The short story by Zora Neale Hurston “Their Eyes Were Watching God” the reader has its setting in a small village in the South, and the story picks up as the townspeople watch a strange female figure as she makes her way through town. She is dressed shoddily and those gathered recognize her as the protagonist of ”Their Eyes Were Watching God“, Janie Starks, the woman who ran away with a man named Tea Cake, whom they assume stole her money and left her. She disappeared from town several years earlier and they all seem smug about how dirty her outfit is. Before she left, she was (and although older now, still is) a beautiful, graceful woman with long straight hair that shows, as we later find out, that she is part white as a result of a white man’s rape of her mother. She ignores them as all of them gossip about her, aside from Phoeby Watson, who takes a plate of food over to the woman. Janie tells Phoeby that she didn’t come back for the reasons the gossiping townsfolk assume and she proceeds to tell her friend her life story.
Janie begins by telling Phoeby about her grandmother, Nanny, who raised her. They were poor, but Nanny wanted the best for her granddaughter and finally persuaded her to marry a relatively wealthy owner of a farm named Logan Killicks. Logan was much older than Janie and was not romantic or sentimental. He tried to get Janie to work on his farm but she could not be content with such a dull and oppressive partner. One afternoon a smooth-talking man named Joe Starks rambles by the farm and engages Janie in conversation. He has big plans for the small amount of money he’s saved and is heading to the all-black town of Eatonville, Florida (where Janie is returning to at the beginning of the story) to make his fortune. Already unhappy with her older husband who treats her more like a mule than an intelligent woman, Janie is susceptible to Joe (who she begins calling “Jody” for the rest of the novel) and his idealism and after a brief couple of weeks of clandestine courtship, the two decide to run away and marry.
Eatonville is not the idealistic place Janie imagined and although she is a bit disappointed to find that the houses look like slave shacks, her new husband sees potential. After only a short time in town, he becomes the mayor (since there wasn’t one to begin with) and sets up a successful shop in town. Although the couple has obtained some degree of material success, before long Janie begins feeling unhappy about her new life. Her husband is quite controlling and he forces her to wear her beautiful straight hair up in a dirty rag while she’s working at the store out of jealousy. As it speaks to some of the major themes in “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, while she wants to be a vital part of the community, Jody does not want her to be one of the “common” people in town and prefers to keep her on a shelf—as a showpiece to his success. Although the reader is aware that Janie is desperately unhappy, she never speaks out against her husband and silently endures his controlling presence for some time.
After a twenty-year marriage, Janie’s unhappiness is almost completely unbearable. The couple is by far the wealthiest in the area and many are envious of Janie, especially since she’s still maintained her great beauty. Her husband, however, is growing ill and in order to distract his wife from his weakening condition, he chooses to make her feel terrible about her own looks. One day, at the town store which the couple runs, Jody makes a malicious comment about Janie’s failing looks. Surprisingly, Janie bites back and says that Jody is hideous and impotent, which causes him to beat her. Between this event and the years of sadness, it is clear that the marriage is in shambles. Jody’s condition worsens and he refuses to see Janie or eat any of her cooking. Eventually, she goes to see him on his deathbed. Instead of acting calmly and with forgiveness, she lets loose all of the fury and rage she’s bottled up over the years. He begs her to stop but she continues telling him how he never appreciated her for who she was. During her speech against him, he dies.
Upon her husband’s death, Janie finally frees free. She burns the rags she’s had to wear over her hair and although she does try to appear as though she’s sad, she loves her new independence. Suitors come calling eventually but Janie, who still runs the store, does not allow any of them to get too close to her. After her last two marriages, she sees that men are not the answer to her search for a sense of self and is hesitant to make the same mistake again. She also realizes that the values instilled in her by her grandmother about finding a man that is stable and financially secure are flawed—that there is far more to happiness than security. Janie is able to enjoy her independence until a stranger stops into the store named Tea Cake.
Janie and Tea Cake begin by playing checkers and she treasures every moment she spends with him because he actually encourages her to speak her mind and develop her own voice. Although he has a habit of disappearing for several days on end, she nonetheless agrees to sell the store and move away with him to the Everglades. The people in town think she is foolish and that the man is just after her money and even the reader thinks this after the two are married and he steals two hundred dollars from her and disappears for a few days. He comes back, apologizes, and quickly wins the money back from gambling and the two agree to share everything with one another.
The couple is very happy in the Everglades and they entertain many friends. Tea Cake is still a free spirit, but Janie accepts this and even seems to feed off of it. Her voice is much more prominent in the novel and it is clear that she’s come into her own. After they have been married for a couple of years, however, a severe hurricane strikes and they are forced to flee. Caught up in the wild waters, Tea Cake wrestles with a dog to save Janie’s life and is bitten on the cheek. Although they do not know it until later, Tea Cake has contracted rabies, which explains his illness. After a few days, Tea Cake’s condition worsens and begins infecting his mind. One night, convinced that Janie is cheating on him, he pulls a gun on her. Unable to do anything else, she fires back to save her own life, killing Tea Cake. The same day she is put on trial with a jury comprised of all whites. Surprisingly (given the time period of the novel) she is found not guilty and returns home where the novel begins. She feels peaceful, despite all that’s happened, because she feels an innate sense of union with Tea Cake.
If you are writing about this novel, there are any number of interesting themes you could discuss. For instance, note that there are no real antagonists (bad guys) in this novel. Even the oppressive Jody is not “evil” per se, he just has a character flaw that makes him blind to the ways in which he might hurt others. What replaces the traditional antagonist, however, is the environmental forces that shape and contort the characters’ lives. Thinking about this should help you formulate a thesis based on this fact. It is also interesting that Janie’s search for her identity is clearly visible in her language and use of silence. By gauging her relationship with language throughout the text, it is not difficult to see her development. In order to examine this more closely, you’ll want to think about how the mode of narration changes throughout the course of the novel. Aside from these, there is always the option of the old stand-by “role of women” theme that always seems to get assigned. Use the quotes below to help you build your thesis and good luck.
Other articles in the Literature Archives related to this topic include The Role of Oppression in “Sweat” by Zora Neale Hurston • Comparison of Themes in “A Rose for Emily” “The Yellow Wallpaper” and “Sweat” • American Literature in Historical Context : 1865 to Roosevelt • American History Since 1865: Major Events and Trends • Realism in American Literature