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Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

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In which year or time period is Their Eyes Were Watching God set?

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Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937 and is considered one of the most important works of the Harlem Renaissance, a movement in post-World War I African American literature centered around a large African-American community in Harlem, an area in northern Manhattan.

The novel is set in Eatonville, Florida, a town near Orlando that was the first incorporated African-American community in the United States. Eatonville was founded in 1887, during the Reconstruction following the Civil War, in an area with relatively harmonious race relations (compared to other parts of the south) and soon developed a substantial middle class African-American population. 

Hurston does not mention the specific date at which her novel is set, but we can assign a general time period  by doing some analysis. First, the main action of the novel occurs after the end of World War I, but before its publication date of 1937. Next, we know that Hurston traveled around Florida in 1927 and 1928 studying regional folktales, and that some of the folkloric material she collected was incorporated in the novel. Finally, there was a hurricane in 1928 quite similar to the one discussed in the book. Therefore, we can say that the novel is set in approximately 1927-1928, but that as it is a work of creative fiction rather than journalism, it is more concerned with the nature of relationships and culture than the specific historical events of those years.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in the early 1900s, probably somewhere between 1915 and 1935.  There are several clues in the novel that point to the historical context of the time.  First, Janie moves to Eatonville with Joe Starks and there the couple own a store together.  In most places in the American South, Jim Crow laws were in effect to segregate blacks from the white community.  However, Eatonville (and a few other towns throughout the South) were incorporated as African American towns and these towns were self-governed and therefore did not have Jim Crow laws.  This allowed Joe and Janie to own their business.  Further, later in the novel Janie mentions the downtrodden lives of some of the farmers and this indicates that the Depression has touched the lives of people trying to make a living for themselves.  The novel was published in 1937, so it is likely that Hurston relied on her knowledge of the area in what was then contemporary times.

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