Their Eyes Were Watching God

Introduction

In her award-winning autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road(1942), Zora Neale Hurston claimed to have been born in Eatonville, Florida, in 1901. She was, in fact, born in Notasulga, Alabama, on January 7, 1891, the fifth child of John Hurston (farmer, carpenter, and Baptist preacher) and Lucy Ann Potts (school teacher). The author of numerous books, including Their Eyes Were Watching God, Jonah’s Gourd Vine, Mules and Men, and Moses, Man of the Mountain, Hurston had achieved fame and sparked controversy as a novelist, anthropologist, outspoken essayist, lecturer, and theatrical producer during her sixty-nine years. Hurston’s finest work of fiction appeared at a time when artistic and political statements—whether single sentences or book-length fictions—were peculiarly conflated. Many works of fiction were informed by purely political motives; political pronouncements frequently appeared in polished literary prose. And Hurston’s own political statements, relating to racial issues or addressing national politics, did not ingratiate her with her black male contemporaries. The end result was that Their Eyes Were Watching God went out of print not long after its first appearance and remained out of print for nearly thirty years. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., has been one among many to ask: “How could the recipient of two Guggenheims and the author of four novels, a dozen short stories, two musicals, two books on black mythology, dozens of essays, and a prizewinning autobiography virtually ‘disappear’ from her readership for three full decades?”

That question remains unanswered. The fact remains that every one of Hurston’s books went quickly out of print; and it was only through the determined efforts, in the 1970s, of Alice Walker, Robert Hemenway (Hurston’s biographer), Toni Cade Bambara, and other writers and scholars that all of her books are now back in print and that she has taken her rightful place in the pantheon of American authors.

In 1973, Walker, distressed that Hurston’s writings had been all but forgotten, found Hurston’s grave in the Garden of Heavenly Rest and installed a gravemarker. “After loving and teaching her work for a number of years,” Walker later reported, “I could not bear that she did not have a known grave.” The gravemarker now bears the words that Walker had inscribed there:

ZORA NEALE HURSTON

GENIUS OF THE SOUTH

NOVELIST FOLKLORIST ANTHROPOLOGIST

(1891-1960)

Questions for Discussion

1. What kind of God are the eyes of Hurston’s characters watching? What is the nature of that God and of their watching? Do any of them question God?

2. What is the importance of the concept of horizon? How do Janie and each of her men widen her horizons? What is the significance of the novel’s final sentences in this regard?

3. How does Janie’s journey—from West Florida, to Eatonville, to the Everglades—represent her, and the novel’s increasing immersion in black culture and traditions? What elements of individual action and communal life characterize that immersion?

4. To what extent does Janie acquire her own voice and the ability to shape her own life? How are the two related? Does Janie’s telling her story to Pheoby in flashback undermine her ability to tell her story directly in her own voice?

5. What are the differences between the language of the men and that of Janie and the other women? How do the differences in language reflect the two groups’ approaches to life, power, relationships, and self-realization? How do the novel’s first two paragraphs point to these differences?

6. In what ways does Janie conform to or diverge from the assumptions that underlie the men’s attitudes toward women? How would you explain Hurston’s depiction of violence toward women? Does the novel substantiate Janie’s statement that “Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks