Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

February 3, 2010

Today, I welcome Zora Neale Hurston as part of the Harlem Renaissance tour that is happening this month in the Classics Circuit. In her foreword, Edwidge Danticat calls Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God a “brilliant novel about a woman’s search for her authentic self and true love.” That’s just about the best short summary that I could possibly find. Zora Neale Hurston was one of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. Although we may know her best for her novels and short stories, she was actually a trained and practicing anthropologist. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 while she was living in Haiti to research the people and culture of that country. While she was writing, Hurston was a popular writer, but she never benefited monetarily for all of her hard work. Sadly, she died penniless in a welfare hospital. For decades, her work was lost to us, because her writing was not deemed appropriate for correct political opinions of the time. But in 1975, Alice Walker published an article about her attempt to find Hurston’s unmarked grave, and ever since then, her books have been popular again. Aren’t we lucky that they are?

Hurston’s anthropological eye is one of the things that makes this novel so wonderful to read. As we learn about Janie and her adventures in Florida, it feels like we are transported to a different time and place. Hurston does such a great job of making us feel like flies on a wall. As soon as I finished reading this novel, I knew that I loved it simply for the realistic characters, the beautiful story, and the impressive writing. But once I started thinking about it more, so many questions came to mind. It’s great that Janie was so independent and didn’t care what other people might think about her actions, but why did it sometimes take her so long to stand up for herself when men were treating her badly? Why did it sometimes seem like all of the people, with the exception of the main characters (Janie, Joe, Tea Cake, Pheoby) always acted goofily? What role does family play in the culture we are reading about? Sometimes it seems so expendable to Janie, yet at other times, we hear of touching stories of families helping each other out.

There’s a lot to ponder in this book. It seems like such a brief, beautiful glimpse at an entire time, place, and people that I would so love to learn more about. I almost wish that Hurston had written a whole catalog of books just like this, Zola-style, that examined different characters in different novels.

Can anyone recommend a second Hurston book to read after this? Has anyone seen the Oprah production movie of this book? Is it worthwhile to watch?



  1. I have of course heard of this book (and the TV movie, which I have not seen) but did not know what it was about. Based on your description, I think I will add it to my to-read list. Thanks.

    • I hope that you enjoy if when you start reading it! I was like you before I chose this for the classics circuit: I had no idea what to expect.

  2. This is one of my favorite books of all time! Thanks for the lovely review; I’ve seen several over the past few months, and they’re tempting me to a re-read.

    Re: Janie standing up for herself, I see that as part of her character-arc – she gets better at it over time, and she’s also exploring the world and asking herself what it is she wants. So in a couple of instances I think it takes her a while to realize that a given situation, despite its advantages, isn’t what she wants out of life.

    Thanks for the post!

    • Emily, I think you’re very right about her “developing” as the story goes on. Particularly if I think back to when she lived with her Grandmother, who emphasized a very different sort of happiness for Janie.

  3. […] Zora Neale (Wikipedia) Their Eyes Were Watching God: Reviewed at Book Addiction, things mean a lot, Daily Words and Acts Tell My Horse: Reviewed at things mean a […]

  4. I haven’t read this but love her stories I have read – my favorite being Passing. I don’t know when,my to-read list being lengthy, but I will definitely get to this at some point. I noticed that the complete story is conveniently available on Google books.

    • Oh, I will need to keep an eye out for Passing. I love short stories, and I bet that ZNH’s are excellent.

  5. I really need to (re)read this. I listened to the audiobook and loved it but I think reading it would fascinating.

    I love that summary of it. Thanks for sharing your thouhts.

    • Actually, I bet the audiobook was really cool, too! There is so much dialect in the dialogue that reading it can be a bit difficult at first. I hope that you enjoy the reread if you decide to do that.

  6. I remember watching the movie years ago and I thought the way you did about Janie- she let the guys walk all over her.

    I’m reading this one for the tour too. It will be interesting to see how they compare.

    • Someone else in the comments mentioned that Janie grows in the book, and I think that’s partly true. In the beginning, she lets everyone walk all over her, but towards the end, she has found her own voice a bit more. I look forward to reading your review!

  7. This is one of my favorite books. I agree with the comment about Janie growing over time. I think she has to learn how to stand up for herself.
    I thought the Oprah movie was worth watching.

    • Yes, she’s definitely grown over time. I think we see some of that in the way that she tells her story at the end and ignores all the stares as she walks back into town. I will check out the movie.

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