When Their Eyes Were Watching God first appeared in 1937, it was well-received by white critics as an intimate portrait of southern blacks, but African American reviewers rejected the novel as pandering to white audiences and perpetuating stereotypes of blacks as happy-go-lucky and ignorant. Unfortunately, the novel and its author, Zora Neale Hurston, were quickly forgotten. But within the last twenty years it has received renewed attention from scholars who praise its unique contribution to African American literature, and it has become one of the newest and most original works to consistently appear in college courses across the country and to be included in updated versions of the American literary canon. The book has been admired by African Americanists for its celebration of black culture and dialect and by feminists for its depiction of a woman’s progress towards self-awareness and fulfillment. But the novel continues to receive criticism for what some see as its lack of engagement with racial prejudice and its ambivalent treatment of relations between the sexes. No one disputes, though, its impressive use of metaphor, dialect, and folklore of southern rural blacks, which Hurston studied as an anthropologist, to reflect the rich cultural heritage of African Americans.
Zora Neale Hurston’s colorful life was a strange mixture of acclaim and censure, success and poverty, pride and shame. But her varied life, insatiable curiosity, and profound wit made her one of the most fascinating writers America has known. Even her date of birth remains a mystery. She claimed in her autobiography to have been born on 7 January 1903, but family members swore she was born anywhere from 1891 to 1902. Nevertheless, it is known that she was raised in Eatonville, Florida, which was to become the Setting for most of her fiction and was the first all-black incorporated town in the nation. Growing up there, where her father was mayor, Hurston was largely sheltered from the racial prejudice African Americans experienced elsewhere in America.
A Chapter 1
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God opens with a lyrical passage in which Janie Starks returns to Eatonville, where she had previously lived. The other townspeople observe her in judgment and speculate about what has brought her back. Through their dialogue, the Characters of Pheoby, Janie’s best friend, and Tea Cake, the young man she had left with, are introduced. Eventually, Pheoby visits Janie, who tells her that Tea Cake is “gone.” The rest of the novel will consist of the story Janie tells Pheoby about what has happened to her.
A Janie Crawford
The heroine of the novel, Janie, is the first black woman character in African American fiction to embark on a journey of self-discovery and achieve independence and self-understanding. But she does not do so until she is nearly forty years old. Many obstacles stand in her way in the meantime, the first of which is her grandmother, who encourages her to marry Logan Killicks for material security. But Janie discovers that “marriage did not make love,” and she decides to leave him. When Joe Starks enters her life, she believes she has found her ticket to the “horizon,” so she marries him. But when they arrive in Eatonville, she discovers that she is going to be nothing but an ornament of his power and success. Stifled by Jody and cut off from the rest of the community by her status as the mayor’s wife, she learns to hide her real self and wear a mask for Jody and the town that conforms to their expectations for her. But in the process she loses sight of the real self she has buried. The narrator tells us, “She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew not how to mix them.” After twenty years of marriage, an enmity has grown between Janie and her husband that results in her finally speaking up for herself. She tells him, in essence, that he is no longer a real man, and her outburst robs him of the will to live. As he lays on his deathbed, she sums up for him what their marriage has been like for her: “Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me.”
Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God charts the development of an African American woman living in the 1920s and 1930s as she searches for her true identity.
A 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 amongst southern farmers. The majority of African 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 blacks on relief were three to four times higher than the number of whites, but relief organizations discriminated by race; some would not help blacks altogether, while others gave lower amounts of aid to blacks than they did to whites. 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 African American 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.”
1920s and ’30s: The numbers of unemployed African Americans during the Great Depression was as much as 25 percent in northern cities, and well over 50 percent in many southern cities, figures that were three to four times higher than the number of unemployed whites. Today: Unemployment among African Americans averages between 10 and 11 percent, higher than the 4.5 to 5 percent among whites.