Critical Essays Structure of Their Eyes Were Watching God


Their Eyes Were Watching God possesses a unique structure. The story is told in the context of a "frame." The novel both begins and ends with two people, Janie and Pheoby, sitting on the porch of Janie's house. Janie tells the stories contained within the novel to Pheoby during the course of an evening. The novel begins with Janie telling her dear friend, Pheoby, about what has happened in the years since she left Eatonville, along with reflections of her childhood. As the story proceeds chronologically, however, the story is not a first-person narrative. Hurston takes over the narrative with the use of third-person point of view. The reader encounters Janie's experiences as Janie faced them, yet Hurston controls the story.

Within the novel, there are four units to the framework of the story. The first frame exists with Janie's childhood and adolescent years with her grandmother, Nanny. The reader learns that Nanny was forced to care for Janie after her own mother deserted her. This portion of the novel is important as it details Nanny's wish for Janie that she have a better life than she did. This unit also is significant because it emphasizes Nanny's protective love for Janie. It also explores Janie's feelings and desires about love, a theme that continues throughout the novel.

The second unit serves as an interlude where readers learn Nanny's story as well as Janie's loss of childhood after her marriage to Logan Killicks. Nanny's history proves noteworthy as it reinforces her hopes for Janie. Nanny does not want Janie to repeat the mistakes of her mother. She wants Janie to live a secure and comfortable life. Nanny is not as concerned about love as Janie is. Perhaps that is because Nanny has never experienced the kind of love that Janie desires. This unit also emphasizes Nanny's protective love for Janie.

Janie's years with Joe Starks fill the third section of the framework in the novel. This unit represents Janie's early happiness with Joe as well as her later dissatisfaction with Joe as he treats her like one of his many possessions. Janie suffers from Joe's possessive love as she is trapped in a loveless relationship. Joe's control over Janie actually fosters her strength and autonomy. However, it is also in this section that Janie gains the inner strength that she will use throughout the rest of the novel.

The fourth and final section of the novel focuses on Janie's marriage to Tea Cake. Finally, Janie has experienced freedom and independence following Joe's death. She meets the captivating and charming Tea Cake and finds the love that she has desired since her adolescent years. He satisfies her desire for love, and she experiences true happiness for the first time. With Tea Cake, Janie is no longer the possession that she was to Joe, and the love that she feels is not based solely on security and protection. This fourth unit brings the novel to the end of the frame.

The framework of the novel is complete as Janie's recollections and stories end and Pheoby returns home to her husband. It is through Janie's eyes that the reader understands the story. Yet, Hurston tells the story in third person to allow the reader to know more about the other characters and their perspectives.

It is possible that Hurston chose to tell the story within a framework to give Janie a voice in the novel. Had Hurston relied solely on a third person narrative, Janie would have had no voice. Using first person narrative in this framework proves that Janie has gained strength and independence as a result of her lifelong search for true love.