Study Guide

Their Eyes Were Watching God Appearances

By Zora Neale Hurston

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Chapter 1
Pheoby Watson

[Pheoby]: "Gal, you sho looks good. You looks like youse yo’ own daughter." They both laughed. "Even wid dem overhalls on, you shows yo’ womanhood." (1.30)

Even at age 40 and with men’s clothing on, Janie seems to be attractive enough to draw the gaze of not only her best friend but also the jealous gossipers on the porch. Pheoby shows the sincerity of her friendship by complimenting Janie on how good she looks, instead of attacking her with bitter words. Although Pheoby might envy Janie’s appearance at some subconscious level, she does not let it become so all-consuming that it compromises their friendship.

Chapter 2
Janie Crawford

[Janie]: "Dere wuz uh knotty head gal name Mayrella dat useter git mad every time she look at me. Mis’ Washburn useter dress me up in all de clothes her gran’chillun didn’t need no mo’ which still wuz better’n whut de rest uh de colored chillun had. And then she useter put hair ribbon on mah head fuh me tuh wear. Dat useter rile Mayrella uh lot. So she would pick at me all de time and put some others up tuh do de same. They’d push me ‘way from de ring plays and make out they couldn’t play wid nobody dat lived on premises. Den they’d tell me not to be takin’ on over mah looks ‘cause they mama told ‘em ‘bout de hound dawgs huntin’ mah papa all night long." (2.10)

Even as a child, Janie is singled out and ostracized for her good looks. These natural attributes are only enhanced by the rich white-people’s clothing that she is privileged enough to wear. This little anecdote shows that women have hated Janie for her appearance for her entire life. Later, we learn that men have always loved her for it. So is her beauty a curse or a blessing?

[Janie on Logan]: "He look like some ole skullhead in de grave yard." (2.36)

Young, naïve Janie judges men purely on their looks. Perhaps this comes from a sense of pride for her own beauty. Although Logan is ugly, he has positive attributes, like his diligence and loyalty toward Janie. Young Janie is blinded by his outer ugliness. Later, from Joe, she learns that being attractive doesn’t make a man a good husband.

Chapter 3

[Nanny]: "How come?"

"’Cause I hates de way his [Logan’s] head is so long one way and so flat on de sides and dat pone uh fat back uh his neck."

"He never made his own head. You talk so silly." (3.24-26)

Janie’s shallowness and frivolity as a teenage girl makes her resent Logan simply for being ugly. Nanny’s wise words point out that Logan has no control over his looks; the implication is that of the things he does have control over, he has done well.

Janie Crawford

[Janie on Logan]: "His belly is too big too, now, and his toe-nails look lak mule foots. And ‘tain’t nothin’ in de way of him washin’ his feet every evenin’ before he comes tuh bed. ‘Tain’t nothin’ tuh hinder him ‘cause Ah places de water for him. Ah’d ruther be shot wid tacks tan tuh turn over in de bed and stir up de air whilst he is in dere. He don’t even never mention nothin’ pretty."

She began to cry.

"Ah wants things sweet wid mah marriage lak when you sit under a pear tree and think. Ah…" (3.26-28)

Young Janie’s conception of the beautiful extends to more than just the visible. She also takes offense that Logan does make himself smell pretty, either. He is utterly ugly in every way possible to Janie. Even in his speech, he "never mention nothin’ pretty." His image desecrates her idealized image of true love—"under a pear tree"—which is beautiful to see and pleasing in every other way as well.

Chapter 4

It was a cityfied, stylish dressed man with his hat set at an angle that didn’t belong in these parts. His coat was over his arm, but he didn’t need it to represent his clothes. The shirt with the silk sleeveholders was dazzling enough for the world. He whistled, mopped his face and walked like he knew where he was going. He was a seal-brown color but he acted like Mr. Washburn or somebody like that to Janie. (4.14)

Chafing from a marriage with ugly and surly Logan, Janie is attracted to Joe from the first moment she sees him, based purely upon his stylish figure. In her innocence, Janie probably assumes that physical beauty is an outward manifestation of inner beauty. To Janie, Logan is ugly inside and out. She probably assumes that since Joe is pretty on the outside, he is on the inside too. She’s pretty much wrong, though.

Joe Starks

[Joe]: "You behind a plow! You ain’t got no mo’ business wid uh plow than uh hog is got wid uh holiday! You ain’t got no business cuttin’ up no seed p’taters neither. A pretty doll-baby lak you is made to sit on de front porch and rock and fan yo’self and eat p’taters dat other folks plant just special for you." (4.26)

Like Janie, Joe bases his first assumptions on the pretty girl in front of him purely on looks. However charming he is, his words treat Janie like some adorable little object, not as a serious human being. While he says that since Janie is pretty she shouldn’t be working hard, that also means he doesn’t think ugly women deserve to "sit on de front porch […] and eat p’taters dat other folks plant just special for [her]." Essentially, Joe judges the value of a woman based on her appearance.

Chapter 5

[Tony Taylor]: "He [Joe] didn’t just come hisself neither. He have seen fit tuh bring his, er, er, de light uh his home, dat is his wife amongst us also. She couldn’t look no mo’ better and no nobler if she wuz de queen uh England. It’s uh pledger fuh her euh be amongst us." (5.91)

Tony and the rest of the Eatonville men are happy to have Janie living amongst them not because she’s a great person, but because she’s gorgeous. They’re so struck by Janie’s beauty that she is described as a "light" and the "queen uh England." Both of these things are usually white in color, so even unintentionally, her beauty always refers back to whiteness. Does this mean that Hurston equates whiteness with beauty, and not blackness?

[Hicks to Joe and Janie]: "You and yo’ daughter goin’ tuh join wid us in fellowship?" (5.8)

Janie’s loveliness and youth make Hicks assume that she is Joe’s daughter, instead of his wife. This also highlights the age difference between Joe and Janie that will become crucial later.

Chapter 6

Daisy is walking a drum tune. You can almost hear it by looking at the way she walks. She is black and she knows that white clothes look good on her, so she wears them for dress up. She’s got those big black eyes with plenty shiny white in them that makes them shine like brand new money and she knows what God gave women eyelashes for, too. Her hair is not what you might call straight. It’s n**** hair, but it’s got a kind of white flavor. Like the piece of string out of a ham. It’s not ham at all, but it’s been around ham and got the flavor. It was spread down thick and heavy over her shoulders and looked just right under a big white hat. (6.147)

This passage shows women using their appearances to the best of their abilities to get attention. Daisy specifically wears white because she knows it’s attractive on her. Notice that again, beauty is linked to whiteness (or, at least, white’s purity in contrast to blackness), especially in Daisy’s hair.

This business of the head-rag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. Her hair was NOT going to show in the store. It didn’t seem sensible at all. That was because Joe never told Janie how jealous he was. He never told her how often he had seen the other men figuratively wallowing in it as she went about things in the store. And one night he had caught Walter standing behind and brushing the back of his hand back and forth across the loose end of her braid ever so lightly so as to enjoy the feel of it without Janie knowing what he was doing. Joe was at the back of the store and Walter didn’t see him. He felt like rushing forth with the meat knife and chopping off the offending hand. That night he ordered Janie to tie up her hair around the store. That was all. She was there in the store for him to look at, not those others. (6.31)

Beauty, which has always been a mark of distinction for Janie, now works against her. Jealous Joe finds Janie’s beauty a cause for concern, and forces her to hide it lest other men take too many liberties with his wife. Joe’s binding of Janie’s hair is one way of showing ownership; such beauty is his alone and not to be touched or even seen by others.

Chapter 7
Janie Crawford

[Janie]: "Stop mixin’ up mah doings wid mah looks, Jody. When you git through tellin’ me how tuh cut uh plug uh tobacco, then you kin tell me whether mah behind is on straight or not." (7.14)

Janie’s admonishment that Joe to "stop mixin’ up [her] doings wid [her] looks" points out one way that men try to keep women down—by assuming that their good looks must somehow compromise their intelligence. Joe might also think that if Janie doesn’t know how beautiful she is, she won’t think she can get a better man and run away with him. This is reminiscent of Logan Killicks when he told Janie that no other man but him could possibly want her, even though he knew he was lying.

Chapter 11

Janie hung over the newel post thinking so long that she all but went to sleep there. However, before she went to bed she took a good look at her mouth, eyes, and hair. (11.67)

Tea Cake’s words have made Janie more self-conscious about her beauty. In curious response to Tea Cake’s praises, Janie appraises herself in front of the mirror. Because she does not voice her verdict to readers, we do not know how she feels about her looks. Does she look at herself and see nothing special, or has Tea Cake now allowed her to get pleasure out of her own beauty? He did (in 11.39) imply that maybe she should look in the mirror and enjoy her own looks instead of just letting everyone else feast their eyes on her.

"Why, Tea Cake? Whut good do combin’ mah hair do you? It’s mah comfortable , not yourn."

"It’s mine too. Ah ain’t been sleepin’ so good for more’n uh week cause Ah been wishin’ so bad tuh git mah hands in yo’ hair. It’s so pretty. It feels jus’ lak underneath uh dove’s wing next to mah face." (11.38-39)

First of all, Joe has kept Janie’s beauty hidden well enough that she doesn’t seem to be aware of how attractive she is. Her beauty is a torment to men when they can’t touch it, but a rapturous pleasure when they can. Tea Cake’s enjoyment of Janie’s beautiful hair, however, is different than Joe’s because Tea Cake tries to give her pleasure from her own beauty as well as taking pleasure for himself.

Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods

[Tea Cake]: "Ah ain’t been sleepin’ so good for more’n uh week cause Ah been wishin’ so bad tuh git mah hands in yo’ hair. It’s so pretty. It feels jus’ lak underneath uh dove’s wing next to mah face."

"Umph! You’se might easy satisfied. Ah been had dis same hair next tuh mah face ever since Ah cried de fust time, and ‘tain’t never gimme me no thrill."

"Ah tell you lak you told me – you’se mighty hard tuh satisfy. Ah betcha dem lips don’t satisfy yuh neither."

"Dat’s right, Tea Cake. They’s dere and Ah make use of ‘em whenever it’s necessary, but nothin’ special tuh me."

"Umph! umph! umph! Ah betcha you don’t never go tuh de lookin’ glass and enjoy yo’ eyes yo’self. You lets other folks git all de enjoyment out of ‘em ‘thout takin’ in any of it yo’self."

"Naw, Ah never gazes at ‘em in de lookin’ glass. If anybody else gits any pleasure out of ‘em Ah ain’t been told about it." (11.38-43)

Janie’s beautiful physical attributes are vehicles of pleasure for everyone but herself. The idea of beauty is closely linked to pleasure, but while women seem to have the beauty, men are the ones who enjoy it. Janie may be flirting with Tea Cake here, but readers know that she is as humble as she claims here, never really taking her beauty for granted nor actively using it to her advantage.

Chapter 12

Tea Cake and Mrs. Mayor Starks! All the men that she could get, and fooling with somebody like Tea Cake! Another thing, Joe Starks hadn’t been dead but nine months and here she goes sashaying off to a picnic in pink linen. Done quit attending church, like she used to. Gone off to Sanford in a car with Tea Cake and her all dressed in blue! It was a shame. Done took to high heel slippers and a ten dollar hat! Looking like some young girl, always in blue because Tea Cake told her to wear it. (12.1)

Society has very normative rules about how a woman of a certain age and marital status should appear in public. Janie violates these rules by donning "pink linen," "blue [clothes]," "high heel slippers and a ten dollar hat." The first two items are taboo because she has just buried her husband and should be only in mourning black. The other items are considered too extravagant for a woman as old as Janie. Tea Cake clearly likes her in these clothes, but it’s also important to note that Joe always had Janie dressed up like an old woman. Joe was always hiding Janie’s youth and beauty, but Tea Cake gives Janie a chance to be young again.

[Sam Watson]: "It’s somebody [that Janie loves] ‘cause she looks might good dese days. New dresses and her hair combed a different way nearly every day. You got to have something to comb hair over. When you see uh woman doin’ so much rakin’ in her head, she’s combin’ at some man or ‘nother." (12.4)

Sam rather accurately recognizes that Janie’s uncharacteristic primping must have some cause (like a man) behind it. Sam’s comment also shows that a woman’s appearance wasn’t supposed to give pleasure to herself; Janie’s nice hairdos are apparently for Tea Cake.

Janie Crawford

[Janie to Pheoby]: "Ah’m older than Tea Cake, yes. But he done showed me where it’s de thought dat makes de difference in ages. If people thinks de same they can make it all right. So in the beginnin’ new thoughts had tuh be thought and new words said. After Ah got used tuh dat, we gits ‘long jus’ fine. He done taught me de maiden language all over. Wait till you see de new blue satin Tea Cake done picked out for me tuh stand up wid him in. High heel slippers, necklace, earrings, everything he wants tuh see me in." (12.40)

Janie justifies her ostentatious choice in clothing by claiming that Tea Cake has "taught [her] de maiden language all over [again]." Thus, because she speaks like a maiden (young woman), she must be a maiden. While her logic may be faulty, readers may assume that because Janie feels young again, she dresses accordingly. Instead of having two separate Janies—the external and internal—like she did with Joe, Janie now shows on the outside how she feels on the inside.

Chapter 13

Mrs. Tyler with her dyed hair, newly straightened and her uncomfortable new false teeth, her leathery skin, blotchy with powder and giggle. Her love affairs, affairs with boys in their late teens or early twenties for all of whom she spent her money on suits of clothes, shoes, watches and things like that and how they all left her as soon as their wants were satisfied. Then when her ready cash was gone, had come Who Flung to denounce his predecessor as a scoundrel and took up around the house himself. It was he who persuaded her to sell her house and come to Tampa with him. The town had seen her limp off. The under-sized high-heel slippers were punishing her tired feet that looked like bunions all over. Her body squeezed and crowded into a tight corset that shoved her middle up under her chin. But she had gone off laughing and sure. As sure as Janie had been. (13.11)

Mrs. Tyler used external ornaments—a fake, made-up appearance of accessories—to hide her age and true self. The difference between Mrs. Tyler and Janie is that Janie’s youthful dress and appearance aren't masking her true self, they're just revealing what’s inside. Therefore, we can assume that Janie won’t share Mrs. Tyler’s fate.

And he [Tea Cake] stood in the door and paid all the ugly women two dollars not to come in. One big meriny colored woman was so ugly till it was worth five dollars for her not to come in, so he gave it to her. (13.38)

This shows society’s abhorrence of ugliness. Although this was meant in jest, Tea Cake’s actions show how much he despises ugliness. This is probably sanctioned by his own good looks and his attachment to Janie, who seems to hold similar condescension for ugliness.

Then two weeks later the porter and conductor of the north bound local had helped her off the train at Maitland. Hair all gray and black and bluish and reddish in streaks. All the capers that cheap dye could cut was showing in her hair. Those slippers bent and griped just like her work-worn feet. The corset gone and the shaking old woman hanging all over herself. Everything that you could see was hanging. Her chin hung from her ears and rippled down her neck like drapes. Her hanging bosom and stomach and buttocks and legs that draped down over her ankles. She groaned but never giggled. (13.12)

Mrs. Tyler’s outward appearance end up reflecting her true condition as a wretched and destitute old woman, cheated out of her money and played for a fool by younger men. It is appropriate that "everything…was hanging" since Mrs. Tyler herself is barely hanging onto her life and dignity.

Chapter 16
Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods

[Tea Cake on Mrs. Turner]: "Ah hates dat woman lak poison. Keep her from round dis house. Her look lak uh white woman! Wid dat meriny skin and hair jus’ as close tuh her head as ninety-nine is tuh uh hundred!" (16.36)

Where Mrs. Turner associates beauty with whiteness, Tea Cake takes the opposite stance. He considers white ugly, especially when it is mixed with black blood. So what are his thoughts on Janie? Mrs. Turner even thinks Janie looks more white than herself.

But Mrs. Turner’s shape and features were entirely approved by Mrs. Turner. Her nose was slightly pointed and she was proud. Her thin lips were an ever delight to her eyes. Even her buttocks in bas-relief were a source of pride. To her way of thinking all these things set her aside from N****es. That was why she sought out Janie to friend with. Janie’s coffee-and-cream complexion and her luxurious hair made Mrs. Turner forgive her for wearing overalls like the other women who worked in the fields. She didn’t forgive her for marrying a man as dark as Tea Cake, but she felt that she could remedy that…her disfavorite subject was N****es. (16.5)

What most people find abhorrent about her looks, Mrs. Turner considers a source of pride, simply because they set her apart from typical black attributes. They mark her as part-white which is better in her book than anything black. And she is attracted to Janie for the same reason. Mrs. Turner takes the differences between black and white to an aesthetic level, considering white beautiful while anything related to blackness is ugly.

"Look at me! Ah ain’t got no flat nose and liver lips. Ah’m uh featured woman. Ah got white folks’ features in mah face. Still and all Ah got tuh be lumped in wid all de rest. It ain’t fair. Even if dey don’t take us in wid de whites, dey oughta make us uh class tuh ourselves." (16.20)

To Mrs. Turner, conventional ugliness doesn’t apply. Her previously mentioned pointed nose, thin lips, and flat butt are a source of pride because she considers them to be evidence of her white bloodline. To Mrs. Turner, appearances are important because they denote social class.

Mrs. Turner was a milky sort of a woman that belonged to child-bed. Her shoulders rounded a little, and she must have been conscious of her pelvis because she kept it stuck out in front of her so she could always see it. Tea Cake made a lot of fun about Mrs. Turner’s shape behind her back. He claimed that she had been shaped up by a cow kicking her from behind. She was an ironing board with things throwed at it. Then that same cow took and stepped in her mouth when she was a baby and left it wide and flat with her chin and nose almost meeting. (16.4)

Although Tea Cake has many reasons for despising Mrs. Turner, he starts off by insulting her appearance. This shows some pettiness in Tea Cake’s character—a shallow disdain for ugliness—that readers otherwise would not expect. But the fact of the matter is that Mrs. Turner is ugly. Is Hurston trying to imply that external appearances mirror a personal, internal character?

Mrs. Turner

[Mrs. Turner]: "You oughta meet mah brother. He’s real smart. Got dead straight hair." (16.22)

Her brother’s "dead straight hair" is a mark of his mixed-blood heritage. To Mrs. Turner, it is a mark of pride simply because it differentiates him from the rest of the common black people. Mrs. Turner also seems to imply that her brother’s intelligence is linked to his whiteness, since she places "he’s real smart" alongside "dead straight hair."

Chapter 19
Janie Crawford

[Janie]: "…Ah jus’ uh ole woman dat nobody don’t want but you."

"Naw, you ain’t neither. You only sound ole when you tell folks when you wuz born, but wid de eye you’se young enough tuh suit most any man. Dat ain’t no lie. Ah knows plenty mo’ men would take yuh and work hard fuh de privilege. Ah done heard ‘em talk." (19.124-125)

Tea Cake takes Janie’s remark, which did not even explicitly refer to appearance, and turns it into something about her beauty. Tea Cake uses her good looks and youthful appearance to justify his jealousy, which is the last thing that Janie wants. So again, are Janie’s good looks a curse or a blessing?

"Aw you know dem white mens wuzn’t gointuh do nothin’ tuh no woman dat look lak her." (19.178)

The words "lak her" imply something akin to "so beautiful!" The accompanying implication is more serious, suggesting that white men base their judgments partially on the defendant’s looks and allow their libidos to influence their verdicts. The insinuation is that beautiful women are let off more easily in court than other people.

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