Their Eyes Were Watching God: The Case for Zora Neale Hurston’s Forgotten Classic

“Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands . . . 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.”

It is easy for us today, living in an age of rapid movement and constant innovation, to forget how far we have come, especially in recent years.  Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ serves as the vivid reminder we did not know we needed. The novel begins in Northern Florida, and goes on to tell the story of Janie, a resilient Black woman who suffers two unhappy marriages, life in a deeply segregated South, as well as an unfortunate tragedy of circumstance. With Janie, Hurston brought to life a Black heroine at a time when there were largely none written. In her elegantly simplistic style Hurston takes us through the innovative and happy all Black community of Eatonville, and then the charming paradise that was the Everglades.  More than all this, however, in Janie Hurston wrote into existence a heroine who did the unthinkable: dared to seek self fulfillment and her own happiness.

  Because of this, Hurston’s novel (despite being poorly received upon release) became a staple of feminist and Black literature. And deservedly so, because  perhaps for the first time a Black woman was not just written, but shown as a layered, strong, thoughtful, and mighty individual. While Hurston’s  novel was indeed revolutionary for 1937 ( a story of Black love and independent female mindedness was far from the norm) , the earnesty with which it was written, the thoughtfully simplistic prose is what enchants us still to this day. “She didn’t read books so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.” 

In fact, what the novel is perhaps most famous for is the dialogue. Hurston integrates the Southern dialect and expressions of Black people at the time into her novel. In a  Mark Twain-esque form that Hurston makes her own, every characters’ speech is written in precisely the way they would speak. We hear it in Janie: “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” Admittedly in the year 2020 it makes the novel a bit harder, but all the more rewarding and special. (Note: if the dialogue is hard for you I found reading it aloud makes it easier)

This utilization of casual dialect lets the simplest of characters or phrases paint scenes colorfully,“Moon’s too pretty fuh anybody tuh be sleepin’ it away” In short, Zora Neale Hurston conveyed her people, her message, her very own self, in the most powerful way possible; by doing it authentically. It is the resonation people felt when reading themselves on the pages that made her novel famous. And it is that same unpretentious genuinity which attracts us 80 years later. At its core ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ is a love story, yes one between a Black man and woman (trailblazing at the time), but equally as important is the love story between Janie and the woman she discovers herself to be. Hurston purposefully, lovingly and slowly makes Janie realize her own worth and love, compelling readers everywhere to the endearing Janie and enduring novel itself. At just over  200 wide spaced pages ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ is a quick read, but one that will stay with you for long after.