Last Updated on July 3, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560
Zora Neale Hurston includes several historical and biblical allusions in Their Eyes Were Watching God. These allusions enable her to effectively represent the lives and experiences of African Americans in the decades after the Civil War.
Historical Allusions: Like many authors, Hurston relies heavily on historical allusions. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s use of historical allusions center on the influence of post-Civil War oppression and racism on black communities, relationships, and identities. Here are two of the novel’s most prominent historical allusions:
- Hurston refers to the Civil War (1861–1865), especially at the beginning of the novel. Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, was a slave who escaped an abusive master who raped her and fathered her daughter, Leafy. Many of Nanny’s values and priorities, including financial independence and social status, stem from her experience as a former slave. Other historical figures relating to the Civil War are also mentioned, such as Abraham Lincoln and General Sherman.
- The novel mostly takes place in Eatonville, Florida, which was founded on August 15, 1887, and was one of the first all-black self-governing towns in the United States. Though Their Eyes Were Watching God has been criticized for pandering to white audiences by its seemingly simplistic portrayal of African Americans, critics have praised Hurston for accurately capturing the beauty of black communities in her portrayal of Eatonville.
Biblical Allusions: Hurston incorporates many biblical allusions into the plot of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Like many black communities in the south, Eatonville’s characters would have been very familiar with the Bible. Christianity would also have been an important part of life for Janie and her friends and family. Here are three of the novel's major biblical allusions:
- Nanny likely alludes to a passage in the book of Numbers when she tells Janie that she would have taken “a broom and a cook-pot and throw up a highway through de wilderness for [Leafy],” Janie’s mother. According to Numbers 32:13, the “Lord’s anger was kindled against Israel, and He made them wander in the wilderness forty years, until all the generation, that had done evil in the sight of the Lord, was consumed.” Nanny seems to believe that Leafy has wandered into this wilderness when she abandoned Janie. Nanny would have followed and fought for her, but now she is doing her best to make sure Janie does not repeat her mother’s mistakes.
- When Jody catches a customer touching Janie’s braid, he is overtaken by jealousy— he “felt like rushing forth with [a] meat knife and chopping off the offending hand.” Hurston refers to the Gospel according to Matthew 5:29, which says that “if thy right hand offend thee, cut it off, and cast it from thee: for it is profitable for thee that one of thy members should perish, and not that thy whole body should be cast into hell.”
- One evening, while Tea Cake and Janie are flirting in the store, Tea Cake brags about how much money he made that day. Janie does not believe him, but Tea Cake declares that he will buy her a battleship—and if the admiral objects, Tea Cake will have him “walkin’ de water lak ole Peter.” Tea Cake alludes to Matthew 14:22–23, wherein Peter walks on water in an attempt to follow Jesus. Peter nearly drowns because he becomes doubtful, and Jesus saves him.