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?

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

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 M.L.'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.

Hurston’s heroine, Janie Crawford, lives in a time and place when a woman was supposed to be defined by the men in her life. But Janie, though she suffers suppression and abuse at the hands of her husbands, remains strong-minded, pushes back when she can, and ultimately experiences love on her own terms, becoming an independent woman with her own voice. This classic of the Harlem Renaissance not only provides us with a fascinating, remarkable woman in Janie; it’s also a great portrait of black lives and culture in the early 20th century.

Hurston’s riveting book explores the extraordinary experiences of a Black woman living in the 1930s rural south. With vernacular language, compelling characters, and lively dialogue, Hurston’s protagonist, Janie, tells her story of love and tragedy. Every episode is embroidered with the vegetation, humidity, waterways, and soil of central and northern Florida. The land-based work of former slaves forms the spine of the story, and a hurricane triggers the culminating crisis of Janie’s life. Through this work of fiction, one grasps essential themes of environmental history: human labor intertwined with the land, altered ecosystems, gendered experiences of nature, and the tight…

From Julie's list on stealth environmental histories.

I remember reading this book in college and it hitting me like a lightning bolt. I loved her style and the flow of her language. Later I found out that Hurston had been to Haiti, the country of my birth and childhood, and she had written a book about voodoo. She also lived in Central Florida where I lived—so I felt an affinity with her landscape, her south. I could recognize the places and the people she was talking about. She was a trailblazer and a real outsider. She was repudiated by the other great African American writers of her…

A book that forces you to engage both intellectually and emotionally is a gift. This novel is beautiful in its unflinching pride in its Black Florida roots and dialect. It forces readers to lay down their expectations of language and step into something new. Hurston’s careful crafting of Janie’s discovery of self in relation to both external expectation and her internal desires is one that is world-altering.

From Athena's list on for growing up and finding your voice.

In this short novel, Zora Neale Hurston somehow manages to capture the challenges faced by Black women seeking liberation in a racist, misogynist world while never losing sight of the liberating power of Black joy.

From Brit's list on being Black in America.

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