Their Eyes Were Watching God

AUTHOR: Zora Neale Hurston


Their Eyes Were Watching God: Summary, Plot, Characters, Literary Analysis & More

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a novel by Zora Neale Hurston, first published in 1937.

This literary masterpiece stands as one of Hurston’s greatest critical and popular successes. Set against the backdrop of the Harlem Renaissance, The novel chronicles the life of Janie Crawford, an African-American woman living in the early 20th century.

The novel delves into the complexities of Janie’s journey, from her youthful dreams of love and self-discovery to her marriages with Joe Starks and Tea Cake.

Throughout the narrative, Hurston explores themes of love, self-realization, and the unique challenges faced by black women in a society marked by racism and gender inequality.

As we embark on this literary journey, we will follow Janie’s evolving relationships, her pursuit of personal happiness, and her encounters with a vibrant African-American community in an all-black town.

This novel is a profound exploration of identity, cultural heritage, and the blossoming of a woman’s inner strength, all framed within the rich tapestry of African-American culture during a transformative era in American history.

"Their Eyes Were Watching God" invokes themes of spirituality, human agency, and the collective African-American experience.

The Plot

This poignant narrative follows the life journey of Janie Crawford, an African-American woman in the early 20th century.

The story begins with Janie’s marriage to Logan Killicks, arranged by her grandmother, Nanny. However, this loveless marriage prompts Janie to seek love and fulfillment elsewhere.

Her next marriage is to Joe Starks, a charismatic man who becomes the mayor of an all-black town. Janie initially feels stifled in this role, but she eventually finds her voice and asserts her individuality.

The turning point in Janie’s life comes when she meets Tea Cake, a younger man who sweeps her off her feet. They move to South Florida, where they experience both the joys and hardships of their relationship.

As the plot unfolds, Janie’s journey to self-discovery and empowerment takes center stage, and her relationships with these three men shape her understanding of love, identity, and the African-American experience during the Harlem Renaissance.

The novel explores themes of love, gender roles, and racial dynamics within the African-American community, all against the backdrop of a changing society.


We encounter a diverse cast of characters whose lives intertwine in the intricate tapestry of “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

Each character possesses a unique perspective and influence on the protagonist, Janie Crawford, shaping her experiences and decisions.

From the watchful gaze of Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, to the towering presence of Joe Starks as the town’s mayor, and the magnetic allure of Tea Cake, these characters serve as mirrors reflecting Janie’s evolving identity and the complex dynamics within the African-American community during the Harlem Renaissance.

Their actions and interactions propel the narrative forward, revealing the multifaceted facets of love, ambition, and self-discovery that define Janie’s journey.

Janie Crawford

Janie is the central character and protagonist of the novel.

Her journey from a loveless marriage to Logan Killicks to her transformative relationships with Joe Starks and Tea Cake is a reflection of her evolving sense of self and pursuit of happiness.

Her resilience, growth, and quest for self-realization make her a compelling and relatable character.


Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, plays a pivotal role in the story by arranging her marriage to Logan Killicks.

Nanny’s actions stem from a desire to provide Janie with security, reflecting the generational differences and the evolving role of women in the African-American community during the early 20th century.

Tea Cake

Tea Cake is the embodiment of youthful love and adventure in Janie’s life.

Their passionate and tumultuous relationship in South Florida is a testament to his free-spirited nature and the impact he has on Janie’s growth. Tea Cake’s character also symbolizes the vitality of the Harlem Renaissance era.

Joe Starks

Joe, who becomes the mayor of an all-black town, represents ambition and authority.

His marriage to Janie initially offers her status and security but ultimately reveals the constraints and gender dynamics within their relationship. Joe’s character highlights themes of power and control in the story.

Nanny’s Vision

Nanny’s vision for Janie’s future and the pressures she places on her granddaughter to marry for security and social status are significant.

It underscores the generational divide and the tension between traditional expectations and Janie’s desire for love and self-fulfillment.

Harlem Renaissance

The era itself is a character in the narrative, influencing the characters’ aspirations, identities, and opportunities.

It serves as a backdrop for the story’s exploration of African-American culture, art, and societal change during this transformative period in history.

Key Themes

The themes in this novel encompass a range of complex and interwoven concepts that illuminate the human experience and the African-American journey during the Harlem Renaissance.

These themes collectively contribute to the depth and richness of “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” offering readers a profound exploration of the human condition and the African American experience during a pivotal period in American history.

These themes include:

Love and Relationships

The novel explores various forms of love, from traditional marriages to passionate romances, reflecting the complexities of human connections and the desire for genuine affection.

Gender and Power

Janie’s experiences with male dominance and the struggle for equality underscore the theme of gender roles and power dynamics within relationships.

Racial Identity

The story delves into the complexities of racial identity, as characters navigate their place within a racially segregated society and seek to define themselves on their own terms.

Genres in Their Eyes Were Watching God

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” defies easy categorization, blending multiple literary genres to create a unique narrative.

Zora Neale Hurston skillfully weaves elements of the novel, bildungsroman, and African-American literature into a singular work that reflects the diverse experiences of its characters.

Each genre weaves together to create a narrative tapestry that captures the complexities of identity, love, and empowerment within the African-American experience during a transformative period in history. Also, each genre contributes to the story’s depth:


The bildungsroman aspect focuses on Janie’s personal growth and journey to self-realization, following her from youthful innocence to maturity and wisdom.

African-American Literature

Rooted in African-American culture, the novel embraces themes of race, identity, and community, making it an essential contribution to the African-American literary tradition.

Language used in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston’s writing style in “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a lyrical and evocative one, skillfully capturing the atmosphere and emotions that permeate the narrative.

Her prose carries a unique cadence that mirrors the rhythm of life in the African-American communities of the early 20th century.

Through her words, readers can feel the tension and despair when phrases like “shoot Janie” are uttered, or the bittersweetness when Nanny arranges Janie’s marriage.

Hurston’s language artfully conveys Janie’s awakening as she realizes her own desires and aspirations. When Janie marries Tea Cake, the prose takes on a celebratory and passionate tone, echoing their love.

Moreover, Hurston’s vivid descriptions and character interactions illuminate the rich tapestry of African-American culture and heritage.

When tragedy strikes with Tea Cake’s death, the language evokes the profound sorrow and loss that Janie experiences.

Overall, Hurston’s language in the novel is a testament to her literary prowess, immersing readers in the world of Janie Crawford and the emotional landscapes she traverses.

Literary devices in Their Eyes Were Watching God

In “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, an array of literary devices enriches the storytelling, creating a captivating and immersive narrative.

Hurston employs vivid imagery, painting detailed pictures of characters and settings, immersing readers in the world of Janie Crawford. The novel follows the Bildungsroman genre, tracing Janie’s journey from innocence to wisdom as she navigates life’s complexities and self-discovery.

Foreshadowing builds suspense and hints at future events, while irony, social satire, and symbolism unveil layers of meaning, critiquing societal norms and exploring themes like love, identity, and ambition.

Allusions, wordplay, and double entendre enhance character depth and emphasize key ideas, while flashbacks offer insights into characters’ pasts and motivations.

Pathetic fallacy mirrors characters’ emotions through nature, enriching the emotional landscape of the story. Together, these literary devices create a multi-dimensional narrative that captures the essence of African-American life during the Harlem Renaissance and the profound journey of its protagonist, Janie Crawford.


Similes are deployed with exquisite subtlety and precision to amplify the reader’s comprehension and engagement with the narrative.

When Nanny marries Janie off to Logan Killicks, the simile, “She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree, soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun, and the panting breath of the breeze” vividly paints a picture of Janie’s longing for a life beyond her stifling marriage, using nature’s beauty as a point of comparison to emphasize her dissatisfaction.

As Janie realizes her own desires and aspirations, the simile, “The beginning of things, the making up of the bed after a while, the cooking and the washing. They were on a familiar footing now, and thoughts and feelings were more freely exchanged” highlights the shift in her relationship with Tea Cake, comparing it to the comforting routine of daily life.


In the novel, metaphors are skillfully interwoven throughout the narrative to convey deeper layers of meaning and emotions, enriching the reader’s understanding of the story.

The metaphor of Janie “flirting with Johnny Taylor” is a symbol of her youthful curiosity and innocence, as she begins to explore the world of romantic attraction. Johnny Taylor, representing the allure of forbidden love, becomes a metaphor for Janie’s longing for a more exciting and fulfilling life outside her first marriage.

The recurring metaphor of “killing Janie” (like when Logan threatens to kill Janie with an axe) reflects the oppressive nature of societal norms and the desire to suppress her individuality and aspirations.

As Janie falls, both literally and metaphorically, the metaphor underscores her vulnerability and the challenges she faces on her journey to self-discovery.

Janie’s return to Eatonville becomes a metaphorical homecoming, representing her search for a sense of belonging and a place where she can be her true self.

Tea Cake’s fall serves as a metaphor for his ultimate sacrifice to protect Janie, highlighting the depth of his love and commitment. The act of saving Janie becomes a metaphor for Tea Cake’s unwavering devotion and the transformative power of love.

Janie’s journey to finally protect and assert herself is metaphorically depicted as a triumphant realization of her own worth and agency.

In “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” these metaphors contribute to the novel’s rich tapestry, allowing readers to delve into the characters’ inner worlds and the profound themes of love, self-discovery, and the African American experience during the Harlem Renaissance.


Analogies are skillfully employed to convey complex ideas and emotions, aiding readers in grasping the depth of the characters’ experiences and transformations.

The analogy of Janie “flirting like a bee around a honeypot” evokes a vivid image of her youthful curiosity and attraction, likening her to a bee drawn to sweetness. This analogy helps readers understand her desire for romance and adventure.

As Janie returns to Eatonville after her journey, her homecoming is likened to “a long pulled tooth,” capturing the mixed emotions of relief and pain associated with returning to her roots. This analogy underscores the complexity of her relationship with her hometown.

Tea Cake’s fall, both metaphorical and literal, is analogous to the fall of a hero, highlighting the tragic nature of his sacrifice and its emotional impact on Janie.

Janie’s journey to finally speak her truth can be analogized to a locked door being opened, signifying her newfound voice and agency.

The analogy of Janie seeking herself like a treasure emphasizes the importance of self-discovery and self-worth in her journey.

By incorporating these analogies, Hurston enhances the reader’s understanding of the characters’ emotional landscapes and the multifaceted themes of identity, love, and empowerment within the African-American experience during the Harlem Renaissance.


The vivid imagery in the novel serves as a powerful tool to create sensory experiences that immerse readers in the world of the characters and their emotions. When Janie begins her journey, the imagery paints a picture of a blank canvas, allowing readers to envision her life as an open book waiting to be written.

Expectations surrounding Janie are vividly depicted, with imagery that evokes a sense of anticipation and curiosity, as the townsfolk eagerly await her return, highlighting the communal nature of the story.

Janie’s inner world and emotions are brought to life through detailed imagery, allowing readers to feel the heat, smell the fragrances, and experience the intense passion and longing that characterize her journey.

The title itself, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” employs striking imagery, suggesting a divine and omnipresent observer, hinting at the theme of spirituality and the interconnectedness of life.

Janie’s explanations and storytelling are enriched by imagery, providing readers with a sensory understanding of her experiences and the complexities of her relationships.

Through these rich sensory experiences, Hurston’s vivid imagery deepens the reader’s emotional connection to the characters and enhances the storytelling, making “Their Eyes Were Watching God” a rich and immersive literary experience.


Janie’s hair, an emblem of her identity, symbolizes her autonomy and defiance of societal norms. Its evolving styles throughout the novel reflect her journey toward self-realization.

Jody Starks, embodying ambition and control, symbolizes the confinement of women within traditional roles. His death symbolizes Janie’s liberation from oppressive relationships and the pursuit of her authentic self.

Janie’s marriages to Logan Killicks and Jody Starks represent societal pressures on women to conform. They symbolize her early struggles to assert her identity, while her relationship with Tea Cake symbolizes her pursuit of genuine love and personal fulfillment.

The horizon, recurring as a symbol of possibility and dreams, represents Janie’s unyielding pursuit of happiness and self-actualization.

The pear tree, where Janie has a transformative revelation, symbolizes her yearning for love, connection, and a life free from societal constraints.

These symbols intricately weave throughout the narrative, enhancing readers’ understanding of complex themes such as gender roles, individuality, love, and the African American experience during the Harlem Renaissance.


When Nanny tells Janie about the sacrifices she made in the past, the personification of Nanny’s decisions as if they “sat down in her heart” personifies the weight of Nanny’s choices, allowing readers to empathize with her character’s struggles and sacrifices.

The idea of killing Tea Cake personified as a threat lurking in the shadows, heightens the suspense and tension, making the reader share Janie’s apprehensions and fears.

Janie’s growth is personified as she “blossoms like a flower,” emphasizing her transformation from a sheltered young woman into a self-assured individual. This personification adds depth to her character and highlights her journey of self-discovery.

The concept of love, personified as a force that “pulled Janie to her feet,” accentuates the power of love in shaping Janie’s choices and her relationships with others.

Jody’s death, personified as “the cold fire” within him being extinguished, vividly portrays the end of his oppressive reign, providing insight into Janie’s emotional liberation.

The recurring image of the “black woman” personifies the collective experience of African-American women during the era, uniting their stories and struggles into a powerful symbol.

Janie telling her story to Pheoby, personified as “putting her story to the world,” highlights the importance of narrative and self-expression in Janie’s journey.

Personification in the novel elevates the characters and setting, infusing them with vivid emotions and deeper meanings, enriching the reader’s engagement with the story and its themes.


When Tea Cake falls victim to rabies, the hyperbole of his “madness being like a hurricane” amplifies the intensity of the situation, creating a sense of chaos and urgency as Janie grapples with his deteriorating condition.

Janie’s final realization of her own worth and agency is marked by hyperbole, describing her newfound sense of self as “a revelation as vast as the sun.” This exaggeration underscores the magnitude of her personal growth and transformation.

As Janie finally speaks her truth, the hyperbolic imagery of her voice “drowning out the clamor of the world” underscores the significance of her self-expression in a society that has long stifled her voice.

The hyperbolic description of Janie “kissing the horizon” when she seeks her dreams underscores her determination and the grandeur of her aspirations.

In these instances, hyperbole serves as a literary device that intensifies the emotions and emphasizes the significance of key moments in Janie’s quest for self-discovery and empowerment.


In “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, various types of irony are strategically employed to add depth and complexity to the narrative.

A notable example is when Janie is forced to marry Logan Killicks.

This situation is marked by dramatic irony, as readers are aware of Janie’s reluctance and lack of love for Logan, while the characters around her remain oblivious to her true feelings. This irony creates tension and anticipation as the story unfolds.


The contrast between what society expects of Janie and what she feels within herself is a recurring juxtaposition. Society expects her to conform to traditional gender roles, but her internal desires and feelings diverge from these expectations, creating a thought-provoking tension.

Janie’s explanations of her experiences serve to juxtapose her internal world against the external world’s judgments and norms. This juxtaposition underscores the complexity of her journey, highlighting the stark disparities between societal expectations and her authentic self.

Through these juxtapositions, Hurston invites readers to reflect on the societal norms that shape individuals and the inner conflicts that arise when one’s true self defies those expectations.


Paradoxical situations abound. One such paradox is Janie’s realization that true love and self-discovery often require breaking societal norms and expectations.

Her journey to find herself and experience genuine love is paradoxical because it necessitates going against conventional wisdom and societal norms to achieve personal fulfillment.

Another paradox lies in the title itself, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” where the divine is portrayed as an observer rather than a participant in human lives, challenging traditional notions of spirituality and human agency.


The novel contains a significant allusion to God in its title, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.”

This allusion underscores the theme of spirituality and the idea that life is being observed and judged by a higher power or an external force.

The act of “playing checkers” between the characters symbolizes the power struggles and strategic moves within their relationships. The mention of a “light-skinned black woman” alludes to the complexities of racial identity and the colorism prevalent in African-American communities.

These allusions contribute to the novel’s exploration of cultural and societal dynamics during the Harlem Renaissance.


The phrase “They got tuh go tuh God,” often used in the novel, serves as an allegorical expression of the characters’ deep faith and spiritual connection.

It symbolizes the characters’ reliance on divine guidance and reflects the broader theme of spirituality and the African-American religious experience during the Harlem Renaissance.

Janie’s journey, as she finds herself, experiences loss, attends Jody’s funeral and reflects on her life, can be seen as an allegory for the broader African-American experience during a transformative period in history.

Her personal growth and the challenges she faces parallel the collective struggles and resilience of the African-American community, particularly black women, in the face of societal constraints and racial discrimination.

Hurston’s use of allegory enriches the narrative by providing a symbolic layer that resonates with larger cultural and historical contexts, making “Their Eyes Were Watching God” a profound exploration of identity, agency, and spirituality within the African American experience.


In the novel ekphrasis is not a prominent feature, but there are instances where vivid descriptions evoke imagery akin to works of art.

When Janie first meets Tea Cake, she perceives him as a canvas where “God had hung the sun and moon and stars,” likening him to a celestial masterpiece.

This description paints a vivid picture of Tea Cake’s allure and charm, using ekphrasis to convey his magnetic appeal.


While onomatopoeic words are not prevalent in the novel, there are subtle instances where they add an auditory dimension to the narrative.

When Janie thinks about her life with Logan Killicks, she describes it as “a mule of the world,” employing onomatopoeia to evoke the sound of labor and to emphasize the burdensome nature of her marriage.

Another example is when Janie learns about the concept of love, comparing it to a “song in the world,” using onomatopoeia to associate love with a melodious and harmonious sound. These instances infuse the narrative with auditory imagery, enriching the reader’s sensory experience.


In “Their Eyes Were Watching God”, puns are not prominently featured, but there are moments where they subtly add humor or double meanings.

During Tea Cake’s funeral, when discussing his young age and his departure from life, the phrase “He done beat the Devil” is used.

This pun plays on the idea of beating the Devil in a game of life and death, adding a touch of humor to the solemn occasion while also conveying the community’s perspective on his passing.


Repetition is used strategically in the novel to emphasize themes and emotional impact. The phrase “African Americans” is repeated to underscore the significance of the African-American experience during the Harlem Renaissance.

The repetition of “young man” during the description of Turner’s brother highlights the contrast between youth and old age, a theme present throughout the novel.

The recurrence of “play checkers” underscores the importance of communal activities in the lives of the characters, symbolizing unity and camaraderie. Repetition serves as a literary device that reinforces key themes and adds depth to the narrative.

The Use of Dialogue

In “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, dialogue serves as a potent tool for conveying character traits, exploring themes, and building narrative tension. Janie’s conversations with various characters, such as Nanny, Jody, and Tea Cake, reveal her evolving character and desires.

Through dialogue, the novel delves into themes of love, identity, and agency, with characters expressing their perspectives and desires through their conversations.

The tension within these dialogues, especially in moments like Janie’s confrontations with Jody, adds depth to the narrative and underscores the conflicts and power dynamics at play in the story.

Word Play

While wordplay techniques like puns and double entendre are not extensively used in the novel, Hurston’s writing is rich in figurative language and metaphorical expressions.

For instance, when Janie explains her experiences, her words are often imbued with metaphorical meaning, adding layers to her narrative. The metaphor “to kill Tea Cake” alludes to the complexity of their relationship, with layers of meaning beyond the literal.


In “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, instances of parallelism are woven into the narrative to enhance its structure and convey its messages.

One such example is the repetition of the phrase “livin’ fuh theyselves,” which underscores the theme of individuality and personal agency.

This parallelism emphasizes the characters’ pursuit of self-fulfillment amidst societal expectations.

Rhetorical Devices

The novel employs rhetorical devices to create a persuasive effect and engage readers in its themes. While not prominent, rhetorical questions are occasionally used to provoke thought and reflection.

For instance, when discussing love and marriage, the characters raise rhetorical questions about the nature of relationships and personal fulfillment.

These devices encourage readers to consider the characters’ dilemmas and the broader societal context, ultimately enhancing the novel’s thematic depth and encouraging critical engagement with its messages.

Their Eyes Were Watching God: FAQs

Explore commonly asked questions about “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in this section. Find answers to queries about the novel’s themes, characters, literary devices, and more.

What is the story the eyes were watching God about?

The novel is about Janie Crawford’s journey to find love and self-identity, set against the backdrop of societal and racial expectations.

Why was Their Eyes Were Watching God so important?

The novel is important for its portrayal of African-American women’s experiences, its exploration of love, and its impact on African-American literature.

What lessons does Their Eyes Were Watching God teach?

It teaches lessons about self-discovery, the importance of individuality, and the complexities of love and relationships in the face of societal norms and expectations.

Summing up: Their Eyes Were Watching God: Summary, Plot & More

In “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston, we embark on a profound journey with Janie Crawford, a character whose quest for self-discovery and genuine love mirrors the broader struggles of African-American women during the Harlem Renaissance.

The novel’s narrative intricately weaves together themes of identity, love, societal expectations, and personal agency.

Janie’s marriages to Logan Killicks and Jody Starks serve as powerful symbols of the constraints placed on women within traditional gender roles, while her relationship with Tea Cake represents her pursuit of authentic love and self-realization.

The title, “Their Eyes Were Watching God,” invokes themes of spirituality, human agency, and the collective African-American experience.

Throughout the novel, literary devices such as symbolism, allegory, and rich imagery add depth and complexity to the narrative.

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” endures as a timeless classic, not only for its literary craftsmanship but also for its exploration of universal themes that continue to captivate and inspire readers, making it a must-read for anyone seeking a profound and emotionally resonant literary experience.

Other Notable Works by Zora Neale Hurston

If you are interested in “Their Eyes Were Watching God” you may be interested in other works by Zora Neale Hurston including:

  • “Jonah’s Gourd Vine” (1934) – A novel that explores themes of marriage and social dynamics within the African American community.
  • “Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica” (1938) – An anthropological study of Voodoo practices and Caribbean culture.
  • “Dust Tracks on a Road” (1942) – An autobiography that offers insights into Hurston’s life, experiences, and literary journey.
  • “Seraph on the Suwanee” (1948) – A novel exploring the lives of poor white characters in the American South, showcasing Hurston’s versatility as a writer.

These works not only provide further insights into Hurston’s literary talent but also offer a deeper understanding of African-American culture, folklore, and the complex social dynamics of the time.

"Their Eyes Were Watching God" explores themes of love, gender roles, and racial dynamics within the African-American community, all against the backdrop of a changing society.