Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston
Where It All Goes Down
West Florida, Eatonville, Florida, and the Everglades during the early 1900s.
The slave culture of the southern U.S., though dead by the time of Janie’s life, has a profound effect on the book, grounding all discussion of racism and emerging most strongly in the character of Nanny. Nanny’s early experience as a slave shapes her mentality so that the highest honor she can imagine would be to occupy the position of a wealthy, married white woman. She imposes this goal on Janie and proceeds to ruin her granddaughter’s life. Thus, even Janie chafes under the continuing legacy of the slave tradition – racism and a twisted mentality that white is right.
Janie spends time in both rural and urban parts of the state of Florida. Rural spaces seem to represent periods of innocence and relative happiness for Janie. She is comfortable living in nature, under the pear tree as a child and in the Everglades with Tea Cake in her final marriage. These rural settings emphasize Janie’s poverty and the relative decency and integrity of the lower classes, giving a sense of naturalness and righteousness to Janie’s innocence. The Everglades provide the necessary setting for the hurricane – a force of nature, destiny, and God – to interrupt Janie and Tea Cake’s utopian life and bring tragedy on them.
The central urban setting, Eatonville, is a center of vice and corruption. There, chafing under her marriage to Joe, Janie loses her innocence most profoundly and discovers in herself the ability to deceive. Cities also mean walls and, appropriately, Janie stifles in claustrophobic spaces where she is confined both physically and metaphorically by Joe.