Study Guide

Their Eyes Were Watching God Sex

By Zora Neale Hurston

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Chapter 1

The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grape fruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye. The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance. It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day. (1.8)

Janie’s figure evokes two very different sets of responses from the porches. The men simply lust after her and try to memorize her appearance for later pleasure. The women, however, driven by jealousy, look for flaws and find them in Janie’s unconventional and masculine dress, storing them up as ammunition to fire against her later.

Chapter 2

[Nanny on Leafy:] "Dat school teacher had done hid her in de woods all night long, and he had done raped mah baby and run on off just before day."

"She was only seventeen, and somethin’ lak dat to happen! Lawd a’ mussy! Look lak Ah kin see it all over again. It was a long time before she was well, and by dat time we knowed you was on de way. And after you was born she took to drinkin’ likker and stayin’ out nights. Couldn’t git her to stay here and nowhere else. Lawd knows where she is right now." (2.72-73)

Here, Janie learns that the act of sex—which she has seen performed only in terms of love—can be used to hurt. Leafy was only 17 when she was raped and impregnated by her teacher, and it was such a traumatic experience that she never recovered. This serves as a warning to Janie not to idealize sex or mistake it for love.

"Yeah, Janie, youse got yo’ womanhood on yuh. So Ah mout ez well tell yuh whut Ah been savin’ up for uh spell. Ah wants to see you married right away."

"Me, married? Naw, Nanny, no ma’am! Whut Ah know ‘bout uh husband?"

"Whut Ah seen just now is plenty for me, honey, Ah don’t want no trashy n*****, no breath-and-britches, lak Johnny Taylor usin’ yo’ body to wipe his foots on."

Nanny’s words made Janie’s kiss across the gatepost seem like a manure pile after a rain. (2.25-28)

For Nanny, a girl becomes a woman at the first sign of her emerging sexuality. She sees any sort of extramarital sexual activity—even kissing—as shameful and thus makes "Janie’s [first] kiss…seem like a manure pile after a rain."

It was a spring afternoon in West Florida. Janie had spent most of the day under a blossoming pear tree in the back-yard. She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that three for the last three days. That was to say, ever since the first tiny bloom had opened. It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery. From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness. (2.13)

Janie’s fascination with the pear tree blossoms coincides with her emergence as a sexual being—one that is "stirred" into existence, feels the "caress[es]" of her waking sexual nature. With all these changes in her body, she begins to question ("What? How? Why?") things.

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to 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. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. (2.14)

The pear blossoms and bee have an undeniably sexual overtone here. The leaf buds are described as having a "snowy virginity" whose scent sensuously "caress[es]" Janie "in her sleep." To naïve little Janie, the penetration of the bee into the bloom is a "love embrace" whose "ecstatic shiver" creates a "creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight." This sounds suspiciously like the overwhelming passion and ejaculation of sexual intercourse. And it leaves young Janie feeling "limp and languid," as a woman might after orgasming. This experience, ironically, both seems to take Janie’s virginity by introducing her so sensually to sex and also preserve her innocence by building such a romantic ideal for her future lovers to live up to.

After a while she got up from where she was and went over the little garden field entire. She was seeking confirmation of the voice and vision, and everywhere she found and acknowledged answers. A personal answer for all other creations except herself. She felt an answer seeking her, but where? When? How? She found herself at the kitchen door and stumbled inside. In the air of the room were flies tumbling and singing, marrying and giving in marriage. When she reached the narrow hallway she was reminded that her grandmother was home with a sick headache. She was lying across the bed asleep so Janie tipped on out of the front door. Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. Where were the singing bees for her? Nothing on the place nor in her grandma’s house answered her. She searched as much of the world as she could form the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the rod. Looking, waiting, breathing short with impatience. Waiting for the world to be made. (2.15)

Janie’s initiation into the sexual world via her experience under the pear tree makes her yearn for her own sexual realization, her own true love. She compares herself to the pear tree, having "glossy leaves and bursting buds" and seeking her own "singing bees." For Janie, on the brink of womanhood, she expects love and sexuality to come hand in hand. Which unfortunately isn’t what happens.

Through pollinated air she saw a glorious being coming up the road. In her former blindness she had known him as shiftless Johnny Taylor, tall and lean. That was before the golden dust of pollen had beglamored his rags and her eyes.

In the last stages of Nanny’s sleep, she dreamed of voices. Voices far-off but persistent, and gradually coming nearer. Janie’s voice. Janie talking in whispery snatches with a male voice she couldn’t quite place. That brought her wide awake. She bolted upright and peered out of the window and saw Johnny Taylor lacerating her Janie with a kiss. (2.16-17)

The experience that the naïve Janie attempts to make her first expression of love Nanny abhors and turns into something to be ashamed of. She sees her Janie acting rashly out of teenage lust and fears for her safety among equally lusty and less scrupulous men. Thus, she interprets Johnny Taylor’s kiss as a laceration—something meant to hurt and humiliate Janie. To Nanny, sexuality is a dangerous thing.

Chapter 15

They fought on. "You done hurt mah heart, now you come wid uh lie tuh bruise mah ears! Turn go mah hands!" Janie seethed. But Tea Cake never let go. They wrestled on until they were doped with their own fumes and emanations; till their clothes had been torn away; till he hurled her to the floor and held her there melting her resistance with the heat of his body, doing things with their bodies to express the inexpressible; kissed her until she arched her body to meet him and they fell asleep in sweet exhaustion. (15.14)

Janie and Tea Cake’s fight over Nunkie turns into a steamy round of lovemaking. Here, Hurston highlights the similarities between wild passion and rage.

Chapter 16

[Mr. Turner to Tea Cake:] "Ah reckon you ain’t [seen our children] ‘cause dey all passed on befo’ dis one wuz born. We ain’t had no luck atall wid our chillun. We lucky to raise him. He’s de last stroke of exhausted nature." (16.40)

Mr. and Mrs. Turner’s lukewarm love life is reflected in their sex life. Mr. Turner, nagged to death by Mrs. Turner’s brash and incessant words, can only emit enough passion to produce one healthy child.

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