Their Eyes Were Watching God

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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.
Voice, Language and Storytelling Theme Icon

Janie is both the protagonist and narrator of her story, recounting her life experiences to her friend Pheoby after arriving back to Eatonville at the end point of her journey. Janie's experiences within her marriages, a central subject of her story, are what drive her to recognize that what she most actively seeks is a voice for herself—to be someone who can speak and be listened to. The distinctive personalities of Jody and Tea Cake in particular bring to light Janie's progress toward finding a voice. While Jody stifles Janie and does not allow her to express herself, Tea Cake earns Janie's attraction precisely by acting as her equal, by being someone who listens.

Janie's full discovery of her own voice emerges in Chapter 19, the climactic trial scene immediately following Tea Cake's death. In this scene, Janie-the-narrator noticeably decreases her interruptions of the narrative itself, instead allowing herself as a character to provide continuous testimony. This shift marks her recognition of herself as an individual with a unique voice, one that she owns and can control without supervision from a man. Janie's story can be read not only as recounting her experiences to a friend, but also as a triumph in and of itself. That is, her goal and desire throughout the novel is to find a voice that is her own and to use that voice to express herself as a person. So being able to tell her own story, to be both the narrator and protagonist, marks the achievement of that ambition.

Their Eyes Were Watching God not only explores the theme of language and storytelling at the level of narrative content, but also through its form. There is a clear split between the narrator's literary style and the dialect of the black American South used by Janie and the characters in her community. This split is deliberately challenging to read, indicating Hurston's attempt as the author to equalize these different forms of communication. By writing the novel in this way, Hurston endows the black community she seeks to portray in the novel with a literary "voice" that was previously unrecognized or seen as un-literary and not worth listening to.

Voice, Language and Storytelling ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Voice, Language and Storytelling 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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Voice, Language and Storytelling 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 Voice, Language and Storytelling.
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

"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 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

"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 13 Quotes

The thing made itself into pictures and hung around Janie's bedside all night long. Anyhow, she wasn't going back to Eatonville to be laughed at and pitied. She had ten dollars in her pocket and twelve hundred in the bank.

Related Characters: Janie Crawford
Page Number: 120
Explanation and Analysis:

Janie and Tea Cake head to Jacksonville, where they marry and rent a room. However, when Tea Cake disappears one morning, Janie begins to consider the cautionary tale of Annie Tyler, an elderly woman abandoned and robbed by her young lover, Who Flung. In this section, "the thing" is Annie Tyler's unfortunate demise.

Janie's despair lurks below the surface of this passage. In an attempt to distract herself, she has already cleaned the room and sipped coffee with the landlady. And yet none of this dispels her fear; Annie Tyler's story seems to take on material weight — it makes "itself into pictures," a physical presence that suffocates and torments Janie. 

However, in three short sentences, Janie manages to bolster her own resolve and find a sort of peace. The word "Anyhow" signals to readers that Janie has extraordinary resilience and resourcefulness. Though Tea Cake may have taken her two hundred dollars, Janie still has money in the bank, unlike poor Annie Tyler: the snappy parallelism "ten dollars in her pocket and twelve hundred in the bank" points to Janie's optimism, her independence, and her enduring good spirits. 

He drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.

Related Characters: Janie Crawford, Tea Cake
Page Number: 128
Explanation and Analysis:

Tea Cake goes off gambling one night, only to return battered and bruised, covered in cuts. Despite his wounds, his earnings are considerable — three hundred and twenty two dollars — and this gambling prowess astonishes Janie. She watches him as he falls asleep, feeling a pure love for her new husband.

Readers might consider the verb "crush" in this passage and its relation to the earlier sentences in Chapter 11: "He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world... Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took." Does this verb, at once violent and sensual, encapsulate the relationship between Tea Cake and Janie? Hurston even elaborates on Janie's psychic state here: the violence of her "self-crushing love" opens something within her, allowing "her soul [to crawl] out from its hiding place." We're seemingly not meant to understand this paradoxical image — something crushing shut in order for something else to crawl out — but only to appreciate and feel it. The verb "crawl" also reminds us of insects, bees buzzing around a blooming tree, in yet another allusion to Janie's pear tree experience of childhood.

Chapter 15 Quotes

Janie seethed. But Tea Cake never let go. They wrestled on until they were doped with their own fumes and emanations; till their clothes had been torn away; till he hurled her to the floor and held her there melting her resistance with the heat of his body, doing things with their bodies to express the inexpressible.

Related Characters: Janie Crawford, Tea Cake
Page Number: 137
Explanation and Analysis:

Though Janie loves their new life in the Everglades, she soon suspects that Tea Cake has become attached to someone else, a young woman named Nunkie. When she finds them "struggling" together in the sugar cane field, she confronts Tea Cake and they resolve the dispute with their bodies. 

In this passage, violence and love are inextricable: Hurston uses the language of battle, verbs like "seethe" and "wrestle" and "hurl," to describe a sexual encounter. (We can see the heightening tension in the text itself, which features an accumulation of phrases beginning with "till.") And yet Hurston does not paint a picture of marital abuse or injustice. Unlike Jody or Logan, Tea Cake treats Janie as a relative equal, without humiliating her or manipulating her. 

Hurston also writes that Janie and Tea Cake "express the inexpressible" with their bodies. Words suddenly fail them and they must resort to another, more primal and urgent language. This raises important questions about verbal and non-verbal communication in the book — when can a character transcend language? And is this instance, in which Tea Cake has sex with Janie instead of apologizing to her or discussing her worries, an example of action actually being more problematic and confusing than language?

Chapter 19 Quotes

She talked. . . . She just sat there and told and when she was through she hushed.

Related Characters: Janie Crawford
Page Number: 187
Explanation and Analysis:

Janie is brought before a jury after Tea Cake's death. Her friends all abandon her, siding with her deceased husband instead — all except Dr. Simmons, who testifies in her favor and explains the situation. And finally, Janie herself speaks, recounting the entire story. 

While readers might expect Hurston to relate this scene in dialect, she instead combines narration and dialogue. In other words, the novel's two primary voices converge in Janie's testimony — and this raises questions about the book's structure, including its frame story. Do Janie and the omniscient narrator differ? Janie explains herself to the jury just as she will go on to explain herself to Pheoby. For the first time, no man interrupts her or demands her attention and she can speak freely, despite the threat of judgment. 

Here, Hurston emphasizes Janie's honesty, her deliberate avoidance of "lying thoughts." By making her so suddenly transparent, Hurston puts her in a sort of blissful natural state. Her honesty corresponds to her physical wellbeing, and the "hush" after her testimony is natural and obvious.

Chapter 20 Quotes

"Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons. Dis house ain't so absent of things lak it used tuh be befo' Tea Cake come along. It's full uh thoughts, 'specially dat bedroom."

Related Characters: Janie Crawford (speaker), Tea Cake
Related Symbols: The Horizon
Page Number: 191
Explanation and Analysis:

Having wrapped up her tale, Janie tells Pheoby that she is ready to begin her life in Eatonville anew. Her experiences of the world do not torment her so much as provide her with happy memories.

In the novel's opening paragraph, Hurston describes the bleak "life of men," those who keep their eyes trained on the horizon and yet never move towards it. Janie follows her own path, however, and Hurston reintroduces the horizon in the novel's final chapter in order to differentiate these unhappy men from Janie, who has 'been tuh de horizon and back." Despite setbacks and hurricanes and abuse, Janie finds companionship and love, as well as independence. (Her use of the first person and the possessive "mah house" is especially powerful.) 

Janie tells Pheoby that her house is no longer "absent of things" — in this way, Hurston makes a sort of reflexive gesture towards the power of narrative. Janie's own life story will keep her company in the coming years. 

Of course he wasn't dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish net…She called in her soul to come and see.

Related Characters: Janie Crawford, Tea Cake
Related Symbols: The Horizon
Page Number: 193
Explanation and Analysis:

Janie retires for the night, yet she stays up reliving her recent memories of Tea Cake's death and the trial. She understands that Tea Cake can "never be dead" as long as she protects his memory.

This is a striking image — a person's thoughts and memories projected "against the wall" — not dissimilar from Janie's moment of anxiety in Chapter 13, when her fear makes "itself into pictures and [hangs around her bedside] all night long." In other words, Huston imagines a world in which the boundary between internal and external is porous. Readers might consider whether or not this permeability relates to the boundary between omniscient narration and dialogue in the novel.

Not only does Hurston circle back to the first chapter by way of the symbolic horizon, but she hints at an ocean in both moments, too. She mentions a ship in the first paragraph and a "great fish-net" in the final one, giving a slight Biblical undercurrent to her work. (In the New Testament, Christ calls his disciples "fishers of men," and several of them are former fishermen.) With this ending and the obvious connections between fishing and storytelling, Hurston turns her novel into a sort of fairytale. Their Eyes Were Watching God is about both the language of power and the power of language.