Their Eyes Were Watching God


by Zora Neale Hurston 

Zora Neale Hurston, an early twentieth century
Afro-American feminist author, was raised in a
predominately black community. This gave her a unique
perspective on race relations which is reflected in her
novel, " Their Eyes Were Watching God". Hurston drew on her
on experiences as a feminist Afro-American female to create
a story about the magical transformation of Janie, from a
young unconfident girl to a thriving woman. Janie 
experiences many things that make her a compelling
character who takes readers along as her companion, on her
voyage to discover the mysteries and rewards life has to
Zora Neale Hurston was, the daughter of a Baptist minister
and an educated scholar who still believed in the genius
contained within the common southern black vernacular (Hook She was a
woman who found her place, though unstable, in a typical
male profession. Hurston was born on January 7, 1891 in
Eatonville, Florida, the first all-incorporated black town
in America. She found a special thing in this town, where
she said, "... [I] grew like a like a gourd and yelled bass
like a gator," (Gale, 1). When Hurston was thirteen she was
removed from school and sent to care for her brother's
children. She became a member of a traveling theater at the
age of sixteen, and then found herself working as a maid
for a white woman. This woman saw a spark that was waiting
for fuel, so she arranged for Hurston to attend high school
in Baltimore. She also attended Morgan Academy, now called
Morgan State University, from which she graduated in June
of 1918. She then enrolled in the Howard Prep School
followed by later enrollment in Howard University. In 1928
Hurston attended Barnard College where she studied
anthropology under Franz Boas. After she graduated, Zora
returned to Eatonville to begin work on anthropology. Four
years after Hurston received her B.A. from Barnard she
enrolled in Columbia University to begin graduate work
(Discovering Authors, 2-4). Hurston's life seemed to be
going well but she was soon to see the other side of
Hurston never stayed at a job for too long, constantly
refusing the advances of male employers, which showed part
of her strong feminist disposition. But Hurston was still
seeking true love throughout her travels and education. At
Howard University, Hurston met Herburt Sheen whom she
married on May 19, 1927 in St. Augustine, Florida (DA, 2).
They divorced shortly after they got married because they
could not continue the idealistic dreams they had shared in
their youth. Zora Hurston's second marriage to Albert Price
III was also short lived. They were married in 1939 and
divorced in 1943 (DA, 2). By the mid-1940s Hurston's
writing career had began to falter. While living in New York, Hurston was arrested and charged with committing an
immoral act with a ten-year-old boy. The charges were later
dropped when Hurston proved that she was in another country
at the time the incident allegedly took place (Discovering
Authors, 3). Hurston already was witnessing the rejection
of all of her works submitted to her publisher, but the
combined effects of the arrest and the ensuing journalistic
attack on her image doomed the majority of her literary
career. She wrote to a friend: "I care nothing for writing
anything any more... My race has seen fit to destroy me
without reason, and with the vilest tools conceived by man
so far" (Discovering Authors, 4). In approximately 1950
Hurston returned to Florida, where she worked as a cleaning
woman in Rivo Alto. She later moved to Belle Glade,
Florida, in hopes of reviving her writing career. She
failed and worked as many jobs including: newspaper
journalist, librarian, and substitute teacher (Baker, pages.html/chronology.htm). Hurston
suffered a stroke in 1959 which demanded her admittance in
the Saint Lucie County Florida Welfare Home. She died a
broken, penniless, invalid in January 1960 (DA, 5).
All of Hurston's trials built the basis for her best work.
Therefore, the work that has denoted her as one of the
twentieth century's most influential authors did not come
until after she had graduated from college. However, the
literature she composed in college was by no means
inferior. She was a defiant free-spirit even during her
early college career. While working on an anthropological
study for her mentor, Franz Boas, she was exposed to voo
doo, which she quickly embraced. She was deeply interested
in the subtle nuances that voo doo had left scattered
throughout Afro-American culture. She also adopted this
religion, which contrasted completely with her Baptist
upbringing, because it gave her a new artistic sense. Voo
doo freed her from the institutional restraints that she
experienced as a black woman in a white oligarchy (Hinton,
4). Her belief in voo doo appeared in almost all of her
works, including "Their Eyes Are Watching God", where
Zora's fictitious Eatonville seems to be controlled by
supernatural forces (Hinton, 5). Hurston used her artistic
talent to incorporate her cultural anthologies into her
fiction by combining many of the traditions and cultural
tinges she discovered while weaving Black culture into the
fictional town of Eatonville (Hemenway, 13).
Hurston's most acclaimed work, " Their Eyes Were Watching
God", has been read, adored, rejected, reviewed, and
badgered by many literary critics and uneducated readers
alike. "In a book rich with imagery and black oral
tradition, Zora Neale Hurston tells us of a woman's journey
that gives the lie to Freud's assertion that 'the difficult
development which leads to femininity seems to exhaust all
the possibilities of the individual'" (Reich, 163). This
statement is manifested in Their Eyes... through Hurston's
vivid imagery and uncanny sense of her own needs. The plot
centers around Janie, a character some critics say is
mimicked after Hurston herself, and her journey toward
self-discovery. As a victim of circumstance, Janie becomes
a victim of her own position. She is raised to uphold the
standards of her grandmother's generation; she is taught to
be passive and subject to whatever life gives her. But as
Janie grows older she begins to realize that the world may
not like it, but she has got to follow her desires, not
suppress them. The story begins in her childhood, with
Janie exalting material possessions and money. Janie
marries twice, the second marriage being bigamous. She
realizes that she must be self-reliant. She experiences all
of these things in a totally Black community, where society
is motivated by the most basic human instincts.
Hurston embedded her own life experiences into Their
Eyes... with her clever incorporation of prominent themes
with in society. While avoiding social prejudice, Zora
seamlessly integrates her own racial-discovery into her
novel. The reader does not feel that she is projecting
social prejudices or personal attacks; but rather imparts a
tender, gentle revelation to Janie that she is Black. Janie
is raised with white children in the home of the family for
whom her Grandmother works. She grows up playing, laughing,
and enjoying the things that the white children do, so much
so, that she is included in a family portrait. When she
goes to look at the picture, she doesn't see herself- but
rather a dark girl with long hair. "Where is me? Ah don't
see me," she complains (Their Eyes Were Watching God, 6).
She had not realized till that moment, she was not white.
To further the story-line, Hurston takes Janie on a journey
of self-discovery with a slightly feminist twist.
Throughout the novel, Janie is confronted with the
compelling desire by others to make her a "proper" woman.
She is taught to be submissive. She is taught to have no
opinion and no initiative. However, she learns over time,
she has the growing feeling that something is missing,
possibly her lack of self-confidence. She soon becomes her
own person, casting her given lot aside, and seeking a new
one on her own path, discovering her dreams and her
In this novel, Hurston expresses many of her opinions on
race relations. She is often criticized for her lack of
confrontational forces in Their Eyes..., however she
explained that she has clearly defined her position on race
relations in her books. She has done it in a way that no
group has any ground to claim that her work caters to any
one audience. Many Black critics at the time of publication
criticized Their Eyes... for its lack of racial awareness,
while White critics, such as Otis Ferguson, claimed that
the book is ".. absolutely free of Uncle Toms..." (DA, 2).
Most contemporary critics feel Hurston's novel is the
culmination of all of Black culture. 
Hurston was often criticized for her writings. She was
quick to reply: I am not tragically colored. There is no
great sorrow dammed up in my soul, nor lurking behind my
eyes. I do not mind my color at all. I do not belong to the
sobbing school of Negrohood who hold that nature somehow
has given them a lowdown dirty deal and whose feeling are
all hurt about it.... No, I do not weep at the world- I am
too busy sharpening my oyster knife (Discovering Authors,
Hurston showed her true opinions on race relations in her
autobiography " Dust Tracks on the Road" when she declared
black artists should celebrate the positive aspects of
black American Negrohood. That is exactly what Hurston did
through her innovative characters in " Their Eyes Were
Watching God". Janie is raised by her grandmother.
Grandmother sets Janie up for her journey of
self-discovery. Janie's grandmother set her goal for
Janie's life by saying, "Ah wanted you to look upon yo'
self. Ah don't want yo' feathers always crumpled by folks
throwin' up things in yo' face" (Hurston, 14). Her
grandmother has a desire to see Janie in a 'safe' place, or
in other words, a place where she will never have to want
for anything. Janie loved her grandmother and wanted to
please her even though she was not sure she agreed with all
of the plans her grandmother had made. "Janie had been
angry at her grandmother for having 'taken the biggest
thing God ever made, the horizon... and pinched it in to
such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about
her grandmother's neck tight enough to choke her'" (Reich,
4). Her grandmother accomplishes this by arranging for
Janie to marry Logan Killicks.
Logan Killicks is a farmer who marries Janie shortly after
she completes school. Killicks is the first antagonist that
Janie encounters in the story. He is there for one purpose,
to destroy Janie's new sense of self-awareness. Janie does
not love Logan nor does he love her. Janie is constantly
looking for another horizon. She soon finds that horizon in
Joe Starks.
Joe appears in Janie's front yard one day. He says the
'sweet' things that Janie wants to her. Janie leaves Logan
the next day, and therefore takes another step in her
journey. Joe is a man who is concerned with little except
power. He wants it, and he is going to use Janie to get it.
He is cruel to Janie, and stomps out all of her free will.
He builds his town of Eatonville as the newly elected
mayor, crushing all in his path, making many enemies,
including Janie, along the way.
Teacake could be Janie's knight in shining armor. He comes
to her aid. He wants her to do the things she desires.
"Sing, dance, have fun with me," seems to be what Teacake
is offering her-a new direction. Teacake is a good ol' boy.
He takes Janie to the Everglades. He lets her tell stories.
However, she becomes what she set out to, only when she
leaves Teacake. When she leaves Teacake Janie returns to
Eatonville and the book ends where it began, as Janie
finishes or dialogue with her friend Pheoby. When she walks
back in to town, no longer 'Ms. Mayor,' as Joe was fond of
calling her, Janie is truly her own person. She is proud
and sure of her self and her place under the sun. 
There are so many literary and social implications
contained within " Their Eyes Were Watching God", that many
criticisms have been written on particular aspects of
Hurston's work. One of the best criticisms, though not
nationally published, demonstrates some of the true
experiences that Hurston incorporated into her work.
Hurston conjures powerful images by giving voice to all her
disparate elements while simultaneously respecting the
autonomy of each. She conjures images from the kitchen,
from the rural landscape of Florida, and from the elemental
forces of nature. and tempers her conjuring with the
objectivity of the scholar while freely adorning it with
the poetic beauty of black vernacular (Conjured into Being,
The unknown author of this passage gave an elegant style to
the point that Hurston used strong sensory and oratory
descriptions to make her text come alive. She tried to pull
from all the areas of her personality to develop something
on paper, the way she experienced it in life. She showed
her philosophy on how a person should live their and get
the most out of it. In her autobiography she wrote: I had
stifled longing. I used to climb to the top of one of the
huge chinaberry trees which guarded our front gate, and
look out over the world. The most interesting thing that I
saw was the horizon... It grew upon me that I ought to walk
out to the horizon and see what the end of the world was
like. (Dust Tracks on the Road, 36), (Conjured into Being,
1).Like Hurston, Janie longs for the horizon. She finds
that she must struggle to overcome the many obstacles
society throws in her path.
Hurston's frequent use of emotional metaphors is part of
the power contained in her fiction. She uses nature to
convey her emotions. The sun is a major image in the texts
of Hurston, and the passage above illustrates her
fascination with light. Ever since her mother told her to
'jump at de sun' when she was a young girl, Hurston
self-confidently refused any feelings of victimization She,
like her character Janie, was not 'tragically colored.' In
her early short story, "Drenched in Light," a wealthy white
woman comments on Isis, the happy child of Hurston's your:
'I would like just a little of her sunshine to soak into my
soul{spunk, 18}'(Conjured into Being, 4)."
This is one of many examples of Hurston's emphasis on
emotional identification in her fiction. She also believed
strongly in the elements of the earth and how they showed a
symbol for each emotion. "The elements of sun and fire
cleanse and renew her. The wind, another elemental image,
is first heard 'picking at the pine trees.' Pine trees,
which Janie associates with young black men, like TeaCake,
who are often seen 'picking' guitars" (Conjured into Being,
The wind is commonly associated with love, the soul, and
femininity. She expresses her feminist philosophy with the
description of women not as weak creatures needing to be
cared for, but as strong capable peers.
Bryan D. Bourn, with help of Dr. Laura Zlogar of the
Wisconsin-River Falls University discusses the role of
Afro-American women in " Their Eyes Were Watching God". He
explores the role of African-American women in early 1900's
society by examining Hurston's writing. Historically, the
job of women in society is to care for the husband, the
home, and the children. As a homemaker, it has been up to
the woman to support the husband and care for the house; as
a mother, the role was to care for the children and pass
along cultural traditions and values to the children. These
roles are no different in the African-American community,
except for the fact that they are magnified to even larger
proportions. The image of the mother in African-American
culture is one of guidance, love, and wisdom...
Understanding the role of women in the African-American
community starts by examining the roles... in Afro-American
literature. (Bourn, 1). Bourn goes on to state that the
role of the mother-daughter relationship is expressed
vividly in Their Eyes... by the relationship that develops
between Janie and her Grandmother. "The strong relationship
between mother and child is important... the conflict
between Janie's idyllic view of marriage and her
[grandmother's] wish for her to marry into stability...
show how deep the respect and trust runs" (Bourn, 1). This
excerpt tries to show the way that Janie, by marrying
Logan, does what her grandmother wants out of respect. This
is just one of the idealistic ways that Hurston expresses
her opinions on society and life, not to exclude racial
"Does Hurston 'owe' her race anything" (Hinton, 2)? As
previously discussed, many of Hurston's contemporaries
criticized her lack of racial issues in her work. A good
question to ask is "does Hurston's fiction further racial
equality?" (Hinton). Kip Hinton discusses Hurston's
approach to race relations in comparison to the common
school of thought during her time. Alain Locke criticized
Hurston for avoiding racial confrontations (Hinton, 2). All
of Hurston's critics said that she gave in to the
stereotype of a typical African-American. This in turn
furthered the sense of inequality present in society. The
critics who held this view, according to Hinton, subscribed
this style of confrontation: "They believed only by
preaching to the white reader about how wonderful blacks
really were and how horrible discrimination was, could
equality be achieved" (Hinton, 2). This argument is really
a feeble one. Hinton claims that this argument lacks reason
because "telling a racist he's a racist won't make him
change" (Hinton, 2). If the reader can not read Hurston's
work and see that she cared deeply about equality, dealing
with it in her special way, then they will never change.
The most important thing to keep in mind when you think of
Zora Neale Hurston is that she was a literary genius. She
may have been a woman, and an African-American, that is why
someone wrote, "Zora would have been Zora even if she'd
been an Eskimo" (Hinton, 3). That is why she was so clear
on her definition of race relations. She believed that
equality was achieved by showing the oppressor the
wonderful things in life, not constantly pointing out the
bad. Hurston put it best when she cried out, "at certain
times I have no race, I AM ME."


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