Their Eyes Were Watching God - Zora Neale Hurston

Prior to reading this novel I had never read any Zora Neale Hurston, but heard great things. I chose Their Eyes Were Watching God because I felt like this is one of those books I should read before I die, an American classic. Also, it's a banned book and since this week is Banned Books Week, it's my way of celebrating. This novel tells the story of Janie, a light-skinned African American woman living in the south during the early 1900's. Hurston details Janie's struggles against patriarchy and her continuous search for happiness over 30 years and uses two distinct voices to relate the story; that of the lyric narrator and the voices of the characters, who all speak in a thick southern dialect combined with the black vernacular.

Throughout the novel these opposing voices create a distinct divide, which is probably meant to mirror Janie's divide as a woman in a mans world and, as a result of her fair skin, her difficulty to fit in with either race that surrounds her. It also speaks to the importance of language and represents Janie's struggle to find her own voice. While I understand why Hurston employed two distinct voices throughout the novel, I didn't like it. I feel in love with the poetic narration and then was thrown into dialect that required my full attention:

"Daisy, you know mah heart and all de ranges uh mah mind. And you know if Ah wuz ridin' up in uh earoplane way up in de sky and Ah looked down and seen you walkin' and knowed you'd have tuh walk ten miles tuh git home, Ah'd step backward offa dat earoplane just tuh walk home wid you."
Maybe I'm just being a baby but I would rather read Standard Written English. With that in mind, the voice of the narrator was simply beautiful, gracefully thick with metaphors and figurative language:

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. That is the life of men.
Structure and language aside, the overall story Hurston tells is insightful and still relevant today. She explores gender roles and examines race in terms of its cultural construction and how ideas of race are spread. Or course it's a coming of age story, but its more than that. Hurston stresses the power of believing in yourself and discovering your own truths. Janie triumphs over the limitations of patriarchy, race and poverty by never losing sight of who she was and what she wanted. This isn't in my top ten of American classics, but it is a satisfying read.

In a related note, the movie might be worth a watch:

Publisher: Harper Perennial, 1937


  1. Wonderful and insightful review! I really want to read this novel one day, as I've also heard great things about it, and your delightful review just proves it. I had no idea a movie was made based on this novel, but I'll make sure to watch it once I've read the novel. Thanks for sharing!

  2. I actually really liked the language on this one. Hurston wrote in oral tradition, which I thought was an interesting way to write. Normally I don't like dialect, but since she didn't mimic dialect and instead wrote it all orally (if that makes sense) it didn't bother me in this one. It probably helps that I come from the south and reading this was just like listening to someone with a strong accent...

  3. I haven't read this in so many years, what a beautiful write-up. I remember loving this book so much when I first read this. Although I don't remember it bothering me too much, I can totally see what you mean with how the dialogue it's written in -- it can definitely be very difficult to get used to that style of writing! I wonder if I'd feel the same way though, reading it as an adult?

  4. I read this book several years ago when I was in school and I remember loving it at the time. The dialogue didn't bother me and I found that it made the book even better. Truly a great piece of literature! Loved your review - spot on about the issues that are explored and the theme of the story being about self discovery.

  5. Irena, Thank you! I didn't know there was a movie either until I googled the book to look for cover images and found their were a lot with Hallie Berry on it, which I assumed came from the movie.

    Amanda, I can understand some people like to read different vernaculars, it's just not for me. But I'm glad you liked the book as well!

    Coffe&Book, If you didn't mind it the first time around I'm sure it wouldn't bother you now.

    Nadia, Your right it is a great piece of literature, but the dialogue did bother me! I'm a baby.

  6. Thanks for linking to the movie! Maybe I'm just lazy, but I have a hard time with thick dialect of any kind (especially southern!), so I'm not sure I'll read the book.

  7. I just had to comment again–I watched the whole movie here on your blog in the couple of hours. I thoroughly enjoyed it! = )

  8. Kate, That's fantastic! I'm glad you liked it. I need to get around to watching it one of these days.

  9. This is one of my favorite books. You've written a very thoughtful and observant review. I read it many years ago; and I think I saw the movie. I remember more about the book than the movie, though. I think I'll watch it again. I also listened to the audiobook this summer. Ruby Dee is the narrator of the unabridged edition. I understand what you mean about the dialect requiring your full attention. Reading it is a lot different from speaking or hearing it. And I don't think it's that extreme in works of the latter part of the 20th century and beyond. There may be a few; but I just leafed through Wench by Dolen Perkins-Valdez and Beloved by Toni Morrison—both of which I reviewed earlier this year. Both use dialect but not to the extreme used in Their Eyes. I read a lot of historical fiction focused on African Americans and slavery; so I'll have to pay closer attention. One of my close friends won't read ZNH because of the dialect.

  10. I just re-read this book for my book group's discussion on banned books. I loved it again. The first time, though, I did listen to the audiobook before reading it, and that helped a lot with the dialect.

    The themes ZNH delves into are certainly relevant today.

    Funny, the ALA site says it was banned because of language and sexual explicitness. Sexual explicitness? I certainly didn't think that was there! Of course, I'm not sure what year it was banned; by today's standards, it's pretty mild.

    Thanks for your thoughtful review.

    ~ Annis (www.thedaymaker.blogspot.com)