Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God Introduction
In A Nutshell
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Love, hate, food, 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.
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. Why? Because it's about people and love and culture and politics and tradition—in short, it's about what it means to be human.
Written in dialect and published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God may send a momentary thrill of panic your way the very first time you open the book and see the language. However—and we really do mean however—that panic will last all of a few brief moments, then it'll be gone, and before you know it, you'll be sucked into the story of Janie's life. Because her life is so rich and courageous and agonizing and triumphant, you'll be much more concerned with figuring out her secret than you will be with worrying about the language which—after just a little while—will seem as natural to you as your own.
Hurston’s 1937 novel didn't go over well with a few key big wig 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.
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 black female experience. They had a hunch that, despite what authors like Richard Wright said, the "personal is political.
Why Should I Care?
"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).
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.
We don’t know about you, but 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 Branjelina or the endless boring couples that make up romantic comedies. When we’re little kids we learn that love should adhere to a strict timeline of “Girl and Boy sittin’ in a tree, k-i-s-s-i-n-g, first comes love, then comes marriage, then comes the baby in the baby carriage.”
But a lady like Janie doesn't work in this structure. First of all, Janie has two bad, loveless marriages. Not to mention, there are no 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 like the sea, ever-changing and taking the shape of every shore it meets. Love comes in all shapes and forms, and it is different with every person we love.