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Their Eyes Were Watching God | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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Plot Summary

Professor Kristen Over of Northeastern Illinois University explains the plot summary of Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Their Eyes Were Watching God | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


Their Eyes Were Watching God is a bildungsroman, or a coming-of-age story, set in the late 1920s and early 1930s in central Florida. At the beginning of the novel, the protagonist, Janie Mae Crawford, returns home to Eatonville. The local residents, the "porch sitters," gossip about why Janie has come back without her husband. Pheoby Watson, Janie's best friend, visits Janie to find out. While sitting on Janie's back porch, the two women talk. Janie then tells the story of her life, which makes up the remainder of the novel, except for the last few pages.

Janie is raised by her grandmother, only known as Nanny throughout the novel, and grows up first in a house in the backyard of a white family, the Washburns, and then in a house Nanny owned. Before the Civil War, Nanny had been a slave near Savannah, Georgia, and had a daughter, Leafy, by the master of the plantation. After slavery was abolished, Nanny was hired to care for the Washburns' grandchildren. Janie's mother, Leafy, was raped by a white schoolteacher when she was 17, gave birth to Janie, and ran away. Nanny cares for her granddaughter along with the Washburns' grandchildren. According to Janie, she didn't realize she was African American until she was six years old.

When Janie is 16 years old, she matures into a woman. Nanny sees her kissing a boy and knows that it is time for Janie to get married. Nanny wants to protect Janie from having a child out of wedlock, as she and Leafy had done, and she wants her to have financial security. At Nanny's urging, Janie reluctantly agrees to marry a local potato farmer, Logan Killicks. Her new husband is neither attractive nor romantic, but he is a hardworking, honest man. He expects Janie to help him on the farm, but she wants more out of life, especially since she is so young. The following year, the very well-dressed Joe Starks comes walking down the road, and Janie offers him a drink of water. Starks flatters Janie and promises her a better life. Smitten, she decides to leave her husband and run away with Starks.

Starks is an ambitious man with big dreams. He wants to help develop Eatonville and become a leader of the all-black community. After Janie and Starks marry, Starks puts his plans into action. He calls meetings, recruits settlers, and initiates projects to improve the town. His big ideas match his big personality. He opens a store and establishes a post office, becomes a landlord, and is elected mayor. Despite acquiring status as the mayor's wife, Janie works six days a week in the store, and Starks does not allow her to partake in community events. Strict and controlling, Starks monitors her activities so much that she becomes unhappy with her life. After being married for 20 years, Janie and Starks grow apart. Eventually, Starks becomes ill and dies, leaving his widow to fend for herself.

Following Starks's elaborate funeral, Janie mourns but at the same time enjoys a new sense of freedom. She is so happy to be free, in fact, that she ignores the overtures of potential suitors until she meets Vergible "Tea Cake" Woods. Tea Cake, who is younger than her, woos Janie, and Janie falls in love with him.

Despite their age differences, Janie and Tea Cake forge a strong, loving relationship based on mutual respect and attraction. Tea Cake encourages Janie to learn new things, such as shooting a gun, driving a car, and playing checkers. With her third marriage, Janie finally begins to understand the nature of love and who she is.

Tea Cake and Janie marry in Jacksonville, Florida, and then move to the Everglades in the southern part of the state. Together, they work picking beans with other migrant workers and enjoy their lives on the "muck," the moist soil of the marsh. Their happiness, however, is short lived. When a hurricane hits the area, they must flee to higher ground. Although they both survive the storm, many fellow migrant workers drown. During the storm, a rabid dog threatens Janie. Tea Cake saves her but in the process is bitten by the dog.

Once the hurricane passes, Tea Cake is forced to help locate and bury the bodies of the dead. He does not like the work or the interaction with the white officials who put him to work, so he runs away. He and Janie return to the Everglades. After several weeks, Tea Cake comes down with rabies. It is too late for a cure, and he goes mad. Tea Cake becomes so irrational that he tries to shoot Janie in a fit of jealousy. She is forced to shoot Tea Cake to save her own life. After Janie kills her husband, she is put on trial for murder the same day but found not guilty by a white jury.

Following Tea Cake's funeral, Janie decides to leave the Everglades because she misses his presence too much. She returns to Eatonville, and the story-within-a-story ends. At the conclusion of the novel, Janie finishes telling her story to Pheoby. At the end of the night, Janie is alone in her house with her memories of the people, places, and experiences she has had. She realizes that she has found peace at last.

Their Eyes Were Watching God Plot Diagram

Falling ActionRising ActionResolutionClimax123456789101112Introduction


1 Janie returns to Eatonville and tells Pheoby her life story.

Rising Action

2 Nanny raises Janie in backyard of home where she works.

3 Nanny sees Janie kiss a boy; makes her marry Logan Killicks.

4 Janie leaves Killicks for Starks and moves to Eatonville.

5 Starks dies; Janie becomes landlord and store owner.

6 Janie meets Tea Cake; they marry and move to Everglades.

7 Janie and Tea Cake flee hurricane and Okeechobee floods.

8 Tea Cake saves Janie from dog but is bitten and gets rabies.


9 Janie kills rabies-crazed Tea Cake to protect herself.

Falling Action

10 Janie is arrested, tried, and acquitted of murder.

11 Tea Cake is buried.


12 After talking to Pheoby, Janie feels at peace with her life.

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