Hurston’s tone is one of deep appreciation and joyous celebration of the richness of African-American culture. She depicts her characters as having a whole range of flaws...but also redeeming attributes. In other words, these characters are totally three-dimensional, and you don't even have to wear silly glasses in order to enjoy the show.
Many scenes dwell on colorful stories and playful conversations among neighbors in black communities. Although the black vernacular is more of a stylistic choice than one of tone, its very presence proves that Hurston considered it something super special.
More than anything, Hurston’s text is compassionate toward all of its characters. Although Janie condemns some characters for their unforgivable sins, the text takes the time to explain the mentality of every major character—giving readers the context necessary to understand why each character acts as he or she does. Readers can see the often-logical (and emotionally moving) motivations for each character’s actions.
Basically, we follow Janie for her whole life. Early on, we discover exactly what motivates her—the quest for true love—and for the rest of the novel, we follow her exploits in her pursuit of this goal.
Janie’s first two failed marriages rob her of her innocence, but this is an essential step toward achieving womanhood and maturity. Only by painfully discovering what love is not can Janie finally recognize true love for what it is in her relationship with Tea Cake. Because of this, adulthood is defined by suffering, learning lessons from that suffering, and using that knowledge to move forward toward one’s goal.
By the time she returns to Eatonville, Janie has absorbed a good deal of wisdom from her experiences...wisdom that she's eager to impart to Pheoby.
The precise meaning of the title is up for hot debate (nothing hotter than a literary debate), although it touches upon many of the book’s important themes.
There are two primary points in the novel that reference the title. Check 'em out:
The time was past for asking the white folks what to look for through that door. Six eyes were questioning God. (18.30)
They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God. (18.39)
These two quotes hint that the title relates to the theme of race. In the first quote, Hurston in many ways accuses blacks of looking to whites to learn what their futures hold. The black community questions God only after they realize that white people can’t give them the answer. This seems to be a bad move; by following what the white people have been doing—hanging around the Everglades when a hurricane is coming, for example—the blacks have been led into danger and suffering.
In the second quote, the black people seem to be looking at darkness—perhaps looking beyond race, because everyone is the same when the lights are out. However, though they seem to be looking at "the dark," they're actually looking at—rather than questioning—God.
This switch from questioning to watching potentially means two things. The people could have gained faith in God. Alternatively, they may no longer be asking what their futures hold but watching to see what God will bring.
Why make this the title of the whole book? Good question.
The title is cryptic, but it could mean that the book is about racial and personal independence—not following what others tell you your future holds but instead following God. Janie seems to do just that. She rejects other people's ideas of what she should want in life.
Most of the black characters’ notions of what they should desire seem born out of the still-recent history of slavery. Nanny, in particular, as a former slave envisions that the best possible life is to live like a wealthy white woman, with nice material belongings and plenty of leisure time. Nanny looked to whites to determine what her future should hold and was led astray. Janie, however, goes after what she wants in life: love. We could see Janie as having eyes watching God, rather than watching other people.
The title can also be looked at from the slave/master standpoint. In the first quote, the blacks have realized that looking to the former slave masters, the white people, won’t do. So, they look to the "Ole Massa" (18.29), or God.
This has several implications. Firstly, that God is the master of everyone—black and white—which is an equalizing notion. The second implies that God is the master and that all humans are slaves. As slaves, free will is irrelevant or non-existent. It seems that people's futures are determined by fate or God.
This point is further driven home by nature and the agricultural imagery found throughout the novel. Tea Cake, Janie, and their Everglades friends are all agricultural workers—essentially, people that manipulate nature to do their bidding. By looking at agriculture, man seems to have much control over nature and fate. However, God shows up and can manipulate nature to a much larger degree, coming with a hurricane and flood waters. God makes it clear who the boss really is and who can actually control nature and fate.
In the context of the entire book, the title would seem to mean that individual free will is irrelevant...only fate or God’s will matters. Looking at the second quote again, the people are looking into the darkness; their fate is not illuminated, so they look to God because only He knows what will befall them.
In this light—or should we say darkness?—the title implies that nothing is earned by Janie in the book: her happiness and sorrow is all God’s doing. Her eyes then look to God, wondering what he'll bring into her life next.
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Slavery in the southern United States, though abolished by the time of Janie’s life, has a profound effect on the book. This horrific history grounds all discussion of racism and emerges 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 woman—to be someone that doesn't need to work. She imposes this goal on Janie and proceeds to ruin her granddaughter’s life. Because of this, 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's 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 upon 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.
Yup, lofty and down to earth. It's a combination that sounds odd at first—but hey, the combination of chocolate and peanut butter probably sounded weird until people realized it was amazing.
And this combo, in Hurston's genius hands, totally works.
If you think about Zora Neale Hurston's choice of writing style, you can definitely put your finger on two distinct voices in Their Eyes Were Watching God. One of these voices—the narrator's—is lyrical, philosophical, and almost classical. The other voice—which we might say is shared by the characters in the novel—is down to earth, colloquial, and real.
You can get a good idea of what we mean by checking out the first page of Chapter 2:
Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.
"Ah know exactly what I got to tell yuh, but it's hard to know where to start at." (2.1-2)
Here, we get two very different voices smooshed together on the same page. The narrator's voice identifies an elegant simile, letting us know that Janie sees her life, and the things in it, as a tree. When Janie herself begins to speak to the reader directly, Hurston switches style abruptly, capturing the sound of Janie's speech phonetically (in other words, writing as it might sound to hear her). Instead of "I," we get "Ah." Instead of "you," we get "yuh." We also get a sentence that ends on a preposition ("at")—something we know the narrator would never do.
So, what's up with that? Well, despite these differences, it's important to recognize that the narrator is describing Janie's thoughts, while Janie herself is giving us her words. In both cases, we're dealing with the same character.
Think about why that might be an important aspect of this book for Hurston, who is writing to celebrate the lives of the black characters in this book. By staying true to their speech, she's representing their characters and refusing to change it for a more formal-minded audience.
At the same time, though, Hurston's narrator, with her lofty insights, is letting us know that—despite what someone might think about people with thick accents or who might speak informally—the inner lives of these characters are more lyrical than Shakespeare or Rilke.
Janie’s second husband, Joe Starks, forces Janie to wear a head-rag when in public. Because Janie’s hair is so attractive to men, Joe jealously makes his wife bind up her hair, constraining Janie’s femininity and stifling her identity. In an attempt to keep Janie all to himself, he suffocates her and loses her completely. When Joe dies, Janie wastes little time in burning all of the head-rags she owns. Here, the head-rag represents the constraints imposed on women by men in power.
A symbol of a hate so vicious that it stops at nothing to lash out at another living being, the dog is blind to whom it hurts. For Hurston, the concept of hate is so frightening and so unnatural that not even a savage animal is enough to convey it; this creature must be twisted in some vital way. In this case, the dog is afflicted with rabies.
A symbol of masculinity and (go figure) destruction. The fact that Janie learns to shoot effectively shows her crossing into decidedly male territory in an attempt to empower herself.
A symbol of rebirth. Throughout the novel, Hurston keeps pointing out the position of the sun and, in the end, Janie eventually comes to associate Tea Cake with it. The sun demonstrates, simply by rising day after day, that life goes on—no matter how tragic yesterday was. For Janie, Tea Cake’s memory will be as enduring as the sun.
These often represent the beauty and fertility of the earth. In the novel, they are often associated with female characters. One very clear example is the blossoming pear tree that is pollinated by a bee. This is Janie’s idea of the ultimate loving union, which she strives to find through three marriages.
Animals often symbolize either inhumanity (savagery, lust, hate) or beasts of burden (which brings to mind slavery). Most of the former are associated with male characters, casting them as violent or predatory. Beasts of burden, such as the yellow mule, tend to be associated with female characters.
In the first chapter, it’s clear that the narrator is omniscient because she gives insight into the thoughts of Janie, Pheoby, and the gossipy Eatonville women sitting on their porches.
Though technically we know that chapters 2-20 are a narrative that Janie is telling to Pheoby, Janie’s life story appears as a flashback told by the omniscient narrator. The only portions told in Janie’s voice are in quotations, so those sections are not strict narration, but dialogue.
This story doesn’t easily conform to one single plot type. Janie’s story seems to have three distinct parts—one corresponding to each of her husbands—each with its own distinct plot line.
For example, Janie’s story with Logan Killicks could be read as a "Rebirth" plot type: Janie falls under Logan's power and is unhappily imprisoned in the marriage, only to be saved and experience rebirth when she finds Joe. The rebirth plot line repeats itself with Joe. Janie falls under his power, is imprisoned in a dark marriage, is finally freed by Joe’s death, and experiences rebirth through Tea Cake.
Thankfully, by Janie’s third marriage, she isn’t repeating her same mistakes, so her marriage to Tea Cake has a different plot line. We think her story involving Tea Cake follows the "Voyage and Return" plot format. Below is a more developed analysis of Janie’s voyage and return.
In Eatonville, Janie’s husband, Joe Starks, has just died, signaling the end of a stifling marriage. Janie is now free to make her own decisions and live her own life. Though she's 40 years old, she's been stuck in terrible, confining marriages since she was 16, so she's pretty naïve about the world and eager to experience freedom.
This is when Tea Cake shows up—a charismatic young man interested in showing Janie what love and the world has to offer.
Janie’s romance with Tea Cake is beautiful. He exposes her to new things, like checkers, late-night fishing, and generally living a loving, carefree life. With Tea Cake, Janie leaves Eatonville to get married and experience the amazing world that Tea Cake has opened before her.
Unlike in the classic dream stage where the hero or heroine doesn’t feel completely at home in their new world, Janie is completely happy in her new life with Tea Cake. She loves living in the Everglades and working among the migrant workers.
Janie and Tea Cake’s happy marriage is hurt by Tea Cake’s pride. Unwilling to heed the warnings of humans and animals alike, Tea Cake decides to ignore the danger of the coming hurricane and remain in the Everglades.
When the hurricane hits, he and Janie barely survive. During the hurricane, however, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog. Again his pride gets in the way, and he refuses to let Janie find him a doctor.
Tea Cake’s illness is getting worse. He is becoming paranoid and jealousy guards Janie. Eventually, Tea Cake’s jealousy overcomes him, and he pulls a gun on his beloved wife.
Unlike most "Voyage and Return" plot lines, Their Eyes Were Watching God doesn't really feature a "thrilling" escape. There's no such thing as a thrilling escape from blissful married life into widowhood.
When the deranged, rabid Tea Cake pulls a gun on Janie, she certainly escapes. But it's painful rather than thrilling—Janie is forced to kill her own husband. Janie also escapes a life of imprisonment by being found not guilty when put on trial for murdering Tea Cake.
When Janie returns to Eatonville, it's bittersweet. Though Tea Cake is dead, he lives on in Janie’s heart and memory. Also, Janie has done what she set out to do: experience life and find true love. She's gained the wisdom that a person has to experience life for herself and feels that she has now lived a fulfilling life, thanks to Tea Cake.
Janie is struck by the seemingly magical union between a bee and a pear blossom in her youth. This affects her deeply and makes her seek true love throughout her whole life.
Janie’s first two marriages turn sour. The first one ends in disaster because Janie never had any feelings for the man (Logan Killicks) in the first place and only married him when pressured by Nanny. Logan, a no-nonsense man, doesn’t help matters by practicing poor hygiene and concerning himself only with working the farm.
Janie’s second marriage to Joe Starks starts out more promisingly but goes awry when Joe proves to be irrationally jealous. Worse, he refuses to talk about it. He only orders Janie around, making her keep her hair up, not allowing her to engage with the townspeople, and never allowing her to speak her mind.
In both marriages, Janie’s high hopes for true love are shattered. Still, she holds out, hoping to eventually meet another man…
Eventually, Janie does meet the love of her life: Tea Cake. Initially, Janie is worried because she’s been hurt before and doesn’t want to jump into another marriage until she’s sure it will be a loving union, like the pear blossom being pollinated by a bee.
Tea Cake has several strikes against him: he’s 12 years younger than Janie and he’s poor. Janie is not sure if he’s just after her for her money.
When she does marry him, Janie finds Tea Cake isn't without flaws. He’s a gambler and has a tendency to disappear for days at a time without an explanation—which causes Janie considerable worry. Also, he's an attractive young man and often attracts female attention. This makes Janie experience jealousy for the first time. Tea Cake himself feels a measure of jealousy concerning Janie, too...especially when the name of Mrs. Turner’s brother is mentioned.
Tea Cake’s pride keeps him from heeding the warnings of a coming hurricane. He decides that he and Janie should remain in the Everglades and wait out the storm. However, the hurricane comes on strong, creating chaos and danger. While attempting to reach higher ground, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog.
A short time later, a rabid Tea Cake and frightened Janie point guns at each other. Tea Cake has accused Janie of not treating him right and running off to see other men. Janie tries everything in her power to make Tea Cake lower the gun. But his illness has hold of him, driving him to kill. Janie shoots in self-defense and ends up killing her husband.
Instead of being allowed to mourn her husband in peace, Janie is brought to trial the same day for Tea Cake’s murder. The black community that knew and loved her so well is dead set against her; they feel she's betrayed the staunchly loyal Tea Cake.
Janie gives her heartfelt testimony, and the verdict eventually comes—she's declared innocent. Janie goes free.
After the trial, Janie buries her beloved Tea Cake and eventually returns home to Eatonville.
At home, Janie tells Pheoby the whole story. She has learned two life lessons—that people must go out and live their lives (and not simply stay home and gossip) and they must find God for themselves. The novel ends with Janie coming to terms with Tea Cake’s death. She thinks of Tea Cake, grateful that he gave her the chance to love and live fully.
The adult Janie returns to Eatonville without her new, young lover and without her silk dresses. The town is curious about what happened to her, and Janie tells her best friend, Pheoby, the story of her life. We jump into a flashback to Janie’s youth.
As a teen, Janie has the formative experience of sex and love under the pear tree and makes it her life goal to find true love evocative of that experience. Nanny has different plans for Janie and guilt-trips her into marrying Logan, a man she doesn't love. Because Logan shows no affection for Janie and represents nothing pretty or romantic, Janie eventually leaves him to elope with Joe.
Janie’s second marriage to Joe Starks brings her to the all-black community of Eatonville and into the lofty position of mayor’s wife. However, her life grows stifling when Joe begins confining her to the store, habitual silence, and an annoying head-rag. Janie chafes under his iron rule for about 20 years until his merciless insults make her lash out and publicly insult his manhood. (Ouch.)
Joe is devastated by this blow to his pride and takes to his deathbed. In his death scene, Janie finally works up the courage to speak—telling Joe that he is nothing but a big voice and has sinned against her. His death symbolizes Janie’s emergence into freedom as a mature woman.
Janie discovers true love with Tea Cake, who makes her feel like a young woman again. Janie creates a scandal when she leaves the town of Eatonville to marry Tea Cake and head to the Everglades. In the Everglades, Janie mingles happily with the lower working classes, content as long as she is with Tea Cake. Though their relationship isn't perfect, they're able to grow from each trial—learning trust through Tea Cake’s stealing of Janie’s money and his flirtation with Nunkie.
However, disaster comes in the form of a hurricane, and Tea Cake’s actions before and during the storm condemn him to death. After Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog, Janie is forced to watch her beloved suffer and turn hostile toward her in his diseased state. She shoots him to save herself and is put on trial. With her authoritative and moving testimony, she convinces the jury to acquit her.
Janie returns to Eatonville because the Everglades remind her too painfully of Tea Cake. In telling her story to Pheoby, she reconciles herself to Tea Cake’s death. In the end, she's at peace with Tea Cake’s death and feels she's lived a full and satisfying life.