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Literature / Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Their Eyes Were Watching God is a 1937 novel by Zora Neale Hurston. It's considered a hallmark of African-American literature, women's literature, and the Harlem Renaissance. At the time of its original release, it was heavily criticized by other African American authors, mainly for its use of phonetic accents for dialogue of the characters and the theme of division between light and dark skinned blacks. Hurston died in relative obscurity, but in modern times her works have been widely studied as a staple of Harlem Renaissance literature.

The book begins with the main character Janie Crawford, a black woman in her early 40s, returning to Eatonville in central Florida. There, she is reunited with her best friend Pheoby and tells the story of her life. Starting with her earliest childhood memories, Janie describes the many phases of her life and how she grew throughout the years. In particular, she focuses on her marriages to three different husbands: Logan Killicks, who did not view her as an equal and tries to dominate her; Joe Starks who, though initially charismatic and charming, turns out to be jealous and abusive to Janie, and Tea Cake, the husband who was the most loving and treated Janie as an equal human.

Was made into a TV movie in 2005 starring Halle Berry and Michael Ealy, produced by Oprah Winfrey.

Their Eyes Were Watching God contains the following tropes:

  • Boomerang Bigot: Mrs. Turner saves her deepest disdain for those who look blacker than herself, but also considers herself unworthy because of her blackness and worships the whiter-looking Janie.
  • But Not Too Black: Janie is notably light-skinned for a black woman. Self-hating dark-skinned black woman Mrs. Turner thinks the world of Janie entirely because of this, and even wants Janie to dump the dark-skinned Tea Cake for her own lighter-skinned brother.
  • Child by Rape: Both Janie and her Missing Mom.
  • Domestic Abuser:
    • Janie's first husband, Logan Killicks, isn't physically abusive, but he treats her more as a servant than an equal, so it results in a miserable marriage.
    • Janie's second husband, Joe Starks, strikes her when she fails to cook a good dinner for him despite her best efforts and also tries to emotionally control her by forcing her to cover up her beautiful hair against her wishes.
    • Tea Cake and Janie beat each other in fits of jealousy.
  • Earn Your Happy Ending: It takes three marriages, two of them miserable, but Janie finally finds love with Tea Cake (brief as it is), and by the end of the novel she's comfortable with the identity she's made for herself.
  • Flat Character: Phoeby mainly serves as an audience for Janie's retelling of her life story who we don't really know much about. We know she's an honest woman who trusts Janie, but that's just about it.
  • Framing Device: The story starts and ends with Janie telling her story (the bulk of the book) to her friend Phoeby.
  • Funetik Aksent: All the dialogue. It is actually faithful to the vernacular dialect African-Americans spoke in the time period the book is set in.
  • Gossipy Hens: The first scene of the book.
  • Happily Married: For Janie, the third marriage's the charm. Of course, it can't last.
  • Her Heart Will Go On: Janie after Tea Cake's death.
  • How We Got Here: Janie telling her story to Phoeby.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl / One Head Taller: All of Janie's romantic relationships turn out to be like this.
  • I Am What I Am: Janie.
  • Jerkass: Joe Starks is a Domestic Abuser who only wants Janie to be a Trophy Wife of his.
    • There's also the porchsitters who are always playing the "Dirty Dozens." A game to see who can insult each other the most.
  • Likes Older Women: Tea Cake marries Janie despite being at least ten years her junior.
  • Lousy Lovers Are Losers: At first, Janie's marriage to her second husband Joe Stark is happy and they have a healthy sexual life. But he Took a Level in Jerkass becoming more overtly sexist, arrogant, and vain, and their sex begins to become stale to non-existant. He also becomes more jealous and possessive of her, to the point he attempts to humiliate her in public, only to end up humiliating himself when she talks back and voices his sexual inadequacies among his peers, who all laugh at him for it, deeply humiliating him.
  • Nobody Thinks It Will Work: How everyone perceives Janie and Tea Cake.
  • One Head Taller: When Janie isn't in Huge Guy, Tiny Girl, she has this trope.
  • Realistic Diction Is Unrealistic: One of the main reasons why the book was criticised by many
  • Reality Is Unrealistic: Back then, girls were raised to be quiet and assist their husbands, but when Janie has to do it, she revolts or only does it grudgingly.
  • "The Reason You Suck" Speech: Janie gives this to Starks shortly before he dies.
  • Shameful Strip: Discussed. One of Joe's especially cruel (and untrue) insults at Janie is compared to someone snatching off her clothing in a public place. There's an initial laugh at his Refuge in Audacity before the predictable happens and people realize just what a pointlessly cruel thing it was to say and do.
  • Shoot the Dog: Tea Cake gets bitten by a rabid dog and becomes Ax-Crazy from rabies, forcing Janie to kill him.
  • Title Drop: Late in the book, during a hurricane, the narrator describes the workers in their cabins: "They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God."