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Their Eyes Were Watching God

Hurston, Zora Neale
Their Eyes Were Watching God

Medium Literature
Genre Novel (207 pp.)
Keywords Adolescence, African-American Experience, Catastrophe, Family Relationships, Freedom, Individuality, Love, Marital Discord, Mourning, Religion, Society, Spirituality, Suffering, Survival
Summary Hurston's powerful, lyric second novel centers on Janie Crawford, an African-American woman who tells her life story to her friend, Phoeby. Janie, raised in rural west Florida by her grandmother, is forced to marry, at age sixteen, a landowner, Logan Killicks. Far from giving her stability and respectability, Killicks instead treats her like a mule. Her image of love and life as a beautiful blossoming pear tree that grew in her grandmother's yard is dashed by the harsh realities of this loveless marriage.

She leaves Killicks to marry Joe Starks, an ambitious businessman who builds and becomes the mayor of an all black town. Joe also treats her as property--as a showpiece to bolster his image in the town, and does not allow her to befriend any one else. When Joe dies after seventeen years, Janie is finally financially and spiritually independent.

She falls in love with a young roustabout, Tea Cake--a man who (mostly) treats her as an equal partner and who returns her love fully. Despite the townspeople's disapproval, Janie and Tea Cake leave the town to make their way in the Florida muck, working side by side as itinerant farm hands.

During a hurricane and flood, Tea Cake saves Janie from a mad dog, but gets bitten himself. Tea Cake later develops fulminant rabies and is too late to receive effective treatment. Tea Cake turns on Janie and she must defend herself. The novel closes back in the frame of telling the story to Phoeby, of teaching Phoeby about love: "Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore." Janie, reflective, mature, and strong, has gained wisdom from her life and suffering.

Commentary This complex, rich, and remarkable novel was written in 1937 by a remarkable woman. Hurston was a novelist, folklorist and anthropologist--her interest in language and culture are abundant in the multiple dialects and voices used in the text. Although the novel was sharply criticized shortly after publication and went out of print, it was rediscovered in the late 1960s and is now popular in literature and black studies courses.

Janie was an unusual protagonist for her time--black, female, independent and strong. The section concerning her loving care of Tea Cake after he was bitten by a rabid dog is both tender and epic--tender in her love and concern and steadfastness, epic in her suffering and pain and resultant growth.

Publisher Harper & Row (New York)
Edition 1990
Miscellaneous First published: 1937
Annotated by Shafer, Audrey
Date of Entry 7/22/97
Last Modified 5/31/99

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