Their Eyes Were Watching God

what is the structure of the novel


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The narrator is anonymous, though it is easy to detect a distinctly Southern sensibility in the narrator’s voice. Though the novel is narrated in the third person, by a narrator who reveals the characters’ thoughts and motives, most of the story is framed as Janie telling a story to Pheoby. The result is a narrator who is not exactly Janie but who is abstracted from her. Janie’s character resonates in the folksy language and metaphors that the narrator sometimes uses. Also, much of the text relishes in the immediacy of dialogue.



Their Eyes Were Watching God has a very simple structure. The "frame" of the narrative, found in the first and last chapters, both introduces and closes the story of Janie Crawford's life and leaves open the possibility that her life will go on in a new variety of experiences. The problem that is solved in the story is Janie's desire and search for self-establishment, for constructing a way of life and persona that makes sense to her and fully engages her in the business of living. Pheoby takes Janie's story as a lesson, listening carefully to her friend in order to get some insight of their own.

Janie's story is straightforward. There is an introduction to her past, where the reader learns about her mother's desertion and her being raised by Nanny. The action really begins with her vision of the pear tree, for it marks the moment of her enlightenment and maturing into womanhood. Shortly thereafter, Nanny marries her off to Logan, promising that Janie will learn to love him. A distraught Janie, who feels betrayed, returns to her grandmother and says she will never be able to love an old man like Logan. Hurston is preparing the reader for the next rising action, when Janie deserts her husband and follows Joe Starks. He takes her to Eatonville with the promise of a new life. Eatonville is different, but life does not change much for Janie. She is still treated like a possession and forced to follow the commands of her husband. In addition, Joe is too buy being important to pay her any attention. When he dies an early death, Janie feels relieved and promises herself that the next relationship w ill be based upon real love. Tea Cake offers her that opportunity. She falls for this younger man who loves life and leads her to live on the muck. But Tea Cake is devoted to her, as proven at the climax, when he fights off a mad dog to save his wife. It is proof that Janie has found the love and devotion she has been seeking her whole life. After the climax, the falling action is intense and brief. Tea Cake contracts rabies and Janie must shoot him to protect herself. She is then tried for murder and found innocent. The conclusion shows her returning to Eatonville, a contented woman, who tells Phoeby her life story.

The progression of the central plot, for the most part, is chronological and evenly paced; there is only one exception. Almost fifteen years pass in Janie's life as Joe Starks' wife with little explanation or detail. This gap is intentional because Janie is merely entrenched in the boring and weary life that Joe demands of her. On the other hand, Janie's short life with Tea Cake takes up almost half the book, because Janie's self-fulfillment manifests itself in this portion of her life. Oddly, there are portions of silence in this section that have kept critics guessing. Why does Janie never comment on the beating she receives from Tea Cake? Is Janie ever treated for rabies? The rhythm of the silence and the loudness is matched the staccato nature of the chapter lengths. Some are extremely short, others quite lengthy, which makes the pacing of the story somewhat jumpy, almost like the life being led by Janie. The action, however, is always easily followed, for it reflects what is going on in Janie's l ife and clearly indicates her thought processes. The entire book also uses a story-telling voice, almost folkloric in nature, which is unmistakably linked to the plot's unfolding.

The third-person narrator of Their Eyes establishes a voice outside of Janie, commenting in the style of Janie's voice without the need to stay in the vernacular full time, which would be very difficult to write as well as read. The third person narrator allows the reader to follow not only Janie's way of thinking, but the thought process of the other characters too. Collectively, then, a voice of the place and time is established, and the storyteller becomes much like a porchsitter, but without the harsh judgment of the Eatonville folks. Their Eyes is not a neat, politically correct representation of African-American life in Florida in the early part of the twentieth century, but it is in some ways very realistic and always persistently complex.

The title of the book comes from an observation during the storm, the key event in the novel. Hurston portrays itinerant workers always living on the edge of their senses, but never more so than when they are waiting to see what destruction the hurricane will bring. In this moment, people are reduced to their most elemental nature; they are hardly distinguishable from the animals that force their way into the cabins to wait with them. These people, much like Janie in her quest for self-establishment, are trying to see beyond the moment to something larger; "their eyes are watching God" for the bigger picture and for an understanding. Hurston later states that what is being sought is possibly beyond understanding and certainly beyond the physics presented in the storm, but they look to God for the answer when they can no longer find it in themselves.