Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Jan 10, 2014

Last year, when I decided to read two 19th-century classics and two 20th-century classics, I nailed down three of the books pretty quickly (East of Eden, The Woman in White, and A Study in Scarlet). But for months, I had no idea what I was going to read to fill that last spot. I began to wonder why I had even made that goal since I obviously didn't have any pressing 20th-century classics on my mind. In fact, it would have been much easier for me to just read four classics from the 1800's rather than try to split it between two centuries.

I searched through lists of classics, but nothing sounded interesting. In desperation, I turned to my to-read list, hoping I'd forgotten about something on there that would both (a) sound interesting and (b) fulfill my self-imposed requirement.

And what do you know? That massively long list came through for me. Hidden in between parenting books and middle-grade novels was Their Eyes Were Watching God. For the life of me, I couldn't remember why I'd added it to the list. But it didn't matter. It was a 20th-century classic; it looked interesting; and it wasn't 700-pages long. Triple check.

When Janie Crawford's grandmother catches her flirting with a young man, she lays down the law: Janie must find a good man and get married quick . . . before anything bad happens. Nanny had such high hopes for her own daughter (Janie's mother), and when things didn't go at all the way she had planned, she determined she'd do better with her granddaughter.

And that is how Janie, at the ripe old age of 16, ends up marrying Logan Killicks, a man many years her senior and mainly interested in having someone to share the load of running a farm. Janie married him to please her grandmother (she knew how heartbroken her grandmother was about her mother's broken life). She hoped love would follow. It did not.

Two more marriages follow, and with each one, Janie learns more about herself, her own abilities and talents, and how to realize her dreams.

I loved this story. It was different from what I was expecting, but I think that made me love it even more. I thought it was going to be about the fair treatment of African-Americans, but instead it was much more about women's rights.

I generally don't consider myself a feminist, mainly because, for me, the word "feminist" conjures up an image of radical, career-obsessed, men-hating women, and I don't feel like that's me at all. But this book is about the kind of feminism I can resolutely stand behind: fair and equal partnership, using your talents to love and help others, and standing firm in your own beliefs and convictions.

I loved watching Janie's transformation from insecure, irresolute teenager to strong, confident woman. One of the first big changes occurred when Janie realized that, for all she loved Nanny, her grandmother had dictated her life in unforgiveable ways. I absolutely loved this quote:

"Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made--the horizon,  for no matter how far a person can go, the horizon is still way beyond you--and pinched it into such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter's neck tight enough to choke her."

It is a miraculous thing when you realize the horizon (your future) is not one little predestined path but as big and vast and miraculous as you want it to be. During the course of the book, Janie tested her horizon's boundaries and found that they were indeed limitless.

I've done very little reading of other people's analyses of this book, but I did see that the book has been criticized for glamorizing the life of the South a little too much. It definitely does have a folk-like, small-town feel to it--one where cares are few and troubles are far between. In my opinion, this impression has little to do with the actual storyline (since Janie's life is far from ideal) and more to do with the writing: the conversations, the charming and memorable characters, and the setting all contribute to the overall untroubled feeling. And, like I said before, it really doesn't touch on racial issues.

I loved the contrast between Janie's second and third husbands: successful, controlling Joe Starks and laid-back, self-sacrificing Tea Cake. They both helped Janie learn different things about herself, and seeing the true love between Janie and Tea Cake was much more satisfying for all the struggles that came before.
I have to admit, I was not expecting the tragic ending, but these two thoughts from Janie sum up the majority of the book for me (and forgive my rough transcription of the dialect . . . this is what happens when you listen to the audio and can't let a good thought go by):

"So, I'm back home again, and I'm satisfied to be here. I done been to the horizon and back, and now I can set here in my house and live by comparisons . . . Then you must tell 'em that love ain't somethin' like a grindstone that's the same thing everywhere and do the same thing to everything it touch. Love is like the sea. It's a moving thing. But still in all, it takes its shape from the shore it meets, and it's different with every shore."

And this one:

"Two things everybody's got to do for theyselves. They got to go to God, and they got to find out about livin' for theyselves."

This was Janie's journey: learning to love, going to God, and truly living. And reading about her journey made me realize just how important those discoveries are in my own life.

P.S. After I finished this book, I happened to come across a picture book at the library based on one of Zora Neale Hurston's folk tales. It's called Roy Makes a Car and is written by Mary E. Lyons. My boys loved this tall tale about a man who makes the "perfect" car, and I loved that Lyons captured Hurston's style so perfectly.


  1. I would have thought it'd be more about racial issues than women's rights, too. Beautiful review. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I remember seeing previews for a TV movie of this a few years ago, and it looked racy enough that I thought the book was probably similar and never read it. Glad to know I was wrong! I will give this a try. :)


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