Most scholars consider Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s second novel, to be her best. Many readers, who know little about Hurston or her work, know Janie Crawford and Tea Cake Woods. Any critic attempting today to write about Their Eyes must acknowledge the numerous authoritative voices of earlier critical views. For a number of years Robert Stepto’s influential essay in From Behind the Veil (1979) marked other critiques of Their Eyes in one way or another. Stepto called for a fresh look at African-American works, including Hurston’s.
In response to Stepto’s call, it may be helpful to look at Hurston’s autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, in which she writes that she tried to “embalm” in Their Eyes all of the passionate and tender feelings she felt for a man she loved and yet gave up for the sake of her career (211). Not only is Their Eyes alove story, but it is a story of a young girl growing up, a Bildungsroman or a coming-of-age story.
Hurston structures the plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God by using a brief prologue that leads into a framing device. Within the frame is the story proper, divided into three segments, marked by the marriages of the novel’s protagonist, Janie Crawford. What appears simple in structure, however, turns out to be complex in development.