Their Eyes Were Watching God


Zora Neale Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God Study Guide

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Brief Biography of Zora Neale Hurston

Zora Neale Hurston was born in Notasulga, Alabama into a large family, the fifth of eight children. Three years after Hurston's birth, her family moved to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-black towns in the United States. Eatonville is of clear importance to Hurston, as it becomes a predominant setting in Their Eyes Were Watching God, and is often cited by Hurston as her birth-place. Hurston began Howard University in the South in 1918, but left in 1924 and then was offered a scholarship to Barnard College (part of Columbia University) in New York one year later in 1925. She earned a Bachelor's degree in anthropology in 1927, and at that point was 36 years old. She continued graduate studies at Columbia in anthropology but did not complete her degree, and instead spent many years doing fieldwork in the Caribbean in the late 1920s and 1930s, while also working on her fiction.
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Historical Context of Their Eyes Were Watching God

Following the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, many all-black towns began to emerge in the South in the United States, and were soon incorporated into the nation officially. Eatonville, Florida is one such town, incorporated into the U.S. on August 15, 1887, and is known in particular as being the hometown of Zora Neale Hurston.

Other Books Related to Their Eyes Were Watching God

Given Hurston's political deviation from the Harlem Renaissance, her works such as Jonah's Gourd Vine (1934) and Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) – along with Their Eyes Were Watching God – are not seen as related to the movement. Instead, because of her identity as a socially liberal Republican, displaying feminist leanings more than anything else, Hurston is often associated with the female, Libertarian writers Rose Wilder Lane and Isabel Paterson.
Key Facts about Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • Full Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
  • When Written: 1936-1937
  • Where Written: Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God while doing fieldwork in Haiti in 1936-1937.
  • When Published: 1937
  • Literary Period: Hurston's work coincided historically with the Harlem Renaissance, though she is actually known for diverging with the politics and ideologies of many writers of the movement, including Langston Hughes, Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison. In particular, Huston identified as a Republican and actively spoke against many Harlem Renaissance writers' support of the New Deal and Communism.
  • Genre: Novel
  • Setting: The American South in the early 20th century. The novel takes place most centrally in Eatonville, Florida and in the Everglades.
  • Climax: The climax of the novel arguably unfolds in Chapter 18, during the hurricane. It is in this scene that Janie and Tea Cake are situated in clear opposition to the forces of nature, and find themselves fighting against the will of God for survival.
  • Antagonist: Janie's first two husbands, Logan Killicks and Jody Starks, are disrespectful and abusive partners, effectively situating them as Janie's antagonists for the first half of the book. In the second half, Mrs. Turner functions as an antagonist to both Tea Cake and Janie, expressing her racist views against black people to both of them and alienating Tea Cake in particular by suggesting that Janie leave him for her lighter skinned brother.
  • Point of View: The novel is Janie's life-story, told to Pheoby Watson by Janie herself. However, throughout the novel, a third-person omniscient narrator interrupts Janie's narrations and direct presentations of characters' speech. The narrator's mode of speaking is distinctly literary in contrast to the Southern dialect of the other characters, but is nonetheless influenced by the language and imagery of the characters and their world.

Extra Credit for Their Eyes Were Watching God

Political leanings. Hurston famously spoke against the Supreme Court’s ruling the Brown vs. Board of Education case (1954), arguing simply that segregation in schools did not preclude black children from getting an equal education. This kind of attitude speaks to Hurston’s right-leaning politics.