“Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston


A pick for my book group Gods & Monsters, Zora Neale Hurston’s classic Their Eyes Were Watching God was a re-read for me. I could recall nearly nothing about it other than having the a-ha moment that my difficulty reading the dialect written out was analogous to what my ESL students must experience every time they read.

So with only that in my memory, I dove into it again, delighted to find acres of beautiful prose and a main character who defied expectations, both mine as reader as well as those of the other characters around her.

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseeless sweet that left her limp and languid. (11)

Hurston’s dialect contrasts with the polished prose, but is equally evocative in describing emotional truths:

If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door.” (159)

As Janie moves through life, she is not always sympathetic, and her actions don’t always make sense. But she is always fascinating and by the end of her amazing tale, I felt much like her friend Pheoby:

“Lawd!” Pheoby breathed out heavily, “Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie. Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo’.” (192)

This is a beautiful coming-of-age tale, deserving of a place in the Western canon.

To prepare for the discussion, I also read Bloom’s Notes on the book as well as Sorrow’s Kitchen, a chidren’s biography. I have complicated feelings about Harold Bloom. He’s a world-renowned scholar, and a brilliant literary critic. He’s also condescending and dismissive of the work of writers who are women or of color while pretending not to be. He publishes study guides for books he criticizes in his introduction. Thus he’s making money off them, plus they’re titled in such as way as to be easily mistaken for the work itself. In this book, I didn’t find his intro illuminating, only irritating, but did appreciate the literary criticism gathered from other authors.

Sorrow’s Kitchen by Mary E. Lyons is intended for younger readers, but impressed me more than Bloom’s intro did. It is a good, short biography and overview of Zora Neale Hurston’s life and work, full of photos, and even better, many excerpts from Hurston’s own writing. It does a good job showing what a divisive person Hurston could be, and doesn’t condescend by simplifying her complexities.

One Response to ““Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston”

  1. Amy @ Hope Is the Word Says:

    My bookclub is reading this book for June. Thanks for really piquing my curiosity about it!