Hurston’s second novel, it tells the story of Janie Crawford, a woman in her forties who returns to her home in Eatonville after the death of her second husband, Tea Cake, and tells her story to her best friend Pheoby. Her life has three major periods corresponding to her marriages to three very different men: Logan Killicks, an older man whom her grandmother marries her off to who just wants a wife to keep his home and help on the farm; Joe Starks, the romantic who whisks her off to Eatonville who wants her as his trophy wife to reinforce his image as a powerful man, and Tea Cake, who woos her with his guitar and takes her to “the muck” (the Everglades) to work with him and have what is generally presented as an equitable marriage.
When she is young, Janie has an idealistic, romantic idea of love, informed by a picturesque vision of bees pollinating a pear tree. One reading of this novel is as a feminist text, as Janie can be seen as a woman who pursues her desires and is not afraid to leave one man for another or claim her place in traditionally masculine spaces such as the porch. On the other hand, there are those who see the physical violence which is inextricably linked to sexuality and love within these relationships as mitigating any proto-feminist readings.
Hurston has also been criticized for her portrayal of African Americans in her work, especially for her use of dialect which many see as offensive. However, as an anthropologist who trained with Franz Boas, Hurston was attempting to capture the sense of the people of whom she wrote. Other criticisms of her work point out her failure to address the effect of racism on these people. As the primary setting of the novel is a predominantly African American community, such lack of racism occurs because there are few white people in the novel. Rather, the white women at the end of the novel who show solidarity for Janie through their voting her innocent while she is on trial for shooting and killing Tea Cake (after he, in the blind rage of rabies, tries to shoot her) are shown in opposition to the black men who oppose Janie’s innocence and demand retribution for Tea Cake’s death. Her return to Eatonville and reunion with Janie, when considered along with the solidarity of the white women and the fierce protection of her grandmother when she was a child, make an interesting argument for sisterhood over racial solidarity.