Published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God is Zora Neale Hurston's second and most accomplished novel. Conveyed through prose that has an ear for the black vernacular of the rural, segregated South, the narrative revolves around the romances of its spirited protagonist, Janie Crawford, whose self-empowering journey from adolescence to adulthood is reflected in her marriages to three different men: Logan Killicks, Joe “Jody” Starks, and Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods.
Based on the hardships she had to endure as a slave, Nanny, Janie's grandmother, demands that Janie settle down with a mate who, above all, can offer her social stability and financial security. Nanny pushes Janie to marry the older Killicks because he is relatively well-off and owns 60 acres of farmland. But when Killicks makes it clear to Janie that he prefers to relate to her as a farmhand rather than as a wife, she wastes no time leaving him for Starks, the stylish city slicker who initially sweeps her off her feet. Starks proves that he too can neither fathom nor value Janie's desire, however: his upwardly mobile ambitions leave her confined to the general store he owns and out of public life in Eatonville. Starks's fragile self-image is so hurt by Janie's decision to talk back to him in public one day that he falls ill and eventually dies.
After these two lackluster marriages, Janie refuses to compromise her happiness for anyone or any degree of socioeconomic status and determines to follow her own desire. In the vibrant wandering blues musician, Tea Cake, Janie finds a lover who fulfills her deepest emotional, psychological, and sexual longings. Their mutually satisfying relationship is nurtured by the colorful folk who populate the “muck” of the Everglades. But at the height of the couple's shared happiness, tragedy strikes when a rabid dog bites Tea Cake as he rescues Janie from flooding caused by a hurricane. Tea Cake's subsequent descent into madness forces Janie to kill him in self-defense. She is tried for his murder but is acquitted of all charges.
Hurston's novel is widely regarded as a landmark text in black women's writing and African American letters more generally not only for its representation of a resilient female protagonist who seeks to fulfill her desire on her own terms but also for its situating Janie's quest within the rich historical and cultural contexts of black life in rural Florida. Thus, what starts off as a personal journey toward self-fulfillment and happiness turns into a romantic allegory about the fortitude and life-affirming character of African American communities conditioned but never exhausted by poverty, racism, and gender inequality. That Tea Cake's death is memorialized in the dialogic structure of the narrative itself, with Janie recounting her tale to her Eatonville “kissin’-friend,” Pheoby Watson, implies Hurston's own desire to imagine a full and complex black love in the midst of personal injury and collective struggle. (See also African American Novel)
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