Their Eyes Were Watching God

By Zora Neale Hurston,

Book cover of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Book description

Cover design by Harlem renaissance artist Lois Mailou Jones

When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a…

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Why read it?

15 authors picked Their Eyes Were Watching God as one of their favorite books. Why do they recommend it?

Anyone interested in literature featuring Florida must read Hurston’s enduring master work.

The novel describes Janie Crawford’s coming-of-age journey, especially in Eatonville, Florida, which became one of the nation’s first all-black cities, incorporated in 1887. Janie, a child of slavery and rape, flees an oppressive arranged marriage, and later, she survives abusive lovers. Originally published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God challenged gender stereotypes and presented a strong black female protagonist.

One of the most intriguing aspects of the novel is Hurston’s use of the Florida setting to both set the mood and drive plot choices. When protagonist Janie…

From Ginger's list on featuring Florida in a big way.

The first American writer to describe southern juke joints from the inside (in Mules and Men), Hurston took everything she’d learned about 1920s blues culture in Polk County, Florida, and spun it into a tale of self-empowering female adventurism. 

Spunky black heroine Janie Starks works her way through a couple of dud husbands before falling for the loveable but maddeningly unpredictable bluesman Tea Cake, who is a decade younger.

He “stings” her thrillingly, like Memphis Minnie’s lover in “Bumble Bee Blues” (“You stung me this morning...I been restless all day long”), and teaches her to fish and shoot, but…

The story starts with Janie Crawford as a young teenager, forced into marriage to an old farmer she has no desire for.

It’s ok, though, because he doesn’t particularly want her either. He just wants help on the farm. Janie runs off and marries a politically ambitious man seeking a trophy wife. They move to a small town and he forbids Janie from associating with the “common folk.”

I love this story because Janie starts out strong with an independent streak, and grows even stronger throughout the story. I will note that the dialect takes some getting used to, but…

From Deborah's list on Black women by Black women.

Books that make readers fall in love hook readers with the very first line.

When I read this tale in grad school, I did so slowly, savoring every word because of the opening lines: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.”

The book continues with the story of Janie Crawford in 1930s Florida. You will see through Janie eyes…

Hurston portrays African American vernacular culture like no other writer.

Reading her Harlem Renaissance novel about an African American female searching for identity helped determine the type of writer I wanted to be. Hurston is known for her diction and poetic techniques: the characters in her novel are revealed in rich, careful metaphors and similes.

As a young writer, I wanted to emulate Hurston’s ability to warp language into something so eloquent, hoping that one day the literary world might read my work and think of hers. She also taught me that I should choose my own style in developing…

This is the book that, after three years of a long and often turgid English degree, made me fall back in love with reading. Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on boardis there a better opening line in the English language? The novel tells the story of Janey, an African American woman in Florida in the 1920s, and her three husbands. A candidate for shaming and marginalisation if ever there was one. But Janey resists every constraint that society seeks to impose on her. I read this book whenever I need a good weep. 

From Jessica's list on reimagining women’s lives.

This could be any one of a number of books by Black authors—Charles Wright, Ralph Ellison, James McPherson, Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, James Baldwin.... Through such writers the experience of Black people is made available to those of us who are not Black. I've chosen Hurston's book because of the directness and rawness of her language and her use of scenes which bespeak the ability of a writer to transcend herself. Most memorable perhaps is the scene in which the abused and thrice married Janie is attempting to port her latest husband, Tea Cake, across a lake driven by wind.…

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a book that I read every year with my students and no matter what age I am when I read it, I come away with something new I’ve discovered. I think what draws me to this book is the main character, Janie Crawford. She is such a complex mix of thoughts and experiences, and the way Hurston lets her grow over the course of the book is a stroke of pure brilliance. When Janie returns to Eatonville, barefoot, wearing coveralls, the townspeople think she’s been defeated, but they don’t even begin to know the…

From ML's list on character driven novels.

Hurston worked for two different WPA projects – the Federal Theater Project, and the FWP – and she wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in between those jobs, while on a fellowship. Reams of critical praise have been devoted to this book, which is often found on lists of the last century’s finest novels. I won’t try to add any deep insights to the extant critical record here, with such limited space. But I will note that there are stylistic commonalities between it and the work of other WPA writers, commonalities which I enjoy and which make me think of…

I first read this book in college. Wrote a paper on it. Said to myself, “OK. So what?” Went on with my life. Read the book again when I was in my forties. And said – aloud – “Mercy!” I think one may need a few years (ok, maybe a few decades) of grief, laughter, heartbreak, financial worries, i.e. life, to feel this Hurston tale in your bones. And then there is the novel’s opening line. “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” True that.

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