The novel tells the story of Janie Crawford as she recounts her life story to her friend Phoebe, describing her three marriages.
Janie opens by talking about her grandmother, Nanny, who was a former slave. Nanny’s daughter was raped by a white schoolteacher and ran away not long after giving birth, leaving her to raise Janie. Nanny pressures Janie at the age of 16 to marry Logan Killicks, a local farmer, in the hopes that Janie could have a good life and be financially provided for after her own death. Janie goes along with it, but soon realizes that she is dissatisfied with her marriage because she doesn’t actually love Logan, and he doesn’t value her as anything more than an extra pair of hands on the farm.
Janie’s second marriage is to Joe Starks, who has plans to go to Eatonville, a newly formed African American city in Florida. She becomes caught up in his dream of helping to build such a community. Joe becomes mayor and expects Janie to be a trophy wife. He has a lot of money, so Janie has a relatively comfortable life, but at the same time she remains unfulfilled. Joe becomes jealous, emotionally abusive, and controlling, and appreciates Janie as an idea rather than an individual.
Janie’s third marriage is with a man named Tea Cake, who plays the guitar and is altogether a lot more fun than the her previous two husbands. Although Tea Cake is somewhat younger than Janie, their relationship is fulfilling. They move to the Florida Everglades and encounter fresh challenges, after which Janie returns to Eatonville.
Hurston’s prose is quite lyrical, and one of the things that I enjoyed most about the novel. Her use of dialect causes the novel to be a deceptively slow read, and I would recommend that anyone who has trouble with it either listen to an audio version of the novel or read the text aloud.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” was far ahead of its time in many ways, ranging from it’s depiction of racial issues to the way that it featured a strong female character on a journey of self-actualization. It explored themes of community, relationships, and developing self-identity. Overall, I consider it a worthwhile read.