By Jay Fox

Brooklyn, NY, USA


I read Nora Neal Hurston’s 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, as a standalone work. It would be wrong to describe the experience as being in a vacuum and both wrong and foolish to pretend as though the act of reading can be done objectively. However, one can attempt to read a novel, even one as intellectually fecund as Hurston’s work, without simultaneously intending to frame it within the context of the larger history of Black culture in the United States or feminism or through some other political or artistic lens. In other words, I read it as un-academically as I could. Rather than pulling quotes to advance a thesis or taking a deep dive into Hurston’s politics with respect to Soviet-style Communism or race or the work of other Black intellectuals from the era to explain some potentially illusory metaphor, what I focused on instead was reading an excellently crafted novel that breathes effortlessly despite its oscillation between two very distinct voices: A literary, third-person narrator and dialogue from a cast of Black characters from rural Florida in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.


The focus of Their Eyes Were Watching God is the character Janie Crawford, and the novel follows her from childhood through three vastly different marriages—to Logan Killicks, to Joe (“Jody”) Starks, and to Virgible (“Tea Cake”) Woods. These are not depicted in vignettes, but rather bleed from one into the other, even if Hurston’s pacing is often quite slow and episodic. She likes to give her characters a chance to speak for themselves, oftentimes at length, so that one is effectively reading in synchrony for several pages before the narrator’s voice steps in to condense a few months or years into a paragraph or two. Throughout this time, the concern is primarily Janie’s evolution as a character, but also hidden beneath this seems to be a larger metaphor about gender relations between husband and wife that may seem dated by today’s standards. Additionally, Janie’s sublimation of sexuality into love, and the sublimation of love into marriage, is another issue that seems extremely traditional and constrictive, but this was the kind of world Hurston and Janie inhabited.

Janie’s first husband, Logan, is an older man whom she marries at 17. They barely know each other even at the ceremony and any honeymoon period is short-lived. Janie’s grandmother forced the situation on her as a means of preventing her budding libido (as represented by a blossoming pear tree) from leading her astray. The marriage is more about securing a comfortable life for Janie, as Logan is one of the more well-off Black bachelors in the area. Unfortunately, Logan is emotionally distant, overly focused on working his 60 acres, and he eventually begins to resent Janie for not appreciating the hard work that he does for her. From Janie’s perspective, the relationship quickly goes from one defined by hope, to one defined by boredom, to one defined by animosity.


Before the year is out, she leaves Logan for Joe “Jody” Starks, who has what any number of Sinclair Lewis characters would have probably called “gumption” or “boosterism.” Joe Starks is an imposing presence, a man who dreams big, acts big, laughs big, and lives big. He is “a whirlwind among breezes,” who is on his way from Georgia to join an all-Black community named Eatonville (an actual place that has been subsumed by the northward sprawl of the Orlando suburbs). The two elope and they arrive in the town just before it famously becomes one of the first all-Black communities in the U.S. to incorporate (1887). Joe Starks takes the $300 in savings he has with him and quickly becomes a pillar of the community. He establishes a Post Office, opens a general store, builds a very nice house for himself, brings street lamps to the town, and eventually becomes the Mayor.


As much as he starts off as a go-getter or a doer or a hustler or whatever we would say about him if he were a flesh and blood man living in 2020, ambition eventually turns to complacency and the passion within the marriage burns out. “The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor,” Hurston writes. Furthermore, Janie never gets the opportunity to step out from behind the shadow of her husband. She may be Mrs. Joe Starks and she may know the townspeople well because she frequently works at the couple’s general store, but she doesn’t relish the work or Jody’s sense of entrepreneurialism, and she’s certainly no social butterfly. Moreover, she is not particularly good at running the store, which takes its toll on her. Even her will to get out of bed in the morning seems wanting. “Every morning the world flung itself over and exposed the town to the sunSo Janie had another day.”


Janie’s lack of enthusiasm for this life is mirrored by how much the store’s regulars pay attention to her—not that the two are casually related. When she was younger, they regularly followed her with their eyes, but after 20 years in the town married to the Mayor, few regard her with any interest—sexual or otherwise. When her age becomes something that Joe Starks attempts to ridicule in public, Janie returns the scorn in a way that both calls into question his virility and strips him of his sense of superiority over the regulars and hangers-on. The exchange turns the latent toxicity of the relationship into open hostility.


As Hurston writes:

Joe Starks realized all the meanings and his vanity bled like a flood. Janie had robbed him of his illusion of irresistible maleness that all men cherish, which was terrible. The thing that Saul’s daughter had done to David. But Janie had done worse, she had cast down his empty armor before men and they had laughed, would keep on laughing. When he paraded his possessions hereafter, they would not consider the two together. They’d look with envy at the things and pity the man that owned them. When he sat in judgment it would be the same. [….] There was nothing to do in life anymore. Ambition was useless. And the cruel deceit of Janie! Making all that show of humbleness and scorning him all the time! Laughing at him, and now putting the town up to do the same. Joe Starks didn’t know the words for all this, but he knew the feeling. So he struck Janie with all his might and drove her from the store.


Though spousal abuse within the novel doesn’t carry the same stigma as it does for most Americans today, this is a clear turning point not only for the relationship, but also for Joe Stark’s health. Soon after this episode his kidneys stop working and the whirlwind among breezes eventually becomes silent, leaving Janie a very wealthy widow who wears black but never really grieves.

Jay Fox

She remains in a state of wearing black for several months until she meets the man who will become her third husband, Virgible (“Tea Cake”) Woods. Tea Cake is playful, charming, a gambler, and over a decade younger than Janie. The courtship is short, and she soon moves to Jacksonville with him. Not long after, they leave for the bean and cane fields (“the muck”) between West Palm Beach and Lake Okeechobee. In this fertile place, Tea Cake can spend his days working the land and his nights gambling with the migrant workforce down there as they take part in the lucrative bean harvest.


Hurston’s depiction of these migrant workers is not always flattering. In one place, they’re described as “people ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor.” The next, Hurston presents the chaos of working-class life in the muck with no small amount of romanticism, describing it as, “Blues made and used right on the spot. Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour. Work all day for money, fight all night for love.” Before her first season in South Florida is finished, Janie has begun working in the fields with Tea Cake, and both become well-loved members of the community. The couple remain in the muck during the offseason and into the second season. It’s a good life of work, play, hunting, fishing, and socializing, even if they’re outwardly poor.


Before the couple get the chance to settle into a long-term routine, the 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane comes through and destroys much of South Florida, their community included. In probably the most powerful narrative section of the novel, the two trudge several miles and overcome fierce winds and rain and flooding to escape to safety. In the chaos, Tea Cake is forced to fight off a dog who is threatening Janie. During the struggle, he is bitten. Weeks later, he develops rabies (hydrophobia, delirium), begins to have a psychotic episode, and tries to murder Janie with a pistol. She is left with no choice but to kill him with a hunting rifle.


In the aftermath, she is arrested and put on trial. The all-white jury find her not guilty. She later attends Tea Cake’s funeral in her overalls because “she was too busy feeling grief to dress life grief.” Given the option of returning to the muck or Eatonville, she decides for the latter and appears back in the town where she was once Mrs. Mayor in the same overalls in which she buried Tea Cake.


From my perspective, there is a clear evolution as Janie moves from one relationship to the next. However, the guiding force behind this movement is less clear. Is it some form of self-realization on the part of Janie individually as a character or is Janie just a vessel through which Hurston is showing something else entirely? Is it about both? I was never sure.


Through the second half of the novel, I wanted to assume that Janie was growing as a person, but I also recognized that the desire to impute an arc of personal evolution onto a character is something that we want to do, even if this is not the author’s intention. There seem to be clues that Hurston was not pushing for this reading. More importantly, if we do not assume that Janie is experiencing some kind of personal growth or becoming more self-realized, and rather view her as a figure that primarily reacts to the world around her, it does not seem as though she has evolved, even when Tea Cake and she are in the muck. It is no coincidence that Logan and Tea Cake have essentially the same take on the matter of where Janie’s station in life is:


Logan: “You ain’t got no particular place. It’s wherever Ah need yuh. Git uh move on yuh, and dat quick.”


Tea Cake: “Janie is wherever Ah wants tuh be. Dat’s de kind of uh wife she is and Ah love her for it.”


If Tea Cake is her true love, then love is itself cruel. More importantly, it closely resembles the worldview described by one of the least likeable characters in the novel, Mrs. Turner: “Like the pecking-order in a chicken yard. Insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can’t.” This is meant to describe worldview about racial hierarchies, but it speaks to raw power, as well, even the power of love.


Seen in this light, Janie’s experience with true love does not empower her. It shatters her. She returns as a tragic figure out of the Southern Gothic tradition having lost Tea Cake, someone with whom she shared a home and a life that was an improvement from her previous relationships, but still far from perfect. With Logan she had quickly become his cook and farmhand. With Jody she had less quickly became an accessory to bolster his political ambitions and a clerk to be exploited for his commercial ones. With Tea Cake, she had been free to follow him where he wanted to go and to be herself, but on his terms. This is an improvement, but it isn’t real freedom.


If one uses these relationships to form a historical allegory, one could see in the previous two men an attachment to not just white expectations, but the yeoman virtues of the 18th century (Logan) or the political/commercial ones of the late 19th century (Joe Starks). With Tea Cake, there is a sense of freedom, but it is limited. There is notably less attachment to both white expectations (particularly the so-called Protestant work ethic) and what would have been the dominant mark of success in the 1920s, which would have likely been the ownership of some industrial enterprise. However, as much as his thumbing of the nose at conventions and his embrace of a working-class ethos that values both work and play has a whiff of the revolutionary, these attitudes aren’t grounded in a foundation of true egalitarianism or equality and so Janie does not experience a major awakening or emerge from her shell. In such a paradigm, it is impossible for her to do so.


There are certainly other readings of this novel, some that more rigorously examine race relations and extended metaphors (like the dog), others that focus on ancillary characters like Mrs. Turner. I’ll probably continue to think about what this book means for a long while (great literature makes you do that). I will conclude, however, with one possible reading that did cross my mind.


In a place where cruelty is the currency of choice for power, and love (Eros) is considered to be as powerful as any deity, it would make sense for real love to be cruel by design. This would suggest that anyone who earnestly seeks out real love is doomed to experience some form of abuse. It would also seem to conform to the worldview of Mrs. Turner. Continuing the quote from above:


“Once having set up her idols and built altars to them it was inevitable that she would worship there. It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers,” Hurston writes. “Real gods require blood.”



Jay Fox is the author of The Walls and is a regular contributor to Stay Thirsty Magazine.

All opinions expressed are solely those of its author and do not reflect the opinions of Stay Thirsty Media, Inc.