe makes Janie wear are every bit as uncomfortable and imprisoning as ankle shackles that black slaves were forced to wear on the long voyage to this country. Joe is a good provider for his wife, but he is also a demanding husband, and he refuses to allow Janie the chance to be pretty. One of the first things Janie does after Joe dies is to burn every one of her head rags.
2. The Pear Tree
The blossoming pear tree symbolizes Janie’s blossoming into puberty. Hurston’s novel, filled full with black dialect, suddenly breaks into lyrical ecstasy as she parallels the tiny blooms that will flower. The process is a mystery; Hurston tells us that the “snowy virginity of bloom … stirred [Janie] tremendously.” The “rose of the world,” Hurston says, was “breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep.”
Nanny is all too well aware of what is taking place within her granddaughter—and marries her to Logan Killicks, knowing that Killicks will protect and take care of his 16-year-old bride. Most of all, Nanny doesn’t want Janie to repeat her mother’s mistakes with men.
Hurston fills the novel with many mentions of food. Shared food creates a communion and eases what is a hard, demanding life for most of the people in the novel. The first thing that Pheoby does when Janie returns to Eatonville is to take her a bowl of mulatto rice.
To celebrate the opening of the general store, Joe shares cheese and crackers with the townspeople. When Janie goes with Tea Cake to work on the muck, her kitchen is savory with pots of black-eyed peas and rice, baked beans, and hunks of bacon.
1. The Unforgettable Characters
One of the main strengths of this novel is its unforgettable characters. Janie, the protagonist, is a beautiful, light-skinned black woman who experiences many trials and tribulations throughout her life. Her journey to find love and fulfillment is both heartbreaking and inspiring. Janie is supported by a cast of authentic rural voices who bring the story to life, making it a true masterpiece of American literature.
2. The Engaging Plot
The plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God is engaging from start to finish. The story follows Janie as she navigates through various relationships, from her forced marriage to an old man to her love affair with the much younger Tea Cake. The hurricane scene is particularly powerful, as it forces Janie and Tea Cake to confront their mortality and to rely on each other to survive. The resolution of the novel is both surprising and satisfying, leaving the reader with a deep sense of reflection and contemplation.
3. The Masterful Use of Language
Zora Neale Hurston’s language is a true delight to read. She masterfully captures the authentic rural voices of the characters, immersing the reader in their world. Her prose is lyrical and poetic, making the book a true joy to read. Moreover, Hurston’s use of dialect adds an extra layer of authenticity to the novel, giving readers a sense of the time and place in which the story is set.
1. The Distracting Dialogue
One of the biggest issues I had with the book was the dialogue. While I understand that the author was trying to capture the authentic dialect of the characters, I found it to be very distracting and difficult to follow. At times, I had to re-read passages multiple times just to understand what was being said. This detracted from my overall enjoyment of the novel and made it a challenging read.
2. Lack of Character Development
Another issue I had with the book was the lack of character development, particularly with the protagonist Janie. While the novel covers many events in Janie’s life, I never felt like I truly got to know her as a character. The dialogue between characters lacked emotional depth, making it difficult to connect with them on a deeper level. This left me feeling disconnected from the story and the characters, and ultimately detracted from my overall enjoyment of the novel.
3. Filler Content
The book is relatively short, but it is padded out with a lot of filler content such as the foreword, afterword, and author section. While these sections provide some interesting background information, they add little to the actual story itself. As a result, the book feels disjointed and lacks a cohesive structure.
In conclusion, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a book that everyone should read. The characterization, language, and themes make it a timeless classic that has stood the test of time. Janie’s journey is one that will stay with you long after you finish reading the book. It is a true masterpiece of American literature that will continue to be celebrated for generations to come.
Zora Neale Hurston was born on Jan. 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama. Hurston moved with her family to Eatonville, Florida, when she was still a toddler. Her writings reveal no recollection of her Alabama beginnings. For Hurston, Eatonville was always home.
When Hurston enrolled at Howard University, her stories caught the attention of teachers. From there, a couple were sent to the editor of a New York City publication for African Americans called Opportunity. Hurston moved to New York and became part of what would become known as the Harlem Renaissance, a celebrated group of black writers and artists.
She published a novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, in 1935. Hurston, however, became fiercely interested in black American folklore and received grant money to do research. She drew on the stories she’d heard at Joe Clarke’s store, as well as tales told to her by people in all professions in her home area.
Folktales intrigued her and she published a collection of them tided Mules and Men in 1935 followed in 1938 by another collection of folktales, Tell My Horse. While doing research in Haiti, she began writing her masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which would be published in 1937.
Since the novel contained many dialects and did not offer a strong message about racism or civil rights, it was overlooked by most African American scholars and teachers of black literature.
It took Alice Walker and other contemporary feminists to rediscover, in the 1970s, the unique qualities that Hurston brought to her heroine—a black woman who battles three men who seek to dominate women, in varying degrees, in order to sustain their own fragile egos and sense of self.
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