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Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God Summary


Here you will find a Their Eyes Were Watching God summary (Zora Neale Hurston's book).
We begin with a summary of the entire book, and then you can read each individual chapter's summary by visiting the links on the "Chapters" section.

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Last Updated: Monday 1 Jan, 2024

Their Eyes Were Watching God Summary Overview

A captivating yet mature African American woman, Janie Crawford, reappears in Eatonville, Florida, after a considerable time away. The local community, curious and gossipy, wonders about her whereabouts and what fate fell upon her youthful partner, Tea Cake. Although her confidence is mistaken for arrogance, her friend Pheoby Watson defends her. Through a conversation with Pheoby, Janie unveils her life story. Janie was reared by her grandmother after her mother departed. Her grandmother, Nanny, despite being loving and dedicated, has a skewed perception of life due to her past as a slave and her experiences with her own daughter, Janie's mother. Nanny's main concern is securing Janie's future through a financially stable marriage. She chooses a much older farmer, Logan Killicks, as Janie's husband. However, Janie's life with Logan turns out to be unhappy. He treats her with practicality and devoid of any romance, often as a beast of burden. This leads to Janie developing an illicit relationship with Joe Starks, an ambitious and charming man, eventually leading to their marriage. Janie's life with Joe, nicknamed Jody, finds them in Eatonville, where Jody aspires to be a prominent figure. He eventually becomes a person of significant influence in the town, holding multiple positions, including mayor. However, Janie yearns for more than just being the wife of a powerful man, and she quickly becomes discontented with the mundane and restrictive life she shares with Jody. After almost twenty years of marriage, Janie stands up for herself, leading to the end of their marriage and Jody's subsequent death. Janie's newfound freedom leads her to reject potential suitors until Tea Cake enters her life. Despite societal gossip, they marry and move to Jacksonville. But their life isn't without challenges, including a disastrous hurricane and Tea Cake's descent into madness due to rabies, leading Janie to take his life in self-defense. After being acquitted of murder charges, Janie returns to Eatonville, unbothered by the town's gossip, at peace with herself and her memories of Tea Cake.

chapter 1

As twilight descends on a southern hamlet, a mysterious woman, recognized by the townsfolk, trudges down the main path. From their gathering spot on Pheoby Watson’s porch, they observe her dirt-streaked overalls and trade spiteful gossip about her. They recall her departure with a younger man, gleefully suggesting he absconded with her money and a more youthful mistress. Their envy of her beauty, especially her long, straight hair, is palpable. Ignoring their remarks, she strides by, fueling their perception of her aloofness. We learn her name is Janie Starks, and the man she departed with is Tea Cake. Pheoby disagrees with the gossipers and defends Janie. She leaves the group to visit Janie's home, bringing her food. Janie chuckles when Pheoby shares the women's rumors. She clarifies she's returned alone because Tea Cake has passed, but it's not for the reasons the women have assumed. She left the Everglades, where she lived with Tea Cake, because her happiness had faded there. Not fully grasping this, Pheoby listens as Janie starts to share her tale.

chapter 2

Raised by her grandmother Nanny, Janie grows up in the backyard home of a white couple, the Washburns, with no knowledge of her own parents. For a time, she even believes herself to be white, until a photograph proves otherwise. Peer ridicule follows her at school, where she is taunted about her lack of parents and her father being hunted by Mr. Washburn's dogs. Nanny, hoping a better environment will improve Janie's life, purchases land and a house. At sixteen, Janie experiences adolescent sexual awakening under a blooming pear tree. A stolen kiss with local boy Johnny Taylor leads Nanny to hastily arrange a marriage between Janie and Logan Killicks, a prosperous middle-aged farmer. Nanny, hoping to secure Janie's future before her own death, insists that she doesn't want Janie to be "a mule", a metaphor for the struggles of Black women. Defending her decision, Nanny shares her own traumatic past. Born into slavery, she was raped by her owner and bore a child, Leafy. Nanny fled with baby Leafy when her owner's wife discovered the child was her husband's and planned revenge. The two remained hidden in the swamps until the Civil War ended. Nanny found work with the Washburns but faced further heartbreak when Leafy was raped by her schoolteacher and ran away after giving birth to Janie. Nanny then pinned her hopes on Janie's future.

chapter 3

As Janie gears up for her union with Logan, she realizes she doesn't harbor feelings for him but believes that matrimony will naturally breed love, as Nanny claimed. Their wedding is a grand and joyous event. Yet, two months in, Janie seeks Nanny's counsel, apprehensive that her heart won't warm up to Logan. Nanny chastises Janie for not valuing Logan's affluence and standing, assuring her once more that she will grow fond of him over time. Departing from Nanny, Janie is left with a plea to God from Nanny to watch over her, insisting she's done all she could. Nanny passes away a month later. A year drifts by and Janie's affection for Logan remains stagnant, leading to her growing despondency.

chapter 4

As Logan becomes less attentive towards Janie and expects her to contribute to heavy labor, he refers to her as being spoiled. When he goes away to buy an additional mule for field work, Janie notices a fashionable stranger, Joe Starks, who has a captivating charm and broad dreams. Originally from Georgia with a significant amount of money saved, he has moved to Florida intending to settle in a new town built by the Black community. Over time, he keeps Janie's company in secret, igniting her dormant hopes for love. He requests her to address him as "Jody," a pet name coined by Janie, and after two weeks of secret encounters, he proposes to her. A heated argument ensues between Janie and Logan that night. Logan accuses Janie of being spoiled and in response, she hints at the possibility of eloping. An agitated Logan insults and demeans Janie. The next morning, the quarreling continues, with Logan demanding Janie's help in farming. Janie exclaims that he wants her to idolize him, something she refuses to do. A distraught Logan curses and weeps, and following this, Janie leaves to meet Jody at a prearranged spot. They seize the first chance to get married and head off to their new home.

chapter 5

Arriving in the small, barely developed Florida town, Jody and Janie are met with a lack of formal leadership. Jody takes this as an opportunity to make his mark, and after buying an additional two hundred acres of land from Captain Eaton, he proposes plans to construct a store and a post office. The town, named Eatonville, is taken with Jody's ambition and his plans of development, leaving Amos Hicks, who had been flirting with Janie, feeling slighted. Jody wastes no time and employs Lee Coker and Tony Taylor to build his store. Meanwhile, the rest of the town is busy with road construction and attracting new residents. Jody's investment pays off as he sells off pieces of his newly acquired land to newcomers and opens his store. He quickly secures the position of the mayor but stops Janie from giving a speech at the event, potentially straining their relationship. As mayor, Jody's next project is a street lamp for the town. He purchases it himself and organizes a vote to decide its installation. The townsfolk agree and the lamp becomes a symbol of pride and progress for Eatonville. A grand feast is held to celebrate the lighting of the lamp, and despite Janie's desire for some downtime with Jody, he insists that he is only getting started. Jody's relentless ambition and material prosperity eventually create a distance between him, Janie, and the rest of the town. His ostentatious two-story house and spittoons stand as reminders of their wealth, causing resentment among the townsfolk. Even so, none dare to challenge him, despite his strict rule and his treatment of Janie, who he insists must tie up her beautiful hair while working in the store.

chapter 6

Janie finds little joy in managing the store but appreciates the vibrant tales shared by the men on its porch all day. They often poke fun at a man named Matt Bonner for his poorly treated, malnourished mule. Janie finds these stories intriguing but Jody forbids her from joining them, deeming them too lowly for her. Jody also insists Janie wear a head-rag, triggering her annoyance, as he feels bothered when other men admire her hair, though he conceals his jealousy. On a particular day, Matt's mule escapes, to be found loitering outside the store. The men tease the poor creature, sparking Janie's disapproval. Jody, overhearing her reprimand, purchases the mule to give it respite. The townsfolk admire Jody's action, likening it to Abraham Lincoln freeing the slaves. The mule becomes a town emblem and is often a part of their tales. After its death, Jody organizes a mock funeral, a grand town event, but prohibits Janie from attending, citing her social status. Following the event, vultures gather around the mule's corpse. At the store, Janie and Jody have a heated discussion about his seriousness and responsibility, which Janie finds boring. She chooses to remain silent. Simultaneously, on the porch, Sam Watson and Lige Moss indulge in a light-hearted philosophical conversation about men avoiding hot stoves. Jody joins the debate, leaving Hezekiah Potts in charge of the store. The conversation soon steers towards town gossips. Janie enjoys the banter until Jody summons her back in the shop to serve a customer. An incident with a missing pig's feet order results in Jody criticizing Janie's competence. She swallows her pride and stays silent. Over time, Janie's resentment accumulates, draining the passion from their marriage and leaving it loveless. Jody's physical violence after a ruined dinner further fuels her anger but she chooses to keep her feelings to herself. Later, in the shop, she finds Tony Robbins's wife pleading with Jody for some meat for her family. Jody grudgingly agrees and charges it to Tony's account. The men criticize Tony's wife for her actions. Unable to stay silent, Janie reprimands the men for their arrogance and ignorance about women. Jody silences her and instructs her to fetch a checkerboard.

chapter 7

As time goes on, Janie becomes increasingly hopeless. She quietly succumbs to Jody’s dominating character, carrying out her tasks while suppressing her feelings. Thoughts of escape cross her mind, but she believes she can't find sanctuary anywhere, as she feels she's lost her charm. Her mind and body seem to disconnect; she sees herself working at the shop and obeying Jody, while her thoughts wander elsewhere. This mental separation helps her endure a life she loathes. One day, Janie observes Jody aging significantly. His mobility is challenged, and his physique seems worn out. Jody is also conscious of his aging body and constantly nags Janie about her looks and age, trying to divert her attention from his physical state. However, Janie isn’t fooled; she understands his feelings of physical inadequacy. Jody’s health keeps declining and his verbal assaults on Janie become more severe and regular. One day, Janie makes a blunder while cutting tobacco for a patron. Jody publicly humiliates her, ridiculing her abilities and her appearance. Janie finally responds to his taunts. She criticizes his deteriorated physique and says he looks like “de change uh life” when undressed. This sharp retort takes the men on the porch by surprise. Jody feels powerless, his esteem in the community waning and his authority evaporating. In a fit of rage, he strikes Janie and forces her to leave the store.

chapter 8

After their dispute, Jody isolates himself in a different room as his condition worsens. He consults with dubious healers promising miraculous remedies, avoids Janie, and ceases consuming her meals. Janie finds out from Pheoby about town gossip accusing her of attempting to poison Jody. Despite this, Janie brings in a reputable doctor from Orlando who diagnoses Jody's failing kidneys and imminent death. Feeling pity, Janie longs for a final interaction with Jody. Despite his refusal, she enters his room, where coldness and disagreement prevail. Jody accuses her of being ungrateful, to which Janie retorts that he suppressed her emotions. She bluntly informs him of his impending death, causing Jody great distress and begging her not to say such things. Still, she reprimands him for his oppressive behavior and dissatisfaction with her true self. Jody begs Janie to cease, but she persists, filled with compassion seeing him grapple with mortality. After his death, she reflects on their time together. Checking her reflection, she sees she has aged yet maintains her beauty. She removes her head-rag, releasing her bound hair, only to put it back on to feign grief and announces Jody's death.

chapter 9

Following Jody's grand funeral, Janie starts her period of bereavement, feigning sorrow for the public while secretly feeling relieved and happy. The only visible shift in her demeanor is her decision to sport a single long braid, a move that sees her discarding her head covers. Left to her own devices, she confronts her resentment towards Nanny for prioritizing material things like wealth and social standing over personal happiness. It's not long before men start to court Janie, drawn by her beauty and affluence. Despite the relentless attention, none of her admirers succeed in winning her over during the six-month mourning period. Janie relishes her newfound freedom, preferring singlehood to a domineering relationship. Her only source of discomfort is the store she continues to operate, an establishment rife with Jody's overpowering influence. Hezekiah Potts' attempts at imitating Jody are more comical than intimidating. As tradition dictates, Janie starts wearing white after six months, which is interpreted as her readiness for courtship. Despite this, she dismisses all suitors, confiding in Pheoby about her love for her independence. Pheoby warns her that the townsfolk might misconstrue her lack of grief as indifference to Jody's death. Unfazed, Janie retorts that she has no obligation to feign sadness.

chapter 10

Once, Hezekiah leaves his shop prematurely for a baseball match. Seeing the town's population at the game, Janie plans on closing early. Yet, a tall stranger walks in before she could. He purchases cigarettes and playfully chats with her, amusing her with his jests. She is elated when he invites her for a game of checkers, something no man bothered to do before. His attractiveness and well-built physique do not go unnoticed by her. During their friendly game, Janie and the stranger's playful banter continues. She curiously inquires about his way back home. He casually mentions he always finds a way, even if it involves unlawful train travel. Eventually, she learns his name is Vergible Woods, but most people call him Tea Cake. Teasingly pretending to leave, he makes her laugh again with a whimsical joke and decides to stay longer. Their shared laughter and conversation go on until the crowd from the baseball game fills the store, continuing till nightfall. After helping her secure the store, Tea Cake walks her home, bidding her a polite goodnight.

chapter 11

After a week of absence, Tea Cake returns, winning Janie over with his playful demeanor. He pretends to play an imaginary guitar, which amuses Janie. They engage in a game of checkers, then spend hours talking on her porch, enjoying cake and lemonade. Despite the late hour, they decide to go fishing, spending the rest of the night by the lake. To avoid the town's gossip, Janie discreetly sneaks Tea Cake out the next morning, thoroughly enjoying the spontaneity of their night. Hezekiah warns Janie that Tea Cake isn't suitable for her, but she disregards his advice. Tea Cake visits her again that night and they dine on fresh fish. She falls asleep in his lap, awaking to him gently brushing her hair. They engage in a deep conversation where Tea Cake expresses his fear of being seen as a rogue by Janie. When she assures him that she enjoys his company, but only platonically, he's hurt and expresses his deeper feelings for her. Janie doubts him, assuming he can't be attracted to someone older. Expecting him to change his mind by morning, she sends him away. Janie grows nervous when Tea Cake doesn't show up the next day. However, he surprises her the following morning, assuring her that his feelings are sincere before leaving for work. That evening, Janie finds him in her hammock. They share a meal and he stays the night, leaving her the next morning filled with doubts of being used. Yet, three days later, he comes back in a rundown car, expressing his desire to make their relationship public. He bought the car for the purpose of taking her to the town's big picnic.

chapter 12

Tea Cake and Janie's romantic involvement becomes a source of salacious town gossip, given Janie's status as a respected widow and Tea Cake's comparative youth and poverty. Sam Watson persuades Pheoby to speak with Janie, fearing she may meet the same fate as Ms. Tyler, an older widow exploited by a younger man. Pheoby reminds Janie that Tea Cake is below her and suggests she may be his target for her wealth. She also believes Janie ceased mourning for Jody too quickly. Janie brushes off these warnings, arguing that she need not grieve if she doesn't feel sorrow. She confides in Pheoby about her plans to sell the shop, leave town, and wed Tea Cake. She doesn't want people comparing Tea Cake to Jody. She mentions that she has followed her grandmother's path and now wishes to follow her own. She admits that for her grandma, a former slave like Nanny, achieving a higher status was the ultimate goal, but she, Janie, seeks more profound fulfillment. Pheoby advises her friend to tread carefully with Tea Cake, but they both end up sharing a laugh and reveling in Janie's newfound joy.

chapter 13

Janie departs from Eatonville and encounters Tea Cake in Jacksonville. They tie the knot but Janie, still skeptical, conceals the two hundred dollars she possesses inside her shirt from Tea Cake. One week on, Tea Cake departs at dawn under the pretense of going fishing. When he fails to return, Janie discovers her money is gone. She recalls Ms. Tyler's story from Eatonville, a widow duped by a smooth-talking scoundrel named Who Flung. That night, a troubled Janie finds a returning Tea Cake who admits to splurging all her money on an impromptu feast for his railroad coworkers. The dinner had evolved into a rowdy fest teeming with music and brawls. Janie feels slighted at not being invited, but Tea Cake explains he feared she might consider his companions to be crude. Janie asserts that she wishes to partake in everything he does from now on. Tea Cake pledges to repay Janie. He declares he is an adept gambler and leaves to play dice and cards on Saturday night. Once again, he goes missing, reappearing at dawn. He got injured in a heated dispute during the game but managed to win three hundred and twenty-two dollars. Janie, now more trusting of Tea Cake, opens up about her twelve hundred dollar savings in the bank. Tea Cake vows that she won't need to use it, and he'll take care of her. He then suggests they move to “the muck” (the Everglades), where he plans to find employment.

chapter 14

Fully enamored with Tea Cake, Janie is astounded by the abundant, blooming Everglades. Tea Cake, already accustomed to the lifestyle there, swiftly settles them in before the influx of seasonal labourers. His plan involves bean picking by day and entertaining with guitar and dice games by night. As the season commences, they lead a contented life, engaging in farming, hunting, and even learning to shoot, with Janie eventually surpassing him. As the season progresses, desperate migrants throng to the Everglades to work the fertile fields, filling up all available residences and setting up camp in the open. The nightlife is vibrant with lively bars and festivity. Their home becomes a community hub, buzzing with Tea Cake's music. Initially, Janie dedicates her time to cooking sumptuous meals, but Tea Cake soon misses her company and starts skipping work to be with her. Deciding to accompany him, Janie joins him in the fields, enjoying the simple life of a migrant worker. In her work clothes, she finds humor in imagining the shocked reactions of Eatonville's people. She pities them for not appreciating the simple joy of relaxed conversation on the porch.

chapter 15

While working in the muck, Janie starts to feel envious of Nunkie, a plump young lady who constantly flirts with Tea Cake. Nunkie becomes increasingly bold in her actions, constantly tripping over Tea Cake and teasing him. One occasion sees Janie distracted, leading to her noticing Nunkie and Tea Cake's absence. A friend, Sop-de-Bottom, informs Janie they're in a nearby cane field. She hurries there and finds them jokingly wrestling. Tea Cake explains that it was due to Nunkie taking his work tickets and teasing him into a tussle. Nunkie runs away, and Janie attempts to hit Tea Cake when they get home. However, he manages to calm her down, turning her intense anger into fervent passion. The next morning, they laugh about Nunkie's silliness in bed.

chapter 16

When work season concludes, Janie and Tea Cake choose to remain another year. In her free time during the off-season, Janie socializes more. She mingles a bit with the Bahamians who reside in the muck, but mostly she spends her time with Mrs. Turner. Despite her own Black heritage, Mrs. Turner, an odd-looking, arrogant woman, consistently belittles Black folks. She idolizes whiteness, painting Black people as idle and unintelligent, urging them to “lighten up de race.” She dislikes Tea Cake due to his dark skin and hopes Janie would wed her fair-skinned brother. Tea Cake eavesdrops on a talk between Janie and Mrs. Turner and informs Janie he doesn't want Mrs. Turner visiting. He intends to address this with Mr. Turner, but upon meeting the man, Tea Cake realizes he is a despondent, submissive individual, worn down by multiple child losses and his wife's dominance. Tea Cake convinces Janie to cut ties with Mrs. Turner. Janie acts distantly with Mrs. Turner, yet the lady still continues her visits. Mrs. Turner idolizes whiteness, perceiving Janie’s light skin and refined demeanour as the epitome. She disapproves of Janie's union with Tea Cake, but her views hold no significance to them. The summer concludes and work picks up once more.

chapter 17

As the time progresses, old and new residents flock into the town. Mrs. Turner introduces her brother, trying to draw Janie’s attention. Tea Cake, feeling insecure, physically asserts his dominance over Janie, then soothes her afterwards, to which Janie bears no resentment. Men in the town admire his control over her. On paycheck Saturdays, workers tend to indulge in alcohol. One such Saturday, two intoxicated townsfolk named Dick Sterrett and Coode cause a commotion around town before landing at Mrs. Turner’s eatery. There, they incite a brawl amidst Tea Cake's crew. Tea Cake attempts to expel them to impress Mrs. Turner, but his actions only escalate the chaos. The restaurant ends up in ruins, and Mrs. Turner sustains injuries in the uproar. She is angry with her husband for not stopping the thugs from ruining her business.

chapter 18

Janie notices Native Americans leaving the Everglades area for Palm Beach. They inform her of an impending hurricane, causing an anxious stir in the settlement. More locals and animals start moving towards Palm Beach, and even workers begin to vacate. Tea Cake, however, opts to remain, hosting a gathering at his house which eventually disperses as the storm intensifies. Only Motor Boat stays behind with Janie and Tea Cake, enduring the storm by fixating their gaze on what they believe to be a divine act. Tea Cake teasingly suggests Janie might prefer the comfort of her spacious Eatonville house, but she insists she's content as long as they're together. On noticing the flood's severity, they decide to evacuate, gathering critical documents and bracing against the storm as they move to safer ground. They witness the overflow of Lake Okechobee as its dikes collapse, causing a torrential rush of water that obliterates everything in its path. They find refuge in an abandoned, elevated house where Janie awakens from a brief sleep to find the floodwaters edging closer. The pair decide to leave, leaving Motor Boat behind who chooses to stay. They push forward, swimming through the floodwaters and passing scenes of devastating destruction. In an attempt to secure shelter, Janie finds herself in treacherous water. She clings onto a swimming cow's tail for safety, but a snarling dog on the cow's back confronts her. Tea Cake rushes to her aid, battling the dog in the water, which manages to bite him before he kills it. Upon reaching Palm Beach, they discover a scene of havoc. They find shelter, and Janie expresses her gratitude to Tea Cake for rescuing her.

chapter 19

Following the hurricane, Palm Beach is littered with death. Two armed white men force Tea Cake into the morbid task of burying the dead. Disturbed by the evident racism in the handling of the bodies (white bodies receive coffins while Black bodies are unceremoniously dumped in ditches), Tea Cake and Janie opt to silently leave and go back to the Everglades. On returning, they discover that though some friends are gone, others, including Motor Boat, survived the storm. Tea Cake spends time repairing the dike. However, four weeks later, he returns home from work suffering from a severe headache. Despite his hunger, he can't eat the food Janie prepares. He experiences choking fits at night and has difficulty drinking water. Janie consults Dr. Simmons, a well-known white physician, who suspects Tea Cake was bitten by a rabid dog. He warns Janie it might be too late to save him, but orders medication from Palm Beach nonetheless. Tea Cake's health rapidly declines, his mind distorted by the effects of rabies. Janie keeps the doctor's prognosis from him. When she leaves to check on the medicine, Tea Cake accuses her of visiting Mrs. Turner's brother. Janie manages to calm him down, but is alarmed to find a gun under his pillow. Tea Cake's choking attacks persist. In the morning, Janie informs him of her plans to revisit Dr. Simmons, angering Tea Cake. On checking his pistol while he is away, she finds it loaded with three bullets, and rearranges it to give herself time to react should he aim at her. Tea Cake returns, his paranoia intensifying. He accuses Janie of mistreatment, brandishing the pistol. When he fires once without effect, Janie grabs a rifle hoping to deter him. However, Tea Cake fires twice more, and in self-defense, Janie shoots him. Janie's trial starts the same day. Despite the local Black community turning against her and even willing to testify against her, the all-white jury, swayed by Janie's emotional testimony about her love for Tea Cake and Dr. Simmons' defense, find her innocent. The white women present support her, while her former friends leave the courtroom, disheartened. Janie ensures Tea Cake receives a grand burial after the trial.

chapter 20

Following Tea Cake's burial, the Everglades' men acknowledge their mistreatment of Janie. Overwhelmed by guilt, they assault Mrs. Turner's brother and force him away from the town once more. With Tea Cake no longer present, Janie finds no joy in the Everglades and decides to return to Eatonville, carrying only a bundle of seeds to plant in Tea Cake's memory. Having shared her experiences, Janie confesses to Pheoby her satisfaction with retruning to Eatonville, affirming that she has fulfilled her dreams. She claims to have reached the "horizon and back". Janie expects the townsfolk to gossip about her, but she is indifferent to their talks. In her view, they lack understanding of true love and haven't lived their lives fully. As she lays in bed that night, Janie recalls the dreadful day she had to end Tea Cake's life, which plunges her into a world of gloom. However, she comes to the realization that Tea Cake enriched her life immensely and his presence will always be felt. Tea Cake revealed the horizon to her and this thought brings her tranquility.

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