Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Though I didn’t know anything about the book, the title, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and the author’s exotic-sounding three-part name were familiar to me for years. I’ve now read the book, but I don’t feel I am familiar enough with Hurston’s historical context or the intervening decades of relevant literary criticism to fully appreciate its significance.

For a plot summary and other thoughts, see below.

My Plot Summary of Their Eyes Were Watching God

The story starts at the end. Janie, the protagonist, has returned to town alone and nobody knows what’s brought her back. Her friend Pheoby goes to give her some food and listen to what she has to say.

Janie explains how she did not see herself as black when she was a small child. She relates how her grandmother, wanting the best for her, married her off as soon as she could after she saw her letting a boy kiss her. Janie’s husband was rich so her life was comfortable, but Janie hated that life and wanted to be in love instead of comfortable. She wanted to experience the ecstasy of a pear tree blossom pollinated by a bee.

She decided to walk away from her husband when an ambitious traveler passed through town and complimented her articulately. They married, and her new husband set about building a town of black people almost from scratch.

He built a store and a fine house and became the mayor of the town. He considered the mayor’s wife too important to take part in the daily life and easy conversation of the town, and was always busy with new projects. He expected Janie to run the store, which she found difficult because of the calculations involved. He was also jealous and made Janie cover up her attractive (and highly symbolic) hair so nobody would get to appreciate it but himself.

When he began to age visibly, he would tell Janie she looked old, too, even though she didn’t. One day, she told him in front of a group of townspeople that he was the only one of them who looked old, and it wounded his pride permanently. He hit her in response.

He wasn’t just old, though, he was sick, too. Just before he died of kidney failure, she barged into his room and told him he’d been too self-absorbed during their marriage to find out what kind of person she was, and that he’d changed from the man he’d been before he’d built the town. (The town is based on and named after the real town Hurston grew up in.)

After the death of her second husband, Janie didn’t look for another one. She guarded herself against those who were interested in her looks or the money she’d inherited from her successful husband. One day, however, a charming fellow named Tea Cake came along and teased her and taught her checkers and made her feel like she could do whatever she wanted, not just what men thought was proper, useful, or desirable for her to do.

They became lovers, and after Tea Cake went to another town to find work, Janie put on her blue dress and got on the train by herself to go and marry him, carrying $200 in emergency money pinned inside her clothes.

When, a few days after their marriage, Tea Cake and the money disappeared, she feared she’d been taken advantage of, like someone she’d heard about growing up. However, he returned and explained how he’d found the money and used it to throw a spontaneous party and buy a guitar. He promised to earn back the money at dice gambling, and succeeded, though he got knifed in the process.

Then the couple went down to the Everglades to make money on the farms there, and became part of a friendly community. A snobby woman kept trying to steal Janie away from Tea Cake for her brother, and Janie gots jealous of a woman who flirted with Tea Cake, but apart from that life was good. Janie and Tea Cake did everything together and loved each other.

Then a hurricane came. (It was a real hurricane.) In a pause between gusts of wind, Tea Cake asked Janie whether she regretted leaving the safety of her comfortable life in the town, and she replied with a definitive no. Tea Cake had brought her to life and even if they both died in the storm, it had all been worthwhile.

The title of the book appears in the text after this interchange. It describes three people (Motor Boat, Janie, and Tea Cake) who were in the Everglades the night the storm winds came.

They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God. (160)

When finally the three fled the rising waters, Motor Boat decided to stay behind, in an abandoned house on slightly higher ground. After Janie and Tea Cake had gone on ahead, Tea Cake had to fight a dog to save Janie from the flood. Unfortunately, the dog was mad and bit Tea Cake, and it was weeks before anyone realized he had rabies. When he became unable to drink water and Janie fetched a doctor, it was already too late. Tea Cake went mad and shot at Janie, thinking she didn’t love him anymore, and Janie, still full of love but without much hope for his recovery, shot him dead to protect herself.

Janie and the doctor explained the circumstances at her murder trial and she was cleared and set free from jail, but she couldn’t stay in the Everglades without Tea Cake. That’s when she returned to the fine house in the town her second husband built, and told the whole story to Pheoby.

Later, in her own room in the house, she is able to let go of the grief she feels for Tea Cake’s death while cherishing the memories of the true love they shared.

Other Thoughts

Use of Language in Their Eyes Were Watching God

A prominent feature of the book is the black vernacular English spelling, grammar, and word choice in the dialog.

One of the negative reviews I read on Amazon complained about the language used in the dialogue and further complained that the narrator speaks the same way as the characters. The narration, in a way, is actually Janie’s, so it would make sense if the narrator spoke the same way as the characters. However, the narrator’s diction is in fact vastly different from that of the characters.

To my way of thinking, a fairer complaint is that the third-person narration shifts between Janie’s perspective and an omniscient one. Though the whole novel is presented as a story that Janie is telling Pheoby, the novel follows Mayor Starks through scenes that Janie was never a part of, and even lets us in on the conversation of some buzzards that feasted on the carcass of a much-mocked and much-celebrated mule.

The language does much to place the characters in a world that is strange to me, and there are many words and sentences of dialect that seem pretty opaque. However, I found the style intelligible and enjoyable. How can anyone not love this word for ‘a person’s behind’?

“Just g’wan back home and set down on yo’ royal diasticutis and say nothin’.” (82)

All credible online references to this vaguely medical-sounding word point back to Zora Neale Hurston’s use of it. There’s also Urban Dictionary, which explains it without explaining where it came from, and there’s also a tumblr post defending Filipino English, which claims with convincing plausibility that the word is from Greek. I don’t know whether Hurston invented this expression or whether maybe it’s authentic but just poorly documented on the internet.

You’ve heard of the double negative, but quite possibly you ain’t never seen it used like this:

“Ah ain’t never heard nobody say he stole nothin‘.” (102)

There are a few colorful proverbs embedded in the story, like this one (which means “I can keep a secret”):

“Ah jus lak uh chicken. Chicken drink water, but he don’t pee-pee.” (114)

Note the absence of a linking verb after “I”. This absence (called the ‘null’ or ‘zero’ copula) is normal in some kinds of sentences in Chinese, and, I’m told, Russian, among other languages. Although Standard English would require the verb, in principle there’s no reason it can’t be omitted. All language is convention, and conventions are sometimes more flexible than we like to admit—and at other times, less so.

Themes in Their Eyes Were Watching God

The themes the book is famous for relate to the journey of one black woman to discover a stable identity in a society where black people and women would consistently get the short end of the stick.

The plot feels fairly naturalistic in the sense that stuff just happens, events and decisions simply succeed one another, and although we know Janie returns to town alone, it isn’t quite clear where the intervening story is headed until the climactic storm hits, at which point the novel is nearly through.

I was worried that the plot would just be one long series of realizations along the lines of “everything I believed up until now was wrong”, each followed by a decision to move on to something completely different (like the plot of Siddhartha). But Janie builds on what she learns rather than overthrowing it at every stage, and she doesn’t go through that many stages. The most powerful summary of what she learned might be this one:

“[L]ove ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.” (191)

The book’s statements about faith are interesting because although Janie seems to believe in God and trust that he will decide the best for her life, in this passage the narrator seems to have a much more cynical view:

It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood. (145)

The passage is talking about the extent to which a mixed-race woman idealized white physical characteristics like Janie’s hair. In her opinion, since Janie was more white than she was, Janie was higher in the pecking-order, and deserved to be worshiped. The “her deity” in the first sentence thus refers to Janie. The narration, however, changes to present tense as if the narrator is making a general statement rather than channeling the thoughts of the racist woman.

The series of present tense statements seems to imply either that there really are other gods besides the Christian one, or perhaps that there are really none at all. The gods described in this passage are not like the cheek-turning friend of the New Testament who offers forgiveness, but like bloodthirsty manipulators who make endless demands.

In other parts of the novel, spirituality seems more closely tied to nature and natural forces or folklore than to a specific deity or personal god.

Hurston’s Legacy

By all accounts, Hurston was a great influence on Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, and Toni Morrison, author of Beloved and Song of Solomon, other books I’ve heard of and probably already own copies of but have never read.

The afterword in my copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God ascribes to Hurston the view that black people should not take on the identity and attitudes of victims. Apparently she thought bemoaning social injustice and railing against discrimination were actions somehow beside the point, or, worse, that they perpetuated a false and damaging viewpoint.

I come from the kind of background that is called “white privilege”, so my opinions on the subject of race relations in the United States at the beginning of the 20th century (or now, in any part of the world, for that matter) will be derided no matter what I say. If I say anything along the lines of “you people need to get over the past and make something of yourselves”, my attitude will be characterized as insensitive at best and anachronistically hegemonic at worst; if I say anything along the lines of “I stand with you in your struggle for equality in the face of tyranny”, my attempt at solidarity will be construed as some kind of obliviously destructive act of cultural appropriation. I’m going to try to stay out of that minefield.

Janie had to choose between a life that met others’ expectations and a life in which she could achieve, or at least pursue, her own fulfillment. Whoever you are and whatever background you come from, I hope that those who care about you never put you in that position. If we never have to face such a choice, we are lucky indeed.

When and Why I Read It

Rachel of the Hungry Hundred Book Club Meetup in Singapore chose it.

Genre: fiction
Date started / date finished:  18-Aug-16 to 24-Aug-16
Length: 205 pages
ISBN: 0060931418 (paperback)
Originally published in: 1937
Amazon link: Their Eyes Were Watching God