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Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God

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a novel by Zora Neale Hurston, published in 1937; it tells the story of an independently minded black woman. As a girl the heroine Janie Crawford is taught by her grandmother to seek more than the life of drudgery that is the usual fate of women in her society. As an adult Janie leaves a loveless marriage to a husband who owns land and joins up with Joe Starks, a confident smooth-talking man who takes her to an all-black Florida town, where he hopes to find an environment where he can achieve independence. Though Joe achieves the kind of self-esteem he desires through becoming the mayor of the town, their marriage proves unfulfilling for Janie. Joe expects her to be subordinate to him and she rebels against this. When he dies she finds greater fulfilment in a third marriage to a younger man, Tea Cake, with whom she falls deeply in love. Her happiness is, however, short-lived. The couple enjoy a brief idyll working in the Florida Everglades, but, fleeing from a hurricane, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog. Driven mad by his illness, he attempts to shoot Janie, who kills him in self-defence; she is tried for murder but acquitted by an all-white jury. Though sometimes melodramatic, Their Eyes Were Watching God has considerable emotional power and is notable for its sensual and organic imagery. Ahead of its time in its uncompromising representation of racial and gender oppression, the novel has gradually acquired an impressive reputation and today it is seen as a forerunner of the work of contemporary African-American women writers like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.

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