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Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

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Discussion Topic

The significance and tone of the title "Their Eyes Were Watching God."

Summary:

The title "Their Eyes Were Watching God" signifies the characters' search for spiritual fulfillment and guidance. The tone conveys a sense of longing and introspection, reflecting the characters' struggles and their quest for understanding and purpose in life.

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What does the title of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God signify?

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.
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What does the title of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God signify?

The opening scene offers a framing device for Janie's coming of age story. Janie is returning home, and the story offers commentary on her return as the porch sitters see her. This creates a point of comparison as we learn of Janie's life story. Tracing the details of her life as she speaks with Phoebe, we are aware throughout the novel that Janie has had a horrible experience and that Tea Cake is dead. At the same time, we must listen, as Phoebe does, to the unfolding of this odyssey.

The other significance of the opening chapter involves Hurston preparing the reader for the unconventional approach to her story. Opening with the dream-like mention of ships at a distance and the difference between male and female dreams, the novel creates a proposition that the rest of the story will have to prove. The first chapter also introduces the powerful idiomatic metaphors that mark the novel's style. Janie's story is designed to "show" Phoebe, and by extension the reader, the truth beneath the events that occurred. To do that, she speaks a language at once true to her colloquial dialect but also lyrically poetic.

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What does the title of Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God signify?

In the opening scene of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the narrator describes the differences in the nature of men versus the nature of women in terms of following their dreams.  The narrator says that "[s]hips at a distance have every man's wish on board" to suggest that the dreams of men exist out of reach on the horizon.  Men pose their dreams as far-off ideas that are often extinguished by time.  However, according to the narrator, women "remember everything they don't want to forget," and they keep their dreams close so that they can live out the dreams.  So, the narrator poses men as dreamers and women as doers.  Thus, Hurston uses the opening scene to set the foundation for Janie's journey as she lives out her dreams of love, freedom, and independence.

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What is the significance of the title of the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston?

Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God opens with a passage that comments on different ways of life: some people (men) look out at the world and wait for things to come to them, while others (women) are more practical and make lives for themselves. They are the people of action, rather than those who look and wait. The title also references this concept and the line itself occurs in the novel during the hurricane episode. The narrator describes how the people in the Everglades react to the storm around them: "They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God." This quote suggests that the people are praying and waiting for God to help them through the difficult time. On the one hand, the novel's title and the quote could suggest the apathy of nature toward human beings; therefore, humans need God/religion to feel connected to something and to feel as though some force is "on their side." On the other hand, the idea that people are simply looking to God recalls the idea that some people live in expectation, feeling their own fates are out of their control.

The protagonist of the novel, Janie, may at first adopt the same perspective, but eventually, after the death of her second husband Joe Stark, she learns to take the reins over her own life and to find what makes her content. When Janie returns to Eatonville at the end of the novel, she is self-assured despite the harsh judgment of the townsfolk who comment on her appearance as she walks toward her house. Janie exudes confidence, and this is the confidence that comes from feeling she has control over her fate. Rather than "watching God," Janie makes decisions and acts according to her independent will.

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What is the significance of the title of the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston?

From the beginning of Janie's life, she has looked down the road; Janie of "Their Eyes Were Watching God" is on a quest for the fulfillment of her spirit, a spirit that also loves freedom and independence.  In her search for a man who will respect her as an individual and treat her as an equal, Janie meets Tea Cake.  Yet, Janie is still submissive, following him on his adventures.  Finally, after his untimely death, Janie returns to her home, still "watching God."  In the closing lines of the novel, the narrator writes,  "She pulled in her horizon like a griant fish net"; this line indicates that Janie, who has been watching God, has finally found her own self-identity, but it is within herself, not out "watching God."

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Why does Hurston title her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God?  

No single answer will ever adequately address this question. However, I would argue that any answer would need to include one of the central themes of the novel: that human dreams are attainable if the individual believes strongly enough in pursuing them and acts accordingly.

Too often, we humans tend to look toward others or outside forces for help, deliverance, and salvation. Many of us turn to God. We see this idea at work--and see the title appear in the text of the novel--during the hurricane scene. When the hurricane is bearing down on the living quarters and the people inside are fearing for their lives, they turn their eyes to God, watching to see what fate He will deliver onto them. One of the central messages of the novel is that human beings cannot wait for others to act; they must act on their own and pursue their dreams. Janie learns this first hand not only in her escape from the hurricane but in her pursuit of true love as well. Janie does not wait for her fate to be decided for her, she does not sit by idly "watching God;" she acts and makes her dream a reality. As Hurston writes on the novel's first page, "The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly."

It is Hurtson's intention that the reader learn this same lesson.

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What does the title Their Eyes Were Watching God signify?

Hurston’s classic novel unfolds the story of Janie Crawford, who endures much hardship in her life. As her tale depicts a life of disappointment, rejection, abandonment, and betrayal, Janie finds that she questions what God is doing in and around her life. A theme throughout Janie’s life is one of growth, specifically her own personal and spiritual growth.

The novel unfolds as a narrative, as Janie shares her life story with her friend Phoeby. Looking for love, acceptance, and guidance, Janie is married three times in her life. She finally finds her true love in a man named Tea Cake. As they are facing terrible destruction from a hurricane, she and Tea Cake huddle together, waiting for the storm to pass. In this specific scene, the title of the book is referenced, “They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” Helpless and dependent upon God’s mercy to control the storm, Janie finds the hurricane symbolic of all the "storms" she has had to weather in her life as she pursues a greater meaning and purpose.

From an early age, Janie faces instability and turmoil; the novel shows how Janie changes over time from an insecure, dependent young lady to an independent woman finally at peace with the world around her. A significant part of her journey is her own relationship with God and how Janie tries to reconcile the hardships she endures with what God has allowed or what God is doing in her life. She ultimately proclaims,

two things everbody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.

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What tone does the title Their Eyes Were Watching God set for the novel?

Throughout Janie's life she struggles with love or the lack of love and injustice. As she moves through her relationships with men, beginning as a teenager, she attempts to discover her own identity. One disaster after another befalls her until she has to kill the man she loves,Tea Cake. He dies in her arms.The title implies that Janie and other characters are watching for God, hoping for a sign of help, hoping that there is a god who will help them through this earthly existence. However, as they search for God, to appeal to Him for help, they are mired in this world that seems to offer little hope or salvation or happiness.The tone implies despair yet hope.

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What is the significance of the title "Their Eyes Were Watching God"?

Yes, the title of the book is based on a quote from the book; however it seems to have greater significance in the scheme of things as it seems to bring so many thoughts and ideas from the novel to a close. During a huge party, a hurricane starts and begins to break up the party due to its severity. Tea Cake and Motor Boat stop what they are doing when they hear thunder outside, and Janie tells them to be quiet because “Ol’ Massa is doin’ His work now.” The noise of the storm makes the noises that they made at the party seem quite small by comparison. The implication is that this natural phenomenon is the product of God, which is instantly more impressive than anything that could be made by man. This storm can be a metaphor for the power of nature, the type of nature that we first read about in Janie’s gentle bee. It is as if they understand the power of God for the first time. When the winds knock out the power, the others wonder if “He meant to measure their puny might against His.” “Their eyes were watching God” in recognition of God’s power, and the farmers understand with whom true power lies. This power is symbolized by the lake. The strength of the rushing water can knock any one person aside easily, and this illustrates the power that God and nature possess over human beings.

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What is the significance of the title "Their Eyes Were Watching God"?

The title comes from a quote in the book which reads, in full:

They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God

It basically means that, you couldn't always tell, but people in the book have an emotional and ever-present knowledge and association with God.

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