Published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God is Hurston’s most widely read and discussed book, considered by many to be her masterwork. The novel, which takes place in the South, chronicles the lives of the protagonist, Janie, her three husbands, her grandmother Nanny, and others she comes in contact with during her life. Through these characters, Hurston presents African-American cultural expression in a complex and nuanced manner that reveals and celebrates the diversity of black experience. When the novel first appeared, it received a mixed review by Alain Locke in Opportunity, and Richard Wright in New Masses found much to disparage. Later critical commentary situated the text among the most significant of 20th-century American novels, especially for its insightful exploration of race, class, and gender.
The story is told through two primary narrative voices: a third-person omniscient narrator, and the protagonist, Janie; however, Hurston presents a story-within-a-story in the section narrated by Janie; this is a story from the grandmother, narrated from Janie’s perspective. Through these narrative voices, the reader witnesses different perspectives on the action, both as an outsider and as an insider privy to the thoughts of the characters. This gives the novel a complex, nonlinear narrative that begins in the present, shifts to the past, and then returns to the present at the end. By avoiding a strictly sequential ordering for the narrative, Hurston conveys how the past and the present influence each other; time and our perceptions of it are dynamic rather than static phenomena. The story takes place in the early 20th century, although it reaches back to other eras, including the Civil War and Reconstruction. This sociohistorical context frames the narrative and shapes Hurston’s representation of African-American life and culture. By presenting the Civil War and its aftermath alongside her modern-day narrative, Hurston examines the continued legacy that slavery would have for Americans, across racial lines, showing how social, political, and economic tensions frame the reality of the day. Into her narrative, Hurston also weaves elements of the folklore that she documents heavily throughout her work, paying homage to the great oral tradition in African-American culture.
Hurston’s writing, certainly a product of the Harlem Renaissance, is nevertheless informed by a number of other literary movements—past and contemporary with Hurston—including romanticism, realism, naturalism, and modernism. As Hurston was well read in American literature, her own writing calls upon her predecessors as she synthesizes various literary elements. What sets Their Eyes Were Watching God apart is Hurston’s focus on a black woman in early 20th-century America, a time and place in which the black female experience was marginalized. The story also is especially notable for putting a black female on center stage; whereas elsewhere during her era black women were marginalized in fiction as well as in life, this text validates the black woman’s experience by focusing directly on Janie Crawford, her family, and her life.
Janie Crawford returns to Eatonville, Florida, following the death of her husband, Tea Cake. As she returns under the setting sun, others in the town watch her and consider their conflicting feelings about her. “They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs,” Hurston writes. They remark on how she is shabbily dressed, wearing overalls rather than the fine outfit she wore when she left town, and some of them wish for her downfall; they talk about her age, her appearance, her hair, and especially Tea Cake—there is an assumption that he must have abandoned her. Janie greets them but does not stop to chat. Pheoby Watson, Janie’s old friend, defends Janie and leaves to bring her food.
Pheoby finds Janie and they talk. Pheoby compliments her appearance and offers her “mulatto rice,” which Janie eats. Pheoby wants to know what has happened to her. Janie responds that she knows what the other folk in town are saying about her, so she won’t speak to them, but she will confide in Pheoby, because they are “kissin’-friends.” She reveals that Tea Cake is gone but had been good to her and did not take her money. She and Pheoby thus begin a long conversation, which constitutes the main narrative of the novel.
Janie views her life in the context of a tree as she recounts her past to Pheoby, who listens intently. Janie did not know her mother or father; her mother had left home, so she was raised by her grandmother, Nanny, who worked for a white family. The family was Washburn, and they lived in western Florida. Janie would play with all the other Washburn grandchildren, and they were frequently disciplined by Nanny. Janie says that as a child she had no awareness of her race until seeing a picture of herself. When she looked at a photo taken of her, she noticed that one girl had darker skin than the others, but she did not realize it was her. She asked about it, and thus realized she was black; others found this amusing. At this time, when she was called Alphabet, her family did not have their own home and she wore secondhand clothing. Other children teased her about her parents, saying her father had done something bad to her mother. Nanny wanted Janie to feel proud, so they would eventually get their own home.
Janie explains that her self-awareness stems from a particular incident that took place near her grandmother’s home one day when she was laying under a pear tree. She was curious about the pear blossoms, and as she watched a bee pollinate a flower, a sensual excitement was aroused within her: “She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight.” It stirred something inside her emotionally and physically, and she viewed it as a type of wedding. Janie wished she were a “tree” in the world. Trying to make sense of what she just saw, she went inside, where her grandmother was asleep, then headed to the gate to look down the road. She noticed Johnny Taylor ambling up the road, but he seemed different to her now. They then had a physical encounter, and Nanny caught them kissing. Nanny told her she was maturing and would need a man, but not someone like Johnny Taylor. Janie wondered when she could marry, and Nanny says she will try to find a husband for her; even though she wanted Janie to get an education, she now thinks marriage is acceptable. Nanny said that Logan Killicks was interested in being her husband, but Janie found him ugly and unexciting.
Nanny told Janie how she was different, without parents, and in need of “protection,” causing Janie to cry. Her grandmother said that “colored folks is branches without roots.” Being a slave affected her perspective, Nanny explained to Janie. As a slave she could not fulfill her dreams. She had a relationship with the plantation owner where she was a slave and bore a child to him. When he left to fight in the Civil War, his wife demanded to see the baby, angry at what she saw and demanding that Nanny be beaten. Nanny managed to avoid the beatings, and one day, after the sound of gunshots and the sight of a ship in port, she learned that the slaves were freed, but the Civil War would yet continue for a period. Nanny decided not to marry, and she moved to western Florida to raise her daughter, Leafy, and try to give her a chance in life. Leafy attended school, where one day, as a teenager, she was raped by her teacher. She thus became pregnant, but after the birth of Janie she drank alcohol and ran off, leaving Janie in the care of her grandmother.
Janie decides to marry Logan Killicks, according to her grandmother’s wishes. After some time, Janie visits her grandmother, concerned about that marriage. Janie reveals that she does not love her husband, though Nanny thinks she is being silly, and Nanny reminds her that Logan owns land and a home, but Janie says she has no attachment to his property or to him. She repeats that she finds him ugly. She wants to return to the feeling “lak when you sit under a pear tree and think.” African-American women shouldn’t worry so much about love, Nanny says, because it means a life of labor. Nanny tells her that her views on marriage will evolve and become more practical. Nanny dies.
Janie realizes that Logan treats her differently than when they first married. One morning Logan leaves to look at a mule and tells Janie to slice potatoes while he’s away. While he’s gone, Janie spots a finely dressed man walking down the road; his appearance is fancier than most of the rural folk in the area. She pumps water, and this man takes a sip of the water. Jody Starks introduces himself and tells about his history: born in Georgia, he moved to Florida to find more opportunity, and he plans to move to an allblack community there. He is surprised that her husband would have her do this sort of farm labor. He calls her a “pretty doll-baby” and reveals he wants to marry her, telling her to meet him the following morning. At night, Janie reflects on her situation, thinking he represents “change and chance,” and she remembers what Nanny told her. The following morning as she prepares breakfast, she tells Logan she has been contemplating their relationship, and she says he doesn’t need her on the farm. She leaves home and meets Jody; together, they head to Green Cove Springs, where they marry.
Jody and Janie arrive in Eatonville, where Janie is mistaken for Jody’s daughter. Jody inquires about buying land, wanting to speak to the mayor, but there is no mayor in the town. The couple are directed to a place to stay, and there they meet townspeople on the porch. Jody makes an impression on the people in town and decides to buy land from Captain Eaton, who has much property in the area. Jody decides to build a store, which the town needs. He calls the townspeople together to talk about building the store. When the store is complete, a special opening event is held; Janie wears a nice dress and serves food. Jody makes a speech to the town, recommending they elect a mayor and incorporate the town in the state. Jody is nominated to be mayor, and he does not want Janie to air her opinion on the subject. As mayor, Jody erects a lamp in town, for which he holds a big ceremony, and he undertakes other projects such as ditches and roads. Jody proves to be a smart businessman and powerful local politician, but Janie expresses frustration at being the mayor’s wife, feeling alienated from the community. Their white home, fitted with fancy spittoons, resembles a plantation house, setting it apart from the other homes. Other townspeople look up to Jody, but they are resentful that this black man has so much wealth and power. However, they are unwilling to confront Jody or rebel against his authority.
Janie works in their store, where people gather and tell stories about the mule owned by Matt Bonner, who is teased for often losing track of the mule. Janie enjoys these stories, but her husband does not allow her to participate in the storytelling. Because of her position as the wife of a prominent man, she should not be engaging in that sort of behavior, he says. Janie dislikes working in the store, as well as at the post office, finding the tasks difficult and tedious. Jody also insists that she wear a scarf to hide her beauty, after an incident in which he notices a man touching Janie’s hair. One afternoon Matt loses his mule, and people mock the animal when it later shows up at the store. Janie gets upset at them for treating the mule that way. Jody hears her and agrees, so he buys the mule, making Janie happy. She says Jody is like Abraham Lincoln or George Washington for his “power tuh free things.” The mule becomes part of the community life and gossip, living at the store, but eventually it dies. A funeral is held for the mule, at which Jody makes an impressive speech, but he prohibits Janie from attending due to her status. After the people leave, buzzards gather around the carcass to eat it. The main buzzard, Parson, looks at the mule, and asks repeatedly, “What killed this man?” and the response is always, “Bare, bare fat.”
Jody returns to the store after the funeral and notices that Janie is unhappy, which he interprets as ingratitude. He talks about the funeral and laments that other people have so few expectations in life. Later, with the arrival of Daisy Blunt, a group gathers outside his store. She is a striking presence, and men surround her. Daisy acts nonchalant. Dave tells her he cares more for her than Jim, which Jim denies, and the two continue competing for her attention. A woman arrives and asks Jody for documentation of the food stock, causing a dispute between Jody and Janie over its location. After decades of marriage, Janie realizes she “wasn’t petal-open anymore with him.” Over time, Janie’s feelings for Jody change. On another occasion, Mrs. Tony Robbins arrives at the store, claiming she needs food since her husband will not provide it. Jody gives her some meat, but she then complains that the portion is too small. People gossip about her, and Jody says that her husband knows about her behavior. Janie has an outburst of frustration about their conversation, for which Jody admonishes her.
Janie begins to feel torn about her life. She notices that her husband’s body is changing; at the same time he criticizes her own appearance. Jody frequently shouts at Janie for her job at the store, even publicly critiquing her when she does not correctly complete a sale with a customer. He tries to joke about it, calling her old. People chuckle, but the incident turns serious when Janie confronts Jody. She remarks that he is older than she, and that “[w]hen you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.” Jody is in such disbelief that he is silenced. Failing to verbalize a response, Jody violently hits Janie.
Jody dozes at home. He and Janie converse very little anymore. Jody stops eating Janie’s food and starts to keep company with other people. He continues to decline physically, and he does not allow Janie to enter his bedroom. Still, he has others check up on Janie and give him reports on the job she does at the store. Janie finally has a doctor come to see Jody, determining that he has kidney failure. Jody, however, is convinced that someone conjured against him. He does not believe he will die. Jody wants Janie to leave the room, but she decides to speak to him. She says he has become a different man, ungrateful and selfish. Jody dies. Janie sees herself in a mirror and removes her head scarf, noticing her physical transformation as well. She puts her scarf on again, and tells the other folks that her husband has died.
A funeral is held for Jody Starks. The ceremony is lavish and well attended, reflecting his wealth and status. Janie continues to work at the store, but she destroys the head scarves he made her wear. Janie enjoys her solitude and feels liberated; men start paying her more attention. One man cautions her about remarrying, but she assures him that she’s not considering it. He continues, saying she is still young and needs a man to take care of her. She is bothered by this commentary and heads home. Several months later, Janie still feels Jody’s presence in her store. Hezekiah, who helps out in the store, tries to act like Jody, which amuses her. Despite attempts at courting her, men do not prove successful in gaining her affections. Janie spends time with her good friend Pheoby, to whom she reveals she likes her liberty.
Janie works alone at the store while Hezekiah plays baseball. A man, who looks familiar, comes in. He buys cigarettes and asks her for a light; they chuckle. He explains that he mistakenly thought the ball game would take place in Hungerford, even though it is actually at Winter Park. He asks her if she wants to play checkers, but she claims she doesn’t know how to play. He says he’ll teach her, even making her a “good player,” and Janie appreciates that he wants to spend time with her this way. She finds him attractive. He introduces himself as Vergible Woods, nicknamed Tea Cake. He helps her close the store and then walks her home.
Janie contemplates her relationship with Tea Cake, especially the age gap between the two. He seems to be in his twenties while Janie is “around forty.” She notices that he seems poor, and she wonders if he’s trying to get money out of her. He spends a good amount of time at her store, passing the time and even convincing Janie to play checkers, which surprises people. One day Janie leaves Hezekiah to shut down the store so she can spend time with Tea Cake. They stay on her front porch, eating cake and drinking lemonade. They then go fishing at night, which extends past midnight. Hezekiah cautions Janie about Tea Cake’s attentions the following day, but Janie sees Tea Cake back at her house with fish the following night.
There, Janie and Tea Cake cook the fish in her kitchen, and he plays on her piano. She falls asleep and awakens to Tea Cake combing her hair. They talk about their age difference, and he leaves. For Janie, Tea Cake was a “a glance from God,” who “looked like the love thoughts of women.” In fact, she wonders if he might represent the “pear tree blossom in the spring.” One day he brings her strawberries, and they end up spending the night together. Another day he suggests they prepare for a picnic, and Janie agrees. Tea Cake tells her, “You got de keys to de kingdom.”
People in the community disapprove of Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake, first because of his low status but also because her husband has only recently died. They notice that Janie doesn’t go to church, and they object as well to her clothing and the things she does with Tea Cake, such as fishing, hunting, and attending films. Pheoby confides in Janie about the community’s commentary, suggesting Tea Cake doesn’t understand Janie’s status in town. She suggests he is trying to get her money, and notes, by the way, that people don’t like the color blue she’s been wearing. Janie responds, first, that Jody had “classed me off” during their marriage. Tea Cake doesn’t ask for money, she says, and she admits to wearing blue because Tea Cake likes it.
In fact, she reveals to Pheoby that they plan to marry. Pheoby is disappointed, and it is risky. Janie retorts that she has risked her life in the past. Janie plans to put the store up for sale, not needing it for her relationship with Tea Cake. Unlike with Jody, with Tea Cake it’s “uh love game,” and Janie no longer wants to follow her grandmother’s rules. Her grandmother’s past as a slave, she clarifies, caused her to value money and stability above all else. Pheoby wonders what it’s like to have status and warns her friend to be cautious. She recalls the story of Annie Tyler, who had a relationship with Who Flung; the two were not at all right for each other. Janie says she has learned from Tea Cake, and she points out that she will be leaving the town eventually.
Janie takes the train to Jacksonville, Florida, to meet Tea Cake. There, they marry at a minister’s home. Out of caution, Janie has not revealed that she has brought money with her, remembering her friend’s advice. One morning Tea Cake leaves to shop for food. Janie has coffee with the landlady, and as she gets dressed she realizes that her money is gone. She looks all over for it and thinks about the story of Who Flung and Annie Tyler. Annie, a wealthy older woman, has romances with younger men, whom she treated well. One of these men, Who Flung, convinced her to sell her home and move to Tampa, and he then proceeded to exploit her and take her money. He never married her, and Annie later had to be taken care of by her daughter. Janie does not want to experience what Annie Tyler did.
Tea Cake returns and explains what happened. He explains that he saw the money as he was dressing, and he took it to buy fish. On his way to buy fish, he saw a man he knew, who invited him to join a feast. Tea Cake agreed, and bought fish for it. The party was full of people, and Tea Cake got in a fight. He didn’t invite Janie, he says, because they were all poor people and she would have been uncomfortable. Janie says she will kill him if he ever does something like that again. Tea Cake agrees to gain back her money by gambling. He prepares and Janie prays. He wins the money back, but is beaten up afterward. Janie cries, learning that he won several hundred dollars. She then reveals the truth about her finances, and Tea Cake says he will take care of her financially. They plan to move to an area referred to by Hurston as “the muck,” in the Everglades, where they will establish their home. As Tea Cake dozes, Janie’s emotions mount, feeling that “her soul crawled out from its hiding place.”
Janie adjusts to life on the “muck,” a large area where cane, beans, and weeds grow. Tea Cake stresses the importance of planting early and being ready when it is time to pick the crop. Others wanting to make money from crop-picking continue to come there, including Native Americans. Tea Cake wants to go hunting and teaches Janie how to shoot; she proves to be a skilled shooter, better even than Tea Cake. People are surprised when she helps out with the work in the field, considering her wealth and status. Tea Cake himself does not want Janie to feel pressured to do that work, and she assures him she wants to do it. Their new home has a lively atmosphere, with people working by day and having a good time at night. People gather there, with Tea Cake playing the guitar and Janie cooking the food, sometimes that she has hunted herself. Their home is a social center, with gambling, music, and storytelling. Here she enjoys participating in the storytelling, and she “got so she could tell big stories herself from listening to the rest.”
Janie begins to feel jealous. She suspects a woman named Nunkie of desiring Tea Cake, as this woman has been affectionate with him over a period of several weeks, and Tea Cake does not seem to ignore her attention. Others notice their interaction as well. One day, Janie discovers Tea Cake and Nunkie together in a sugarcane field, and she demands to know what they are doing. He claims she had his work tickets (which can be transferred into money) from the pocket of his shirt, and he needed to go retrieve them. Janie tries to grab Nunkie, but the woman runs away. Janie returns home. They later get in a fight, and Janie accuses Tea Cake of infidelity, but he denies having any feelings for Nunkie.
The planting and picking period ends, but Janie and Tea Cake remain in the area. Janie becomes acquainted with a woman named Mrs. Turner, who has a light complexion and Caucasian-like features. She is quite pleased with her physique, although Tea Cake ridicules her for it, and thus Mrs. Turner despises him in kind. Mrs. Turner admires Janie’s skin color and hair, and she notes her disapproval that Janie married a darker black man such as Tea Cake, mentioning a brother who she thinks would be more suitable for her. The two have a disagreement over the contributions made by Booker T. Washington when Mrs. Turner suggests he was unimportant to black society. Mrs. Turner says the problem with blacks is their appearance, including their outward behavior and their skin color, and she resents being grouped with them since she looks different.
Janie does not know how to respond, but eventually says the issue of skin color does not really concern her. Mrs. Turner wonders how Janie can stand all the blacks spending so much time at her home, and she expresses surprise when Janie tells her that Tea Cake does not have much money. Janie says that Tea Cake makes her happy. Mrs. Turner points out that she is very different from Janie. Mrs. Turner continues to see Janie and tells her she can visit her when she wants; she reveres Janie’s white characteristics and thus wants to transform herself through association with her. She hopes to one day reach a “heaven of straight-haired, thin-lipped, high-nose boned white seraphs.” Tea Cake and Janie remain fairly indifferent to Mrs. Turner’s behavior. People eventually return to the “muck.”
In response to Mrs. Turner’s suggestion that Janie meet her brother, Tea Cake assaults his wife to show that he is “in possession.” Tea Cake boasts about being able to control how his wife spends time, and he explains why he hit her. Another man suggests confronting Mr. Turner, or assaulting Mrs. Turner herself, but Tea Cake doesn’t think that would be effective. They agree that Mrs. Turner is prejudiced and should be made to leave the area, as she probably wants Janie’s money. The men buy alcohol and get drunk, and go to Mrs. Turner’s restaurant. A fight breaks out between two of the men in the restaurant, which leads to a bigger fight among people in the restaurant. After the fight, Mrs. Turner decides that she and her family should leave town because she considers the people on the “muck” to be uncivilized and uncouth.
On the “muck,” celebrations continue, now with some Caribbean people who perform. Janie notices a good deal of movement and is informed that a hurricane is coming. At night, the animals stir and make noise; some people become scared and leave, though many stay. Tea Cake and Janie are invited to leave with another man, but Tea Cake refuses, saying he needs to stay on the “muck” to make money. The man says he will regret this. As the weather worsens, they pass the time at their home, telling Big John de Conquer stories and playing dice games. People are not concerned, because there are levees blocking the lake; they say the rich aren’t worried, so they shouldn’t be either. Janie sees signs of the hurricane; suddenly Tea Cake and his friend Motor Boat stop playing dice. They realize that the “time was past for asking the white folks what to look for through that door.” Tea Cake asks Janie if she regrets leaving with him and moving to the “muck”. She says no. The weather rages on as “their eyes were watching God.”
The storm worsens. Tea Cake decides they must flee, even though Janie wonders if they shouldn’t just stay put. They retrieve their important documents and their money, but they realize there are no cars to leave in. They leave along with Motor Boat, finding another house to rest and take shelter in before continuing on. Janie and Tea Cake struggle as they alternately swim and wade through water, heading for an area called “the fill,” which appears to be dry; here they see many white people. Janie reaches for a piece of a roof, hoping it would provide protection for Tea Cake, who has become overwhelmed. She ends up getting blown into the water, and yells for Tea Cake. He points her to a cow in the water, where there is also a dog. She hangs on to the cow’s tail, and Tea Cake swims over to her. The dog bites Tea Cake, and Tea Cake kills the dog with a knife. Janie and Tea Cake arrive with the cow at “the fill” and they survive. They end up in Palm Beach, where she tries to convince Tea Cake to see a doctor, but he refuses. They sleep, and Janie expresses her gratitude for being alive.
Janie wants Tea Cake to rest, but he says they need to leave. Men are needed to dig graves and handle the dead bodies of those killed by the hurricane, but since Tea Cake has money, he does not think he will have to do that work. As he leaves to find the other men from his farm, he is stopped by some men with weapons. Despite his protests, he is told that he must help deal with the dead bodies, or else they will kill him. He helps out along with the others; both black and white men do this work, and yet the grave sites are segregated. Tea Cake comments about God and color prejudice. Afterward, he sees Janie sobbing, and he decides they should return to the Everglades, as he knows the white people there. They arrive back at the farm the next day, where Motor Boat had stayed and survived the hurricane, working for several weeks in storm clean-up. Tea Cake eventually falls ill, and Janie calls for a doctor. She explains about the dog bite during the hurricane, and the doctor provides medication. He suspects Tea Cake has rabies and recommends that he be hospitalized. He warns Janie that Tea Cake may bite her, infecting her as well. Janie is distraught. Tea Cake continues to suffer due to the rabies. The following day, Tea Cake confronts her in the kitchen and asks why she hasn’t been sleeping in bed with him. He aims his gun at her and tries to shoot her, but the gun shoots a blank. She loads the rifle with a bullet and tells him to lay down his gun. They both shoot their weapons; this time Tea Cake’s gun releases a bullet, but it misses. Janie has shot him, however, and he then bites her in the arm.
Janie is in prison on the day of her trial. The jury is made up of all white men; Janie sees both whites and blacks in the courtroom, but the blacks do not support Janie. The doctor and the sheriff testify in the case; another black man tries to testify against Janie, but the prosecutor, Mr. Prescott, quiets him. Janie testifies in her own defense, explaining her relationship with her husband and what happened during the shooting. The judge tells the jury to determine if Janie’s actions constitute homicide or compassion. The jury deliberates and quickly decides to acquit Janie. White women sob in the courtroom; the black people leave. Janie is released from prison. In one conversation, it is suggested that black women are free to murder.
Janie buries Tea Cake in Palm Beach. At his funeral, Tea Cake’s friends come desiring Janie to forget about the past. Janie has worn her work clothes to the ceremony.
Some speculated that Mrs. Turner’s brother was what caused Janie to kill her husband, but others said it was mere self-defense. Janie stayed in that area for some time, eventually leaving with seeds.
The action returns to the present as Janie goes back to Eatonville and finishes telling Pheoby her story. She tells her friend that she feels content, that she has “been tuh de horizon and back.” Love is dynamic and not static, she explains. Pheoby expresses that she feels transformed as a result of this story; she reflects on her own relationship and decides to behave differently with her husband. Pheoby then leaves. Janie goes up to her room, feeling a sense of “peace,” for she “pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net” and “called in her soul to come and see.”
This novel functions as a story within a story, one narrative being used to frame another. The primary story focuses on Janie’s return to Eatonville after burying her third husband and telling her friend Pheoby her life story; her life story is the secondary narrative, constituting the bulk of the text, framed by the first plot line. The beginning and the end of the book are told by a third-person omniscient narrator, whose voice tells the tale in standard English. Janie’s tale, framed by that third-person narrative, is told in the first person and presents her own point of view, as does Nanny’s tale. In the first-person narration, Hurston employs colloquial black English to achieve a realistic dialogue. By weaving a rich and complex tale about one individual’s quest for identity, Hurston treats various themes, such as nature, race, class, gender, and religion. An exploration of Hurston’s literary technique and thematic concerns in Their Eyes Were Watching God can help us better understand the text.
Hurston opens and closes the novel with metaphors of the horizon and the open ocean, and in so doing frames the human narrative in relationship to the natural world. This framework puts human experience in deep contact with nature, although Hurston achieves this in a far subtler way than in many of the folktales, in which the connection between humans and nature is very explicit. The novel begins with an image of the horizon and calls to mind a metaphorical use of the horizon as a means of referring to an individual’s future, dreams, and desires. The sun meets the sky at the horizon, and as a person advances toward the horizon, it recedes farther back at the same time. It serves as a visual reference point, but it is not ever reachable. Thus horizon, literal or figurative, suggests possibility, but also limitation. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Janie’s dreams and ambitions are symbolized by horizons: Though she tries to near them, they seem always to retreat.
Hurston characterizes Janie as a romantic person, someone seeking a pure form of love rather than simple marriage for convenience or prestige, and the horizon imagery comes into play here. At her grandmother’s urging, Janie marries Logan Killicks, because he has money and property. Janie finds herself stifled and unhappy in this marriage, as it was not based on love but on material reasons; she also finds herself angry at her grandmother. The horizon imagery is used to describe Janie’s relationship with her grandmother, whom she blames for that marriage and sees as a limiting force. Janie realizes that “Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her.”
Even later in life, Janie still feels constrained by her past, which makes her all the more susceptible to fall in love with Jody Starks and Tea Cake. When she meets Jody Starks, she sees a different man from her husband, one who appears more cosmopolitan, who dresses well, and who might offer the life Janie has been looking for. In fact, Jody “spoke for far horizon.” She sees him as her best opportunity, and thus she leaves Logan for Jody. But Jody, too, proves to be a problematic husband, oppressive and controlling. He quiets her, excludes her from community events, and degrades her appearance. After Jody dies, Janie feels free. Her relationship with Tea Cake, once again, is an attempt for Janie to realize her desires to live in a truly loving relationship. When Janie finishes telling her life story to her friend Pheoby, she says she has “been tuh de horizon and back,” suggesting she has completed her life journey. “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net,” Hurston writes, signifying the many accomplishments of Janie as well as the unrealized dreams that she comes back to. The image of her pulling in the horizon may also symbolize the end of her life.
In tandem with her metaphor of the horizon, Hurston uses the symbol of water, and more specifically the sea, to represent the close relationship between human destiny and nature. Water functions as both a nourishing and a dangerous force, freeing and constraining the fate of humans. In fact, Hurston begins the novel with a paragraph that uses the sea as a metaphor for humans’ lives. Hurston writes, “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.” The characterization of human desires and experiences as being fluid, even arbitrary or elusive, is an important framework for the novel, which deals with human ambition, goals, and identity. The evocative opening statement illustrates the flowing, cyclical nature of an individual’s wishes and desires in the world.
Water as freedom can be seen in the character of Nanny as well. For Nanny, water is important because she escaped to a river or swamp when she fled her plantation “and made it to de swamp by de river”; this area, despite its dangerous reptiles, is preferable to the life of slavery. When she learns about the emancipation of slaves, it is at port, with “uh big ship at a distance and a great stirrin’ round.” In this sense, then, water functions as a force of life, as a means of giving opportunity; water flows freely, and humans’ lives should too.
Water is also seen as a force for danger and destruction. The hurricane is perhaps the clearest such example of the power of water, or more generally of nature, over people. The hurricane episode plunges Janie and Tea Cake into a flooded mess and totally uproots their lives. Initially, no one seems to be worried about the coming storm, and people continue to play games and tell stories at their home, but ultimately they realize that they will have to fight for their lives. Hurston describes the hurricane as if it were a living creature when she writes, “The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.” Here she shows that the storm is not a totally chaotic, isolated event, but rather an organism that adheres to its own order. As they struggle through the “water full of things living and dead,” Janie and Tea Cake grow closer together in their fight against nature. And yet it is also at this point that the dog bites Tea Cake, infecting him with rabies, which would ultimately bring him down and change their lives forever. Janie and Tea Cake prove to be powerless against the wrath of nature in the form of the hurricane.
The depiction of water proves important again in the end of the novel. One of the final images shows Janie with “her strong feet in the pan of water,” while she finishes telling her life story to Pheoby. Hurston returns to the sea imagery, as Janie tells Pheoby, “Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.” Love changes and alters course over time; love is a journey, dynamic, active, evolving. This reflection deeply inspires Pheoby, who feels she will make changes in her life and will confront the busybody townspeople. Hurston ends the novel with more sea imagery, writing, “She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net.” As with a net for collecting fish, Janie is able to pull together the experiences of her life: She can now account for her dreams and experiences.
Hurston draws connections between the natural world and human destiny in many other ways throughout the novel. One of the pivotal moments in Janie’s life occurs when she views a pear tree as a teenager; this is one of several occasions where Hurston uses tree imagery to enrich the scene. Watching the bee pollinate a pear blossom stimulates Janie, and it produces in her a desire to engage in a similar natural union, which she pursues with Johnny Taylor. Hurston uses sexual language to describe the activity of the bee entering the bloom, such as her description of the reaction of the calyxes and the “creaming” that occurs. Hurston subtly refers to this episode when she notes that, for Janie, Jody Starks “did not represent sun-up and pollen.” Hurston scholars have emphasized the role that the tree plays, noting that this “real pear tree in Nanny’s yard acquires transcendent significance” (Kubitschek 22), and that “the central symbol is a pear tree” (Morris and Dunn 8). For one thing, the episode “reflects her immature consciousness” (Kubitschek 22). It also shows, more practically, that “Janie longs to find a bee for her blossom” (Morris and Dunn 8).
Hurston uses tree imagery to describe Nanny’s life, possibly suggesting that she is the source of Janie’s experiences. Nanny says “colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways.” Due to the horrifying experiences of blacks during slavery, and after, during Reconstruction, Nanny sees her people as being without roots. Lacking roots, then, Nanny sees no real structure ordering family and society for blacks. Interestingly, Nanny names her daughter Leafy; Leafy was fathered by Nanny’s owner. When Nanny flees the plantation, she heads to a swamp area with Leafy, where she sees owls, cypresses, and snakes. One day she puts her daughter “in moss and fixed her good in a tree.” In this way, the tree functions as a source of refuge. Later, when Nanny sees Janie kiss Johnny, Hurston writes, “Nanny’s head and face looked like the standing roots of some old tree that had been torn away by storm.” The use of tree imagery to describe Nanny connects her to Janie, due to her moment with the pear tree. More generally, it shows the importance that nature plays in human affairs in Hurston novels.
Janie’s third husband, Tea Cake, also is depicted as connected to nature through trees. Janie and Tea Cake’s relationship “is associated with nature and springtime” (Morris and Dunn 8). To begin with, his birth name is Vergible Woods, calling to mind a forest. This surname can be viewed as “an organic metaphor related to the pear tree metaphor” (Fannin 51). As Janie begins to fall in love with him, she believes he is the only man who could evoke that feeling she experienced under the pear tree. Hurston uses other, similar imagery to describe Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake. For example, people get upset about “Tea Cake making flower beds in Janie’s yard,” which could be seen as having sexual connotations, the planting of seeds symbolizing sexual intercourse. The couple’s happiest times together are in the wilderness of the Everglades, and after Tea Cake’s death, Janie heads back to Eatonville with seeds bought by Tea Cake. The seeds suggest the memory of him and of their relationship together. These symbolic “seeds fit into the pattern of springtime” as well as “new growth carried throughout the novel” (Morris and Dunn 9). Janie’s involvement with Tea Cake provides her with a sense of renewal and rejuvenation, and this is reflected in the various tree and seed imagery.
The mule is another important symbol of nature in the novel. The mule functioned as an important animal to black communities in the rural South; it was considered lowly but vital to the work of a farm. For Nanny, the mule symbolizes the plight of the black woman, as she notes that the black female “is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.” The burden of this animal, hard-working and often unappreciated, is paralleled in the situation of black women. We can also see the mule as symbolizing, for Janie, the difference between Jody Starks and Logan Killicks.
On the day Janie meets Jody Starks, Logan has ordered her to work while he goes to look at a mule for sale. A stark contrast is drawn between these two men, Jody exuding urban sophistication with his fine clothing, while Logan is the old rural hick buying a mule. Jody is even surprised to see Janie doing the work she is doing. The mule symbolizes the difference between the rural, plainspoken farmer Logan Killicks and the urban and sophisticated Jody Starks. The mule is also significant to Jody and Janie’s marriage, since the mule stories told at their store represent a sort of escape—and alienation—for Janie. It is escape for her to listen to the stories because with Jody, she is not allowed to engage in such joking. But it is alienation since she cannot truly partake; Jody silences her and prevents her from storytelling, one of her passions.
People enjoy telling stories about the mule owned by Matt Bonner, using the mule as a means to explain what is going on in the community; it also functions to expose the power relationship between Janie and Jody. This mule talk becomes a daily ritual, and “the introduction of Matt Bonner’s skinny yellow mule into the narrative provides great fun, initially through a whole series of jokes played on Bonner” (Lowe 169). For example, some people tell Matt that women use the mule’s protruding bones to hang laundry on. On one occasion, the storytelling goes too far, and some men start harassing the mule, touching it and bothering it. Janie gets very upset and screams at the men. Janie’s outrage over the cruel physical torture of the old mule is “one of the clearest demonstrations in the book that human humor can sometimes be despicable” (Lowe 170). Jody, who sees the commotion, then buys the mule from Matt to allow it to rest before its death. Janie is happy for having liberated the old mule, but Jody’s action becomes another means of his assertion of power: Jody “buys the animal and pastures him just outside his store, as a gesture of largesse, but we realize this ironically creates more of a display of power” (Lowe 170–171).
Janie’s empathy toward the mule can be seen as her identification with the oppressed animal; like the mule, she feels exploited and objectified. And yet, despite her attachment to the mule, when the mule dies, Janie is excluded from the funeral service for it, for Jody does not want her to attend a low-class event of that nature. Jody attends himself, however, so he can get more attention from the community. At the funeral, Jody gives a speech about the mule, and while he does so he stands on top of the mule as a means of establishing his authority. Again, Jody’s actions are meant to assert his power while keeping his wife out of the picture. Later, he tells Janie that he was mocking the funeral, laughing at the people there; he says blacks should be more serious and not spend time on such trivial things. Sam says the mule is going to heaven, where it will not experience what it experienced in life. This is ironic, because the mule had a difficult life because of how the people treated it, a fact noted afterward by the buzzards.
Hurston uses much personification in this scene, drawing many different connections between animals and humans. In addition to the strangeness of holding an actual funeral for a mule, Hurston describes what happens after all the people leave, and only some buzzards are left. The buzzards wait until the people are gone, and then the head buzzard leads the others. The head buzzard acts like a human preacher and asks, “What killed this man?” and the other birds, acting like a congregation, respond, “Bare, bare fat.” The buzzards’ actions reflect the relationship between preacher and congregation, leader and followers; it is also a humorous juxtaposition as the head buzzard functions in the same role as Jody. While the town symbolically consumed the mule by maltreating it and using it for storytelling, the birds literally consume the mule by eating and using it as nourishment. In this scene, Hurston employs a sort of magical realism, intermixing the real-seeming human affairs with fantastical, unrealistic animal behavior. In essence, Hurston is employing a oral folktale technique, but she is weaving it seamlessly into her narrative. It lends a sense of confusion between what is real and what is not, and suggests that humans and the natural world are not so far apart in reality.
Hurston clearly presents marriage as a central—and highly problematic—theme in this novel. Janie’s marriages to Logan Killicks, Jody Starks, and Tea Cake Woods each provide her with rich, varied, and finally unhappy life experiences. In her marriage to Logan Killicks, Janie feels trapped, since she was never in love; with Jody Starks, she feels stifled, silenced, and unappreciated. With Tea Cake, Janie feels happy and fulfilled, but the relationship ends in tragedy after the hurricane, the rabid dog bite, and the shooting of her husband in self-defense.
Janie’s marriage choices stand in tension with the wishes of her grandmother, Nanny, who wants Janie to marry for practicality and money instead of for love. This is perhaps natural, as Nanny, a former slave, wants to make sure that her granddaughter enjoys life the way her generation was not able to. Nanny’s domestic life was itself a chaotic, tragic situation, as she was exploited by her master, then abused by that master’s wife. Then, after gaining freedom, her own daughter is raped and abandons her child. Having been denied a traditional family life, she tries to correct that path for her daughter and granddaughter. It is Nanny who tells Janie when it is time for a relationship, and it is Nanny who chooses the mate. While she does not force Janie into the marriage—it is a marriage of consent—the pressures of her grandmother and of the past convince Janie to make the mistake that is her first marriage. It proves to be a mistake because Janie devalues materialism and places a premium on idealized love. Her lifelong search for a true love is rooted in her experience laying under the pear tree, when she is moved by the sight of the bee pollinating the blossom. Throughout her life, this is the ideal of natural union that she seeks to achieve.
Janie’s first marriage occurs at Nanny’s home, and when she leaves for Logan’s house, Janie is not happy. She hopes that one day she will learn to love him, and she even seeks advice from her grandmother about how to get by in her unhappy marriage. She’s not pregnant nor abused, and in fact she works for Logan, but she is simply not happy. Nanny dismisses her complaints and tries to point out how fortunate she is. Janie continues to try to force herself to be more practical about marriage, especially after Nanny dies. Hurston presents Janie’s marriage to Logan as an evolving one, but not in a good way. The change for the better comes in the form of Jody Starks, in a chance meeting outside. He impresses her with his manner and dress, and he has ambitions of moving to an all-black town and being a successful entrepreneur. He is also disconcerted to see Janie doing manual labor, and he reveals he would not treat his wife this way. The episode stirs Janie, and she thinks he will provide the life she is looking for, or at least something fuller than the bland life she has with Logan.
Hurston does not reveal, through Janie’s narrative, what happens to Logan after Janie leaves him, suggesting how minimally important that relationship was to her. Janie’s subsequent marriage to Jody—in Green Cove Springs, whose name suggest springtime or rebirth—is fraught with power issues, leading her to be once again unhappy. The couple live in Eatonville, and with Jody’s success as a store-owner and mayor, they achieve high status and wealth. But Jody’s desire for power is not limited to the town: He desires to control Janie, too. He tells her how to dress, when she can speak, what events she can attend; he even denies her the pleasure of storytelling with the other community members on the porch of the store. He possesses a patriarchal view of marriage, their home being the domestic, female space to which he wants her expression to be confined. Janie also feels alienated in their nice home, as she is viewed as an outsider by the people, even though she does not care about the material items.
Janie feels a surprising connection to Matt Bonner’s mule, defending it against attacks by some men. Here Janie may be circling back to her grandmother’s statement that black women are treated as mules. Once again, her husband tries to sanction her affinity for the mule, refusing to allow her even to attend the ceremony for the mule when it dies. At one point, after Mrs. Tony Robbins comes begging for food, Janie expresses herself publicly, asserting that men think they are smart and try to control everything. Jody is taken aback at her expressing herself like this, which may only increase his desire to control his wife. When Jody falls ill, Janie confronts him publicly again, essentially emasculating him when she says, “When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.” Starks feels humiliated and shamed before the other men, and he reacts by hitting Janie. Soon after, he dies, and Janie symbolically pulls off the scarf he’d made her wear to cover her beauty; while she puts it on once more, it’s to play the role of the grieving widow, a social expectation. Through two marriages in a row, Janie is given stability and material comfort, but neither time is she happy or fulfilled; at Jody’s death, in fact, Hurston portrays Janie as a freed woman.
Tea Cake Woods is different. He is working class, and comes from humble folk roots. Even though Janie as a widow is wealthy and has social status, she enjoys spending time with him doing things that would be unconventional for a woman with her stature, like fishing or playing checkers. He surprises her with strawberries, and plans a picnic. Janie enjoys their time together, but the townspeople are scandalized by the disconnect between their two social statuses, and that she’s involved with a man so soon after her husband’s death. Janie is even warned about dating him, for he could be seeking her money, but she does not judge him. Another reversal of dynamics, as compared to her other marriages, is that Janie is older than Tea Cake, further fueling speculation that the younger Tea Cake wants her money, and Pheoby reminds her of the infamous story of Annie and Who Flung. Janie has a moment of doubt, when he spends her money at a party, but he redeems himself by winning the money back by gambling.
Their move to the “muck” can be seen as the pivotal transformation of their marriage. They have isolated themselves from their old community, leaving behind many bad memories. They come closer together as Tea Cake teaches her how to hunt and pick crops; her new activities also contribute to a sense of identity, as well as a oneness with the community and the land. There are problems, of course, notably caused by the possible fling with Nunkie and the speculation about Mrs. Turner’s brother, which is especially troublesome as it causes Tea Cake to hit Janie. The hurricane is another obvious turning point, and it is what leads to the tragic ending of the tale. They ignore warnings to evacuate, inadvisably leaving only at the last minute. Together, Janie and Tea Cake make it through the natural disaster, but the rabid dog that bites Tea Cake leaves its mark, and the couple cannot recover. Demented from the rabies, he tries to kill Janie, but she is prepared, and shoots him dead in self-defense.
At the end of the novel, Hurston portrays Janie as a single woman. All told, Janie abandons her first husband, struggles against her second and feels freed upon his death, and kills her third husband to protect herself: “Marriage, Hurston seems to say, is a deadly proposition: someone has to give up his or her life” (Boyd 304). The text does not put marriage into a positive light, nor does it reject it outright; the novel is far too complex to reduce it to a simple morality tale. There are many varied experiences here, but the author is not necessarily asking her readers to judge them. Hurston depicts marriage as highly complex, the intersection of many factors, of personality, background, history, race, gender, class, politics, and also luck. The conclusion, in which the action is brought back to the present, may provide some insight into a “message” of the novel. Pheoby, entirely moved by her friend’s narrative, wants to change. She, as a woman, feels empowered by Janie’s lessons to transform her relationship with Sam. Even if Janie’s experiences have led to tragedy, by expressing them through the tale she has told, she attempts to change others.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston presents a great deal of commentary on race relations. The novel seems to ask if race is not, after all, socially constructed—that is to say, categories not based on biology but on concepts thought up by humans. Hurston’s depiction of race in this novel bears affinity with her other texts, including, notably, Jonah’s Gourd Vine and Seraph on the Suwanee. Her representation of intraracial racism and intrarace consciousness parallels her treatment in Color Struck, as well as texts by other writers of her day, including Jessie Fauset’s Comedy, American Style and Plum Bum and Wallace Thurman’s The Blacker the Berry.
Hurston’s characterization of Nanny allows the novel to pay specific attention to the history of blacks in America. While the story is ostensibly about Janie, her history is extremely relevant, for Hurston shows that, as regards race, what is past is still in many ways present. Thus the character of Nanny, Janie’s grandmother, plays a very important role. She represents the slave past, the liberation, but also the disorder that accompanied emancipation. As a slave, she has a typical experience of terror and oppression, and she is sexually exploited by the master, bearing his child. Since the child, Leafy, bears his white features, the mistress of the plantation knows what happened, and threatens to beat Nanny, causing her to flee with her child. Nanny’s status as a slave on a plantation is passed down culturally to Janie. Many of Nanny’s fears and preoccupations, which affect Janie, were born during her time as a slave. “Her horrible experiences have led her to see the domestic pedestal as the safest escape from the dangers of racial/sexual oppression” (Bethel 15).
Nanny points out to Janie that the black woman is like the mule, bearing the burdens of labor and work for others and not being appreciated. The way to avoid that type of life, she thinks, is to marry a man with money and status. Thus after Nanny views Janie kissing Johnny Taylor, she becomes nervous about the future of her granddaughter. She is concerned that Janie spends time with young men who would not be able to provide social and financial security. And so she encourages Janie to marry Logan Killicks, a black man with money and property, because she feels that black women cannot get by without being married to a stable man. Her fears may lead Janie to make unhappy choices, but Nanny’s intentions are based in her own history. She says, “And Ah can’t die easy thinkin’ maybe de menfolks white or black is makin’ a spit cup outa you.”
Nanny’s experience with race also frames the way Janie sees herself as a young child. In fact, early in her life, Janie does not view herself in racial terms. When she plays with the Washburn family, for whom her grandmother works as a domestic, she sees herself as no different. As a child, she does not recognize race classifications. She “spends so much time with these children that she doesn’t even know she’s black until she sees a picture of herself, when she’s about six years old” (Boyd 301). Only when she sees a picture of herself along with her friends does she realize the difference. While it may not be unusual for a young child not to recognize his or her own race, the larger point is that Nanny has not addressed this sensitive issue with her. Valerie Boyd points out that the event shows the grandmother trying “to shield her granddaughter from the real world” (Boyd 301).
Race comes into play in Janie’s relationship with her husbands, and with them she comes to understand more closely her relationship to the black community. Jody Starks is an example of a successful, powerful black entrepreneur who is able to provide Janie with social and financial stability, even if not emotional security or simple love. Unlike many of the other rural folk, he is worldly and cosmopolitan, and models his business after those he saw being run by white people. The complicated nature of early black success and power is seen, however, when the other people in Eatonville grow to resent him more and more as his power and stature continue to rise. One offense is his home, which he modeled after white slave plantation homes; he even paints the house white and enjoys typically white bourgeois comforts, such as cigars, furniture, and fancy spittoons. Tea Cake serves as a contrast to Jody Starks. Unlike Jody, Tea Cake expresses no desire to imitate the white bourgeoisie. A blues man and gambler, he relates well to other black people. He appears genuine and presents no threat to other African Americans as he does not seek power over them.
Hurston uses the character of Mrs. Turner to comment on intrarace relations, even intraracial color prejudice. In doing so, she shows the dangers of racial categorizing. Mrs. Turner symbolizes racial self-hatred, as she holds great contempt for darker-skinned blacks. This means that she is prejudiced against the darker-skinned Tea Cake while she idolizes the lighter-skinned Janie; she even suggests Janie might be interested in her brother, who is also light-skinned. While in the eyes of everyone else she is black like them, Mrs. Turner sees herself as having the different, superior features of a light-skinned black. As she holds Janie in very high esteem, Mrs. Turner enjoys visiting her, but Janie objects to Mrs. Turner’s racism. Janie realizes that blackness is not a singular concept, and that African Americans have very diverse backgrounds. When Mrs. Turner suggests that Booker T. Washington was no hero, Janie objects and defends him. While she disagrees with Mrs. Turner, Janie is characterized as indifferent to or unaffected by this insecure, fearful woman; Tea Cake, for his part, is dismissively mocking of her.
That dynamic changes, however, after there has been suggestion that Janie is indeed interested in Mrs. Turner’s brother. This rumor ends up affecting the relationship between Tea Cake and Janie, as he assaults her to show his possession. This episode has been the subject of much debate among Hurston scholars and readers. John Lowe points out the social and historical atmosphere at the time when the novel takes place, which was marked by frequent domestic violence, noting that Janie herself reacts violently when she suspects Tea Cake of having an affair with Nunkie. In addition, Lowe explains, “Critics who complain about his sense of male possessiveness miss Hurston’s frequent demonstration that love, if genuine, is possessive by definition, no matter which sex is involved.” Tea Cake may fear losing Janie precisely because of his skin color (Lowe 187). For race or even class reasons, Tea Cake may feel insecure about his relationship to Janie, thus leading him to make a show of his control and ownership of his wife. His anger about Mrs. Turner’s meddling continues until he makes her decide to leave town by the problems he causes in her restaurant.
The hurricane reveals deep racial divisions, in various respects. According to Valerie Boyd, Hurston’s representation of this hurricane and the subsequent discrimination was based on historical events, explaining that “Hurston borrowed this brutal scene from actual events following the 1928 Lake Okeechobee hurricane, which killed nearly two thousand people in the Florida Everglades” (Boyd 305). Hurston’s “reconstruction of the mass burial is a devastating yet subtle indictment of the racism that formed the backdrop for her” text (Boyd 305). After the storm has passed, the clean-up involves different procedures for burying blacks and whites: Even after death, there is not equality between the races, as the graves must be segregated and only the whites are buried in coffins. The storm has so ravaged the bodies that it is difficult to tell the difference between the races, and bogus methods were used to determine race, such as those based on hair type. The confusion regarding the race of the dead bodies calls into question the idea of racial differences. After all, if it’s impossible to tell who is black and who is white, then why does the color of one’s skin matter? Hurston also points out the irony that while nature makes no distinction in its death and destructions, the people do. In addition, the disparity in survival between black and white is seen, as whites are more readily able to get to dry land.
After the hurricane, Tea Cake notes that he wants to quickly return to the Everglades, since the white people know him well there. This is interesting, because he is not basing his desire on black or white, but on experience: Those whites who know him trust him, while those who do not may treat him differently. Again, Hurston’s text gives a critique of racial prejudice. But Tea Cake otherwise makes ethnic distinctions too, notably in his frank dismissal of the Native Americans, who encouraged him to leave before the storm. Having recognized the signs of the coming hurricane, these indigenous people take the care needed to evacuate and try to help the others by telling them to do the same, but Tea Cake’s arrogance and prejudice ultimately cause him to be trapped in the storm, leading to his downfall.
In the trial scene for Janie, race is portrayed as an important factor. While Janie is found not guilty, she is judged by a jury consisting of all white men. Both whites and blacks attend the trial, although these groups are described as being separate. Ironically, the black people act more negatively to Janie, suggesting that they would have judged her more harshly than the white men. The white women, on the other hand, applaud when the prosecutor silences a man who wants to testify against Janie; these women sob in joy when the verdict is handed down.
After the trial, some suggest that the white male jury ruled in Janie’s favor because of her Caucasian features and light skin color; others note that killing is seen as acceptable when it involves black people, and that white men and black women are the most free people. Hurston does not necessarily advocate any of the positions taken by the blacks during the trial, but her inclusion of them points to the simple fact that justice is not color blind, neither in effect nor in intent. Even where justice is served, as may be the case with Janie, people will view justice through the lens of race. Also, the sheer disproportionate power of whiteness in the justice system, where whites judge a black woman in a black community, can be seen as a commentary on injustice in the judicial system. Hurston depicts the white women as being sympathetic to Janie’s situation, but she also raises the question of whether these women were actually exploiting her situation simply to make themselves feel good. As was often seen during the Harlem Renaissance, white people appropriated black causes and culture for their own consumption.
When Janie returns to Eatonville, she is wearing overalls, the type of clothing workers or farmers would wear. The women watching notice how this is quite a change from the fine satin dress she sported when she left town years earlier. Indeed, this scene aptly reflects Janie’s fluid economic status throughout the novel. The daughter of a runaway alcoholic mother, the granddaughter of a freed slave, Janie shifts from working class to middle class and even to upper class, but it also falls over the course of the novel. Through multiple characters and across several generations, Hurston presents a range of socioeconomic situations in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie’s class is fluid throughout the novel, and her views on finances stand in contrast to her grandmother’s and, in some cases, her husbands’. Others find themselves in different financial situations.
Nanny’s status as a slave shaped her worldview. After her escape and then subsequent freedom, Nanny works hard, as a domestic for the white Washburn family. She wants to make a new life for herself and her daughter and bring them out of the destitute situation of the free slave. She also has high expectations for her daughter, Leafy, to get educated, become a teacher, and move upward socially. The rape by her teacher ends those hopes, as Leafy later runs off, but Nanny then focuses her economic hopes and expectations on her granddaughter, Janie, whom she take cares of. Because of her background and her expectations, she is able to convince Janie to accept a marriage based not on love but on stability and practicality.
When Janie later complains about not loving Logan Killicks, Nanny defends him on the basis of his class status. He owns a home, with an organ, and he has no mortgage, she says; for her, he is the new, rising black middle class. Nanny complains that black women focus too much on love. For Janie, Jody Starks comes to represent a new class of man. He too is comfortable, and owns a home and land; he seems more refined than many of the other rural folk. By working hard and saving money, Jody is able to bring himself to a new level of wealth. In contrast to Logan, who makes Janie work, Jody tells Janie she should not be doing manual labor but living well while others get paid to do work. Jody Starks proves to be a model entrepreneur, opening a store in Eatonville that proves a major success. But Jody wants power and prestige even more than he wants wealth. He quickly rises in prominence in the town, becoming mayor even though a newcomer.
With Jody, Janie’s life changes, and she has a newfound class status because of her husband’s position; at the opening day of their store, for example, she wears a garment that shows her wealth. Their home also speaks to their wealth and status. It is a large house resembling an antebellum plantation home, and it is white, outfitted with fancy spittoons. People in the town begin to resent their lifestyle, and in this way Hurston exposes the complexities of wealth and status in this southern black community. While many of those townspeople may wish for the same things, they do not appreciate other blacks flaunting their success. In addition, in the eyes of the others in Eatonville, Jody is seen as imitating white men, another reason for the tensions between them. He is part of the black community, but somehow he is apart.
Jody’s purchase of the mule after Janie confronts the men about their harassment becomes a show of his wealth and power as well. Jody quickly settles a dispute by laying down cash for the mule—a means of negotiation not many people would have. He seems compassionate, both to his wife and to the mule, but his later actions—prohibiting Janie from attending the creature’s funeral, then grandstanding with an ovation at the ceremony itself—reveal that his motivations were not quite as pure as he would have them seem. However, no one ever confronts Jody about the tensions felt by the community. When Jody dies, his status is reflected in the funeral given to him. Hurston characterizes it as “the finest thing Orange County had ever seen with Negro eyes.” Janie, in turn, inherits the role of widow of a prominent man, and she keeps her status, remaining comfortably wealthy.
When Janie meets Tea Cake, he seems to be the epitome of the working class, in clear contrast to her. He is a gambler, a blues man, a laborer. Even his name suggests lowly roots, for “tea cakes” are generally an inexpensive sugary treat rather than an expensive or gourmet food. Janie does not judge him for this, but she also does not initially reveal just how much money she actually has. Pheoby also comments on the disconnect between Janie and Tea Cake, saying that other people talk about how she gets dragged down socially by being seen with him. Janie objects, saying she likes what they do together and is comfortable with their situation. Here Janie’s classconsciousness becomes explicit: she explains that her ambitions are not the materialistic ones taught to her by her grandmother.
In fact, Janie does eventually grow concerned about his true nature, and wonders if he is not trying to get her money. Echoing similar advice from Hezekiah, her friend Pheoby warns her that he might be a gold digger, reminding her of one such relationship between Annie Tyler and Who Flung. After they move and marry, Tea Cake takes some of her cash and spends it on a party. She worries that her fears have come true, but he tells her the truth and apologizes. Overall, Tea Cake serves as a counterpoint to Janie’s other husbands, Logan Killicks and Joe Starks, both of whom had money and status, but who could not make Janie happy. Tea Cake’s honesty and folkways are, in contrast, appealing.
When Janie and Tea Cake move to the “muck” of the Florida Everglades, Janie experiences a reentry into the working-class world, which she knew as a child. While other people expect Janie to act superior and not work in the fields, picking crops or hunting, Janie actually assumes her new role quite readily. She is working hard, independently but for a common cause, and for once she does not feel exploited by her husband. Janie becomes a product and part of the muck; she begins wearing work clothes and enjoys keeping the company of the many workers who pass the evenings in their home. Whereas she was alienated from the Eatonville community with Jody, here she interacts with others in a meaningful way, and is ultimately treated as one of them, without regard to social class. This setting transforms Janie and enables her to develop her sense of self and relationship to the surrounding world.
Still, social class is a factor on the “muck,” especially during the hurricane. While the Native Americans are properly leaving, Tea Cake chooses to follow the lead of the wealthy white people, assuming that they would do what is right. Tea Cake makes a value judgment for the wealthy whites over the Native Americans that ultimately proves to be fatal. In addition, Mrs. Turner represents a highly class-conscious individual, although in her case her bias is more based on skin color than on money. Still, Mrs. Turner is keenly attentive to others’ social situations, and only light-skinned blacks or white people receive her respect. For Mrs. Turner, her insecurity with her own social situation determines how she treats others.
While this novel deals less directly with religion than some of Hurston’s other novels, the theme of religion is interconnected with the characters and events. During the hurricane, in the sentence that gives the title to the book, Hurston writes “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” In other words, God’s power manifests itself in the hurricane; at the same time, they are at God’s mercy, rather helpless and vulnerable. The title of the novel proves symbolic: Here they are insignificant in the face of the hurricane, a turning point in the novel. There is a sense that amid all of Janie’s many life choices, ultimately God—or more generally the natural world—determines one’s fate or destiny. Again, this supports the notion that Hurston does not mean to moralize in this tale, but to present the multiple, and at times unexpected, facets that make up an individual’s life.
Hurston uses religious language or imagery to frame some of the characters. For example, Nanny represents a spiritual figure whose main goal in life is to set her granddaughter on the right track. She functions as a sort of genesis for the rest of the narrative, even if her role is minimal, confined to a small part of Janie’s story. Her constant advice to Janie on how to act is her means of expressing herself, her sermon, since as a former slave she was never able to achieve what she wanted and fulfill her potential. Hurston frames this using religious language, as Nanny says, “Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but they wasn’t no pulpit for me.” She was a preacher without a place to preach her word, but Janie became her audience. She declared she would “save de text” for Janie, meaning she would preach her ideas and values to Janie. Her “text” consists of her story about life on the plantation, her escape, and the path to freedom. In context, her “sermon” to Janie serves as a commentary on the mistakes of the past and how to correct them for the future. Ironically, the advice, meant to liberate Janie, ends up entrapping her in the marriage to Logan Killicks.
Hurston characterizes Jody Starks as a sort of preacher in his role as community leader; he is portrayed, as well, as seeing himself as a sort of god or savior for the town. To begin with, Hurston presents Jody as a transformative figure when Janie meets him, by chance, outside; it is as if they were destined to meet. As mayor and businessman of Eatonville, Jody is portrayed as a natural leader; in fact it is he who proposes incorporating the town, and his role is, in a sense, depicted as godlike. Jody is prone to exclaim the phrase “I god,” which is a corruption of “oh, God,” but the suggestion that he is saying “I am God” is too strong to ignore. Even after Jody’s death, Hezekiah starts using the phrase “I god” as a means of imitating him and trying to invoke the strength of Jody. So, Jody sets himself up as a godlike figure with power and dominion over the town; his lavish life, cut off from the other townspeople, is additional evidence that he views himself as exceptional. People even refer to him as “Our beloved Mayor,” which reminds them of the phrase “God is everywhere.”
One of Jody’s major projects, to erect a light post in town, is a major event. He gives a speech for it, which functions as a type of sermon, as he talks about the “Sun-maker,” or God, who brings light in the morning. By analogy, by erecting the lamp, Jody portrays himself as another “sun-maker,” one who brings light after it is dark. Afterward, he asks a man to pray and invoke God for a blessing for their town. The importance he accords to this rather banal event shows how he sees himself in inflated terms; he confers a sense of the spiritual to the everyday as a means of projecting power. Jody gives another speech at the funeral for Matt Bonner’s mule, at which he literally perches upon the dead animal to give an oration. Once again, he is making use of the occasion to project his image of power in a surreal, detached way. The response of the buzzards provides an amusing juxtaposition, as they are repeating, more or less, the spectacle that Jody has just created; the scene, now acted by a bunch of large birds, points out the strangeness of the human actions. The main bird is Parson, a reference to a preacher or religious leader, who acts like Jody, inspecting the mule and making a speech. The other buzzards reply to his invocations as would a congregation. The scene emphasizes the role of ceremony in the community.
Hurston portrays Janie herself as a sort of godlike character on several occasions as well. Mrs. Turner, for one, is shown as a follower in search of a leader, which she finds in Janie. Mrs. Turner symbolically worships Janie, seeing her Caucasian features as praiseworthy. For Mrs. Turner, Janie is a transformative figure, suggesting a higher power. It should also be noted that her idea of heaven is one filled with white angels. More significantly, Pheoby’s reaction to Janie’s story, at the end of the novel, suggests awe and reverence. After hearing Janie’s tale, Pheoby exclaims, “Lawd!” This outburst expresses Pheoby’s amazement at the story, but it also subtly suggests that she is calling Janie herself by that name.
Hurston also connects Janie’s husbands to God, describing Tea Cake as “a glance from God.” Later, during the hurricane, Tea Cake asks Janie if she regrets not being back at Eatonville, and she responds, “Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.” This is further suggestion that Tea Cake serves as a sort of savior for Janie. This is also in direct contrast to the portrayal of Jody: While Jody saw himself as a sort of god, here it is Janie who sees Tea Cake as a gift from God. All these examples, finally, figure into Janie’s larger life story—which is about her, not about God. That is to say, her story is about her own life, which is nevertheless informed by spirituality. However, the connections Hurston makes to religion are subtle; the larger conceptual framework, as already described, is the relation between the natural world and human destiny.
Janie’s quest for identity is marked by her attempt to negotiate her role as a woman. Hurston incorporates into Janie’s life story many elements that comment upon socially expected roles for men and women. As Lillie P. Howard points out, the novel “has universal implications for women in that it protests against the restrictions and limitations imposed upon women by a masculine society” (93). By focusing this text on a black woman, Hurston brings to the fore the condition of women as they faced the struggle to find their identities in a male-dominated society.
Janie’s notions of gender roles can be seen as generating first from her grandmother. While Nanny seems to have intentionally not created a race consciousness in Janie, evidenced by Janie’s ignorance early on that her skin color was different, Nanny is very careful to instill in Janie her notions about the role of women. Nanny dismisses Janie’s romantic ideal of love, feeling that marriage serves a strictly pragmatic purpose, one in which the woman is passive and taken care of by the man. In a sense, she views marriage as a onetime event, wherein the woman is sold to the man so he can possess her and take care of her for life. Considering Nanny’s experience as a slave, this is certainly an ironic take, since she was treated as an object. In fact, Nanny admits that, after freedom, she had the opportunity to wed, but she did not, for she felt that that would not be the best way to protect Leafy. But Nanny’s experience as a slave and her struggles afterward also exposed Nanny’s vulnerabilities to the world and shaped her pragmatic sense; since Nanny was denied the opportunity to live a full, free life as wife and mother, she has very specific ideas about what her offspring ought to do. She believes that Janie has a chance to move beyond the mistakes that she herself made, and the way to do this is by submitting to a male in marriage. Nanny also desires her daughter to become a schoolteacher, a standard role for a female at the time.
Janie’s own views of her gender role are in constant tension with those of her grandmother. On the one hand, she accepts them, using them as a sort of restraining force, but she also rejects them and wants to break free, carving out her own place in society and constructing her own gender identity. Janie’s incident with the pear tree shows that, from a young age, she was aware of divisions, and how men and women play different roles just as the bee and the flower played different roles in that union. By marrying Logan, despite her better instincts, she succumbs to her grandmother’s insistence about gender roles, which would mirror society’s expectations as well. Logan is the male provider, with property and a home. When Janie complains about not being in love with him after the wedding, Nanny notes how Janie will command respect from others in the community. Once married to Janie, Logan is happy to put Janie to work, even asking her to do tasks that others may view as a man’s work, such as cutting wood or plowing with a mule. As she works, she recalls Nanny’s statement that black women are treated like mules. In a sense, Janie is thus caught between two standard roles for women: the hardworking laborer, or mule, and the submissive wife.
Jody Starks tries to rescue her from the one role—that of the mule, as he expresses surprise that Janie would be made to do such labor for Logan—but he will do so by confining her to the other role, of wife. He says she should be sitting on a porch, while rocking and fanning herself. He recreates the picture of a traditional upper-class woman, too delicate to deal with the farm labor and deserving of a leisurely life. Once married, he tries to prove his manliness and increases the amount of control he exerts over his wife. He views himself not only as the patriarch and provider, but also the leader and voice of the couple. At Jody’s inauguration speech as mayor, he silences his wife when she wants to say a few words, saying, “She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.” He makes it clear that, as the wife of the most prominent man in Eatonville, she must comport herself in a particular way, dressing finely and not getting involved in petty or low-class affairs. He has her wear nice clothing and refuses to allow her to attend the mule’s funeral. A symbol of his possession of his wife can be seen in the floral spittoon he buys her—while the spittoon is a markedly masculine symbol, he buys her a floral one, showing both his masculine power and his view of femininity.
The more he overpowers or silences Janie, the more Janie retreats into herself, becoming alienated from the community and feeling powerless and passive. However, this also causes Janie to want to break out, and challenge his assumptions. After Mrs. Tony Robbins has come begging for food, Janie responds by saying that men are not as smart as they think they are. This act surprises Jody, since he has tried hard to silence her.
The biggest challenge to Jody comes when he mocks Janie for being an old, feeble woman when she incorrectly cuts a slice of tobacco. At this point, Jody “tries to draw attention away from himself by publicly ridiculing Janie” (Lowe 176). Janie, finally, responds with a bold and public insult: “When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.” Not only is she challenging her husband by speaking out against him in public, she is also challenging his very masculinity and sexual vitality. By analogizing her husband’s situation to that of a woman during menopause, she feminizes him. Janie “effectively emasculated him” (Lowe 177). Jody is so stunned that, for once, he is the silenced one. He cannot come up with a retort to his wife, so he resorts to violence, hitting her. In this pivotal scene, Janie transcends her role as a woman and alters the power dynamics in her relationship with her husband. His response reflects a reassertion of his manliness and power, but the damage has been done; others in the town see a change, and Jody’s sense of power deflates.
After Jody’s death, Janie continues to play the standard gender role of grieving wife, by putting on her scarf, but she feels freed, which is evident in her next relationship, with Tea Cake. Janie’s marriage to Tea Cake exhibits her rebellion against the gender role ideas instilled by Nanny. Janie has more money than Tea Cake, and she is also older than he is, which represents a reversal of gender roles. Hurston depicts their relationship as one with more equitable gender roles, as she engages in activities like fishing and playing games. In fact, others in the community see her actions as questionable, considering her status and wealth. However, Janie, finally freed from Jody’s grip, doesn’t concern herself with what others think; she does what she does because it makes her happy. By joining Tea Cake in the fields, Janie is achieving an equality with her husband; his acceptance of this shows that gender roles do not play a major role in their relationship. However, Tea Cake shows that ultimately, when threatened, he will play the male role of possessor. When there is speculation about Janie and Mrs. Turner’s brother, he hits her to show his control and manhood. Hurston writes, “Being able to whip her reassured him in possession.” In addition, the other people react in agreement with Tea Cake, expressing their approval that he would show his ownership of Janie in that way.
On the “muck” in the Everglades, Janie transcends her role as a woman even further, getting her hands dirty in the fields and spending time with the common folk. She stops wearing her urban finery and puts on overalls. While she worked before—doing chores for Killicks and working in the store for Starks—here she is on equal footing with the others; she feels freed by her work rather than taken for granted. Janie also learns to perfect her art as a storyteller, which is generally depicted as a man’s domain in the African-American folktale tradition. This is a means for Janie to express herself and break out of her gender role, and this also lays the foundation for her later recounting of her life story to Pheoby. As a woman, she is in control of her own narrative: She crafts and tells her own life. By transcending standard gender roles and breaking free from the expectations of her grandmother and her husbands, Janie has been able to construct an identity that affirms self-awareness, selfdiscovery, and self-respect. The tale ends in tragedy, but Janie emerges strong, a free woman who determines her own life and, by telling the story to Pheoby, inspires others.
Janie is one of Hurston’s most memorable characters in all her fiction; the novel is Janie’s life story, as told by Janie to her friend Pheoby. Janie is brought up by her grandmother, Nanny, after her mother, Leafy, abandons her. Her grandmother was a slave, and her mother was the product of a slave-master relationship. Janie’s father was a teacher, who raped Leafy. As a child, Janie has little race consciousness, as she spends time with the white Washburn family but does not make a color distinction. She has two important realizations as a youth. One is when she realizes the black-white color distinction, by looking at a photo of her and her white friends; the other is when she experiences a sensual bliss while watching a bee pollinate a pear blossom.
Hurston presents Janie’s life as a quest to find fulfillment, and the journey involves many life experiences. She marries Logan Killicks at her grandmother’s urging, but the marriage is loveless even though he can provide for her materially and socially. Jody Starks, her second husband, appeals to Janie’s sense of romance. He seems genteel and cosmopolitan, and promises to rescue her from her life of desperation. They begin their lives in Eatonville, where Starks becomes a mayor and wealthy businessman, the owner of the main store in town where people gather as a meeting place. Once again, Janie begins to feel oppressed, as Jody exerts too much power over her, controlling her actions and silencing her voice. They live in a large white home, but she feels alienated in it, cut off from black society as if in a plantation home. As a result, Janie feels sympathy for Matt Bonner’s mule, feeling as lowly and unappreciated as that common work animal. She ultimately stands up to her husband but only shortly before his death, and he assaults her for it. When he dies, Janie feels a sense of relief, symbolically pulling off the scarf he had made her wear.
With Tea Cake, her third husband, Janie feels freed, as they have a more equal relationship, and she enjoys doing many of the same things that he does. She is older than he is and has more money, which makes others worry he is a gold digger. They move to the Everglades and work on the fields together, along with many others in the community. The rural experience is a happy one for Janie, but there are problems, notably caused by Mrs. Turner, a self-hating black woman. Concern about Mrs. Turner’s brother and Janie cause Tea Cake to hit Janie. The novel’s downturn begins with a hurricane that Janie and Tea Cake survive together, despite not having evacuated in time. During the storm, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog, and the resulting infection causes him to change irreversibly. Janie shoots him dead in self-defense, although he bites her before he dies, possibly infecting her too. She is acquitted at her trial by an all-white-male jury, but the black community is not pleased.
Janie returns to Eatonville, where she recounts her story to Pheoby, inspiring her with her tale of love and female power. At the novel’s end, Hurston portrays Janie as a transformative woman entering yet another stage of her life. Hurston ends the novel on an ambiguous note; when she heads upstairs, Janie may be symbolically heading to her death, but Hurston does not reveal this explicitly.
Logan Killicks is Janie’s first husband, the choice of her grandmother as he owns a home and property and can provide materially for Janie. Nanny believes he can offer her granddaughter security and prevent her from having a harsh life. Hurston presents Logan as a pragmatic and plainspoken male who does not excite Janie’s love. In fact, Janie says he is ugly and smells. He puts Janie to work on the farm. Logan’s character plays a minor role, but he proves to be of major importance, as he provides the major impetus for Janie to want to free herself. Her relationship to him is a learning experience, standing in contrast to her desires sparked in the pear tree. Hurston does not provide details about what happened to Logan after Janie left him, further suggesting Janie’s ambivalence toward him.
Matt Bonner’s mule
The mule owned by Matt Bonner is one of the central characters in the novel. The mule, an animal used for work purposes and important to rural black communities in the South, represents a hardworking but unappreciated figure. Matt Bonner’s mule is ill fed, old, and overworked, and it becomes the source of many jokes and tales; it is a beast of burden and the butt of many jokes. When the jokes go too far and men mistreat the animal, Janie screams at them, revealing her empathy with this lowly, dejected animal. Jody buys the mule from Matt and puts it to pasture. When the mule dies, it is given a funeral at which Jody stands atop the mule to give an oration, but Janie is excluded from the event. A bunch of buzzards then repeats the spectacle and eats the dead animal. The mule also shows the centrality of the natural world and its impact on the lives of humans.
Nanny is Janie’s grandmother, who raises Janie. As a slave, she had a relationship with her white master and bore his child, which she names Leafy. When the slave master’s wife sees her baby with white features, she threatens her, spurring Nanny to flee the plantation. She takes cover in a swampy area and hides out. Nanny has the opportunity to marry, but does not. She has high hopes for her daughter to become a teacher, but when Leafy is raped by a teacher, her life changes. Leafy gives birth to Janie, then becomes an alcoholic and runs off, leaving Janie in Nanny’s care. Nanny works as a domestic for the white Washburn family, exposing Janie to the family as a young child and not instilling a sense of race consciousness. As a result of her past, Nanny has pragmatic, traditional notions of gender roles and wants Janie to have a secure life. She is surprised when she catches Janie kissing Johnny Taylor and she disapproves of Janie’s idealized notions of romance. Janie, in turn, often thinks back in anger to her grandmother’s influence. Nanny’s character serves as the genesis for the story; while it is Janie’s story that Hurston tells here, the action is grounded in Nanny’s life story and propelled forward by her character.
Starks, Jody (Joe)
Janie’s second husband, Jody Starks is presented as being both similar to and different from her first husband, Logan Killicks. They meet while Janie is doing manual labor, and he suggests they run off together. He is characterized as being worldly and fashionable in his sense of dress and in his habits. He becomes mayor of the town of Eatonville, opens the main store there, and increases both his wealth and his influence in the community. He has a forceful, charismatic nature, but he enjoys his power too much; he sees himself as a godlike individual, a savior for this black community. Jody sees himself as a liberator when he purchases Matt Bonner’s mule, but that too becomes a means for him to show his power, ultimately perching atop the deceased creature to give a speech, which is mimicked afterward by some buzzards.
Jody has traditional patriarchal ideas about marriage, and he wants Janie to submit to him. He tells her how to dress, and he controls what events she may attend; for example, he refuses to allow her to attend the mule’s funeral, considering it too lowly an affair for his wife. He silences Janie’s voice, refusing to let her speak at his mayoral inauguration, and he suppresses her desire to take part in storytelling at the store. Jody is an oppressive force in Janie’s life, but she stands up to him ultimately, even feminizing him toward the end, when he gets older. When she humiliates Jody publicly, he becomes the silenced one, but exhibits his power even more forcefully by hitting her. Jody dies from kidney failure soon after, and a funeral is held that reflects his wealth and status. At his death, Janie removes the scarf he had made her wear to hide her beauty from other men, and his death is characterized as a freeing moment for Janie.
Mrs. Turner lives on the “muck” and operates a restaurant for the African-American laborers. She has middleclass status and sees herself as superior to the other blacks, especially because of her lighter skin and Caucasian-like features. She believes dark-skinned blacks are different from lightskinned blacks, and she wishes there were two categories. Mrs. Turner worships Janie because of her features and is prejudiced against Tea Cake because of his dark skin. She encourages Janie to leave him and have a relationship with her brother, who proudly criticized Booker T. Washington, disputing his status as a black leader and role model. Mrs. Turner reflects extreme colorism, class elitism, and snobbery, and Hurston uses this character to present the problem of intraracial prejudice, a theme she visits in some of her other work, notably her play Color Struck and her novel Jonah’s Gourd Vine.
Pheoby plays a dual role in the novel, both serving as a character in Janie’s narrative and being the character that Janie tells the story to. She is a nurturing listener, and the reader follows in her role, hearing Janie’s tale at the same time as Pheoby. She is Janie’s closest friend in Eatonville when Janie returns after Tea Cake’s death, and she is transformed by Janie’s inspiring narrative. She serves as a sort of mediator between Janie and the community, both revealing to Janie how the community feels about her and defending Janie against their gossip and accusations. After hearing Janie’s tale, she expresses her amazement and her plans to change her relationship with Sam. When others talk about Janie, Pheoby tells them they need to live their own lives and plans to reveal to them the insights Janie has expressed. Unlike many of Janie’s other female acquaintances, Pheoby proves to be a reliable and loyal friend through time. She reflects the importance of female companionship as a means of expressing female identity and empowerment. Janie is an empowered woman as she tells her story, but she needs Pheoby as a listener in order to achieve that goal. Unlike her husbands’ shows of power, Janie shares her power and identity.
Woods, Vergible (Tea Cake)
Vergible Woods, known as Tea Cake, is Janie’s third husband and the man with whom Janie experiences a more fulfilling life. He is a man from humble roots, as he is working class and does not have the status Janie has. He is younger than Janie and has less money, and as a gambler and blues man, he is seen by the Eatonville community as a mismatch for Janie. Tea Cake charms Janie with small pleasures. Despite warnings that he wants Janie’s money, they leave Eatonville and marry; there is an incident right after their wedding in which he takes some of Janie’s money and she doubts him, but he apologizes and gambles the money back. Ultimately they move to the “muck” in the Everglades, where Janie returns to her folk roots, which makes her happy. Working together, the couple share an equality that Janie was not able to attain in her other marriages. Tea Cake does not show much interest in traditional gender roles, but he does hit his wife on one occasion, to show his possession of her.
Tea Cake ignores warnings about a coming hurricane, which ultimately leads to his downfall. He and Janie eventually flee to save themselves from the storm, but as they wade and swim through the flooded area he becomes weak. Tea Cake is bitten by a dog and infected with rabies, changing the man irreversibly. Janie gets him medical care but knows he has been changed; in the end he tries to shoot Janie, but Janie shoots him dead in self-defense. However, he bites Janie, possibly infecting her with rabies, before he dies. Hurston presents Tea Cake as an important force in the novel, closing it with a vision of Tea Cake. Despite his death, he was part of Janie’s climb out of oppression toward identity, and with him Janie experienced a humble, if brief, happiness. Tea Cake’s memory lives on for Janie.
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