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Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is not an autobiography; however, it certainly contains biographical elements.
Zora grew up in Eatonville, Florida, one of the most significant settings in the novel. It is an all-black settlement, the first in the nation, and Zora had fond memories of the time she spent growing up there. We see the town come to life in the novel, both its delights and its flaws.
While Zora's mother always encouraged her to take risks and dream big, her father was always afraid she would offend white society, so he routinely punished her for being so brash and bold. This is the same pressure Janie feels at various times and from various people in the novel. Despite the fact that Nanny gets scared about Janie's future and traps Janie into a loveless and unfulfilling marriage, Nanny is also a reflection of Zora's mother. Nanny tells Janie:
Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and to do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothing can’t stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ‘em of they will.
Throughout the novel, people want to suppress Janie in all kinds of ways, but she wants to be herself. Zora's mother would have approved.
Zora's father, John, was the mayor of Eatonville for three terms, and she was quite proud of him. Of course this aspect of her life is reproduced in Janie's husband, Joe Starks, who pronounces himself mayor of Eatonville.
Zora's mother, Lucy Ann Potts Hurston, was not in awe of John Hurston like everyone else was; she was the force behind the man, shaping him into the model mayor and citizen. Zora once said of her mother that
the one who makes the idols never worships them, however tenderly he might have molded the clay.
This is almost exactly how one might describe Janie's relationship with Joe, and he always hated that she did not worship him like everyone else did. Janie (through Zora, of course) describes Joe Starks this way:
They bowed down to him rather, because he was all of these things, and then again he was all of these things because the town bowed down.
It is the thing that comes between Janie and Joe and kills their love.
When Zora's mother died and her father remarried, his new wife wanted nothing to do with his eight children. Zora became a virtual orphan, passed around by the family and attending school sporadically. This is similar to the sixteen-year-old Janie we meet at the beginning of the novel.
Zora was always a dreamer who preferred to read and travel, and this is reflected in the novel's protagonist, Janie. Also like Janie, Zora did not have a lot of success in her relationships. Zora was married and divorced twice, and she had at least one younger lover who wanted too much from her. Zora wrote about him: “My work was one thing, and he was all the rest," but he wanted "all, or nothing." This is not exactly replicated in the novel, but it is certainly recognizable in all three of the men in Janie's life.
It is hard to deny that this novel is, at least in part, a reflection of Zora's life. Even the end of the novel is a kind of prediction about Zora and her novel will be received by her own community. When she comes back into town after being gone, she is scorned and gossiped about. In real life, the reception was even worse, and she was vilified by the African-American community.
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