Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God



The Pequod Review:

Their Eyes Were Watching God is the coming-of-age story of Janie Crawford, an intense and idealistic African American girl living the Deep South. Janie is raised by her grandmother (Nanny), whose traumatic experiences as a former slave leads her to channel her own broken dreams through Janie’s life. When Janie is sixteen, Nanny gives her own version of The Talk:

Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different wid you. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd! 

The rest of the story traces Janie’s life, as she marries once, then marries again — both times unhappily and unfulfilled. It is only when she meets Tea Cake, a much younger man, that she realizes a measure of the love and passion she has dreamed about since a child. 

In both its themes and its narrative arc, the book is ordinary and even cliched. But Hurston makes up for this with extraordinarily vivid scenes that capture the language, people, customs, and even the climate of rural Florida. Late in the novel, in a climactic scene, Janie and Tea Cake sit waiting for a powerful hurricane:

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against cruel walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

Published in 1937 to extremely favorable reviews, the book was nonetheless poorly received by the African American activist community, who believed Hurston should use her talents to write political novels highlighting racial injustices rather than complex novels with flawed characters. As a result, the book was soon out of print and mostly ignored for more than 30 years. The pendulum then swung too far in the opposite direction following Alice Walker’s laudatory 1975 essay, “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston,” which launched a revival of Hurston (and especially this book) that continues to this day.