Study Guide

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: Book Summary

By Zora Neale Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God Summary

Their Eyes Were Watching God follows the life of Janie Crawford, a girl of mixed black and white heritage, around the turn of the century...which was not an easy time to be of mixed race. As an adolescent, Janie sees a bee pollinating a flower in her backyard pear tree and becomes obsessed with finding true love. (Because there's nothing hotter than a little bee-on-flower action.)

From there, the novel documents her emotional growth and maturity through three marriages.

Janie’s first marriage, to farmer Logan Killicks, is planned and executed by Janie’s well-intentioned grandmother, Nanny. Unfortunately, Nanny's plan doesn't go so well. In this marriage, Janie chafes under the uninspired but reliable Logan.

Make that uninspired, reliable...and abusive. After he threatens to kill her for not obeying him, Janie leaves Logan for the suave and ambitious Joe Starks.

Joe takes Janie to Eatonville, Florida, America’s first all-black city, where she lives the high life as the mayor’s wife. However, Janie finds that her husband has very rigid definitions of a woman’s role. Joe often silences Janie and refuses to listen to others’ opinions...which is no kind of good.

As Joe grows old, he tries to divert public attention from his failing body by accusing Janie of acting too young for her age. Finally, Janie can’t bear it anymore and lashes out at Joe, insulting his manhood and pride. Joe is deflated and takes to his deathbed, refusing to let Janie visit him. Janie bursts into Joe's room in his final moments and speaks her mind.

After his untimely death, Janie dons widow’s clothes and lives happily as a single woman until she meets a slick and fun-loving vagrant named Tea Cake. Although Tea Cake is 12 years younger than Janie, with him she finds the true love she has dreamed of all her life. In their relationship, both sides experience bouts of jealousy, but Janie and Tea Cake eventually find happiness working in the fields of the Everglades and mingling with the migrant workers.

Disaster arrives in the form of a hurricane. Tea Cake is given plenty of warnings about its coming and even an opportunity to flee, but he chooses to stay on the "muck" for the love of money. The hurricane strikes with divine ferocity, forcing all of the Everglades’ inhabitants to either leave or die. While fleeing the storm, Tea Cake saves Janie from a ferocious dog but gets himself bitten in the process.

Tea Cake gets rabies, and his natural jealousy turns into aggressive suspicion and paranoia over Janie. In the end, Janie is forced to shoot her husband to protect herself—rabies is not pretty. Though she's put on trial for murder, she's pronounced innocent.

After Tea Cake’s funeral, Janie returns home to Eatonville. There, she meets up with her old friend, Pheoby Watson, and tells her the whole story. This narration to Pheoby provides the framing for the whole novel.

(Click the plot infographic to download.)

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