Their Eyes Were Watching God Introduction
In A Nutshell
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Love, hate, murder, gossip, travel, politics, poetry, death, and life—Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God has it all. In fact, there's so much in this novel that you'll find yourself wondering exactly how Hurston packed so much into such a slender text. (The answer? Hurston was a genius. End of story.)
Their Eyes is very much a novel of its time in that it occupies and reflects a specific historical moment (or two or three), but it is also—without being at all contradictory—a novel for all time. How does it pull that off, exactly?
Because it's about people and love and culture and politics and tradition—in short, it's about what it means to be human. And today, it's regarded as a total classic and a lauded part of the American canon.
But like so many other mind-explodingly brilliant novels (*cough Moby Dick *cough), people just didn't warm to it when it first hit the bookstores.
When it came on the scene in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God didn't go over well with a few key bigwig writers of the day—specifically, black male literary critics. Important figures of the Harlem Renaissance, people like author Richard Wright, poet and novelist Ralph Ellison, and professor and critic Alain Locke didn't like the book—at all. Wright especially went after Hurston, comparing the novel, with its focus on the tumultuous love life of a black woman, to a minstrel show put on for white audiences. (Source)
These guys championed social realism over anything that looked remotely like romance...and were probably being pretty stuffy about the fact that Their Eyes Were Watching God is unabashedly carnal. This novel is hot.
Hurston fell out of favor for the middle of the 20th century, but her work was recovered from literary oblivion by the hard work and tenacity of feminist scholars like Alice Walker in the 1970s. While earlier Harlem Renaissance writers didn't understand Hurston, a new generation of professors, writers, and researchers—many of them black women themselves—admired the novel's portrayal of the black female experience.
They had a hunch that, despite what authors like Richard Wright said, the "personal is political." And when you read Their Eyes Were Watching God, when you see the world of early 20th-century Florida through the eyes of Janie and Big Deal topics like racism, identity politics, and the legacy of slavery play out in a small-town environment...you'll realize that they were right.
Why Should I Care?
Love. We love talking about it. We love reading about it. We love watching it unfold. We love pining for it. Consider yourselves very lucky, Shmoopsters, because in reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, you get to meet one of the greatest philosophers of love: Janie Crawford.
Check out this pearl of wisdom:
"Love ain't somethin' lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore." (20.7)
We think that quote is about a thousand percent truer than anything you'll find in the Hallmark aisle.
Because sometimes, even in spite of ourselves, we think that love has to fit a certain mold. We look to Hollywood to tell us about love, and we see that true love = one adorkably clumsy woman + one roguish man who's finally met his match. We think that the narrative of love fits a certain timeline—if not exactly "first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage,” then at least "first comes high school graduation, then comes meeting someone cute before the age of 25, then comes a wedding with super-cute flower arrangements."
But a woman like Janie doesn't work within these structures. First of all, Janie has two bad, loveless marriages. (Not to mention the fact that there are zero babies in baby carriages for her.) So, when a much younger, charismatic man shows up, Janie can't really experience true love with him, right? That wouldn't fit the love mold.
Wrong. Janie defies convention, and she proves the cynics wrong. She challenges traditional notions of who should love whom and of how people should love each other. She formulates her own philosophy: love is ever-changing and ever-unpredictable. Love comes in all shapes and forms, and it's different with every person you love.
Forget all your stereotypes, and throw your timelines out the window. Their Eyes Were Watching God teaches that love can strike at any time of life. And when it does, watch out—not only is it as ever-changing as the sea, it's also just as powerful.