Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston was an African American woman who wrote many books and essays about black people between 1920 and the 1950’s. She writes this novel about a small town's black woman, Janie, who lives in Eatonville, Florida. This is the first incorporated black town in America. The story is told in one night on Janie’s back porch to her friend, Pheoby Watson. Hurston tells Janie's story in a ‘frame’. Telling the story with the same two people in the same setting (back porch) with only an hour or two having passed is telling the story in a ‘frame’. There are four parts to this book. (1) Janie's early years with Nanny, her grandmother, (2) Nanny telling about her life (born a slave) and Janie's short first marriage, (3) Janie’s years with Joe Starks, her second husband and (4) Janie’s marriage to Tea Cake Woods. Hurston uses ‘local-color’ words or colloquialisms as dialogue when her characters speak and this can be totally confusing. If you find the language is bogus just keep plugging away and the meaning will filter through eventually. This is a story about the quest for love.
Janie Crawford:She is the main character of the book, which begins when she is a teenager and ends with her in her forties. She is married to three different dudes. She has always searched for love but only finds what she seeks with the migrant worker Tea Cake (her last husband). She’s tough, self-confidant and smart and doesn’t care if people talk about her. She has gorgeous long hair that all the dudes think is sexy.
Nanny: Janie’s grandmother who was born a slave. She keeps Janie well behaved and marries her off to the first responsible guy (Logan Killicks) that comes asking.
Mrs. Washburn: Nanny’s kind-hearted boss. She helps Nanny and Janie buy a little house.
Logan Killicks: Janie’s first husband who is a lot older and had been married before. He wants Janie to be a fill in for his first wife and work on his farm. He owns a sixty acre potato farm. He is set in his ways.
Joe (Jody) Starks: He is Janie’s second husband. He ‘steals’ Janie and they run off together from Logan Killicks and the farm life she hated. Joe is an ego maniac and a control freak. He is also very smart and organized. He becomes the first mayor of Eatonville, Florida after he convinced a white land owner to sell him 200 acres and got everybody off their ass to help build the town. He opens a general store where the townsfolk hang at. He treats Janie like she is an object and disrespects her in front of the townspeople. He always makes her wear a head rag to cover her long hair. They stay married twenty years.
Verigible "Tea Cake" Woods: Janie’s third husband who finally brings her some cool loving. He respects her. Tea Cake is a migrant worker who loves life and parties hard. A cool dude. He dies in a hurricane.
Pheoby Watson: Janie’s best friend in Eatonville. Janie tells her this book's story when Pheoby comes over to find out where Tea Cake is and why Janie is all scrappy looking in dirty clothes. She is honest and a good friend.
Sam Watson: Pheoby’s husband. He likes Janie.
Mrs. Turner: A redneck racist who owns a restaurant in the Everglades (swamp) of Florida.
The Porch Sitters: These are just a bunch of people who sit on their butts all day gossiping and talking trash about everything. They bad mouth Janie all the time. They are the townspeople of Eatonville.
Muck Workers: These are the hard working migrant laborers who work the bean fields of the Florida Everglades. They don’t spend their free time gossiping but they party instead. Simple but friendly people.
Nunkie: A chick who thought she could steal Tea Cake from Janie. She gets dissed and chased off.
The story starts out with Janie coming into Eatonville (after being gone two years) alone and in dirty overalls. The porch sitters all talk trash about why she is back in such a condition. She left when she married Tea Cake and went with him to pick beans. Janie is in her forties when she comes back but the story she will tell Phoeby covers her entire life. As mentioned earlier, the entire story is told to Phoeby in a two hour conversation while they sit on Janie’s back porch steps.
Janie tells Phoeby about her life. Especially how she has always longed for love and looked for love in the four most important relationships she has known. Janie’s first relationship was looking for love from her grandmother, Nanny who raised her. Nanny gets them a house and dresses Janie in pretty clothes. Nanny marries her off to Logan Killicks, a potato farmer, where she does not find the love she thought she would. He wants her to work plowing the fields and is upset when he realizes that she is not cut out for farm life. She leaves him for the inspiring Joe Starks who becomes her second husband. They move to a new and tiny town (Eatonville) in need of improvement. Joe takes charge and whips the community into a respectable town. Joe and Janie build a store and a house. He becomes mayor and Janie is envied for her position as his wife. Still, she does not find the love she imagined was in a marriage. They were together for twenty years running the town and the town’s store. Joe treats Janie like an object and the porch sitters think he is kind of harsh on her. While they were well off, Janie remains unhappy because Joe has no clue of what her needs are. Joe dies a bitter man, not speaking to Janie.
Janie goes on to tell about her final relationship with the migrant worker (bean picker) Tea Cake Woods, who is ten years younger than Janie. With him she finds the love and respect she has always dreamed of. She sells the store and closes up her house to go off with Tea Cake. They live happily for a year and a half picking beans until a huge hurricane wrecks the Everglades and Tea Cake dies as a result. Janie returns to Eatonville a satisfied person because she has found true love.
CHAPTER BY CHAPTER
- The book starts with the porch sitters relaxing after a long day’s work on the porch of Sam and Pheoby Watson. They see Janie Crawford return after being gone for 18 months. She left in a nice wedding dress but now comes back in dirty overalls. She looks trashed to the women but the guys look at her butt with interest.
- Everybody figures that the young Tea Cake (her last and third husband) has taken her money and left her.
- Pheoby defends Janie and brings her over some food. She finds her soaking her feet on her back porch.
- Janie is glad to see Pheoby and tells her what has gone down in her life. She still has the cash that Joe left her after his death. Tea Cake is dead as a doornail so she came home.
- Janie begins telling of her early years with Nanny (her grandmother). She grew up playing with Mrs. Washburns (Nanny’s nice white employer) kids. She didn’t know she was black until she was six.
- Nanny buys a house with help from Mrs. Washburn so Janie could have a better life.
- Nanny tells Janie that she was born a slave in Georgia and had a daughter named Leafy (Janie’s mom). Leafy go knocked up by Nanny’s white master and had Janie. Leafy then took off leaving Nanny with Janie the baby.
- Nanny has chosen the old potato farmer Logan Killicks as her husband. Janie protests but with no luck.
- Janie has a killer wedding reception. Everyone has a good time.
- Logan takes his bride home and Janie is immediately lonely.
- Nanny visits after three months. Janie is waiting for her and Logan to grow to love one another. It’s not happening. Nanny tells her to hang in there.
- Nanny dies.
- Logan wants Janie to start pulling her weight around the farm. He goes to Lake City to buy her a gentle mule so she can plow the fields.
- While he is gone she meets the passing Joe Starks. They connect and Janie dreams of love.
- Logan tells Janie to help him move a pile of manure. She refuses and they argue. Logan is pissed that Janie is such a wimp on the farm.
- Janie runs off to meet Joe and they go and get married.
- Joe and Janie arrive in their new town and are unhappy to see that it is nothing much to look at.
- Joe takes command and organizes a community meeting.
- Joe goes off to buy more land for the town to be formed on. He has money and is a good talker with lots of confidence. He gets 200 acres.
- Joe builds a store that he will own and run and gets a post office for the town.
- Joe sells off portions of his 200 acres to new settlers. The town grows.
- Joe gets elected Mayor of Eatonville.
- Janie feels left in the dark as Joe moves swiftly setting things up. He won’t let her be involved in anything important.
- Janie realizes that marriage is not going to be the lovey-dovey existence that she thought it would. She is lonely in her husbands success and can say nothing to him.
- Joe pushes the people of Eatonville to build the town and he builds a nice house for he and Janie to live in.
- The Porch Sitters take up position on the stores porch and notice that Joe abuses Janie verbally.
- The Porch Sitters mock out Matt Bonner, a mentally challenged dimwit. He owns an old mule and the sitters say he beats and abuses him. It isn’t true but they tease Matt because it is easy.
- Joe buys the mule from Matt to please Janie who did not like the mocking out of the mule.
- The mule roams free for awhile then dies of old age. The town has a fake (mock) funeral for the mule and they pretend the mule was a great member of the town. They think it is funny to stand on the mules bloated stomach and talk about him.
- Joe gives Janie a bitch of a time about her store chores. When Janie screws up dinner Joe freaks and slaps Janie in the face. Joe thinks he finally has subdued her will and spirit.
- Seventeen years go by and Janie keeps her mouth shut but her mind is raging against her lousy marriage.
- Joe gets fatter and old age begins setting in on him. He is getting sick but still dogs Janie. The sicker he gets the meaner he gets.
- Janie blows a gasket and tells Joe to stick it. She says he is fat and all talk and does this in front of everyone. She feels good (for a second or two.)
- Joe hammers her with a hit so hard she leaves.
- Joe moves out of the bedroom. He doesn’t really hate her but he wants her to believe that he does so she will feel bad. Joe is immature.
- Joe gets sicker and sicker but won’t see a doctor. He won’t let Janie take care of him. He sees doctors who are bogus and have ‘fake’ cures.
- Janie goes to see Joe, who is dying, and talks about their marriage. Joe is a crybaby about dying; he is very scared.
- Joe dies and Janie feels pity.
- Janie throws Joe a big ass funeral and people from all over come to bury the Eatonville mayor.
- Janie burns her headrags and feels free.
- Pheoby and Janie become good friends.
- Janie enjoys men hitting on her and she runs the store very with no prob’s at all.
- Most everyone in town goes to a ball game and Janie meets Tea Cake Woods when he comes into the store. He flirts with her.
- Tea Cake teaches Janie to play checkers.
- He walks her into her house and never tries to kiss her. Janie like this.
- Janie and Tea Cake flirt and act silly with one another.
- They discuss the fact that Tea Cake is young and she is older. They decide that they could care less about age (she can’t stop thinking about him).
- They have crazy sex.
- The townspeople are pissed that the "Mayors Wife" is dating Tea Cake. Joe has been dead for nine months.
- Sam and Pheoby Watson discuss the town’s disgust with Janie and Phoeby goes to talk some sense into her. Janie tells her to forget about it.
- Janie goes to Jacksonville, Florida to marry Tea Cake. He picked her out a blue satin wedding dress. She wears it out of town looking real good.
- Janie and Tea Cake get married.
- Tea Cake disappears with two hundred of Janies bucks. He throws himself and his friends a huge drunken bash.
- Janie thinks he has maybe married her for her money.
- Tea Cake chills her out by telling her how he paid two ugly women not to come to his party. He thought because his friends were lower class and poor that she would not like them. She ain’t like that and tells him so. People are people and things are cool again.
- Tea Cake is a good gambler and wins her money back. He gets hurt by a sore loser but is o.k. after some tender loving care.
- Janie and Tea Cake go down to the Florida Everglades to work in the sugar cane, bean and tomato fields with all the other Muck Workers. This part of the country is Tea Cake’s stomping grounds. He is popular with everyone; a man’s man.
- Tea Cake finds decent but dirty muck work and they rent a house, which Janie makes nice.
- The workers start coming for the work and they work hard and party hard.
- Janie meets them all (they have super weird names) and likes them. They hang at her place but she gets bored. She decides to work with Tea Cake. Now she’s really in.
- A chunky young chick named Nunkie (chunky Nunkie) hits on Tea Cake. Janie is totally jealous.
- Janie busts them ‘struggling’ and is raging. (Nunkie grabbed something from Tea Cake and he chased her into the cane fields. She thought to lure him away and give it up to him but it doesn’t work) Janie chases Nunkie away then hits Tea Cake and they fight.
- Tea Cake tells Janie that he only loves her. All is cool again.
- Working season is over and all the Muck Workers leave. Janie and Tea Cake stay.
- Janie meets Mrs. Turner who runs a restaurant. She is a bigot (racist). She says idiot things like "I can’t stand black niggers" even though they support her business.
- Mrs. Turner disses Tea Cake in his own house.
- Janie blows her off but Tea Cake gets upset with Mrs. Turner’s attitude. He wants to boycott (protest and never go in again) her restaurant.
- The workers begin to return to the muck.
- Tea Cake slaps Janie around a little to get Mrs. Turner’s attention. That is his plan, to show everyone what is up. That he is the boss. He doesn’t hit her hard, but still hits her.
- A drunken Muck Worker named Coodemay starts trouble at Turners Restaurant. Tea Cake tries to help and kick them out the door but the place gets trashed and Mrs. Turner a little hurt. Maybe Tea Cake knew that would happen.
- A hurricane is coming to the Everglades muck and the people who know (Seminole Indians) the danger are leaving.
- When it hits everything is turned ass-backwards, upside down and destroyed by the violent winds. Lightning is everywhere. Water was rising fast and, to live, they are forced to wade to higher ground. People were dead and clinging to trees surrounded by water everywhere. All Janie and Tea Cake can do is try harder and find safety.
- It is in this section that Hurston, the author, uses the expression ‘Their eyes were watching God.’ Meaning everyone is so afraid they pray.
- Janie is forced to grab hold of a cow’s tail and hang on as the water rushes and flash floods are where dry Earth used to be.
- Tea Cake gets bit by a rabid dog that is on the back of the cow. He kills him with his knife after he gets bit on the cheek.
- Janie and Tea Cake make it to Palm Beach where white people force Tea Cake to help bury the dead. Whites get wooden boxes while the blacks are just buried in the ground. Nothing is mentioned of the Seminole Indians. Tea Cake boogies at the first chance he gets.
- Janie love Tea Cake even more because he did everything brave to save her life during the hurricane.
- Tea Cake won’t see a doctor about the bite.
- The married couple goes back to the muck where the people may be poor but they are friendly and less racist than Palm Beach.
- Tea Cake shows signs of rabies. He becomes difficult and violent. He is delirious. He can’t drink water.
- The doctor comes but it is too late. Nothing can help him now.
- He freaks out (hallucinating and stuff) and pulls a hand gun on her. Janie points her rifle at him and they both shoot. Tea Cake not knowing what is real or not and Janie to defend her life. Tea Cake gets shot and falls forward burying his front teeth in her arm. She goes to trial but is let go.
- Janie gives Tea Cake a great funeral with no expense spared and buries him in Palm Beach to keep him away from any Everglades flooding.
- Janie hangs out for a while with the Muck Workers then goes home to Eatonville wearing the muck work overalls.
- This completes the ‘frame’ story Janie is telling to Pheoby on her back steps.
- Janie goes to bed dreaming of Tea Cake and of how peaceful and content her life has finally become.
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