Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God: Summary & Analysis

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  • 0:08 Zora Neale Hurston
  • 1:05 Synopsis
  • 3:14 Gender
  • 4:36 Race
  • 6:34 Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Natalie Boyd

Natalie is a teacher and holds an MA in English Education and is in progress on her PhD in psychology.

Zora Neale Hurston's novel 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' is a famous Harlem Renaissance novel that examines race and gender issues through the eyes of its main character, Janie Crawford. This lesson gives a synopsis of the novel and examines how it approaches race and gender.

Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was an anthropologist and writer during the Harlem Renaissance. The Harlem Renaissance was a time when many African-American writers and artists thrived. They offered a new view of the experiences of Black Americans through their art and writing.

Zora Neale Hurston was born and raised in the southern part of the United States. She was born in Alabama but moved to Florida when she was very young. She loved literature, and her quest to understand people, as well as the way cultures develop, led her to New York City, where she studied anthropology at Barnard College, the sister school to Columbia University.

Hurston was a writer and anthropologist
Zora Neale Hurston

At the time Hurston was studying anthropology, the Harlem Renaissance was in full swing, and its center was in Harlem, just ten blocks north of Barnard. Hurston began writing about African-American culture and quickly became a celebrated member of the Harlem Renaissance when her story 'Spunk' was included in the famous collection The New Negro.

Hurston's views of life as an African-American woman can be seen in her most famous work, the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Synopsis

Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Janie Crawford, whose life is a quest to find true love. Janie narrates the story of her three marriages and her search for love to her friend Phoeby.

When Janie is young, her grandmother sets her up with a man named Logan Killicks, who becomes Janie's first husband. Logan treats Janie like a child and expects her to meekly obey him. But Janie is strong willed and refuses. When Logan threatens to kill Janie, she runs away with Joe Starks, a handsome and charming man.

Joe and Janie move to Eatonville, Florida, which was the first all-black town in America, and the place where Zora Neale Hurston spent most of her childhood. Janie thinks that she might be happy for the first time. But Joe, like Logan, has very rigid definitions of gender roles and expects Janie to support him and not argue with him. Janie is too outspoken for this, and she and Joe have a rocky relationship. Joe eventually dies, leaving Janie independent.

After Joe dies, Janie falls in love with a man named Tea Cake. They get married and move to the everglades of Florida. Janie finally has the love that she has longed for, and she and Tea Cake are happy, despite the fact that they're both occasionally jealous of each other. When a hurricane hits, though, things take a darker turn. A rabid dog attacks Janie, and when he tries to save her, Tea Cake gets bitten by the dog and contracts rabies. As a result, he begins to go mad, and he eventually tries to shoot Janie. She kills him in self-defense and is put on trial for murder.

At the trial, Tea Cake's black male friends show up to condemn Janie, but a group of white women from the town show up to defend her. The all-white jury sets her free, and she returns to Eatonville, where she meets up with her friend Phoeby and tells her life story.

Gender in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Hurston challenged stereotypes about black women in her work
Black Stereotypes

Gender roles are a central part in Their Eyes Were Watching God. In the book, women are expected to be good little wives and not speak up or disobey their husbands. They can gain power only through marriage, preferably to a rich and/or powerful man. Men are expected to demonstrate their masculinity by dominating their wives and keeping them in line. Both of these attitudes were common in the time that Hurston was writing.

However, Janie does not fit into the role that is given to her as a woman. She is outspoken and headstrong and impetuous. She follows her heart and paves her own way. She is in constant conflict with her first two husbands because of this; they want her to fit into their idea of what a good woman is, and she wants to break out of the stereotypes of women.

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