Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Gender Roles and Relations Theme Analysis

Themes and Colors
Gender Roles and Relations Theme Icon
Voice, Language and Storytelling Theme Icon
Desire, Love, and Independence Theme Icon
Power, Judgment, and Jealousy Theme Icon
Race and Racism Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Their Eyes Were Watching God, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Gender Roles and Relations Theme Icon

Their Eyes Were Watching God explores traditional gender roles as one of its main themes – specifically the way that stereotypical ideas about relationships between men and women empower men and disempower women. The novel's plot is driven by Janie's series of relationships with different men: a kiss with Johnny Taylor, followed by marriages with Logan Killicks, Jody Starks and finally, Tea Cake. Logan Killicks and Jody Starks see Janie as defined by her relationship with them, and expect her to be obedient, silent and proper. Jody sees her as a kind of ornament that bolsters his social standing and that helps to justify his efforts to assert control over everyone, men and women alike.

Tea Cake, in contrast, defines himself not by political power but rather by his physical strength and ability to have fun. Even while Tea Cake treats Janie as an equal, there still exists a certain power struggle in Janie's relationship with him, as her increasing ability to recognize her needs as an individual throughout the novel emerges in response to Tea Cake's treatment of her. Thus it is still possible to see Tea Cake as having a degree of control over Janie until the moment of his death. In each of her relationships, we watch Janie lose parts of herself under the forces of male domination.

The men are not the only characters who see the traditional take on gender relations (strong men, obedient women) as necessary and worthwhile. Nanny, as a former slave who endured brutal conditions in her life, is understandably more concerned with material well-being than self-expression. She therefore sees marriage as a means to gain status and financial security for her granddaughter, and does not believe that a black women can gain independence without a man. But Janie has different concerns, separating her from Nanny and other women who accept the traditional gender roles on display in the novel. Janie seeks self-expression, and authentic love based on mutual respect—a goal she ultimately achieves in her relationship with Tea Cake and, even more so, after his death, when she has fully come to know herself and can speak her mind and tell her own story.

Gender Roles and Relations ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Gender Roles and Relations appears in each chapter of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Gender Roles and Relations Quotes in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Below you will find the important quotes in Their Eyes Were Watching God related to the theme of Gender Roles and Relations.
Chapter 1 Quotes

Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by time. That is the life of men.

Related Symbols: The Horizon
Page Number: 1
Explanation and Analysis:

This abstract, almost allegorical paragraph opens the novel. Janie has not yet appeared, striding back through Eatonville after a long disappearance. 

In these first crucial sentences, Hurston introduces independence and desire as two of the novel's themes: here, the unnamed men look towards the ever-receding horizon, a symbol of freedom and possibility. These men all want the ships' invisible, imagined cargo, though some cannot access it and so they turn away "in resignation." (Note that Hurston calls these individuals "Watchers," gesturing to the book's title.) Janie, the protagonist, grapples with her own desire for independence and fulfilling romantic love throughout the novel, explaining to Pheoby (several chapters later) that she has traveled to "de horizon and back."

However, the word "men" is hardly synonymous with mankind — Hurston describes women in the next paragraph, women who "forget all those thins they don't want to remember" and display much more pragmatism than men. In this way, readers begin to understand the importance of gender in the novel, as well as Janie's own curious position in society. Her desire for independence and experience seems more stereotypically masculine than feminine, alienating her from men and women alike. 


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Chapter 2 Quotes

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage!

Related Characters: Janie Crawford
Related Symbols: The Pear Tree
Page Number: 11
Explanation and Analysis:

Here, Janie explains to Pheoby that her "conscious life" begins with the pear tree: a young Janie lies under the blooming and buzzing tree for hours at a time, watching the communion of flowers and bees. 

This becomes one of the novel's central images, informing Janie's understanding of a reciprocated romantic love. Neither bee nor flower dominates or hurts the other — they are equals, united in their embrace. Of course, Hurston's language here is as lush and abundant as the tree itself and she zeroes in on the smallest, sexualized details (including "the dust-bearing bee" and "the thousand sister-calyxes"). Even the exclamation mark after "marriage" mirrors the tree's pseudo-sexual climax, its "ecstatic shiver."

Janie witnesses this insemination, this marriage, at a young age and yet cannot find the same beauty in her own relationships with Logan and Jody, neither of whom treats her as an equal. Even Janie's posture — she stretches under the tree — matches the "arch" of the flowers towards the insect. Only Tea Cake truly loves Janie as a bee loves a blossom, stirring up in her a "soul-crushing love."


"Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it's some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don't know nothin' but what we see…De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see."

Related Characters: Nanny Crawford (speaker), Janie Crawford
Related Symbols: Mule
Page Number: 14
Explanation and Analysis:

When Nanny catches sight of Janie kissing Johnny Taylor, she calls her in to the house and broaches the topic of marriage. Janie is a woman now, she explains, and she should therefore marry a "decent" suitor like Logan Killicks, rather than someone "trashy." Janie's resistance leads Nanny to describe their world's social hierarchy: white men at the top, black women at the bottom. 

Hurston here introduces the symbolic mule, which comes to stand for victimization, particularly that of many of the novel's black women. Again and again Janie pushes back against her fate, a life of thankless physical and emotional labor without freedom or joy. Logan Killicks, her first husband, even buys her a mule and Janie sees her own plight reflected in the animal. 

Not only does this section have symbolic value, but it also raises questions about Hurston's endless shifts between dialect and a more traditional narrative voice. In this way, Hurston puts the two styles on a single plane, proving to her contemporaneous readers that all dialects have equal literary merit. As they navigate this complicated text, one in which no register is ever stable, readers must remain engaged and attentive — authority, particularly in the novel's world, can reside within grammar and diction.

Chapter 3 Quotes

She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie's first dream was dead, so she became a woman.

Related Characters: Janie Crawford, Logan Killicks
Page Number: 25
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 3, Janie discusses her romantic woes with Nanny: now three months married, Janie still feels no affection for Logan. Nanny encourages her to "wait awhile," and yet in the privacy of her room, she prays for Janie's future. Nanny dies at the end of the chapter, and Janie begins "to stand around the gate and expect things" again. 

Here, the narrator associates womanhood with disillusionment — Janie only becomes a woman when she understands that marriage does not "compel love like the sun the day." Readers can consider this definition in conjunction with Nanny's earlier one, her conviction that Janie is a woman because she has kissed Johnny Taylor. 

The relationship between marriage and love is a thorny, messy one throughout the novel, following Janie's first experience of the pear tree. She sees the love shared by bees and flowers and thinks: So this was marriage! Yet she goes on to enter, and then leave, two unfortunate marriages, both devoid of passion and mutual respect. Hurston hardly wants to prove Janie wrong; instead, she encourages us to consider the complexity of marriage, at once a legal contract and an emotional one.

Chapter 4 Quotes

Janie pulled back a long time because he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon.

Related Characters: Janie Crawford, Jody Starks
Related Symbols: The Horizon, The Pear Tree
Page Number: 29
Explanation and Analysis:

Janie meets Jody Starks while Logan is away, buying a second mule in Lake City. She is intrigued by his "citified, stylish" manner, and they end up meeting every day and discussing his ambitions. In this section, Janie has not yet decided to elope with him, but harbors certain doubts "because he [does] not represent sun-up and pollen."

Here, Janie has a sort of premonition, a sense that Jody will not provide the love and passion she so desperately desires: he has nothing of the pear tree about him, but only the "far horizon." Yet the horizon is still an important symbol to Janie, and Jody's worldliness and style give her a glimpse of the world beyond her small town. She wants experience and excitement in addition to a perfect love; though Jody can only deliver the former, she still decides to run off with him, abandoning Logan (who offers neither). 

Chapter 5 Quotes

"Thank yuh fuh yo' compliments, but mah wife don't know nothin' 'bout no speech-makin'. Ah never married her for nothin' lak dat. She's uh woman and her place is in de home."

Related Characters: Jody Starks (speaker), Janie Crawford
Page Number: 43
Explanation and Analysis:

The town congregates in Jody's store and celebrates his success, agreeing that he should serve as a temporary mayor. While he accepts the townspeople's congratulations, he does not accept their suggestion that Janie make a speech — "her place is in de home," seen but not heard. 

Of course, this leaves Janie feeling "cold" on the way home, not quite resentful but certainly wary of Jody's attitude towards womanhood and marriage. Readers can view this moment as another warning sign, foreshadowing the inevitable rupture between the two characters. Jody wishes to control and master Janie; he does not wish for emotional and intellectual equality with her. Indeed, he speaks with astonishing condescension in this quote, referring to her in the third person, making no acknowledgment of her presence or her personal desires. 

This moment might remind readers of Nanny Crawford's assertion that a black woman is society's "mule." In many ways, Jody defies social conventions by becoming mayor, a traditionally white role; yet he does not allow his wife to do the same, to become a person rather than a possession. 

Chapter 6 Quotes

"Nature is de first of everything. Ever since self was self, nature been keepin' folks off of red-hot stoves. Dat caution you talkin' 'bout ain't nothin' but uh humbug."

Related Characters: Sam Watson (speaker)
Page Number: 65
Explanation and Analysis:

Lige Moss and Sam Watson, two townspeople, engage in a long, playful conversation about nature and caution, attempting to answer the question: "Whut is it dat keeps uh man from gettin’ burnt on uh red-hotstove—caution or nature?" Sam argues for nature, Lige for caution, and all of Eatonville seems to gather around the two men, including Janie herself. 

This discussion of nature and control calls to mind many of the book's themes. Sam believes that nature is the first and "strongest" thing God made, that everything else (including human ideas of caution) is simply a byproduct of nature. Janie's experience of the world corresponds to Sam's cosmology: she first witnesses the pear tree, nature at its ecstatic peak, and this memory becomes a standard by which she judges all relationships. Again and again, Janie acts according to her instincts, throwing caution to the wind when she runs off with first Jody, then Tea Cake. Hurston rarely presents caution in a favorable light and her heroine's choices, however rash, always seem inevitable, not so much right as natural and instinctive. 


"Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business. He told me how surprised He was 'bout y'all turning out so smart after Him makin' yuh different; and how surprised y'all is goin' tuh be if you ever find out you don't know half as much bout us as you think you do."

Related Characters: Janie Crawford (speaker)
Page Number: 75
Explanation and Analysis:

Mrs. Robbins begs Jody for a free cut of meat, explaining that her husband does not provide for their family. Though Jody consents, he gives her an amount far smaller than the desired hunk and goes on to mock her dramatic behavior with other men — they agree that her husband spoils her, that no man should allow his wife such liberties. In response, Janie delivers a cutting speech, accusing the men of cowardice and arrogance.

This is the first time that Janie speaks her mind and breaks free from her role as Jody's docile wife; it's a pivotal moment, one in which Janie displays empathy as well as courage and conviction. She implies that God has a particular relationship with women, an idea that's borne out throughout the novel. Women, particularly wives who endure scorn and abuse, have a clearer understanding of social dynamics and manipulation, and even of religious truths (especially Christian ideals like humility and martyrdom). 

However, Chapter 6 does not end on this rousing note; instead, it ends with Jody's reply. He tells Janie to "fetch" his checkerboard, since she is too "moufy." The game of checkers goes on to become a symbol of Janie's relationship with Tea Cake, a symbol of equality and playfulness. Here, Jody does not even consider Janie as a potential player — she is only a kind of servant, a beautiful possession. 



Chapter 8 Quotes

The young girl was gone, but a handsome woman had taken her place. She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there.

Related Characters: Janie Crawford
Page Number: 87
Explanation and Analysis:

Janie attempts to explain herself to the dying Jody, which only makes him defensive and upset. He breathes his last with "a sound of strife in his throat" — and in the immediate aftermath of his death, Janie evaluates her own reflection and lets down her hair.

Her hair is a sort of weathervane, indicating to characters and readers alike how free and powerful she feels at any given moment. In the novel's first scene, for instance, the men of Eatonville notice the "great rope of black hair swinging to her waist" as she strides through town: she is a new woman, acquainted with the complexities of love and desire. And Jody first notices her "heavy hair" as she stands by the water pump. Yet she keeps her hair tied up throughout their married life, as their relationship is not egalitarian or fair but lopsided. She is more servant than wife; only after his death can she free herself and her hair. 

And yet Janie's luxurious hair, along with her lighter skin, is also a burden, something that obsesses and confuses other people. Mrs. Turner, a character with a fraught relationship to her own ethnicity, is sure that Janie and her brother would make an excellent match because Janie's appearance is not offensive to her. While Janie's hair stands for her freedom and sexuality, it can also disempower her. 

Chapter 9 Quotes

Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon – for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you – and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter's neck tight enough to choke her.

Related Characters: Nanny Crawford
Related Symbols: The Horizon
Page Number: 89
Explanation and Analysis:

In the days after Jody's death, Janie contemplates her past, including her relationship with Nanny. She feels a sudden resentment towards her grandmother, who married her off to a loveless, greedy man.

Janie's eyes always drift back to the horizon in Hurston's novel; here, the word "horizon" seems to mean love (or marriage). As a young woman, Janie wanted nothing more than a fulfilling romantic life, and yet Nanny used her granddaughter's desire against her, coercing her into marriage. Janie dreamed of love, the horizon, and Nanny "pinched it" into a more convenient shape, a profitable alliance with a rich man, but one that also ended up choking her. 

Not only does this visceral image remind readers of slavery and Nanny's own life as a slave, but it raises essential questions: How can language shape reality? How can Janie control her own story? Nanny uses rhetoric as a weapon against Janie; however, the younger woman herself emerges as the final narrator, recounting her story to Pheoby. (Note Hurston's use of the second person — "the horizon is still way beyond you" — in a section about authority and voice.)

Chapter 10 Quotes

Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play. That was even nice. She looked him over and got little thrills from every one of his good points.

Related Characters: Janie Crawford, Tea Cake
Related Symbols: Checkers
Page Number: 96
Explanation and Analysis:

In Chapter 10, Tea Cake enters Janie's store, buys a pack of cigarettes, and challenges her to a game of checkers. She feels an immediate affinity for him, the first man who has treated her as an equal. 

Hurston makes Janie's relief clear in this passage: the concise sentences and the repetition of the subject "somebody" (and the verb "play") reveal to readers Janie's state of mind, her happy amazement. Jody played checkers too, but Jody only ever asked her to "fetch" the game, never to play a game with him. This quiet moment between Tea Cake and Janie has their entire dynamic locked up within it — the playfulness, the respect, the attraction, and even the danger. (She appraises his body the way men have appraised her body throughout the novel.) Tea Cake wins the game, but Janie reaches out to stop him and they touch for the first time.

Of course, like any game, Checkers leaves room for dishonesty and cheating. Janie knows this and articulates it, and yet it does not stop her from beginning her most fulfilling and exciting relationship. 

Chapter 17 Quotes

"Janie is wherever Ah wants tuh be. Dat's de kind uh wife she is and Ah love her for it."

Related Characters: Tea Cake (speaker), Janie Crawford
Page Number: 148
Explanation and Analysis:

Sop-de-Bottom praises Janie's docility, explaining to Tea Cake that most wives are far more combative. Tea Cake adds on to this praise; though he wishes to give Janie a better life, he is also glad that she "is wherever [he] wants tuh be."

While Janie's marriage to Tea Cake is certainly more fair and loving than either of her previous marriages, readers are meant to understand that it is still a complex, imperfect relationship. Tea Cake shows a certain masculine narcissism in his conversation with Sob-de-Bottom, zeroing in on his own expectations (and repeating the pronoun "Ah") rather than considering Janie's own independent needs and desires. He loves her, but he does not quite love the full, mysterious scope of her — he only loves what he can possess. Hurston reminds us again that a black women is "society's mule," even when she is a beloved wife. No romantic relationship is without its hierarchy.