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Their Eyes Were Watching God

A novel by Zora Neale Hurston

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"Aw, don't make God look so foolish -- findin' fault wid everything He made"

  • Dec 20, 2010

This is the story of Janie Mae Crawford. Her mother had been born on a plantation near Savannah in 1864, "with gray eyes and yaller hair" (Ch. 2). Janie Mae's grandfather was Marse Robert and his son, her half-uncle, had fallen at Chickamauga. As soon as the Master rode off to drive Sherman back from Atlanta into Tennessee, the Mistress threatened to whip Janie Mae's grandmother ("Granny") for bearing a baby that looked white. Slave mother and daughter then fled into the woods and a few months later were freed by Union armies. 


Granny went to work for "some good white people" and moved with them to West Florida. They were fond of and very kind to Granny's child, saw that she was educated and well cared for. At age 17, this girl was raped by a school teacher who may have been white. So around 1882 Janie Mae entered the world. Her raped mother soon went to pieces and disappeared from Janie's life forever. She was raised by Granny until close to the end of the 19th Century and then pressured by failing Granny into marriage with very black Logan Killicks, owner of 60 acres and a house.

Janie waited for love to begin, but it never did. She explained to Granny:

"His belly is too big too, now, and his toe-nails look lak mule foots. And 'tain't nothin' in de way of washin' his feet every evening before he comes tuh bed. ... Ah'd ruther be shot wid tacks dan tuh turn over in de bed and stir up de air whilst he be in dere. ... She began to cry" (Ch. 3).


Janie Mae Killicks did more than cry. She up and ran off with Joe Starks, "a cityfied, stylish dressed man with his hat set at an angle that didn't belong in these parts." Joe was passing through from Georgia into the new part of Florida to make something of himself in an all Negro community. So off the couple went down south and were married without Jamie bothering with a divorce.

In a short time, Joe got Eatonville incorporated and became its mayor, postmaster and major property owner. When he died years later he left his widow, Janie Mae Starks with a house, a store and $1,200 in the bank. Still he had not made Janie happy. He excluded her from social gatherings with his dark friends and put her on an exalted social pedestal. She made only one good friend during her 20 years in Eatonville, her neighbor Mrs Pheoby Watson.


The nub of THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD is the story that Janie tells Pheoby on the evening she returns to Eatonville in the early 1920s from not very many months in the Everglades near Lake Okeechobee. Jamie Mae is now Mrs Vergible Woods, widow of an irrepressible black man known to one and all as Tea Cake.

With Tea Cake, eleven years her junior, Janie finally found happiness and equality in marriage. They went through a hurricane together, during which Tea Cake was bitten by a huge rabid hound. Tea Cake taught Janie to shoot pistols and rifles. Whenever they were short of ready cash, Tea Cake won what they needed by shooting dice or playing cards. In the Everglades they joined other migrant bean pickers and made a good living.


The only serious irritant in the married life of very dark Tea Cake and very light Janie came from Mrs Turner, a neighboring colored woman who ran a very good restaurant on the edge of the Everglades. She hated black skins, worshipped everything white and found fault with everything that blacker people than she did, especially Tea Cake. She wanted Janie to leave Tea Cake and marry her brother.

Once when Mrs Turner was reviling black folks and their carrying-ons at the local juke, Tea Cake snapped:

"Aw, don't make God look so foolish -- findin' fault wid everything He made" (Ch. 16).


Beyond the bare story just sketched, THEIR EYES WERE ON GOD is linguistically exciting. It is also a partnership between distinguished New Negro/Harlem Renaissance author and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston and fictional Janie Mae and her equally fictional friend Pheoby Watson, who draws out and hears the story of Janie's lifelong search for contentment and love. 


At novel's end Janie shares important conclusions with her best friend:

"Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo' papa and yo' mama and nobody else can't tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves" (Ch. 20).

To which I can only say, "Amen, Sister!"


If you would rather find Janie Mae on screen rather than on pages, you can view THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD via netflix.com. Produced by Oprah Winfrey and released in 2005, this made for TV film stars Halle Berry as Janie. What more needs saying?



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More Their Eyes Were Watching God reviews
review by . July 07, 2010
Their Eyes Were Watching God      I had the pleasure of reading this book in one of my high school as well as one of my college English classes.  I believe that Zora Neale Hurston did an amazing job with portraying the life of the main character, Janie, who went from being a young innocent teenager to a mature and worldly woman by the end of the book.      The book mainly deals about Janie and her interactions with three different men that she marries …
Quick Tip by . June 26, 2010
One of my all time favorite reads. Love the dialogue. Every time I put the book down I had to read a couple of paragraphs allowed just to get my mind in the swing of the dialect. Hurston is amazing!
About the reviewer
(Thomas) Patrick Killough ()
Ranked #6
I am a retired American diplomat. Married for 47 years. My wife Mary (PhD in German and Linguistics) and I have two sons, six grandsons and two granddaughters. Our home is Highland Farms Retirement Community … more
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