Upon its publication, Their Eyes Were Watching God received rather harsh judgment from such African American writers as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison, who called the book “quaint.” Above all, they criticized Zora Neale Hurston for presenting a romantic view of the African American community and for not writing in the Harlem Renaissance protest tradition. Others reviewed the book more favorably, but it was soon out of print and became forgotten.
In 1965, Their Eyes Were Watching God was republished, after which it began to receive a great deal of attention and to be reevaluated by many as a staple of the American literary canon. The book was lauded in particular for its calling on the black folkloric tradition, for its language, and for its female hero. Janie is light colored and beautiful, and as a child she does not even realize she is black. When she is in her forties, her neighbor, Mrs. Turner, admires her for her coffee-and-cream complexion and her luxurious hair. However, Janie’s road to self-knowledge takes her deeper into blackness. She moves from her home among white folks through two black husbands to the blackest of them all, Tea Cake, and the blackest community of all, that of the seasonal workers in the Everglades.
African American lore was passed down not in writing but in speech. Their Eyes Were Watching God documents the oral tradition in two ways. The book actually describes the community passing on its lore, first on the porch of Joe Starks’s store and later at the evening get-togethers at the house on the muck. In one of the most memorable and comic scenes of the book, the Eatonville inhabitants hold a ceremonious mock funeral for Matt Bonner’s yellow mule, an occasion that elicits delighted participation from the entire town. A subtler device by which Hurston documents the oral tradition is in her method of narration when Janie tells her story not to the audience by the printed word but orally to her friend Pheoby. Readers get the spoken narrative, what Henry Louis Gates, Jr., called “a speakerly text.”
The novel is richly packed with direct speech in poetic black dialect. Nanny, warning Janie not to give her heartache, tells her, “Put me down easy, Janie. Ah’m a cracked plate.” When Janie frets to Tea Cake about being older than he, he says, “ . . . don’t say you’se ole. You’se uh lil girl baby all de time. God made it so you spent yo’ ole age first wid somebody else, and saved up yo’ young girl days to spend wid me.” Even the third-person narrative is presented to the reader in Janie’s dialect. After Joe’s death, Janie “starched and ironed her face and came set in the funeral behind her veil. . . . She sent her face to Joe’s funeral, and herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world.”
The richest element of the novel is Janie herself. She becomes powerful and self-reliant as she moves from being controlled by men to being self-assertive and independent. Janie is ultimately never beaten down because she learns to separate her private self from her public life until she finally gets the opportunity to combine the two. Janie provides a positive image of the black woman who is able to reject conformity and security at the same time that she controls her life on her own terms. Her choice—to trust love—invigorates her; upon her return from the muck, she tells Pheoby, “Ah been a delegate to do big ’ssociation of life. Yessuh! De Grand Lodge, de big convention of livin’ is just where Ah been.”
Janie’s experiences reflect the difficulties of being black and female in the South in the early twentieth century. Hurston shows her both as a part of a community and as an outsider in that community by virtue of her gender and her choices. She rises above her circumstances. Saddened but not defeated at the end of her tale, Janie tells her old friend Pheoby not to judge harshly the neighbors who gossiped so cruelly upon her return to Eatonville: “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.” Janie finds out about livin’, and she is at peace.