Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

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. (page 1)

From this beginning, Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God (published 1937) captures in one woman’s quest to arrive at the horizon. Part love story and part coming-of-age story, Janie’s story shows how overcoming oppressive traditions and learning to speak for one’s self empowers one with satisfaction and peace.

As an expert in folklore, Ms Hurston was uniquely qualified to capture the African-American traditions and unique dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God. But to me, the novel transcends race and completely captures what it means to be human in an oppressive world. It beautifully answers the question of how to find hope in the midst of the challenges that life sends our way in our journey toward the horizon.

This post contains some thematic spoilers for Their Eyes Were Watching God.

As Janie tells her life story, we see how her life continually changes. As a young girl, Janie imagines life as romantic. She looked for poetry in the unknown tomorrow: “God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up” (page 30). Although the novel doesn’t have a religious undertone, Hurston uses the imagery of “God” to represent the unknown future, and the unknown “far horizon” (page 35, and elsewhere) is the inaccessible happiness that one lives for.

But even that longing for the horizon proved an illusion as she grew. “No matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you,” Janie realizes (page 107). Only when she abandoned tradition, ignored criticism, and lived as her soul yearned to, following her own mind, was she able to say, “I done been tuh de horizon and back” (page 225).

Given the subject matter (a woman in oppressive marriages, domestic violence, racial insecurity, natural disasters, basic challenges of life), one may think Their Eyes Were Watching God would be depressing. But Janie’s story has a theme of hope. She ultimately expresses her delight at having found happiness.

If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door. (page 186)

I loved this image. No matter what God sends (i.e., no matter the challenges that come in life), it’s all right if one has found peace in one’s self and through others. The last chapters had me crying. I’d listened to the audio of the book before, and I remember liking it. This time, I read the text, and I cried as Janie admitted her satisfaction. The horizon is her comfort for the future. She had finally arrived.

She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. … She called in her soul to come and see. (page 227)

This is a book I need to reread more frequently.

Quotes, page numbers, and cover image from the HarperCollins Hardcover Edition, published 2000, ISBN 0-06-019949-0. Copyright 2000 HarperCollins.

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

  1. I agree, this is a book that transcends race. It’s a universal story that speaks to all women. I’ve read it on my own and with a book group and loved it both times. I would love to read more Hurston but sadly I just haven’t gotten to it yet.

    1. Karen K. » I read one other novel by Hurston — Moses, Man of the Mountain — and it was fascinating. The story of Moses, with African-American folklore mixed in. Quite fun. Their Eyes Were Watching God definitely a stronger, more memorable book, though. Definitely a universal book!

  2. It’s been about four years since I read this and I still think of it from time to time. I look forward to revisiting it one day.

    1. Amanda » I listened to the audio preblogging; it was definitely time to revisit. Given the complexities, it is surprisingly easy to read! I hope you enjoy your reread.

  3. This was a really inspiring review, Rebecca. I have a copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God, but I haven’t read it because it really intimidates me. I realize that it is a really important piece of literature so I shouldn’t let my own fears dissuade me, but I can’t help it! The fact that you got so much out of it, however, really makes me feel like I need to cast my fears to the wind and just give myself over to this book.

    1. Steph » What makes you feel intimidated? The dialect? My first experience with this book was audio and it really helped me ease in to it. Then I read it this time and it was very accessible. I don’t think you need to be intimidated with this one. I hope you enjoy it.

    1. Patti Smith » I do hope you give it try! It was a relatively quick read for me, compared to the other classics I’ve been reading this year, at least!

  4. One of my all-time favorites, Rebecca – thanks for the reminder of some lovely passages. I just went to see the Alvin Ailey dance company (AMAZING, I highly recommend seeing them if you get the chance) and they did a piece on the Harlem Renaissance that incorporated the beautiful “love is lak the sea” passage from the end of this book. I was in tears.

    1. Emily » I don’t know anything about that dance group, but it sounds very moving! I definitely love this book, I need to reread it more often…

  5. I read one of her better know short stories, “Spunk”, not long ago. I really liked it. Thanks to your great post I will put her master work on my TBR list

    1. Mel u » This is definitely her master work. But I HAVE only read one other novel and a few stories, so I do need to read more to say what else is good.

  6. For some odd reason, I did not connect with this book when I first read it. I need to revisit it to better understand my reaction to it. Thanks for the review.

    1. Kinna » My first experience with this book was audio, and I know I didn’t connect nearly as much as I did this time. But I do hope you give it another chance. I found it so hopeful and inspiring this time around.

  7. I adored this, as well as the few Hurston short stories I’ve read, and I don’t know why I’ve never read anything else by her since I graduated from college! It always breaks my heart that Hurston died in poverty and without the recognition she deserved — I wish all great artists were acclaimed appropriately in their lifetimes.

    1. Jenny » It is so sad that Hurston died in poverty. We talked about this in my book club: her writing is so wonderful, the story so hopeful and really a universal story, but for 1930s America, I can imagine people were not open to reading an African-American novel written in dialect. She was just writing ahead of her time, maybe….too bad she wasn’t as well received in her lifetime.

  8. I’ve not read this one yet. Your review, and the comments to follow, have me inspired!

    1. Jillian » it’s a great one. Do you have novels this contemporary (1930s) on your list, or are you mostly focusing on 19th century and earlier?

      1. Oh, no, I have all kinds listed, from the 20th century. This one included. (And Hemingway, Woolf, Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, etc.) 🙂

  9. I read this book in high school and again in college. I should read it a third time. I don’t usually reread books, but I just love Janie and her story. I loved reading your thoughts!

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