In Chapter XVIII of Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Theie Eyes Were Watching God, Janie, her husband Teacake, and various other poor black people are huddled in a cabin, listening to the fury of a ferocious storm outside. The narrator reports that
The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He [that is, God] meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.
This last phrase, which gives the novel as a whole its title, is significant for a number of reasons, including the following:
- It is typical of the allusions to God and to religion which crop up frequently in this novel.
- It implies that ultimately human beings have little power over the forces that control their lives, especially the massive forces of nature.
- It implies that since humans do possess little control over nature, the most that they can do is put their trust in God’s goodness.
- It also implies, however, some uncertainty about how, exactly, God will behave. The narrator does not say, after all, that “their hearts were sure of God.” Instead, the phrasing that presently exists suggests that God can easily be just as mysterious, just as difficult to predict or fathom, as nature itself.
- The phrasing that presently exists can be read, in fact, as somewhat sarcastic: why would God want to “measure their puny might against His”? Obviously, if he chooses to do so, they will lose. Why would a good God want to inflict pain and misery on those who have no power to resist either?
- In light of later events, the phrase “their eyes were watching God” seems somewhat ironic. God, after all, does not intervene here to quiet the storm or to prevent massive loss of life. Indeed, the lives of Janie and Teacake will be forever transformed by this storm in highly unfortunate ways.
- Thus the reference to God turns out not to be merely naïve or saccharine or melodramatic. At this point, we cannot be sure, any more than any of the people in the hut can, what the outcome of the storm will be.
- All the ironies and meanings implied by the phrase “their eyes were watching God” in the passage quoted above seem relevant to the novel as a whole – a novel in which God is frequently mentioned but in which his ways seem somewhat mysterious and can never be taken for granted.