Their Eyes Were Watching God is a 1937 novel and the best known work by African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston. The novel explores main character Janie Crawford's "ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny."
Set in central and southern Florida in the early 20th century, the novel was initially poorly received. Since the late 20th century, it has been regarded as a seminal work in both African-American literature and women's literature. TIME included the novel in its 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923.
TOWN OF EATONVILLE: BEGINNING HISTORY
Incorporated 1887. Newly freed slaves who had come into the area from Georgia, Alabama and further north and the not-yet-incorporated Maitland first settled the town in 1880. These newly freed men labored at clearing land, planting crops and citrus groves, and helping to build houses, hotels and the railroad system. In a few years, some of them became community leaders, businessmen and respected citizens of the newly developed town of Maitland. By 1887, the African-American settlers in Maitland became interested in establishing their own town. An all-African-American town seems to have initially been a dream of Joseph E. Clarks, but he was unsuccessful in his attempts to purchase land for that purpose.
Eventually, through the goodwill of Lewis Lawrence, a northern philanthropist, and Josiah Eaton, a local landowner, Joe Clarke and others acquired 112 acres, and they comprised the original city limits of the Town of Eatonville. Lewis Lawrence suggested the name in honor of Josiah Eaton. On August 15, 1887, 27 electors gathered at the “town hall” and cast their votes for Columbus H. Boger as mayor; for Joe Clarks, Matthew Brazell, David Yelder, E.L. Horn, and E.J. Shines as aldermen; and for several other town officers. Thus the first town to be organized, governed and incorporated by African-American citizens in this country was born. Central to the early life in Eatonville were three institutions – the church, the school and the family.
The first 10 acres of the land Lawrence purchased were given to the trustees of the Methodist Church, known today as the St. Lawrence African Methodist Episcopal Church. Founded in 1881, St. Lawrence was the first African American church in the area. St. Lawrence A.M.E. Church was originally built in the early 1880s. The second building was erected in 1908 and stood for 60 years until time and the elements took their toll. The church’s present concrete block structure was built in the early 1970s. A second institution, which was a hallmark of the town for years, was the Hungerford Normal and Industrial School. Founded in 1889 by Robert Hungerford and others who made up its governing body, the school was named in honor of Hungerford’s physician son. He had given his life to save the lives of some African-Americans who were besieged with scarlet fever.
Russell C. Calhoun and his wife, Mary, came from Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to serve as the first administrators. By 1935, the school had become the premier place for Negro learning in central Florida. The school was given to Orange County in 1950. Now it is the Wymore Career Education Center, a public high school. Eatonville-born novelist, Zora Neale Hurston, depicted the town in her 1937 novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, as follows: “Maitland is Maitland until it gets to Hurst’s corner, and then it is Eatonville.
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The main character Janie Crawford, an African-American woman in her early forties, recounts the story of her life to her best friend Pheoby Watson through an extended flashback. Readers learn about her life in three major periods, corresponding to her marriages to three very different men.
The book begins with Janie's sexual awakening, which she compares to a blossoming pear tree kissed by bees in spring. Not long after, Janie allows a local boy, Johnny Taylor, to kiss her, which Janie's grandmother, Nanny, witnesses.
As a young slave woman, Nanny was raped by her white owner. She gave birth to a mixed-race daughter she named Leafy. Nanny escaped from her jealous mistress and found a good home after the end of the American Civil War. She tried to create a better life for her daughter, but Leafy was raped by her school teacher and became pregnant with Janie. Shortly after Janie's birth, Leafy began to drink and stay out at night. Eventually, she ran away, leaving her daughter Janie with Nanny.
Nanny transferred her hopes for Leafy to Janie. She arranges for the girl to marry Logan Killicks, an older farmer looking for a wife. She hopes to provide Janie with the stability she never had; legal marriage to Killicks, Nanny believes, will give Janie opportunities. Janie marries Logan Killicks.
Janie had imagined that marriage must involve love. But Killicks wants a domestic helper rather than a lover or partner; he thinks Janie does not do enough around the farm and that she is ungrateful. Janie speaks to Nanny about how she feels; but Nanny, too, accuses her of being spoiled. Soon afterward, Nanny dies.
Unhappy, disillusioned, and lonely, Janie leaves Killicks and runs off with Jody (Joe) Starks, a glib man who takes her to the all-black community of Eatonville, Florida. Finding the small town residents unambitious, Starks arranges to buy more land, establishes a general store, and is soon elected as mayor of the town. Janie soon realises that Starks wants her as a trophy wife to reinforce his powerful position in town. He asks her to run the store but forbids her from taking part in the social life that takes place on the store's front porch. During their twenty-year marriage, he treats her as his property, criticizing her and controlling what she wears and says. He begins to physically abuse her.
Eventually, Janie snaps back at Joe, and he hits her hard. Later, he gets sick and refuses to let Janie see him. He does not realize that he has a failing kidney, a likely fatal illness. When Janie learns that he might die, she goes to talk to him. She says that he never knew her because he would not let her be free.
After Starks dies, Janie becomes financially independent through his estate. She is beset with suitors, some of whom are men of some means; she turns them all down. She meets a young drifter and gambler named Vergible Woods, and known as "Tea Cake". He plays the guitar for her and initially treats her with kindness and respect. At first, Janie is doubtful, as she is older and has wealth, but she eventually falls in love with him.
Deciding to run away with him, Janie has a friend look after the store. She and Tea Cake head to Jacksonville to marry. They move to Belle Glade, in the northern part of the Everglades region ("the muck"), where they find work planting and harvesting beans. While their relationship is volatile and sometimes violent, Janie realizes she has the marriage with love that she wanted. Her image of the pear tree blossom is revived.
The area is hit by the great 1928 Okeechobee hurricane. Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog while saving Janie from drowning. He becomes increasingly jealous and unpredictable, despite Janie's best efforts. He tries to shoot Janie with his pistol, and she fatally shoots him with a rifle in self-defense. She is charged with murder.
At the trial, Tea Cake's black male friends show up to oppose her, but a group of local white women arrive to support Janie. After the all-white jury acquits Janie, she gives Tea Cake a lavish funeral. Tea Cake's friends forgive her, asking her to remain in the Everglades. However, she decides to return to Eatonville.
As she expected, the residents gossip about her when she returns to town. The story ends where it started, as Janie finishes recounting her life to Pheoby.