Posted by: Lisa Hill | September 4, 2018

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston #BookReview

Time to read another title from 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die…

1001 Books has this to say about Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston (1903-1960):

Hurston was the mayor’s daughter in America’s first incorporated black town, where her social and political experience of African-American autonomy afforded a unique perspective on race.  She eventually trained as an anthropologist, researching African-American folklore and oral culture in her native Florida. The dialogue in Their Eyes Were Watching God is written primarily in the strong Southern African-American dialect (framed by a standard English narrative), the pronunciation, rhythm and playfulness of which Hurston renders in rich detail using almost phonetic spelling.  (p.388)

Well, I did find the dialogue difficult in this story of Janie Stark’s journey through life, determined to find love.  For example:

‘You got mo’ nerve than me.  When somebody talked mah husband intuh comin’ down heah tuh open up uh eatin’ place Ah never dreamt so many different kins uh black folks could colleck in one place. Did Ah never wouda come. (p.209)

I stumbled over kins, reading it first as rhyming with wins, and then had to reread to realise it meant kinds. I had to reread the whole passage to make sense of Did Ah never wouda come, i.e. to realise that there were missing words, as in If I had, (dreamt there were so many different kinds of black folks in one place) I never would have come. But I persisted, and it was worth it.  Their Eyes Were Watching God is a spirited, confident novel which while not ignoring the racism that made all-Black incorporated towns attractive to people of colour, sets it aside. Racism does not define these characters.  Dealing with the struggle against it is not the focus of the novel.  Instead it tells the universal human story of a woman who has a vision of love that she will not give up.

When the story opens Janie has had the love of Tea Cake Woods and lost it, and the local women are sitting in judgment on her.  Her friend Pheoby goes over to the porch to suss out the gossip, but Janie says there’s no point in telling her story without also telling de understanding to go ‘long wid it. What follows is Janie’s story of her life, beginning with her soulless marriage at sixteen because her old grandmother sees her fooling around with shiftless Johnny Taylor and sets her up with an older man in the hope of forestalling the burdens that black women typically have to bear.  Nanny marries Janie off to Logan Killicks for protection, for when she is no longer around to look after her.  What Nanny says is heartbreaking:

‘You know, honey, us coloured folks is branches without roots and that makes thins come round in queer ways.  You in particular.  Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfil my dreams of whut a woman oughta be and do.  Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothin’ can stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ’em of they will.  Ah didn’t want to be used for a work-ox and a brood-sow and Ah didn’t want mah daughter used dat way neither. It sho wasn’t mah will for things to happen lak they did.  Ah even hated de way you was born.  But, all de same Ah said thank God, Ah got another chance.’ (p.31)

Her ‘chance’ is Janie, and she wants a different future for her.  But within a year, Janie’s husband is no longer attracted to her, and is ordering her about like a workhorse.  So when Joe Starks turns up, a cityfied, stylish dressed man with his hat set at an angle that didn’t belong in these parts, Janie’s vision of love resurfaces, and off she goes with him.  He’s an ambitious man, who’s saved up money workin’ for white folks so that he has the cash to buy into an incorporated town.  And he’s not satisfied with the easy-going ways he finds there.  He sets up things the way he thinks they should be, and he becomes the mayor. Along with this change in status comes a different attitude to Janie, who now has to live up to his ideals of what a mayor’s wife should be.  And he’s very critical of her somewhat unenthusiastic management of their store.

Once again, Janie’s dreams of love lie in the dust, and when Joe dies, she settles into widowhood, not expecting much more of life than the store and her nest egg.  And then along comes Tea Cake.

Their joyous courtship is the best part of this book.  He’s ten years younger than her, and he’s a frivolous gambler, but he’s fun. She tries to push him away because she can’t quite believe that he might want her, but he won’t take no for an answer.  And even though old Nanny might have had a word to say about some of Tea Cake’s follies, Janie is blissfully happy.  They experience great trials, almost Biblical in ferocity, but they and their love survive, only for disaster to strike afterwards.

There are two scenes that I found disturbing in this novel: one is where Mrs Turner who is of mixed race launches into a tirade against the Blacks (that’s not the word she uses) because she wants to identify with her own white heritage rather than the Black. The other is where Tea Cake slaps Janie around, not to show her who’s boss, but to show his mates, who then admire him for being able to raise a bruise.  Their wives are so tough you can’t see it when they get beaten up.  My guess is that if this book is a set text for students, that teachers would have to tease out the reasons why Hurston included these scenes in the novel because both are profoundly offensive.

My Virago edition has both an introduction and an afterword, and it’s clear that the book was controversial in its day and not recognised for its intrinsic worth until much later.

The cover art – always a feature of the original editions of Virago Modern Classics – is a detail from ‘Carolina Morning‘ by Edward Hopper: widely acknowledged as the most important realist painter of twentieth-century America. But his vision of reality was a selective one, reflecting his own temperament in the empty cityscapes, landscapes, and isolated figures he chose to paint. His work demonstrates that realism is not merely a literal or photographic copying of what we see, but an interpretive rendering.  (See Edward Hopper website here).

Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Introduction by Holly Eley; Afterword by Sherley Anne Williams
Publisher: Virago Modern Classics, 1985, first published 1937
ISBN: 9780860685241
Source: Personal library, OpShopFind.

Available from Fishpond: Their Eyes Were Watching God (Virago Modern Classics)





  1. I read this book over twenty years ago, and unfortunately I lent my copy to someone around 10 years ago and have never got it back. It left quite an impression on me, though as you say the language was tricky to start with. I yearn to have my copy at hand because I think re-reading it would be a good thing. I can’t recollect those incidents, but I do remember it wasn’t a straightforward read.

    Oh, and I like Hopper’s art too. I guess I had the same cover – it was a Virago – but I don’t recollect.

    • I hate it when a book I want to revisit has ‘disappeared’…

  2. I too read it some 20 years ago and then more than 10 years ago a friend recommended listening to Ruby Dee’s audio version. I remember that as a very different experience from reading it and thinking it was meant to be heard. My friend listened to it multiple times and your review makes me think it’s time to listen again.

    • Yes, I noticed at Goodreads that the audio version has won an award. But my library doesn’t even have a text version of this novel….

  3. I love this book – the descriptive prose is so gorgeous and I remember being really moved by Hurston’s depiction of imperfect but loving marriage.

    • Yes, and the ending, #NoSpoilers is heart-wrenching.

      • I did have to read this for school and remember being both outraged and devastated.

        • Yet, utterly believable.

  4. I also listened to the audiobook of this brilliant book. It makes the dialect much easier to follow and the story really come alive. I loved it. Time for a re-listen.

    • I am starting to be seriously interested in listening to it too…

  5. I read this some time back and really thought it was fantastic. Thought it was much better than the Colour Purple.

    • It’s a very long time since I read The Colour Purple. But that was the first book I ever read that was by an African American, so it was an important book in my reading experience.

  6. I read it a long long time ago – even tried reading it aloud – and didn’t quite get it. But then I listened to it later and it was so much better. I loved listening to it. Ruby Dee is amazing.

    • LOL And there I was thinking that I didn’t ‘get’ the dialogue because I don’t watch American TV!
      Becky, (you may already know this), but here in Australia we have the ABC, which is taxpayer funded and has no ads, which is why I watch it, if I watch any TV at all) and the commercial stations which are funded by advertising, which I don’t watch at all, never have, (except for Masterchef, of course, though the ads drive me insane).
      The ABC, which was born as a sort of child of the BBC, i.e. with an educational function as well as an entertainment function, doesn’t program American shows, at first because they had a preference for British programs but now because it is perennially underfunded and can’t afford them. The commercial stations program US shows, which is why I’ve seen hardly any of them, except in fleeting moments at other people’s places or on aeroplanes, and these days now that I can buy them on DVD if I hear good things about them e.g. Game of Thrones.
      As a side issue, we also have SBS, partly funded by the taxpayer but also with ads. They program stuff from all over the world, so you can watch French film or Arabic news or Chinese Kung Fu series if you can tolerate the ads. I haven’t watched their TV either any more since they started having ads, but sometimes buy their DVDs so that I can watch them ad free.

      • You’re right Lisa, watching American TV shows wouldn’t have helped you with this because this is not the sort of English you would hear, particularly on shows sold to commercial TV here.

        Good rundown on our TV system. The US does have PBS – publicly funded broadcasting – which we’d mostly watch over there because it is (was anyhow and I presume still is) ad-free but you’d get the interminable regular fundraising times of the year, because the stations are PUBLICLY funded and have to get that money from the public. (Obviously!) We donated.

        As for MasterChef – shhh, but we record it and watch it later in the evening, or we start watching it half an hour or so into the show so we can skip the ads. You have to time the start so you don’t catch up to the ads though!!

        • I used to tape shows but I gave up two DVD players ago because they were too hard to program to do it!

          • You don’t have a hard drive recorder? We watch our TV through the hard-drive recorder. What we do with Masterchef is called tail-chasing.

            We can also pause something if the phone goes and pick it up to watch it ten minutes later (even if we haven’t specifically recorded it).

            Must admit though that Mr Gums does all the organising of this. I just know which remotes I have to use to turn it on, change channels, change the volume.

            • Yes, a hard-drive recorder is what we have. But it’s like the microwave and the fancy oven and now even my new car: there’s a lot of functions that I have not bothered to learn because I don’t seem to need them and it’s too much trouble to get out the manual and learn how to use them. I can put a DVD in the machine and make it play, and that’s it…

              • Fair enough… The functionality is great but I have a Mr Gums. We are about to confront the new car bit. We had fun in Darwin practising on a hire car!

                • You know I bought last year’s model because the new ones don’t have CD players? They offered to put my entire collection on my (unused) iPod, but I could not contemplate scrolling through lists instead of simply putting a CD into a slot…

                • Ah, that’s where we differ. I don’t want a CD player anymore. I WANT the new sound systems so I don’t have to bother with the whole CD business. We almost never buy CDs now, and have been gradually importing our CDs into our system for several years now. We play them through our devices. We buy new music digitally, or subscribe to a music service (though this latter is not something I’m totally comfortable with as I like to own and manage my music.) Anyhow, I just want to be able to play anything I own (or have access to) in the car – without having to decide which CDs to take this time, without having, too, to worry about CDs getting cooked in hot cars in summer, etc.

                  I like that I can find my music by album in my devices (iPhone and iPad) and then just play (as we currently do through our home system.) You can sort your albums by type (eg classical), by title, etc. I must say I love it. I’ll go kicking and screaming to digital books, but digital music is something I’ve long decided is for me. (BTW you can also use the Search function to find your music, eg I search on MOZART and up comes all the albums containing his music and then I can choose one to play.)

  7. One I have to try at some point Lisa

    • LOL Stu, I wonder if there is a ‘translated’ version of it!

  8. I know, Sue, I am a Luddite when it comes to digital stuff!

    • Except for blogging and Twitter! You do that and they’re digital! So, not a complete Luddite I’d say.

      (My aim is to try to keep up because I think many of these technologies will make life simpler when things becomes harder physically. I’m playing the long-game. I see my parents engaging with my son on a messaging app on their iPads to see pics of their great grandchild and the joy it brings them.)

      • I don’t know… I have a friend with severe arthritis in her hands, and she wouldn’t have a hope of being able to scroll down an iPod.
        My attitude is, if I have to spend too much of my time learning how to do the latest whatever, I’d probably rather go without it.

        • Hmmm … my Mum has severe arthritis, and her knobby fingers do do funny things at times on the keyboard, but scrolling is easier than other actions because you don’t have to have high-level fine motor skills to tap and scroll a screen. Here is a para from a review of iPads naming three ways they are good for seniors: “Friends and family can load in large photo albums of old photos or new ones that can be easily viewed by the senior. I recently met a woman who had just been to Florida to visit her 89 year old father, now in a nursing home. His hands are gnarled with arthritis and he surely cannot type but he could easily swipe his hands across the pictures he was viewing to move along to the next one. He was thrilled to be able to control the device by himself on this simple level and asked if he could have one of his own.”

          I truly think that iPads are wonderful for older people. My Dad would have nothing to do with computers until at the age of 91 he wondered whether an iPad would be good. He’s now 98 and it’s been amazing. He uses it fairly simply but he looks at photos, emails people mainly my brother in Tasmania, plays Solitaire, checks his stock market app.

          Sorry for going on, but I can’t help sharing my experience of older people!!

          • No, don’t worry, it’s good to hear of different experiences:)

  9. Hi Lisa and blog readers,
    I applaud you Lisa for sticking with Their Eyes Were Watching God. It’s a compelling novel. You identified Zora Neale Hurston’s novel as a “universal human story” which I’m in agreement with. Hurston’s use of southern black vernacular speech, black folk culture, personal insight with local township, and female identity, autonomy, and authentic voice engages readers with the gender, class, and race dynamics at play in the southern region of the United States during the early twentieth century. What I particularly appreciate about Hurston’s narrative stylings is her attention to the intricacies of female bonding, female sexuality, building and sustaining black community, and intimate relationships between men and women. I reread Hurston’s story in July, and I was simply enamored by the adages of love and hope that can resonate with readers across time, landscape, and living experiences. Hurston’s folklore and short story collections as well her other novel, Jonah’s Gourd Vine are very engaging as well.

    As Lisa mentioned, Hurston’s use of southern black dialect may be challenging upon reading her fiction but I encourage readers to stick with it. African American scholar, Dr. Deborah Plant, has been instrumental in releasing Hurston’s biography of the last surviving African slave of the Clotilda ship, Cudjo Lewis, from the literary archive entitled Barracoon: The Story of the Last Slave. Hurston’s manuscript laid dormant in the archive for decades. Prior to that, possibility of its publication was dismissed by publishing companies and leading scholars of the day. Dr. Plant has edited and offers commentary on the significance of Cudjo Lewis’ story to American letters. Like the novel, Hurston evokes vernacular speech. However, its evocative of Cudjo’s authentic voice and perspective which conveys emotional resonance and historical importance to uncovering obscure or lost narratives chronicling the forced migration and ancestral loss of African slaves and the injustice of the slave trade and revitalization of black life after the end of slavery. Like Hurston, Cudjo was witness and participant to life in a black township. He was one of the co-founders of Africatown which was established to retain the African customs and values lost to African slaves transported to the U.S. while influencing/merging new African American traditions.

    • Isn’t amazing how these ‘lost’ texts keep turning up! I hope our digital texts have the same resilience…
      I didn’t talk about it at length in the review because I try to keep to a word limit of sorts, but I spent some time online reading up about incorporated towns. I’d never heard of them, and my instinct was and still is to be wary of the concept because of the segregation/apartheid /separate development aspects they conjure. Nevertheless it seems to me that Hurston growing up in an all-Black town gave her a confidence and a sense of possibility that she might not have had otherwise.

  10. I’m aware of Zora Neale Hurston through following Melanie at Grab the Lapels but have never read her. It’s just another reminder of how many good texts have been suppressed by our concentration on a canon selected and curated by the white middle class.

    • Am I right in thinking that she runs a sort of ‘read Virago’ week or month? Somebody does, but I can’t remember who…

      • I don’t think it’s Melanie. She concentrates on women published by small independent presses and is very knowledgeable about early African American writing. If you’re interested here’s what she has on Hurston

        • She used to visit and comment on my blog but I haven’t seen her lately.

          • Nor me.

            • It goes with the OzLit territory, I think…

  11. […] Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston #BookReview – Lisa Hill of ANZ LitLovers LitBlog shares her thoughts on Zora Neale Hurston’s important 1937 novel – an epic tale of a proud, independent black woman. […]

  12. I vaguely remember trying this one about twenty or more years ago. I think I abandoned it but I’m sure I’d like it more these days. Did you find the dialect easier as you progressed through the book? I usually do.

    • It was the dialect that made me put it aside and read it interspersed with other things, and I suspect that I might not have persisted at all if it hadn’t been listed in 1001 Books. I didn’t so much find it easier, as find ways to make it work for me. I learned to use the skills I have for reading foreign languages. And if my experience is common, then maybe monolinguals who have never learned these skills might find it very difficult indeed.

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