Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

This is a slender book with a LOT to say.

Janie is raise by her Grandmother, who she calls Nanny, in the yard of a White person’s house where Nanny works. Until she saw a photograph of herself, Janie didn’t realise that she was black and was disappointed to know this. And so we have the first reference to the eyes in the title and how we see ourselves.

At 16 Nanny catches Janie kissing a man that has walked down the road and spoken to her. This road is ever present inthe book with Janie constantly watching for those who are coming and going and looking to the horizon for more. As a result of this kiss, Janie is married off to an older man, a farmer and this is where the book becomes part fairy tale.

Husband number one, Logan Killicks, has sixty acres but the honeymoon is soon over and Janie is expected to plow a field and halve and plant potatoes. Janie is a girl with lots of questions and desires and so starts staring off down that road again. This time a well-dressed man appears who courts her and tells her she will always be his princess and so she leaves. Husband number one is too intent on a wife as labour for the fields.

Husband number two, Joe Starks, is a man with big ideas for himself. They end up in a Black town called Eatonville and he sets about manipulating people so that he becomes the Mayor. He then gets fat on the pickings, enslaving the town to his will, digging ditches and roads and building a store and post office for him. Many men in the town thought they had left this work behind them when their days of slavery were over. I found this husband much harder to figure out. He seems to have assumed the role of White people in deciding how things should be done, using other people’s labour for free and deciding who can live in the town. There are lots of aphorisms in this book and the one that suits this situation best is,

Nature got so high in uh black hen she got tuh lay uh white egg.


But Janie argues with her husband because he keeps banishing her to the shop and he ends up hitting her.

She didn’t change her mind but she agreed with her mouth.


Eventually, Janie sees that she has an outside and an inside and learnt that she shouldn’t mix the two. Her husband dies of kidney failure leaving her a wealthy woman. This husband put her on a pedestal and left her there, providing nothing for her internal life.

Finally she meets husband number three, Tea Cake, who treats her as an equal, believes that she can learn to play chequers and shoot and loves her as a person. This husband is just right! He was a ‘glance from God.’

They leave Eatonville and go to The Glades to sow and pick beans and Tea Cake asks her to work in the fields with him so that he doesn’t have to miss her for a minute of the day. She agrees. So here she is doing something she refused to do for her first husband because the motivation for asking is so different.

A hurricane comes in and everywhere is flooded. (How time repeats itself!) When rescuing Janie in the water, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog and when in a fit of rabid temper threatening Janie, she takes his gun and shoots him in self-defence to put him out of his pain and torment. This is the ultimate act of love.

As her best friend Phoeby says when she tells her the story,

‘Lawd!’ Phoeby breathed out heavily. ‘Ah done growed ten feet higher jus’ listenin’ to tuh you, Janie. Ah aint satisfied wid mahself no mo!’


At this point in the story, Janie realises that she no longer needs to look down the road anymore.

She pulled in her horizon like a great fishing net. Pulled it around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes.


The writing is sublime (see the above quote). When Janie is with husband number two, a mule they own dies and the town decides to have a funeral for it. As they bury it the buzzards arrive.

They were holding a great flying-meet way up over the heads of the mourners and some of the nearby trees were peopled with the stooped-shoulder forms.

There is so much to discuss in this book: symbolism, colour, identity and hair. It is a fantastic book and would make a great book club choice. My questions would be:

  • What kind of God are people watching in this book? Is it the same type of God for each person?
  • What is the purpose of the story moving from Eatonville to The Glades?
  • The dialogue is very important to this book. Does it add to the story? Why/how?
  • What is Hurston showing us through husband number two?

Another book where a young girl finds her voice is The Girl with the Louding Voice by Abi Daré. It’s not quite in the same league as Their Eyes Were Watching God but it is good.

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