Places: Their Eyes Were Watching God

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1937

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Bildungsroman

Time of work: Around 1900

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places DiscussedWest Florida

West Their Eyes Were Watching GodFlorida. Region in which Janie Crawford spends the early years of her life. The initial part of the novel is set in her maternal grandmother’s house and charts Janie’s coming into womanhood. Janie has been raised by her maternal grandmother Nanny who fled slavery with her infant daughter and later migrated to West Florida with her employers, the Washburn family. With the Washburns’ assistance, Nanny purchases her own home so that she can properly raise and protect Janie from derision following the tragic rape and subsequent disappearance of her mother Leafy. On a particular spring afternoon, Janie experiences her budding sexuality beneath a blooming pear tree as a bee enters the inner sanctum of a pear blossom in the act of pollination.

When Nanny spies Janie kissing the shiftless Johnny Taylor, she immediately arranges for young Janie to marry Logan Killicks, a much older man who owns a house and some property, so that Janie will be protected from men whom Nanny fears will take advantage of her granddaughter. While Janie objects to this marriage, she nevertheless tries to make the best of it for awhile, until it becomes quite clear that she will never be able to live for herself in these circumstances. Thus West Florida becomes associated with her grandmother’s dream and Logan Killicks’s dream but not her own dream. When Janie meets Joe Starks, a traveler from Georgia, she walks out of her marriage with Killicks and casts her lot with Joe to pursue the far horizon.


*Eatonville. All-black town in central Florida just north of Orlando near Maitland. Janie comes here with her new husband Joe in pursuit of the horizon. When they arrive in Eatonville, Joe is disappointed with the place. Through Joe’s energy and foresight Eatonville is soon transformed into a thriving town, but as the years pass Janie discovers once again that this is not the place of her dreams, but of Joe’s. She becomes alienated from the townspeople and forbidden to participate in any of the community’s rituals. In addition, as a woman in a male-dominated world Janie is oppressed, as evidenced by her being forced to wear her hair tied up and by the brutal way that Joe verbally humiliates her in the presence of the men of the town. When Joe dies of a lingering illness, Janie is liberated. Soon she meets a considerably younger man, Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods. Finally deciding that widowhood and life in Eatonville are too confining, she follows Tea Cake to Jacksonville where they marry.

De muck

De muck. Name for the portion of the Florida Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee near Clewiston and Belle Glade. The name is derived from the rich black soil that grew lush vegetation. It represents a certain earthiness, a certain carpe diem spirit, as Janie and Tea Cake quit Jacksonville to live and work among the hordes of migrant workers. Like the weeds and vegetables, Janie flourishes in this locale among the folk with a man who loves her for who she is. Thus de muck represents the horizon for Janie, a place where she can finally realize the fullness of life and live out her dreams. Unfortunately this bliss is short-lived, for in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane, Janie is tried and acquitted for killing Tea Cake in a tragic act of self-defense. After she buries him in a lavish ceremony, Janie returns to her home in Eatonville where she intends to grow old.

BibliographyBloom, Harold, ed. Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”: Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of selections and essays on the novel written by critics of African American literature. Bloom’s introduction places the novel in the world tradition of novels and discounts its role in the genealogy of African American writing. Bloom argues as well that Hurston’s writing transcends the limitations of feminist and racial political ideologies.Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2002. Detailed biography of Hurston, covering her personal and professional lives and relating them to the major historical events through which she lived.Callahan, John F. “’Mah Tongue Is in Mah Friend’s Mouf’: The Rhetoric of Intimacy and Immensity in Their Eyes Were Watching God. ” In In the African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Callahan’s essay examines the most controversial aspect of Hurston’s novel, the role of narrative voice in the telling of Janie’s story. He emphasizes the novel’s utilization of African American folk forms of storytelling, which promote a democratic conception of culture.Cooke, Michael G. “Solitude: The Beginnings of Self-Realization in Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.” In Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Cooke highlights the movement from materialism to self-fulfillment in the work of three very different African American writers.Davies, Kathleen. “Zora Neale Hurston’s Poetics of Embalmment: Articulating the Rage of Black Women and Narrative Self-Defense.” African American Review 26 (Spring, 1992): 147-160. Davies argues that Hurston’s own relationships with abusive men are glossed over in her biography and the novel by her reliance on the ideology of love.Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. The standard biography of Hurston; helped to establish her as a major writer. Includes material on her life as well as critical analyses of her novels and other work.Hurston, Zora Neale. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Edited by Carla Kaplan. New York: Doubleday, 2002. A collection of more than five hundred letters, annotated and arranged chronologically.Woodson, Jon. “Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Marie Grubbe. ” African American Review 26 (Winter, 1992): 619-636. Woodson traces the similarities in the plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Fru Marie Grubbe (1876). He argues that Hurston turns the basic plot in Jacobsen’s tragic novel into the affirmative plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God in order to counteract the negative stereotypes of women in fiction.Wright, Richard. “Between Laughter and Tears.” New Masses 25 (October 5, 1937): 22, 25. A diatribe against Their Eyes Were Watching God by the soon-to-be-famous African American novelist. Wright accuses Hurston of contributing to almost every stereotype concerning African Americans and also accuses her of accommodating her wealthy white audience.
Categories: Places