Hurston tells Janie's story in the form of a frame — that is, the author begins the novel and ends the novel with the same two people in the same setting, with only an hour or two having elapsed. Sitting on the steps of her back porch, Janie tells her story to her friend Pheoby Watson. The telling takes only part of an evening; Pheoby arrives at Janie's house in the early evening, and it is dark when she leaves to go home. Within this comfortable setting of one friend talking to another, Hurston tells Janie's story. This frame becomes the first part of the structure of the novel. The rest of the story proceeds chronologically, but it is not a first-person narrative. The author quickly takes over the telling and uses third-person point of view. The reader follows the experiences as Janie lived them, but it is the novelist who controls the story.
Within the frame, the novel has four units. First, Janie's early years with her grandmother. Second, an interlude where Nanny tells her own story and the reader learns about Janie's loss of childhood and the brief months of her first marriage. Janie's years with Joe Starks fill a third section, with the episode of the mule as an interlude that has no function in the story other than to show Janie's compassion for an ill-treated animal and an act of kindness that Joe did for his wife. Of course, it also gave Hurston an opportunity to poke fun at local customs, especially funerals. And the final section focuses on Janie's marriage to Tea Cake Woods. One interlude in the final section focuses on Mrs. Turner, and it serves to contrast Janie's open-mindedness with Mrs. Turner's bigotry. The frame is finally complete when Janie comes full circle and rests her tired feet on her own steps and spends the evening with Pheoby.
Within the framework of the novel, it appears that Hurston included many similarities that paralleled her own life. Like Janie, Zora grew up without much mothering. Her own mother died when Hurston was quite young. The character of Nanny in the novel seems to parallel Zora's own mother, Lucy Hurston. Like Nanny in the story, Lucy wanted her children to do well in life; she held their ambition for them, just as Nanny did for Janie.
One of the prevalent characters in the novel is Joe Starks, Janie's second husband. This character exemplifies an obvious similarity to Hurston's own life: Joe Clarke owned a store in Eatonville while Hurston was growing up there. As a child, Zora spent a lot of time there, listening to the men telling their tales. Both the store and the group of gossipers can be found in the novel. Joe Starks, in the novel, owns the crossroads store, and the men and women who gather to exchange stories are known in the novel as the porch sitters. Also, the character of Joe Starks resembles Zora's own father. He was a three-time elected mayor of the town of Eatonville, Florida, just as Joe Starks was in Hurston's story.
Janie's romance with a younger man, Tea Cake, also seems to parallel Hurston's life. Hurston also had a relationship with a much younger man, who may have served as the model for Tea Cake.
Eatonville, Florida, the setting of the novel, is an actual town located five miles north of Orlando. It is the oldest surviving incorporated municipality in the United States. Of the more than 100 black towns founded between 1865-1900, fewer than 12 remain, one of which is Eatonville. Perhaps it was the profound impact of this southern community on her life that prompted Hurston, who was born in Eatonville, to use it as the setting of this novel.
Hurston penned Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937, a time when novels written by African-American female authors were rare. Not only was it unusual for an African-American female author to have a novel published, but also it was uncommon for novels written during this time period to contain an African-American female as a novel's heroine. Perhaps that is why many of Hurston's writings were overlooked until after her death. Noted author Alice Walker, who searched and found Hurston's unmarked grave in August 1973, reintroduced the public to Hurston's work in the mid 1970s. Through her writing, Hurston served as one of the first African-American female voices of the twentieth century.