Chapter One Summary:
The novel begins with a statement about the differences between the dreams of men and women. Men's dreams are like distant ships. For some men, the ship comes in and the dream is realized very quickly. For other men, the ship sails for a long, long time on the horizon. By the time these dreams finally can be realized, so much time has passed that the dreams are worthless. Women don't wait and watch for their "ship to come in." Some women have dreams and some do not. And for women, the mere possession of the dream is what matters: "The dream is the truth."
Janie has been gone from Eatonville for a very long time, and it is dusk when she returns. As she walks through the center of town to her old home, all the people of the village stare at her and judge her. The townspeople are cruel and envious. They wonder why she is returning in improper overalls instead of a proper dress and where her husband is.
Janie walks straight through the town and does not let anyone bother her. Janie is a beautiful black woman; the men notice her tight bottom, her beautiful hair and her "pugnacious breasts." The women are envious of her; they hope she might fall to their level some day.
The women are angry that she does not stop and explain herself. Only Pheoby Watson, Janie's old best friend, defends Janie's silence saying that maybe her story is not for their ears, or maybe she has nothing to tell. Pheoby leaves the women to take some supper to Janie.
Pheoby finds Janie sitting on the back porch of her home, soaking her tired feet. Janie and Pheoby hear laughter from the women across the street; they talk about the terrible jealousy and pettiness of the women. Pheoby remarks that "an envious heart makes a treacherous ear."
Janie and Pheoby share some laughter and Pheoby says that Janie should hurry up and inform the community about her past to end all the negative gossip about her. But Janie remarks that she doesn't want to waste the time; besides Pheoby can inform them later. Janie says, "Mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf."
Janie begins her tale, which makes up the body of the novel. Janie tells Pheoby that she has nine hundred dollars in the bank. Tea Cake never touched her money, but he has recently died. She lived with him in the Everglades and now she's come back.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel about self-discovery. Janie Starks is a black woman living in Florida sometime during 1920-1935. (The novel was published in 1937.) In this first chapter, she has just returned from a two year journey. This novel is told "backwards" in a sense, because the first chapter begins with Janie's homecoming and only in the following chapters does the reader learn about the events leading to Janie's return.
Hurston relies heavily upon dialect, typical Southern speech which she spells phonetically, in writing this story. The speech of the characters is typical of blacks living in Eatonville, Florida during 1920-1935.
This chapter introduces a number of motifs that recur throughout the novel including the horizon, porches, and hair. In this chapter, ships on the horizon represent dreams that are unattainable. Porches are the usual place for community assembly, and are also the only place where people can truly feel human: all day the people feel like "mules and brutes have occupied their skins." But only on the porches, at the end of the day, do their skins feel "powerful and human." The porch is also the setting of Janie's revelations to Phoebe. Janie's hair is a powerful symbol of her individuality and sexuality. It is thick, and healthy: "the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume."
Chapter Two Summary:
Janie begins telling the story of her life. She never knew her mother or her father, and was raised by her grandmother. Her grandmother worked as a nanny for white children in the Washburn family, and Janie grows up playing with the Washburn children. She calls her grandmother "Nanny" because that is what the other kids call her. Everyone calls Janie "Alphabet" because she goes by so many names. Janie does not know that she is black until a photograph of her is taken with the other children. Until the age of six, she thinks that she is white, and "the same as everyone else." When she goes to school, the other black children are jealous of Janie because she wears the Washburn children's hand-me-downs; these clothes are much nicer than what the other black children wear. Nanny does not like the fact that Janie is picked on by the other black children for living in the white family's backyard, so she asks the Washburns to help her buy some land and create a home of her own.
Janie loves to spend the afternoons lying under a pear tree, staring into the branches. One afternoon, she is mesmerized by the beauty of bees pollinating the pear blossoms. Janie feels intoxicated by the pollen and her newly awakened sexuality. She now sees Johnny Taylor, a boy she previously thought of as "shiftless" as a "glorious being." She walks to the gate and kisses him over the gatepost.
Nanny sees Janie kissing a boy and calls her inside. Nanny is convinced that Janie's kiss has brought her into womanhood. She slaps Janie for her indiscretion, and tells her that she must get married to Logan Killicks. Janie objects, saying that Logan is ugly and old. But Nanny repeats that Janie must get married to someone who will keep her safe and protected. Nanny reiterates that she just wants to protect Janie from the burden of being a black woman. Nanny narrates to Janie the terrible experiences that she has been through. She was a slave when she was younger and remembers the day that the men on her plantation all left to fight in the Civil War. As she lay with her newly born child, Leafy, the master of the plantation came into the house, pulled off the covers, and forced her to have sex with him for the last time before he left for war. After he left, the mistress of the plantation slapped Nanny many times because the baby looked partially white with its blonde hair and gray eyes. The mistress of the plantation knew that the master had been sleeping with Nanny and threatened to whip her until she bled to death and sell the baby into slavery when it was a month old. Nanny ran away from the plantation that night and named the baby Leafy because she hid her in the leafy moss. Luckily the war ended within a few months, and Nanny never had to be a slave again.
Nanny raised her baby (the woman who was to become Janie's mother) in the same place as she raised Janie: at the Washburns' house. She wanted Leafy to grow up and become a school teacher, but after Leafy was raped by her own school teacher at the age of seventeen she became pregnant with Janie. After her daughter was born, Leafy became an alcoholic and then ran away from home. Nanny's negative experiences make her determined to make life easy for her granddaughter. Nanny says, "Have some sympathy fuh me. Put me down easy Janie, Ah'm a cracked plate."
This chapter presents the story of Janie's childhood and of her sexual awakening. An important symbol that emerges in this chapter and continues to appear throughout the novel is the pear tree, which is a metaphor for Janie. It blossoms when Janie blooms, just when Janie has her sexual epiphany. The first sentence of the chapter is very important: "Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches." Janie's sexuality is always regarded by the author as natural.
At this point in the novel, Hurston moves away from third person narrative to free indirect discourse. Their Eyes began in third person, told through the voice of Hurston. From this point on, particularly in the novel's more important moments, the voices of Hurston and Janie merge. Although much of the novel is told in third-person omnicient, certain sentences like "So this was marriage!" (discribing the pollination of the pear tree) allow the reader to hear Janie's thoughts directly.
Another scene that has intense thematic importance is the love scene between Janie and Johnny Taylor. First, it is important to note that Janie feels no affection or interest in Johnny prior to her sexual epiphany under the pear tree. But after she witnesses the beauty of the bees and the blossoms, Janie wonders, "Where are the bees singing for me?" She is able to project her own desires (the desires to find a mate that is worthy of her) on to Johnny Walker. This ability to create a fantasy demonstrates a large difference between Janie and the other women in the story. Whereas the other women accept their condition, Janie has the power to see what she wants to see. She projects her dream into the world, and then transcends reality.
Another important symbol in this chapter is the gate, and the fact that Janie kisses Johnny over the gate post. Gates symbolize beginnings, openings into new worlds or new stages in life. Here, notably, Janie does not open the gate, meaning that she does not actually leave her childhood entirely. Instead, she kisses Johnny over the gatepost; symbolically speaking, she has only left her childhood for a moment and then returned to it.
Chapter Three Summary:
Before marrying Logan, Janie tries to figure out whether marriage will "end the cosmic loneliness of the unmarried." She spends a lot of time under the pear tree trying to understand how marriage might make her feel love. She does not love Logan, but she hopes that love will grow once she is married.
Janie moves into Logan's house and immediately does not like it. She thinks it looks like a "stump in the middle of the woods that no one had ever seen." After three months pass and she still feels no love for Logan, she visits Nanny. Nanny says she should love Logan merely because he has sixty acres of land on the main road. Janie says that the land does not matter. She wants sweet things in her marriage like the beauty of sitting under a pear tree. Janie starts crying and Nanny sternly tells her that her mind will change as time passes. Later that evening, Nanny prays to God saying that she feels sorry for Janie's unhappiness but that she did the best she could. Heavy-hearted, Nanny dies a month later.
Janie waits nine months and when the summer comes again, she stands at the gate and begins "expecting things." Since her decisions thus far have failed her, she looks out of the gate for a new opportunity.
This chapter is the first illustration of how different Janie is from other black women. Janie is miserable in her marriage and Nanny seems puzzled as to why. Logan, Janie's husband, seems ideal because he has sixty acres of land. Nanny's perspective is based on her childhood as a slave. In her experience, owning land is a privilege reserved for whites, so a black man who owns it is immediately worthy of love. But Janie is a sensual women who grew up in nature and learned about sex and love from sitting underneath a pear tree and watching the bees spread pollen. Land is not enough to fulfill her desires and make Janie happy in her marriage. The reader finds further evidence of how Janie is closely connected with nature in the way that she measures time. Janie's consciousness is usually described in natural terms. She waits a year before she decides that she is no longer happy in her marriage, but she measures these months in terms of the seasons: "So Janie waited a bloom time, and a green time and an orange time. But when a the pollen again gilded the sun and sifted down on the world she began to stand around the gate and expect things." Her closeness with nature helps explain where Janie gained the values that she did not learn from Nanny.
The image of the gate reappears at the end of this chapter. Janie only begins to stand at the gate when she knows that she is irreversibly unhappy in her marriage. The gate again signifies a new beginning, a new experience, or a new adventure. The ending of this chapter heavily foreshadows that Janie's life is about to change again.
Chapter Four Summary:
One morning, Logan wakes up and tells Janie that he is going to Lake City to buy a mule, and expresses his wish for her to do hard labor while he is gone. Janie is not happy about this and says that all she will do is cut potatoes, and Logan calls her spoiled. As soon as her husband leaves, Janie hears whistling outside of the barn. She sees a citified, stylishly dressed man. He is black, but seems to Janie to be acting white. The man's name is Joe Starks. He is from Georgia. He's worked for white people all his life, but heard that there is a new town called Eatonville that is entirely populated by black people. Joe Starks is on his way to become one of the town's leaders.
Joe Starks asks Janie where her parents are. Janie laughs and says that she's married but that her husband is away buying a mule for her to plow. Joe Starks says that that is a terrible way to treat Janie. For two weeks, Joe and Janie meet every day. Joe, nicknamed Jody, asks Janie to leave Logan and marry him. Jody asks Janie to meet him on the road outside her house so that next that they can run away together.
Janie considers the matter. She tells Logan that she has considering leaving him. Logan insults her and they argue over who will move the mule's manure. Janie tells Logan that he hasn't done her any favor by marrying her, and Logan threatens to kill Janie with an axe. Janie considers this statement, then runs out of the gate to run away with Joe Starks. They head to Green Cove Springs and get married before sundown.
There are two minor details in this chapter that mark the turning point of Janie's relationship with Logan. It is significant to Janie that Logan stops talking to her in rhymes, because for Janie, rhymes are linked with love. In addition, she notices that Logan stops looking at her long black hair. Janie's hair is symbolic of who she is and her sexual identity, so the fact that Logan has stopped looking at her hair indicates that he has stopped caring about her at all.
Joe Starks fulfills many of the things that are lacking in Janie's life. He reminds her that she is young and beautiful and appeals to her need to have a friend that is the same age she is. The first thing that they have in common is their love of sugar in water; sweet water is a treat for young children. Furthermore, Joe thinks big. He talks about the horizon whereas Logan Killicks' dreams extend no further than his sixty acres of land. Janie, too, has high hopes. Her relationship with Logan is stifling because he inhibits her need for dreaming big dreams and trying to fulfill them. She explains her dissatisfaction with Logan's shallow dreams when she says, "You don't take nothin' to count but sow-belly and corn bread."