Their Eyes Were Watching God was written by Zora Neale Hurston in 1937. Although her contemporaries did not pay much attention to the book because they believed it did not focus enough on race issues like most books written by African Americans did at the time, it's popularity was revived by another African American writer, Alice Walker, during the black movement of the 1970s.
The plot starts out after Janie Crawford telling the tale of the last twenty years of her life to her friend Pheoby. Janie begins her story by talking about her childhood. She was raised by her grandmother alongside the white children her grandmother watched over. After her grandmother catches Janie kissing a neighborhood boy, she is instructed to get married and settle down in order to have the kinds of things her mother and grandmother weren't able to have in their own lives.
Even though Janie does not want to get married, she eventually consents to her grandmother's wishes and marries Logan Killicks. After attempting to fall in love with him, Janie decides that she is not in love and this is not the kind of marriage she wants to remain in for the rest of her life. Logan does not value her opinion and makes her work hard on his farm, therefore when a well-dressed man shows up on the farm one day she makes the choice to go off with this newcomer instead of stay with Logan. She believes this is her chance for a new and better life.
The well-dressed man is Joe Starks, a dreamer who wants to help build an all African-American town called Eatonville. He becomes the Mayor of the town and expects Janie to play the role of the good wife who keeps to the background. He also believes that women should be kept to the kitchen and not be listened to. Joe becomes such a powerful presence in the town and such a big voice, that Janie is overshadowed and begins to feel as trapped in her second marriage as she did in her first one.
After Joe Starks dies, Janie meets Tea Cake, a man with a carefree attitude and a way of making her feel like a woman. For the first time, she is with a man who listens to her and loves her for who she is as a person. They move to the Everglades together, but life there is not perfect. First, they live through a hurricane. After that, disaster strikes again, when Tea Cakes is bit by a rabid dog and gets sick with rabies. Janie is forced to kill him to save herself, which leads to her being put on trial for murder. She is later found innocent of all charges. In the end, Janie is saddened by what has happened, but happy that at least she found a little love in her life after all.
Although the book focuses more on the personal life of the main character and her many attempts at falling in love, it also portrays the ways prejudice was felt and experienced through different forms of oppression including classism, racism and sexism.
Classism can be divided into two major categories: individual classism and structural classism. Individual classism is practiced by individual people when they stereotype the poor, treat them disrespectfully or make jokes about them. Structural classism takes on a much bigger role. It occurs when social institutions or practices are designed and carried out in such a way that effectively discriminates against the lower classes by excluding or marginalizing them. Both these systems of classism can be seen in Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Individual classism is seen in the beginning of the book when Janie is wearing her white friend's hand-me-downs. Even though her clothes are only hand-me-downs, they're still said to be nicer than anything the other black children have to wear. This creates a kind of stratification between Janie and the other children, with Janie obtaining a higher status because of the fancy things her white friends give her. This higher status does little to help anyone. The black children become jealous and bitter, leaving Janie to deal with their teasing and her grandmother left in such a state of remorse that they eventually move to their own land. The author begins to point out that classism exists within the black community itself during this section, something that angered her critics when this book was published. However, because Zora Neale Hurston refused to consent to a picture of the black community as people who always got along with each other and brought to light some of the differences within their social structure, some more truth about society can be gained through this piece of fiction.
Individual classism is also apparent through Janie's relationship with the three men of her life. When she marries Logan Killicks, it's solely to please her grandmother who believes he is worthy of love because of his status. As a former slave, Janie's grandmother respects owning land as a privileged reserved for high class white people. Thus, her grandmother is enamored with Logan's prospects and the fact that he owns sixty acres of land. Although Janie tries to make a life with him, she can not force herself to fall in love with him just because he is presumed to have a higher status. When Janie chooses to run away with Joe Starks because he is a well-dressed man with big prospects, she contradicts herself and her decision to not fall in love on the basis of status. Only after she lives with Joe, does Janie realize that the type of life he has to offer her as the wife of the Mayor is not what she wants either, since it sets her apart from the rest of her community. However, Joe's prejudice against the poor rubs off on her, causing Janie to see the worst in the man who would become her third and last love when she meets him. She believes Tea Cakes is only after her money after meeting him, and can not fathom enjoying the kinds of things that he does: walking, gambling or jumping trains. After Janie is able to toss her prejudice against Tea Cakes aside, she falls in love and tells him that she never enjoyed any of the things that Joe thought she should be doing because they were classy. These situations highlights another one of Zora Neale Hurston themes; that people with higher social statuses are not worthy of love or respect only because of their status, but that this esteem must be earned by those who want it by treating others fairly.
Structural classism can be seen when Joe Starks assumes position as Mayor of Eatonville. He goes through lengths to make sure that he keeps power in that town to himself by intimidating others in the town, expecting them to show him respect because of his status as Mayor. His house is highly decorated with banisters, porches and spittoons, all placed there in order to seem imposing. He achieves everything he earns by taking power from those below him, including his wife. This only serves to anger the rest of the town, as they believe he behaves “like he has a switch in his hand.” This raises a comparison between him and a white slave owner. Critics believe this part of Hurston's work shows that an African American can only gain power and financial success by acting white. In defense of her work, Hurston points out that the reader's are not to sympathize with Joe Stark's work ethics and that this part in the book shows that self improvement through putting others down is destructive to the whole community.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston also deals with issues of racism. However, her critics disagreed and said that she avoided interracial confrontations in the book and painted a picture of blacks who were happy with their lives. Langston Hughes went as far as to say that her white sponsors paid her for writing in the vein of their stereotypes so they could be okay about the blacks' inequality. The collective perception of the book through the black community at the time it was published was that it was only telling a tale of blacks who were happy with their lives. To them, it carried no message of racial inequality or how horrible discrimination really was. To all this, Hurston responded by saying that she wanted all people to be able to identify with her characters, because then all races could see how much alike they were. Despite all this debate, Hurston does deal with racism in certain scenes throughout the book.
In the beginning of Janie's tale, she talks of her grandmother's experience with slavery. Her grandmother was raped by her white owner and when she subsequently gave birth, the owner's wife assaulted her because the child looked too pale and too white. This is the first time Hurston talks of the mulatto race in her book. She goes farther in her discourse by talking about Janie's childhood and how the black children treat her since she is also pale and whiter than them. At certain times, Janie prospered because of her lighter skin tone, but it also got her into trouble, like when she had to deal with her classmates. In a later chapter of the book, Janie meets Mrs. Turner, mixed-race women with a dislike for her own black heritage. According to Mrs. Turner, people of mixed origins, like Janie and herself, should try to “lighten the race” by marrying white people. She questions why Janie would bring herself down so far as to marry Tea Cakes, a man who is very dark skinned. Janie responds by saying that Tea Cakes is a wonderful man. In these examples, Hurston shows the subtle racial differences between pure African-Americans and mulattoes, another thing her critics complained about. Once again, Hurston puts forth her theme that people should be judged by their character and not by their social status.
The oppressiveness of racism and how it effects someone can be seen in the character of Tea Cakes. Tea Cakes had internalized some of his own oppression and the way whites see him, to such an extent that he begins to distrust others as the white's distrust him. Before the destructive hurricane comes, the Seminole Indians begin to prepare for the coming storm. Seeing this, Tea Cakes says to his friend, “Indians don't know much of nothing, to tell the truth. Else, they'd own this country still. The white folks ain't gone nowhere, they ought to know if it's dangerous.” In this section, he was looked at the white people and saw they weren't worried and because he believed they were right, he chose not to act. In this part, Hurston also points out that blacks can be as guilty of discrimination as any other race. Tea Cakes chooses to put himself and Janie in danger because he does not listen to nature or those who know the way nature moves, which points out Hurston's belief that black and white people were so far removed from nature that they were a danger to themselves.
After the hurricane comes, the destruction is everywhere. Tea Cakes goes to town to look for help but what he comes in contact with is another form of racism. The Red Cross makes him work for them, slaving away while burying the bodies left in the wake of the storm. He has no choice in whether he wants to help or not. The Red Cross instruct him to put the white bodies in coffins while the blacks will be buried in one big mass grave. The differences in the treatment of the dead are startling and show no respect for the blacks who died. It also points out how far the problematic Jim Crow laws went at that time in the south. To make matters worse, the Red Cross doesn't even seem to acknowledge what they've done is wrong.
Hurston also covers sexism in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Although Janie's grandmother puts forth the statement, “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” in the beginning of the book, Janie herself is not so quick to come to that conclusion. Through her three marriages, she learns to find her own voice and how to act and be treated like a lady.
Her marriage to Logan Killicks is based on his power and how much he can provide for her as a strong black man. He believes she should keep her opinions to herself and do the work he asks of her without comment or disagreement. Throughout this marriage, she wishes she would have listened to her own voice before marrying him and chosen to get married for love instead of because she needed someone to take care of her. Janie's situation with Joe Sparks is no better. To him, she is only an adornment, meant to raise him up in status for all the town to see. He won't let her speak to others, makes her work for him in his store and even demands she cover her beautiful long black hair in ugly headkerchiefs. She loses her voice to him, covering up her emotions so that she lives two lives: an inner life and an outer life. After Joe dies, she feels free and rejoices in her new freedom by wearing sundresses and letting her hair down. With Tea Cakes, her third husband, Janie begins to find her voice again, since he listens to her, talks to her as an equal, teaches her how to hunt and lets her enjoy the things she likes to do. Her life with him is not perfect though. When he gets angry, he chooses to deal with this anger through domination over his wife and beats her in order to show his power to the rest of the townspeople in the Everglades. Only after his death does Janie feel like she has finally found her voice and that she can stand on her own two feet without a man by her side.
One of the most important lessons to glean from this novel is that although people may be faced with discrimination in their lives, they are still people who live and love and dream. Although Janie was living in a time period where she was constantly faced with prejudice, she nevertheless lived her life constantly reaching towards her dreams. Another important lesson is that while you must stay true to your own folklore and culture, if you want to reach people you must do so on their level and try not to cut yourself off from your audience too much. Hurston needed to reach people and so she tried to get all of them to identify with her characters, regardless of the reader's race. As she once told a colleague, “I have ceased to think in terms of race; I think only in terms of individuals. I am interested in you now not as a Negro man but as a man. I am not interested in the race problem, but I am interested in the problems of individuals, white ones and black ones.”
Warning: Spoilers run rampant.