Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston
Analysis: Writing Style
That's right, Shmoopers. We have invented a new style and we cordially invite you to go out and use this term widely in conversation. Let's give you an example, shall we?
"Wowzers, Tabitha, I just adore your new burlap beret! It's got a certain lofty down-to-earth-ness that screams fashionable, but not snobby!"
Okay, so what do potato-sack hats have to do with this book? Well, it's all about contrast. If you think about Zora Neale Hurston's choice of writing style, you can definitely put your finger on two distinct voices in Their Eyes Were Watching God. One of these voices—the narrator's—is lyrical, philosophical, and, for lack of a better word, refined in nature. The other voice—which we might say is shared by the characters in the novel—is down-to-earth, colloquial, and real.
You can get a good idea of what we mean by checking out the first page of Chapter 2:
Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.
"Ah know exactly what I got to tell yuh, but it's hard to know where to start at." (2.1-2)
Here we get two very different voices, smushed together on the same page. The narrator's voice identifies an elegant simile, letting us know that Janie sees her life, and the things in it, as a tree. When Janie herself begins to speak to the reader directly, Hurston switches her style abruptly, capturing the sounds of Janie's speech phonetically (in other words, writing as it might sound to hear her). Instead of "I," we get "Ah." Instead of "you," we get "yuh." We also get a sentence that ends on a preposition ("at")—something we know the narrator would never do.
So what's up with that? Well, despite these differences, it's important to recognize that the narrator is describing Janie's thoughts, while Janie herself is giving us her words. In both cases, we're dealing with the same character.
Think about why that might be an important aspect of this book for Hurston, who is writing to celebrate the lives of the African Americans in this book. By staying true to their speech, she's representing their unique character and refusing to change it for a more formal-minded audience. At the same time, though, Hurston's narrator, with her lofty insights, is letting us know that—despite what someone might think about people with a thick accent, or who might speak informally—there are still elegant thoughts within.