Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

October 11, 2010
By twnguy BRONZE, Cupertino, California
twnguy BRONZE, Cupertino, California
4 articles 0 photos 0 comments

Upon finishing Zora Neale Hurston’s "Their Eyes Were Watching God," I felt like a college admissions counselor staring at the file of a well-rounded, 4.0 GPA student— who had just been cited for cheating. Hurston’s novel was just like that student, deserving of “masterpiece” status if it were not for a single blemish on its record. Set in the 1920s, the novel tells the story of Janie Crawford, a ¼ black woman in Florida Hurston illustrates Janie’s journey through three marriages and a uniquely black culture. Weaving in authentic vernacular and poignant descriptions, Hurston manages to convey subtle yet strong messages about racial injustice and human struggles; however, she dilutes those messages with the single element of overzealous feminism.

If it were not for Hurston’s thinly veiled feminist conjecture, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" would truly deserve exaltation as a masterwork. In contrast to other works addressing the African-American struggle, the novel uses more indirect but effective approaches to reach the reader. Instead of using characters to vent direct complaints about or make direct observations of racism in a situation, Hurston allows the readers to discover it for themselves in empathy-inducing prose. Whether it be through supporting character Mrs. Turner’s self-contradicting irrational tirade or short descriptions of “white people…[preempting]” blacks while seeking refuge during a hurricane, Hurston allows the reader to experience the wrongfulness of racism firsthand. This is far more effective than choosing to make blatant complaints or angry outbursts; those tactics prevent readers from truly feeling the pain of racism for themselves and in fact disinterest the reader, who tires of hearing incessant quibbling.

With this in mind, we would think that Hurston would apply the same effective subtleness if she wanted to espouse a feminist agenda. Unfortunately, she does not, and instead spouts ineffective, polarizing allegations. In fact, the first paragraph of "Their Eyes Were Watching God" is a disconcerting piece of feminist conjecture, using a metaphor of sailing ships to posit that men never actively pursue their aspirations. Hurston claims that men only achieve dreams that “come in with the tide,” while they simply “turn…away in resignation at any other dream that isn’t handed to them on a platter. This fallacious generalization would make any sensible individual cringe, for if all males never worked toward their aspirations, society would be stagnant.

In addition to making flawed statements like this, Hurston portrays virtually all male characters in a negative light. She depicts Janie’s first husband Logan Killicks as an uncultured, angry blockhead who forces Janie to movie “manure pile[s]” and threatens to use an “ax” to “kill” her. Despite being slightly more intelligent, Janie’s second husband Jody Starks also receives a bad rap. Shown as a domineering ideologue, Hurston even compares him to a “man attempting to climb to painless heights from his dung hill.” Even Janie’s third, most conciliatory husband Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods meets a fate that shows that empathetic, kind men can not exist.

These portrayals perpetuate a false notion that men can only be domineering Neanderthals. They are based on conjecture and false premises, and do nothing to prove why anyone should accept Hurston’s feminist agenda. By directly insulting men and thus attacking half the world’s population, Hurston can not hope to create any of the same empathetic agreement that her subtle references to racism bring about. In fact, Hurston’s unfounded feminist statements hurt the credibility of her accurate depictions of racism, and turn off readers who would otherwise be receptive to her messages about racial justice.

Overall, Hurston does tell a compelling story, but it is hurt by her unrestrained, unfounded feminism. If only she had applied her strong techniques of accurate subtlety to all of her arguments, "Their Eyes Were Watching God" would be a much more refined, effective, and trustworthy work.

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This article has 1 comment.

on Oct. 27 2012 at 6:34 pm
I feel that you grossly misinterpreted the first paragraph of the book. Rather than espousing a feminist agenda, it was a powerful metaphor for the futility of life; while we as humans (MANkind. I never see it called womankind, and I never take that to mean I as a woman am being subverted and should protest. It's just something ingrained into our language and culture) may have dreams and aspirations, some of those can never be realized. Only dreamt of. Like ships at a distance, we can see them, but we might never reach them. And for some,  these dreams come close to realization, but the constraints of time never allow them to reach fruition. "Come in with the tide" further underscores that the realization of some dreams is simply beyond the power of man. (Or woman. Whatever) Not that they are incapable of working towards their dreams.  This theme is repeated throughout the book. In fact, there are several more moments where Janie realizes the near impossibilty of her own dream. That is, a loving, passionate, playful marriage. While there are signs of overt male domination (her grandmother married her off to Logan to prevent her falling prey to the same fate of her mother [rape]. Logan didn't treat her like a princess. Joe was controlling. Tea Cake himself is not infallible, having beat her.)  It was less a statement of feminism, but rather, like the depiction of racism, just another current of the time in which it was written. In the way the book displayed some of the disadvantages of being black in that time period, it displayed some the disadvantages of being a woman in that time period. 

BUT that should not be your main focus. I find it silly that you zeroed in on that, actually. As I said, just a current of the times. 
  For me, the piece is indeed a masterpiece, because what it does espouse is truly moving. There are moments in the book where you feel her longing for something more. We, as humans, are always trying to reach something else. (Man attempting to climb to painless heights from their dung hill.). Our eyes forever on God, on the dreams (or ships) just beyond our reach. Pieces of the eternal within us crying out to find more. This story is about a woman that set out to find more of something that truly touched her soul in one fateful moment, and found it. 

Tea Cakes death was heartbreaking, but it was less of a statement that good men cannot last, and more of a reminder that some things are truly beyond our control. For a moment, Janie found her piece of eternity. And not letting her keep it just made the story more real. 

Other than that you have a lovely, very clean writing style, and I enjoyed reading this essay. Informative, and you stated your opinion well, even if I disagreed :) I'll still have to consider the feminism angle, next time I pick up the book. Keep up the good work! 


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