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Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God Analysis

  • Janie is a romantic at heart, and her ideals often conflict with those of Logan and Joe, her first two husbands. Both of them treat her like a hired hand, placing her in a subservient role, according to traditional gender roles.
  • Janie’s pear tree is a symbol of her blossoming sexuality. When she sits under it, she experiences a sexual awakening that makes her curious about love. Her grandmother, seeing this, quickly marries Janie off to Logan Killicks.
  • Their Eyes Were Watching God incorporates distinctly Black American and Southern dialects, which bring an added layer of realism to the novel.

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Zora Neale Hurston wrote most of Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 during a seven-week period she spent in Haiti. Hurston, the recipient of a Guggenheim fellowship, spent her days gathering anthropological data about life in Haiti, but she spent her evenings working on what was to become her greatest novel. The impetus for such an outpouring of words was a love affair with Albert Price III, a young graduate student of West Indian descent whom she had left in New York. Hurston undoubtedly realized that her relationship with Price was doomed, and thus she invested much of her own emotional life in the creation of her protagonist, Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods. The reader witnesses the internal maturation of Janie as she embarks on a journey for self-knowledge.

Janie tells the story of her life to Pheoby, her best friend, a woman who sympathizes with her and who is eager to hear Janie’s story. Although Janie’s brief narration is introduced by and then taken over by a third-person, or “public,” narrator, the narrative voices that speak throughout the text always move toward convergence with Janie’s voice. Janie’s conscious life begins in her grandmother’s backyard, where she first experiences sexual ecstasy. When Nanny sees Janie kissing Johnny Taylor, she insists that Janie marry Logan Killicks. Nanny tells Janie that the white man gives his workload to the Black man, and the Black man gives his workload to the Black woman; therefore, the “nigger” woman is the mule of the world. After her marriage to Killicks, Janie quickly discovers that marriage does not equal love, and when the opportunity presents itself, Janie simply walks away and never looks back.

Janie’s opportunity to leave Killicks presents itself in the form of Joe Starks. Starks is on his way to a town in Florida that has been established by and for Black Americans. He is a man of the world and plans to be a “big voice” in the town of Eatonville. Janie marries Joe and moves with him to Eatonville. She is soon disappointed in her marriage, however, because Joe Starks places Janie on a pedestal, far above the common riffraff of the town, and thus effectively silences her. Janie ceases to love Joe, and their marriage moves from the bedroom into the parlor. During the years of her marriage to Joe, Janie’s self-awareness grows. She discovers that she has a “jewel” inside her. Janie discovers that she understands Joe’s motives, that she can see a man’s head “naked of its skull.” Finally, after twenty years of marriage, Joe dies. Janie, rejoicing in her newfound freedom, rejects the community’s efforts to marry her to another man.

Janie is unwilling to allow the community of Eatonville to find her another husband; however, she finds a new mate when Tea Cake Woods enters her store. Although he is much younger than Janie, Tea Cake teaches her to laugh and to play again, and together they leave Eatonville to work in the Everglades as farm laborers. In the Everglades, or the Muck, their relationship is challenged by the community of laborers, a community whose attitudes and activities present a microcosm of Black American society. Janie and Tea Cake are also challenged by God, or nature, in the form of a hurricane. During their struggle to survive the hurricane, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog and becomes rabid himself; Janie is forced to shoot him. Janie is brought to trial and acquitted by a white jury. The circularity of the novel is completed as Janie returns to Eatonville. The narrative ends as Janie pulls her life in about her and drapes it over her shoulders like a great fishnet.

Places Discussed

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West Florida

West Florida is the region in which Janie Crawford spends the early years of her life. The initial part of the novel is set in her maternal grandmother’s house and charts Janie’s coming into womanhood. Janie has been raised by her maternal grandmother, Nanny, who fled slavery with her infant daughter and later migrated to West Florida with her employers, the Washburn family. With the Washburns’ assistance, Nanny purchases her own home so that she can properly raise and protect Janie from derision following the tragic rape and subsequent disappearance of her mother, Leafy. On a particular spring afternoon, Janie experiences her budding sexuality beneath a blooming pear tree as a bee enters the inner sanctum of a pear blossom in the act of pollination.

When Nanny spies Janie kissing the shiftless Johnny Taylor, she immediately arranges for young Janie to marry Logan Killicks, a much older man who owns a house and some property, so that Janie will be protected from men whom Nanny fears will take advantage of her granddaughter. While Janie objects to this marriage, she nevertheless tries to make the best of it for awhile, until it becomes quite clear that she will never be able to live for herself in these circumstances. Thus West Florida becomes associated with her grandmother’s dream and Logan Killicks’s dream but not her own dream. When Janie meets Joe Starks, a traveler from Georgia, she walks out of her marriage with Killicks and casts her lot with Joe to pursue the far horizon.


Eatonville is an all-Black town in central Florida just north of Orlando near Maitland. Janie comes here with her new husband, Joe, in pursuit of the horizon. When they arrive in Eatonville, Joe is disappointed with the place. Through Joe’s energy and foresight, Eatonville is soon transformed into a thriving town, but as the years pass, Janie discovers once again that this is not the place of her dreams, but of Joe’s. She becomes alienated from the townspeople and forbidden to participate in any of the community’s rituals. In addition, as a woman in a male-dominated world, Janie is oppressed, as evidenced by her being forced to wear her hair tied up and by the brutal way that Joe verbally humiliates her in the presence of the men of the town. When Joe dies of a lingering illness, Janie is liberated. Soon she meets a considerably younger man, Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods. Finally deciding that widowhood and life in Eatonville are too confining, she follows Tea Cake to Jacksonville, where they marry.

De Muck

“De muck” is a name for the portion of the Florida Everglades south of Lake Okeechobee near Clewiston and Belle Glade. The name is derived from the rich black soil that grew lush vegetation. It represents a certain earthiness, a certain carpe diem spirit, as Janie and Tea Cake quit Jacksonville to live and work among the hordes of migrant workers. Like the weeds and vegetables, Janie flourishes in this locale among the folk with a man who loves her for who she is. Thus de muck represents the horizon for Janie, a place where she can finally realize the fullness of life and live out her dreams. Unfortunately this bliss is short-lived, for in the aftermath of a devastating hurricane, Janie is tried and acquitted for killing Tea Cake in a tragic act of self-defense. After she buries him in a lavish ceremony, Janie returns to her home in Eatonville, where she intends to grow old.

Form and Content

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By introducing each chapter of Their Eyes Were Watching God with a thematic image, Zora Neale Hurston artistically changes the focus of the novel from an emphasis on Janie Crawford’s linear chronology of her life to her internal development. For example, the “far horizon” to which ships sail and from which they return identified in the first line of chapter 1 becomes the protagonist’s standard in evaluating the imaginative vision of each of her three husbands. By the concluding chapter, Janie reveals that she herself has traveled to and returned from the “far horizon,” thus expressing her personal voyage of internal discovery.

Their Eyes Were Watching God begins as weary Black workers sit on their porches and witness the return of Janie to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida. Expressing the superficial standards of society, these people believe that the widow of their deceased mayor, in returning alone and wearing overalls, has been financially exploited and abandoned by the young man with whom she had departed. When Janie’s best friend, Pheoby Watson, questions the circumstances of her return, Janie responds that Pheoby can only understand if she knows the whole of Janie’s life. It is within this framework that Janie proceeds to tell her story.

Janie’s grandmother, who was formerly enslaved, is determined to leave her granddaughter with a protector, in the hope that Janie can avoid the Black woman’s experience of being “the mule of the world.”

At the age of sixteen, Janie marries her grandmother’s choice, an older, lugubrious owner of a farm, Logan Killicks. Ironically, when Killicks expresses his intention to buy a mule, “gentle enough for a woman,” Janie foresees a future very like the one from which her grandmother had sought to save her, and she leaves him to marry Joe “Jody” Starks.

Although Janie knows that Joe is not the “dust-blossoming bee” of her dreams, he does speak of “far horizons,” the word “horizon” expressing Janie’s intention of fulfilling her dreamed destiny. While Joe fulfills his own dream of fortune and importance by setting up a general store and becoming the mayor of Eatonville, he relegates his wife to a lonely, subordinate position. At Joe’s death, Janie savors the freedom of making her own decisions.

Her independent lifestyle is disturbed by the arrival of Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods, whom she intuitively believes to be the “dust-blossoming bee” of her dreams. In spite of the difference in their ages and fortunes and the criticism of the townspeople, Janie leaves Eatonville with Tea Cake and marries him. They travel south to the Everglades to work as migrant workers on the Muck. To all appearances, as Janie works beside her husband in the fields, she would seem to be the “mule of the world” that her grandmother decried. The difference is that Janie works in the fields not because she has to, but because she and Tea Cake prefer to be together as much as possible.

Unfortunately, a hurricane destroys their idyll, and Tea Cake, in trying to protect Janie from a rabid dog, is himself bitten. In a hydrophobic rage, he attacks Janie, who shoots him in self-defense. After a brief trial that exonerates her, Janie returns to Eatonville.

At the conclusion of Janie’s tale to Pheoby, her friend is so impressed that she claims to feel magnified by hearing the tale. Pheoby’s response universalizes Janie’s personal defiance of conventions into a challenge to all women to satisfy their personal dreams.


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Their Eyes Were Watching God is a groundbreaking narrative. Hurston’s protagonist, Janie Woods, is a new kind of Black American woman. Hurston revised the images of women presented in earlier Black American narratives in which Black women were modeled upon white protagonists or were dedicated to the notion of “uplifting” the entire race. Through Janie, Hurston calls attention to the silencing of women and to their exclusion as storytellers within the Black community. She also demonstrates how the men of Eatonville, the “porch talkers,” set the boundaries of discourse for the entire community. The language of the men, unlike the language used by Janie, is a game, a competition; it reveals no internal development. Although Hurston is somewhat ambivalent toward Janie and allows her husband, Tea Cake, to beat her, she nevertheless depicts her as a questing hero, as a woman who moves from object to subject. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a feminist novel, and it may be considered the first such novel in the Black American tradition.

Hurston’s life and work provided a model for later Black American writers. Alice Walker has stated that Their Eyes Were Watching God had a profound effect upon her writing and that if she were marooned on a desert island with only ten books, Hurston’s masterpiece would be among those she would choose to take with her. Literary critics believe that one of Walker’s protagonists, Shug, of The Color Purple, is a recreation of Hurston herself. Hurston has become a literary “foremother” not only for Walker but also for other Black women writers, including Gayl Jones, Gloria Naylor, Toni Cade Bambara, and Toni Morrison. Although Hurston failed to define new parameters for discourse between men and women, she gave her protagonist a voice that allowed her to speak for herself. Their Eyes Were Watching God offers a point of departure for a new generation of Black women writers who are attempting to bridge the communicative chasm that exists between men and women.

Historical Context

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The Great Depression

For Southern farmers, both Black and white, who did not enjoy the prosperity of Northern industrial centers, the Great Depression had begun in the 1920s, well before the stock market crash of 1929. Factors such as soil erosion, the attack of the boll weevil on cotton crops, and the increasing competition from foreign markets led to widespread poverty among Southern farmers. The majority of Black Americans were still farming in the South, and they were much harder hit than the white population, even after the advent of President Roosevelt’s New Deal. The numbers of Black people on relief was three to four times higher than the number of white people, but relief organizations discriminated by race; some would not help Black people altogether, while others gave lower amounts of aid to Black people than they did to white people. Such practices led one NAACP leader to call the program “the same raw deal.” Many critics have criticized Their Eyes Were Watching God for ignoring the plight of Black farmers in the South during the 1920s and 30s, although Hurston does briefly describe the downtrodden migrant workers who come to pick beans on the muck. “Skillets, beds, patched up spare inner tubes all hanging and dangling from the ancient cars on the outside and hopeful humanity, herded and hovered on the inside, chugging on to the muck. People ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor.”

The Great Migration and the Harlem Renaissance

A large number of Black Americans fought in the first World War under the banner of freedom, only to return home to find how far they were from such a goal. By 1920, over one million Black people had fled the South, where they had little chance of rising out of poverty, and migrated to the industrial centers of the North, where they obtained jobs in factories and packing houses, eventually making up as much as twenty percent of the industrial work force there. The migration of Black people to Northern cities caused white people to fear that their jobs would be threatened, and increased racial tensions erupted in race riots in 1917.

Nonetheless, many Black people began to vocally demand an end to discrimination. Out of this climate came calls for a “New Negro,” who would be filled with racial pride and demand justice for their people. While earlier Black leaders, represented by Booker T. Washington, had accepted segregation and preached cooperation and patience, new Black leaders like W. E. B. DuBois insisted that concessions and appeasements were not the correct approach and that complete equality could only be achieved by demanding it without compromise. DuBois also believed that the “Talented Tenth,” his name for the small percentage of educated Black people, must lead the way for the masses of Black people who still lived in poverty and lacked educational opportunities. DuBois’s ideas were reflected in the newly formed Black middle class, which, although small, sought to exert an influence on behalf of all Black people.

The new efforts of this Black elite were centered in Harlem, where a large percentage of migrating Black people ended up, turning the area into a rich, thriving center of Black culture. The new energy generated there by jazz musicians, writers, artists, actors, and intellectuals became known as the Harlem Renaissance. This artistic and intellectual movement confronted the racial prejudices of white America by demanding equal recognition for their talent and by depicting the injustices experienced by Black Americans. But ironically, although the artists of the Harlem Renaissance intended their works to promote better conditions for Black people less fortunate than themselves, few Black people around the country were even aware of the movement. In fact, it was more often white people who comprised the audiences and readerships of the products of the Harlem Renaissance. A cult of the primitive, which celebrated all things exotic and sensual, had become all the rage in New York, and many wealthy white people flocked to Harlem to witness and participate in the revelry. But wealthy white people were essential to the livelihood of many Black artists and writers who relied on their patronage, a fact regretted by many who felt that the artistic products of Black Americans were muted to appeal to the tastes of the white people they depended on. Although the stock market crash of 1929 brought much of the activity in Harlem to an end, the creative energies of those involved had not abated, and many, like Zora Neale Hurston, produced their best work through the 1930s.

Race Colonies

After the Civil War, formerly enslaved people formed a number of all-Black towns all over the South, in an effort to escape the segregation and discrimination they experienced amongst white people. By 1914, approximately thirty such towns were in existence. Eatonville, Florida, the town where Zora Neale Hurston grew up and the setting for much of Their Eyes Were Watching God, was the first such town to be incorporated and to win the right of self-governance. In Eatonville, the Jim Crow laws that segregated public schools, housing, restaurants, theaters, and drinking fountains all over the South did not exist.

Literary Qualities

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Although the framing device of Janie telling Pheoby her story sets up the novel as Janie’s story, it is not told in the first person. Instead, a narrative voice tells most of the story, and there has been much discussion of whose voice this is. Claire Crabtree, writing in Southern Literary Journal, argues that it is “always close to but not identical with Janie’s consciousness,” indicating that the omniscient narrator, who knows more about other characters’ thoughts than Janie could know herself, is also closely aligned with the heroine. The narrator also uses free indirect speech at many points to convey Janie’s thoughts, another indication that the narrator and Janie’s consciousness are closely aligned. But Henry Louis Gates Jr., in his The Signifying Monkey, argues that the narrative voice “echoes and aspires to the status of the impersonality, anonymity, and authority of the Black vernacular tradition, a nameless, selfless tradition, at once collective and compelling.” The narrator, then, who speaks in standard English, while the characters speak in Black dialect, becomes, according to Gates, more and more representative of the Black community as it progressively adopts the patterns of Black vernacular speech. The narrative voice takes on the aspect of oral speech, telling not only Janie’s story, but many other stories as well. For example, Nanny’s voice takes over as she tells the story of Janie’s heritage, and the voices on the porch also take over for long stretches as their “arguments” tell the story of life in Eatonville. In essence, there are many storytellers within the larger story of Janie’s life, and many voices inform the novel.

One of the most unique features of Their Eyes Were Watching God is its integration of folklore with fiction. Hurston borrows literary devices from the Black rural oral tradition, which she studied as an anthropologist, to further cement her privileging of that tradition over the Western literary tradition. For example, she borrows the technique of repetition in threes found commonly in folklore in her depiction of Janie’s three marriages. Also, in the words of Crabtree, “Janie follows a pattern familiar to folklorists of a young person’s journey from home to face adventure and various dangers, followed by a triumphant homecoming.” In addition, Janie returns “richer and wiser” than she left, and she is ready to share her story with Pheoby, intending that the story be repeated, as a kind of folktale to be passed on.

The Harlem Renaissance, which experienced its heyday in the 1920s but also flourished well into the 1930s, was an outpouring of creative innovation among Black Americans that celebrated the achievements of Black intellectuals and artists. The initial goal of the writers of the Harlem Renaissance was to overcome racism and convince the white public that Black Americans were more intelligent than the stereotypes of docile, ignorant Black people that pervaded the popular arena. In order to do so, then, most of the early writers associated with the movement imitated the themes and styles of mainstream, white literature. But later writers felt that Black American literature should depict the unique and debilitating circumstances in which Black people lived, confronting their white audiences with scenes of brutal racism. Zora Neale Hurston, considered the most important female member of the Harlem Renaissance, felt that the writings of Black Americans should celebrate the speech and traditions of Black people. The use of dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God caused much controversy among other Black writers of the day when it was first published because many felt that such language in the mouths of Black characters perpetuated negative stereotypes about Black people as ignorant, but more modern commentators agree that the novel’s celebration of Black language was the most important contribution Hurston made to Black American literature.

Themes and Meanings

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The novel begins with a statement of its central subject:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon. . . . That is the life of men. Now women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

The differences between the reactions of men and women form the core of the novel. Janie, the protagonist, is able to live her dream after two false starts. At the novel’s end, Janie is left with her memories, and her gift to the community at large is her willingness to share her story with others.

The horizon is a metaphor to which Hurston returns to describe the characters and their relation to their dreams. Nanny Crawford, Janie’s grandmother and protector, is described as a woman who has a limited and limiting dream. She wants protection for Janie; Janie, however, comes to think of Nanny’s dream as a noose that is slowly strangling her and depriving her of her own dream.

Other characters share Nanny’s dream of material wealth as a safety net that helps to buoy their position in society. Logan Killicks represents the completely practical man whose ship has come in with the tide. Likewise, Joe Starks wishes that “his people” would spend less time playing and more time attending to their business. Janie comes to reject this materialistic philosophy as a masculine dream; however, her later adventures are underwritten by the wealth she inherits from Starks.

Arrayed against the materialists are a group of characters loosely defined as the “folk.” Hurston’s anthropological work, particularly her folklore collection Mules and Men (1935), serves as the basis for the folk characters depicted in the novel. Though they are despised and exploited by characters such as Starks, the “folk” are noteworthy for their “signifying,” or verbal gamesmanship. Signifying may take the form of jokes, put-downs, or storytelling, and the stories may be truthful or fabulous.

Janie’s growth as a character is closely related to her ability as a master storyteller. At first she is prevented from telling stories by Nanny Crawford and Logan Killicks, who want to keep her isolated from the world. Joe Starks wants her to enter the world, but in a limited role: she is to serve as a nonspeaking ornament to his success. When she does attempt to join in the storytelling and signifying that go on at the store, she is rebuked by Starks and told to stay in her place. Only Tea Cake allows her the choice of joining into the dialogue of the culture. As a blues musician, Tea Cake realizes the importance of the audience and its response, and he and Janie soon join in a symbiotic, nonhierarchical relationship of storyteller and audience. Tea Cake and the crew down on the muck help to give Janie the confidence that she needs to live and tell her own story. By the time that she returns to Eatonville, Janie has acquired the ability to become the narrator of her own story; Pheoby comments that she has grown simply from having heard Janie’s story.

For Further Reference

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Davie, Sharon. “Free Mules, Talking Buzzards, and Cracked Plates: The Politics of Dislocation in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” PMLA (May 1993): 446–59. Scholarly article which examines the relationships among control, reason, and language in the novel.

Hemenway, Robert E. Zora Neale Hurston. University of Illinois Press, 1977. A popular biography of the writer which includes a good discussion of her work and its relationship to her life.

Holloway, Karla F. C. Moorings & Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women’s Literature. Rutgers University Press, 1992. A book-length study which considers the work of several Black women writers and several of Hurston’s works in addition to Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Peters, Pearlie. “Women and Assertive Voice in Hurston’s Fiction and Folklore.” The Literary Griot (spring–fall 1992): 100–10. An article which discusses the Black American oral tradition and its social significance.

Wald, Priscilla. “Becoming ‘Colored’: The Self-Authorized Language of Difference in Zora Neale Hurston.” American Literary History (spring 1990): 79-100. Scholarly article which discusses Hurston’s ability to be both the observer and the observed and which compares her fiction to her studies of folklore.

Walker, Alice. “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View.” In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens. Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, pp. 83–92. An essay which discusses Walker’s discovery of Hurston’s work.

Bibliography and Further Reading

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Claire Crabtree, “The Confluence of Folklore, Feminism and Black Self-Determination in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Southern Literary Journal, Vol. 17, No. 2, Spring, 1985, pp. 54–66.

Henry Louis Gates Jr., The Signifying Monkey, Oxford, 1988.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper & Row, New York, 1937.

Jennifer Jordon, “Feminist Fantasies: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,” Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature, Vol. 7, Spring, 1988, pp. 105–17.

Alain Locke, review in Opportunity, June 1,1938, reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, p. 18.

Lucille Tompkins, review in New York Times Book Review, September 26, 1937, reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, pp. 18–19.

Alice Walker, “Looking for Zora,” in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, pp. 93–116.

Cheryl Wall, “Zora Neale Hurston Changing Her Own Words,” in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, pp. 78–97.

Mary Helen Washington, “ ‘I Love the Way Janie Crawford Left Her Husbands:’ Emergent Female Hero,” in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, pp. 98–109.

Gay Wilentz, “Defeating the False God: Janie’s Self-Determination in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in Faith of a (Woman) Writer, edited by Alice Kessler-Harris and William McBrien, Greenwood Press, 1988, pp. 285–91.

Richard Wright, review in New Masses, October 5, 1937, reprinted in Zora Neale Hurston: Critical Perspectives Past and Present, edited by Henry Louis Gates Jr. and K. A. Appiah, Amistad, 1993, pp. 16–17.

For Further Study

Sharon Davie, “Free Mules, Talking Buzzards, and Cracked Plates: The Politics of Dislocation in Their Eyes Were Watching God,” in PMLA, May, 1993, pp. 446–459.

Scholarly article which examines the relationships among control, reason, and language in the novel.

Robert E. Hemenway, Zora Neale Hurston, Illinois, 1977.

A popular biography of the writer which includes a good discussion of her work and its relationship to her life.

Karla F. C. Holloway, Moorings & Metaphors: Figures of Culture and Gender in Black Women’s Literature, Rutgers, 1992.

A book-length study which considers the work of several Black women writers and several of Hurston’s works in addition to Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Pearlie Peters, “Women and Assertive Voice in Hurston’s Fiction and Folklore,” in The Literary Griot, Spring/Fall, 1992, pp. 100–10

An article which discusses the Black American oral tradition and its social significance.

Priscilla Wald, “Becoming ‘Colored’: The Self-Authorized Language of Difference in Zora Neale Hurston,” in American Literary History, Spring, 1990, pp. 79–100.

Scholarly article which discusses Hurston’s ability to be both the observer and the observed and which compares her fiction to her studies of folklore.

Alice Walker, “Zora Neale Hurston: A Cautionary Tale and a Partisan View,” in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens, Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1983, pp. 83–92.

An essay which discusses Walker’s discovery of Hurston’s work.


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Bloom, Harold, ed. Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”: Modern Critical Interpretations. New York: Chelsea House, 1987. A collection of selections and essays on the novel written by critics of Black American literature. Bloom’s introduction places the novel in the world tradition of novels and discounts its role in the genealogy of Black American writing. Bloom argues as well that Hurston’s writing transcends the limitations of feminist and racial political ideologies.

Boyd, Valerie. Wrapped in Rainbows: The Life of Zora Neale Hurston. New York: Scribner, 2002. Detailed biography of Hurston, covering her personal and professional lives and relating them to the major historical events through which she lived.

Callahan, John F. “’Mah Tongue Is in Mah Friend’s Mouf’: The Rhetoric of Intimacy and Immensity in Their Eyes Were Watching God.” In In the African-American Grain: The Pursuit of Voice in Twentieth-Century Black Fiction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1988. Callahan’s essay examines the most controversial aspect of Hurston’s novel, the role of narrative voice in the telling of Janie’s story. He emphasizes the novel’s utilization of Black American folk forms of storytelling, which promote a democratic conception of culture.

Cooke, Michael G. “Solitude: The Beginnings of Self-Realization in Zora Neale Hurston, Richard Wright, and Ralph Ellison.” In Afro-American Literature in the Twentieth Century: The Achievement of Intimacy. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1984. Cooke highlights the movement from materialism to self-fulfillment in the work of three very different Black American writers.

Davies, Kathleen. “Zora Neale Hurston’s Poetics of Embalmment: Articulating the Rage of Black Women and Narrative Self-Defense.” African American Review 26 (Spring 1992): 147–160. Davies argues that Hurston’s own relationships with abusive men are glossed over in her biography and the novel by her reliance on the ideology of love.

Hemenway, Robert. Zora Neale Hurston: A Literary Biography. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. The standard biography of Hurston; helped to establish her as a major writer. Includes material on her life as well as critical analyses of her novels and other work.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Zora Neale Hurston: A Life in Letters. Edited by Carla Kaplan. New York: Doubleday, 2002. A collection of more than five hundred letters, annotated and arranged chronologically.

Woodson, Jon. “Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God and the Influence of Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Marie Grubbe.” African American Review 26 (Winter 1992): 619–636. Woodson traces the similarities in the plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God and Jens Peter Jacobsen’s Fru Marie Grubbe (1876). He argues that Hurston turns the basic plot in Jacobsen’s tragic novel into the affirmative plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God in order to counteract the negative stereotypes of women in fiction.

Wright, Richard. “Between Laughter and Tears.” New Masses 25 (October 5, 1937): 22, 25. A diatribe against Their Eyes Were Watching God by the soon-to-be-famous Black American novelist. Wright accuses Hurston of contributing to almost every stereotype concerning Black Americans and also accuses her of accommodating her wealthy white audience.

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Critical Essays