Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston

Time Period -
As the novel spans much of the life of Janie, it covers a period of 20 to 30 years, most likely beginning around the turn of the 20th century. This can be determined for sure only if Eatonville in the novel chronologically parallels the actual Eatonville, which would have begun to expand during that period (having become one of the first black towns to successfully incorporate, around 1887). Hurston wrote the novel long after the time period portrayed had passed, in 1937.

Ethnic/Cultural Background -
Their Eyes Were Watching God describes life in the rural black south as a tapestry of folklore and cultural richness spread about by word of mouth. Best described is the small town of Eatonville, whose people, while sometimes portrayed as nosy and bothersome, are as much a warm, active part of the social atmosphere as inhabitants of it. The novel itself came about in the aftermath of the Great Depression, into an atmosphere of political rivalry and racial turmoil. The book itself recieved a good deal of criticism for its lack of political motivation, especially by many black and liberal critics who were expecting something with a clearer sense of purpose.

Plot Summary -
The novel begins with Janie returning to Eatonville after an extended absence, with the locals buzzing with the news of her return, guessing at whatever scandalous results must have come of her travels. She talks with her close friend Pheoby, who is curious about what has happened to her. Janie gives Pheoby her life's story, beginning apparently with her childhood and leading up to the present.

Janie was brought up by her grandmother, as her mother, Leafy, disappeared when Janie was a child. Nanny expresses her wish for Janie to marry, so that she can live as a white woman, without having to work. So, reluctantly, Janie marries Logan Killicks, a much older man and a farmer in the town. Logan, though he seems on some level to love her (or at least be deathly afraid that she might leave him), treats her poorly, forces her to do farm work in addition to her other duities, and is all-in-all not what she wanted from a husband. Her dreams of love coming after marriage shot, she catches the eye of a passerby named Joe Starks. Janie is confounded by his certainty and authority, and is convinced that he is the man for her. She marries him, and runs away with him to Eatonville, a new town entirely populated by blacks.

Jody takes control of Eatonville, so to speak. He buys plots of land out of his own pocket and sells it to settlers. He is elected mayor, builds a town store, and generally expands and improves upon the once-pitiful town. Jody's authoritative personality does not extend only to the town, however--he is incredibly protective of Janie, and orders her to keep her beautiful hair bundled beneath a rag. At first she pushes back a bit, but eventually she begins to submit to Jody and his commands, at least superficially. After many years of marriage, Janie begins to tolerate less and less of Jody, and eventually berates and horribly embarrasses him in front of the townspeople that once feared and respected him. As Jody's control over their marriage deteriorates, so does his health. He is diagnosed with a kidney illness that is incurable, and after several months of seperation, Janie goes back in to speak to him one last time. She winds up telling him everything she's always wanted to: what he's done to her, and what she really thinks he is. After recieving the tongue-lashing, he finally dies.

Janie feels a newfound sense of independence upon Jody's death. Many people attempt to gain her favor for remarriage, but much to the town's dismay she turns them away. Eventually she meets Tea Cake, who charms her and generally treats her as an equal in ways that men typically did not before. Over time she begins dating and falls in love with him, though his behavior is irrational and often unpredictable. He also disappears and reappears from time to time, as though to make her more fond of him. Janie eventually marries Tea Cake, sells her store in Eatonville, and goes with him to Jacksonville. They have some difficulties--for instance, he steals money from her, at one point, and then pays it back. He also appears to have minor romantic entanglements with a local girl named Nunkie, but he denounces her to Jamie, and Jamie accepts this.

A hurricane eventually strikes the everglades, and as Janie and Tea Cake move toward higher ground, Tea Cake defends Janie from a dog that turns out to be rabid. He is bitten, and contracts rabies. The hurricane later passes, and he begins to exhibit signs of being rabid. He acts paranoid, and accuses Janie of going off with Mrs. Turner's brother. Janie consults with a doctor, but it is found to be unlikely that Tea Cake will recieve medication in time to save him, so she empties several shells from his pistol, so as to give her time to react in case he attacks her. He does, and she shoots him with her rifle. She goes on trial, but her recount of her deep feelings for Tea Cake sway the jury to acquit her (as if she felt so for Tea Cake, she would not have simply murdered him).

The novel ends with Janie concluding her story to Pheoby. That night, she finds that she finally feels at peace.

Third person limited narration, and the narrator is anonymous. However, since most of the story is actually Janie talking to Pheoby (save for the very beginning and the very end), the narrator takes on most of Janie's mannerisms and opinions, with regard to its tone.

Setting -
Eyes is set in rural Florida, in three small, predominately black towns.

Janie's Home Town (West Florida):
Janie grew up here, living through her childhood with a family named the Washburns, who employed her grandmother as a nanny to their children. It could be said that this place represents for Janie shame about her background, or at least the adoption of her white qualities, as it is where she grew up much as would a white child. It is also the location of Nanny, who wanted nothing more for Janie than to someday live as a white woman would--the wife of a hard working man of some wealth, who never had to do manual labor and had nice things to show off to her friends.

Eatonville was established, effectively, by Jody Starks, and as such Janie was something of an aristocratic figure for the town. Janie's life here was a fulfillment of what Nanny wanted for her, really. But she didn't find much personal fulfillment in decorative spitoons, and realized that what Nanny wanted for her wasn't really the same as what she wanted for herself. It might be worth noting that Hurston actually was born and raised in Eatonville, Florida, a town not unlike the one portrayed in the novel. Her father even served several terms as the town's mayor (though he didn't found the town--that was done by a man named Joe Clarke, which is oddly similar to Joe Starks).

The Muck (Everglades):
Though Janie had her trials in The Muck as well, it was here that she finally found happiness in her life with Tea Cake, and discovered what she really wanted out of life.

Main Characters -

Janie - The protagonist of the novel, Janie is attractive, exotic, and mature. She is often defiant and very independent, but she often accepts the shortcomings of others as inevitable parts of their nature, rather than hating them as individuals. She is strongly motivated, and wishes to find what she really wants out of life.

Nanny - Janie's grandmother. She wants Janie to live as a white woman, subordinate and dependent upon a husband. This stems from Nanny's former life as a slave, which taught her a strong sense of materialism and need for shallow things such as wealth and social stature.

Pheoby - Janie's confidante, in Eatonville. Where the other townsfolk criticize and gossip about Janie, Pheoby trusts and listens to her.

Logan Killicks - Janie's first husband, and a farmer in West Florida. Even though he's a good deal older than Janie, Nanny convinces Janie to marry him for the financial security. He eventually tries to make her do burdensome farm work, in addition to her household duties, and generally does not give her any emotional attention. She leaves him for Jody Starks.

Jody Starks - Janie's second husband. With Janie, he goes to Eatonville and begins expanding upon it by buying land and developing the area. The townspeople elect him mayor. He is, at heart, a politician, and tends to be very hungry for power. In accordance with this, he tends to be very protective of Janie, and forces her to wear her hair up under a rag. Janie is but another of his possessions, and she resents this. He eventually dies as a result of kidney failure.

Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods - Janie's third husband. Intelligent and witty, he charms and sometimes seems to manipulate Janie into feeling more for him, but unlike her other two husbands he loves and respects her for what she is. He is unpredictable at times, and not always faithful to her, but at heart he has a deep affection towards her.

Mrs. Turner - A peripheral character, and the novel's only real suggestion of a political statement. Mrs. Turner is, like Janie, somewhat Caucasian in features. She prides herself in this, and loathes darker-skinned blacks as her inferiors. She resents Tea Cake for this reason, and is frequently trying to marry Janie to her fair-skinned brother.

Theme & Motifs -
The novel's central theme is one of growth and spiritual fulfillment, but also of understanding and respecting the trials and complexities of life. Throughout the story, Janie is discovering new aspects of herself, and discovering the faults in those that have been with her all her life. The best example of this is her abandonment of the philosophies Nanny had imposed upon her for an acceptance of personal independence and choice of mate on the basis of emotional attraction rather than financial necessity. However, Janie runs into more than just social conflict. Throughout the novel she is forced through constant trials and hardships, eventually at the hands of Nature itself. She finally achieves a sort of spiritual fulfillment through accepting and respecting the happiness she achieved, even after she has lost it. It's this sort of bittersweet sentiment that really permeates the novel and its greater theme.

Eyes has several motifs running through it, three of them most notable. One is the power of language and community, and their correlation to everyday life in the setting portrayed. In Eatonsville, the townsfolk gathered upon and around the store's porch to do everything from gossip to debate philosophy. Another motif is the role of elaborate folklore and the personalization of religion. While very little of the book actually discusses or seems to refer to Christianity specifically, there is a religious quality present in Janie's view of nature and sensuality, as well as in her quest to find fulfillment. She personifies such things as Death, the Sun, and the horizon in a way not unlike that of traditional folklore, and attributes certain attitudes and characteristics to each. As the book's protagonist is a black woman living in the rural south, race is also one of the book's motifs, though perhaps not such a significant one as the others. Frequently the reader sees references made to the fact that Janie is black, and that it sets her at a disadvantage in the world, but this is more associated with the statements made about materialism and shallowness than anything. Nanny, for instance, is preoccupied with having Janie live as would a white woman, so as to have a better place in the world. Mrs. Turner, too, thinks that Janie should strive to be more white, rather than associating with innately lesser individuals. This is probably indicative of the novel's setting in time, more than anything, as the days of slavery and distinct social seperation were still fresh in the minds of the characters.

Tone - The narrator is, for the most part, focused on, and in fact, telling the story through the eyes of Janie, and so it seems to agree with and support her in pretty much all respects.

Conflicts - (Person vs. Nature or God) - The central conflict of the story is that of Janie against the sense of unity and happiness she wishes to find. The irony of this is that the same forces representative of her ultimate goal are also the things preventing her from achieving it.
Proagonist - Janie
Antagonist - (Roughly) God

Prominent Literary Devices -
-Extensive use of the vernacular
Both the characters and, at times, the narrator use a great deal of rural expressive language.
In making use of rural folklore, Hurston refers frequently to Death, the Sun, and other figures common in nature as though they were actual people.
Also in line with the use of the vernacular, exaggerations tend to be used liberally. A good example is the townsfolk's mocking of Matt's mule, exaggerating it's thinness and meanness to the point of absurdity.

Important Symbols -
Janie's hair is a symbol of her power, independence, and uniquity. It is described as being stright, a feature typically Caucasian more than black, and it's worn very long. It is also always worn down or in a braid, when she has her choice. This is indicative of her forceful, independent nature. When hair is worn down it is decorative, and draws attention--it is a sign of dominance. When Jody forces her to wear her hair up it is as much symbolic of her submission to him as it is a wish for no one else to see its beauty. Tea Cake combs her hair; he respects her power and individuality as they are, and even nurtures these elements in her.

-The Bee and the Pear Tree
The interaction Janie witnesses near the beginning of the novel between the bee and the pear tree is representative of a sort of emotional eroticism. The perfection Janie senses in this moment is the sort of oneness and perfection she wishes for herself. It's the sort of perfection she finds with Tea Cake, eventually. It's what's beautiful in the world, and it's what she's struggled for her entire life.

-The Horizon
The horizon, too, is symbolic of Janie's struggle to find harmony and unity with her surroundings. The nature of a horizon is that it will always be the farthest thing away from you, and you will never be able to reach it, which is why it symbolizes a movement towards an ultimate goal.

-The Hurricane
The hurricane stands as the reciprocal force to the images of the bee and the pear tree. Where those are symbols of the beauty and perfection in the world, the hurricane is everything chaotic and blindly destructive. They are, though, both elements of nature, and similarly are both elements of human life.

Allusions -
- Chapter 9 (p. 85-6) - Literary Allusion
A biblical allusion, of sorts, but something of a fractured one. The overall allusion begins in the middle of the page-long paragraph, with Janie's altered description of the creation. She refers to people as "...tumbling mud-balls" that are "deaf and dumb". It is written in the Bible that God created man from clay. The description of people as being covered in or made of mud most likely refers to this.

- (Various Sources) - Folklore Allusions
Some examples of metaphorical personification, such as the descriptions of Death and the Sun, are probably rooted in non-judeo-christian (possibly Carribean or regional) folklore. The origins of some of these references are speculated upon in "Vodou Imagery, African American Tradition and Cultural Transformation in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God", an essay by Daphne Lamothe.

Key Passages -

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.

Now, women forget all those things they don't want to remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly."

These are the opening lines of the novel. They discuss what the narrator states to be the innate differences between men and women. The statement seems to be that men and women both have their dreams, but that for men they must either be realized or not, by no action of their own, whereas women will chase these dreams until they are achieved. The implication also exists that men tend to dream for those things which may never be achieved.

"When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but he still glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine."

This is a sort of altered interpretation of the biblical creation. God creates in man goodness and happiness and perfection, but it is reduced to a spark swallowed in mud. Yet this spark is still there, and that's the key point. Under all the mundanity and strife and general awfulness, everyone has a spark of perfection and goodness, and everyone wants to find that bit of perfection in someone else. This is Janie's interpretation or explanation of love.

"You got a lil piece uh fire over dere, lady?"

This seemingly unimportant quote probably refers to the "spark" mentioned in the quotation above this one. The "...lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another", just as Tea Cake and Janie are about to unite. Therefore, this foreshadows their relationship.

"Once having set up her idols and built altars to them it was inevitable that she would worship there. It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood. "

This refers to Mrs. Turner's zealous defense of her ideology, and states that it is rooted in the fact that she is denounced for it. She derives pleasure, in a way, or at least self-righteousness from being a "martyr" to her impossible dream of being white. She also enjoys the act of berating others in order to boost her feeling of self-worth, even if it means having to accept the same punishment from those superior to her.

"The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God."

There are few direct references to God or religion in the novel, but as the title would suggest the concept of God (or rather, Nature as a simultaneously good and bad, or all-encompassing force rather than the judeo-christian entity) plays an important role in the story and its theme. This passage refers to the fact that everyone shares the struggle of Janie to find happiness, and that a lot of them will die before achieving it, or never even know how to begin.

Unique Features -
The most notable special feature in the book is Hurston's use of the southern black vernacular. This appears, at times, even in the narrative. The dialogue is also spelled as it would be pronounced by someone with a thick southern dialect (e.g. "ah speck," "thankyuh").

Parallels & Contrasts with Other Works -
It could be noted that Their Eyes Were Watching God is rather different from any other given Harlem Renaissance work, largely because it has more of a spiritual and personal focus than a political one.

These are all personal inferrenences drawn from the novel. Other opinions are quite welcome, and will most likely be added. Please /msg discrepancies to me, rather than posting superfluous writeups.
Parson People in God's Disguise
(An examination of theme in Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston)
"I have often thought about what this music of hers really means. For we are quite unmusical; how is it that we understand Josephine's singing or, since Josephine denies that, at least think we can understand it. The simplest answer would be that the beauty of her singing is so great that even the most insensitive cannot be deaf to it, but this answer is not satisfactory."
- Franz Kafka, Josephine the Singer, or the Mousefolk

To be a shepherd with his flock calls to mind a mixed bag of metaphory. On the literal level we have an archetypal impression of a bearded man, crook in hand, walking amongst the baaing white fluff balls on green idealized meadows in some other time. This theme continues to impress on our contemporary world. In Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the shepherd takes the temporary form of an almost evangelical buzzard-parson, which combined with a few more moments of poetic prose provide illumination to the choice of the novel’s name.

I find it interesting that Hurston chooses to bestow the life of a “white-headed leader” on a buzzard (61). The flock fosters a sense (in its brief passage) of a code of operations which can be interpreted as either god’s will playing itself out in nature, or as a satire in the tradition of Franz Kafka’s Josephine the Singer, or the Mouse Folk, with a possibly more direct religious edge.

The ritualistic nature of the buzzards’ plundering is interesting: they wait for the Parson, “peck(ing) at heads in hungry irritation,” while the “Parson (sits) motionless in a dead pine tree about two miles off… Decorum,” writes Hurston, demands that towards the offering he must "sit oblivious" until "notified." A parson is a man traditionally expected to somehow be close to god. The parson-buzzard’s waiting to be signaled reflects an image of a god waiting to be called upon, as in the god will only hear you if you pray angle. Continuing on this line of thought, the image of the Parson’s “ponderous flight” calls attention in its evangelical nature. The Parson is not god. The parson is a buzzard who may be tired of waiting for god. Buzzards wait on god, god waits on buzzards. So he comes in swooping, causing dances of ‘joy and hunger at his approach.’ What exactly is god waiting for? A flock of buzzards sit drooling around the dead carcass dinner. The parson wants to turn their attention to god in whatever way he can, because perhaps he thinks that if he can turn their attention to god, god will turn his attention to them. Call-and-response appears in the natural order as well, as the Pastor toots “What killed this man?” And the chorus returns: “Bare, bare fat” (62). The bare fat of life can kill any man, but when that man is a "mule," as in the next scene I will discus--the bare, bare fat is replaced with a lean mule's death. If the man is the mule, and the buzzards the flock, and the Parson closest to god, the bare fat of life is what you’ve got to live for. Experience god through his nature.

Just prior to that scene, the townspeople demonstrate their own ritualistic way of eulogizing the dead—“They mocked everything human in death” (60). And then, when it was time, they summoned Mr. Starks, the then-husband of Janie and mayor of the town, (not unlike the buzzard’s summoning of the Parson). His “preaching.. spoke of the joys of mule-heaven to which the dear brother had departed this valley of sorrow; the mule-angels,” and lots of food for the donkey to eat, and most importantly no more slaving master. Eternal heavens stretched in every way. If man is like a mule, then these people foresee a nice afterlife for themselves. That’s one way to be free, but first your eyes have got to watch god.

Later in the book another particular passage calls attention to itself in its poetic style and resonant theme:

“When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hum. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is dead and dumb.” (90)

It’s lonely under the mud, after we die. We know that, fear that, and wait for it. Our eyes watch god to see if anything is going to change. If the process of life and death will somehow alter. If even in a mighty tempest, we turn our eyes to god, then he must be listening. He gave us song so we could sing to him. And “their eyes were watching god” (160). But what is to be the response to the song? We wait and we watch. But sometimes nothing happens.

Look to nature if you want to find god—from a tempest, to the order of the things within nature—passage of life to death, communication between species, the wheel of life—these are the things that I feel Zora Neale Hurston was getting at when she included these passages and titled the book Their Eyes Were Watching God.

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