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Zora Neale Hurston

Updated on February 5, 2014
Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston | Source

Their Eyes Were Watching God

If you read the book, what did you think of it?

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by Amber Maccione

Zora Neale Hurston & Their Eyes Were Watching God

On January 7, 1891, a writer was born, Zora Neale Hurston. Born to a preacher and a school teacher, Zora grew up with balanced parenting. Her father was the disciplinarian who tried to squash her spirit. Her mother on the other hand encouraged her children to dream and “jump at de sun” because nothing is out of their reach. And even if they didn’t quite reach the sun, at least they “got off the ground” ("Zora Neale Hurston Biography”). And with that in her mind, Zora set off to do what her mother said.

When Zora was three years old, her parents decided to move the family to Eatonville, Florida, in an eight room house that was on five acres of land. Eatonville was the first all black community – “first incorporated African American municipality in the U.S.” (Potter). After about ten years of living there with her father, mother, and seven siblings, Zora’s mother died. Her father soon married again to a woman whom Zora did not like because she felt that her step-mother didn’t like her or her siblings. And with her mother’s death, Zora struggled to finish school because her father made her babysit her brother’s children instead of focusing on her schooling. So Zora did as her father asked and worked a series of other jobs along with babysitting for her brother.

At sixteen, Zora left home when she joined a traveling acting group called Gilbert and Sullivan. She worked as a maid for a white actress. The actress took interest in Zora, especially her writings. The woman bought Zora’s first book and arranged for her to go back to school.

Since Zora had never finished high school, she had to lie about her birth date in order to go back to high school and receive free public schooling. So she deleted ten years from her life and said she was born 1901 instead of 1891. And eventually, Zora Neale Hurston graduated from high school and received her high school diploma.

Zora had an infectious personality. She was a strong woman with intellect, humor, and a gift for drawing people into her. Because of this personality, she was able to befriend so very important people in her time such as Langston Hughes and Ethal Waters, which lead her into the Harlem Renaissance in New York City.

As she wrote and worked alongside those of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora continued her education at Barnard College and eventually graduated marrying her husband and moving back to Eatonville.

Zora continued to write although most people rejected her work even after it was published. Zora didn’t write the way everyone expected a black woman to write. She wrote about black culture but left out the racism, which most black writers in her day kept in their works. White people enjoyed her writings more than her own black community who thought it her duty to paint the picture of racism that her people endured. But even though Zora was neglected in her day and eventually died poor and unknown, her works waited for someone to find their true value.

And that is when Alice Walker came into play. Zora had written this novel called Their Eyes Were Watching God, which one critic Richard Wright (a black writer during Zora’s time period) claimed that her book had “no theme, no message, no thought” (SparkNotes). But Zora being Zora didn’t let what others say about her bring her down. She stood by her works. Eventually, her works were found and Their Eyes Were Watching God became a college classic being taught in English classes and literary classes across schools in America (Potter).

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a poetic love story about a girl named Janie. Janie lived with her tradition following grandmother who thought it important for a woman to marry in order to have safety and financial security. Therefore, Janie was forced to marry a farmer who was a lot older than her. Janie was a lot like Zora in the fact that she was firey and independent. Janie did not like living with her new husband. She felt like she was not an equal but property of him. Therefore when another man came into town and flirted with her, she took her opportunity to leave her loveless marriage and run away with this new man. This new man whom she eventually married treated her similar in the fact that he was an important man whom he expected Janie to live up to his expectations. His name was Joe and he brought Janie to the town of Eatonville where he started a shop and became mayor. Janie wanted freedom and to have fun. But Joe didn’t want her hanging with the town’s people who were plain. Therefore, Janie became bored with her life. In a fight they had, Janie moved out to eventually come back to find Joe on his death bed. With Joe’s death, Janie was free to be herself. Janie loved her independence, until she met a man twelve years her junior named Tea Cake whom she and he fell madly in love with each other. Despite gossip about the two, they stayed together and traveled to wherever they needed to find work and adventure. They did encounter some troubles, but Janie forgave and they made it work out. While in the Everglades during a hurricane, Tea Cake gets bit by a rabies infected animal and eventually Janie has to kill him when he rages out on her. After trial and being found innocent, she goes home to Eatonville and asks her best friend to set the towns people straight so that they would stop gossiping about her. And with that, the book ends with Janie finally at peace with her life.

Zora wrote this story in seven weeks while she was in Haiti. Her focus was her own experience interlocked with black culture/heritage that she was familiar with. Her white readers accepted the book far better than her black readers. The black culture felt she had painted black culture rosier than what it really was for them. But Zora’s experience in Eatonville was a culture that focused only on blacks, which would have made any child growing up have a good experience with being black in a country where the white culture dominated. But no matter what people in her day said about the book, when the 1970’s rolled around, college professors accepted the find and began teaching it African American and women’s literature classes. By the mid 1970’s the book had been brought back to print permanently. And Eatonville was put on the map thanks to Zora’s book Their Eyes Where Watching God.

“It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk” (Potter). Just like in Eatonville, so Zora portrayed her book’s character’s life. In Eatonville during her life there, a man named Joe Clarke (founder of Eatonville) owned a store where people would sit and gossip. And in her book, she created a character similar to her real life named Joe Starks whom her main character marries. Starks was the mayor of Eatonville in the book and also owned the town’s store where people would sit around and gossip about everyone in the town. And with her critic Mr. Wright accusing her book of having no theme, there is one example of what Their Eyes Were Watching God’s theme was – Zora’s Eatonville experience of Black heritage/culture. Zora put what she knew into her works so that others could experience it along with her.

And with her experience in Eatonville came the language she grew to know and love. Their Eyes Were Watching God’s major theme is its language. Without the language of the black people of Eatonville, there would be no real value to the book. When reading Their Eyes Were Watching God, you may have to tread slowly as to understand everything that is being said because the popular Southern black dialect of her time period flows readily throughout the book and is in itself a whole other language to be learned. The main importance of this kind of dialect is to show the voice of the main character, Janie. Her first two husbands stifled her voice, making it seem like she was their property and had to do what they expected of her or say what they expected her to say. Throughout the dialect of the novel, we see Zora show through her characters the importance of when to speak and when to be silent. And eventually, with her peace at the end of the book, Janie finds her voice.

Power and conquest is another theme shown within the book. Seen through Janie’s first two husbands, we see that men’s goal during that time period was to be in control of their family and reach perfection through image and wealth. Janie’s first husband had land and a farm. He saw Janie as a part of his possessions too and treated her as such to the point that she was stripped of what ever individuality that she had. Her second husband had the desire to seek power by being the head of his community – being the mayor and owning the main store in his town. He expected his wife to portray perfection of family and status.

The last theme seen within Zora’s novel Their Eyes Where Watching God is love and relationships verses independence. All Janie wanted was independence. When she was forced to marry a man her grandmother desired for her, she was miserable because that was not what she wanted. Living with him, she felt invisible and just another piece of property to be had. Therefore, when someone else caught her fancy, she was quick to jump ship and see where this next path would take her. Her next husband though was just as bad. She again had no independence. Her new man desired her to put up a front and be someone she was not. She again could not be herself. And with the death of her second husband, Janie experienced independence for the first time in her life and she loved it. But when she met Tea Cake, she had a conflict of what to choose. She had fallen in love with Tea Cake, yet she enjoyed her independence. But in the end, it was love and relationships that won.

So even though Zora Neale Hurston critic Richard Wright said that her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God had “no theme, no meaning, no thought” (SparkNotes), he was quite wrong. When you take a deeper look at the novel for more than what is just at its surface, you see the journey of one of Zora’s characters to seek out who she is as an individual rather than just be what everyone wanted her to be. I see this same concept in Zora’s young life as well. Zora much like Janie had to come to peace with who she was. Growing up with a preacher as a father, Zora’s feisty spirit was broken down through discipline. Yet no matter what, Zora kept her mother’s phrase “jump at de sun” in her mind ("Zora Neale Hurston Biography”). She lied to get her high school diploma. Zora continued her writing while going to college and then graduate school. She found love, traveled, and remained true to her home of Florida.

The book also has meaning and thought. Zora may have written the story of Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks, but it is well structured, the story flows well with it starting in the present and then backtracking throughout the story teller’s life. You can’t write a book jumping through time without thinking about what you want to write. And the story reflected Zora’s experience with black heritage and culture, which brings meaning.

Her novel was shunned by critics because her character did not act as a woman should according to that time period. They criticized her book because it focused on black culture rather than racism. And because of all of this with Their Eyes Were Watching God as well as some of her other works, she became a no body.

Zora moved to Fort Pierce, Florida, were she worked as a substitute teacher at Lincoln Academy. Unfortunately, she suffered a stroke which forced her to have to move into a welfare nursing home because she was poor and couldn’t care for herself. When she died on January 28, 1960, she was too poor to even have a headstone that marked her grave. When she was rediscovered by Alice Walker thirty years later, Alice gave Zora the respect she deserved by having a grave stone mark her grave. The stone read “Zore Neale Hurston, A Genius of the South, 1901 – 1960, Novelist Folklorist Anthropologist” (Potter).

Zora Neale Hurston has become a staple for women’s literature and Southern literature classes. Today, many see her as a literary genius (Potter).

Today in the town where Zora grew up, Eatonville, the respect the genius writer with a museum and youth institute. Every year, there is a festival in the town to celebrate her life. It is held every January and more than a 100,000 people attend (Potter).

Zora grew up in a town the thrived in gossip and storytelling. Zora’s mother told her to “jump at de sun” ("Zora Neale Hurston Biography”). And that is what Zora Neale Hurston did. She took what she knew and created literary pieces that reflected her surroundings. Writing was how she “jump[ed] at de sun” ("Zora Neale Hurston Biography”); and even though she died poor and unknown, to us today she did jump and reach that sun.

Works Cited

Boyd, Valerie. "About Zora Neale Hurston." Zora Neale Hurston. Sonnet Media LLC., 2007. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.zoranealehurston.com/biography.html>.

Potter, Michelle. "Zora Neale Hurston, A Literary Life." Literary Traveler. LiteraryTravelor.com, 2011. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.literarytraveler.com/literary_articles/zora_neale_hurston.aspx>.

"Their Eyes Were Watching God." SparkNotes. SparkNotes LLC., 2011. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.sparknotes.com/lit/eyes>.

"Zora Neale Hurston Biography." Women in History. Lakewood Public Library, 6 Nov. 2011. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.lkwdpl.org/wihohio/hurs-zor.htm>.

Zora Neale Hurston. Sonnet Media LLC., 2007. Web. 06 Nov. 2011. <http://www.zoranealehurston.com/>.

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Hurston Festiville (Eatonville, FL - near downtown Orlando)

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    • suziecat7 profile image

      suziecat7 3 years ago from Asheville, NC

      What a great Hub. Thanks for writing this.

    • ambercita04 profile image
      Author

      Amber 4 years ago from Winter Park

      I had to read it in college and loved it as well. I live right next to Eatonville here in Florida - its my backyard literally. They have a festival every year in January I believe. I also recently saw the movie that stars Halle Berry in it. The movie was really good as well.

    • Kimberly Vaughn profile image

      Kimberly Vaughn 4 years ago from Midwest

      Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of my favorite books! I knew nothing about the author. Thanks for providing some great information!