Their Eyes Were Watching God | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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Their Eyes Were Watching God | 10 Things You Didn't Know


Published in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston's groundbreaking novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is considered a classic of African American, feminist, and American Southern literature. Although it sank into obscurity soon after publication, it was revived in the 1970s thanks to another prominent black author, Alice Walker. The novel follows the story of a young woman, Janie Mae Crawford, who searches for love and identity in the rural towns and steamy swamps of Florida. TodayTheir Eyes Were Watching God is considered an essential American novel.

1. African American writer Richard Wright hated Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Richard Wright, who would become a prominent African American writer with the 1940 publication of Native Son, wrote a review of Their Eyes Were Watching God in the leftist magazineThe New Masses in October 1937. He stated, "The sensory sweep of [Zora Neale Hurston's] novel carries no theme, no message, no thought." He went on, scathingly, to say, "She exploits that phase of Negro life which is 'quaint,' the phase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the 'superior' race."

2. African American writer Alice Walker brought Hurston's work back to life.

Their Eyes Were Watching God had gone out of print before the author's death, but when writer Alice Walker, best known for The Color Purple (1982), discovered Hurston's writings in the early 1970s, she sparked a resurrection of Hurston's work. In 1975 Ms. magazine published an article by Walker about her search for Hurston's grave. A biography of Hurston came out in 1977, and in 1979 Walker put together an anthology of Hurston's works.

3. Time magazine considered Their Eyes Were Watching God one of the 100 best novels of all time.

The novel was featured in Time's 2005 list of the 100 best English-language novels published since 1923 (the year Time was first published). The reviewer called it "succulent" and said it is "more powerful than ever."

4. Hurston made very little money from her writing.

Despite the fact that she wrote many well-received works, from folktales to novels, Hurston's largest royalty from any of her books was less than $1,000. She died penniless at age 69. Her neighbors had to collect money to have her buried. Her grave did not have a marker until 1973, when writer Alice Walker put a headstone on her grave that read "Zora Neale Hurston: A Genius of the South."

5. Hurston did not approve of the groundbreaking Brown v. Board of Education desegregation decision.

When the Supreme Court made school segregation illegal in the 1954 decision Brown v. Board of Education, Zora Neale Hurston responded with criticism: "How much satisfaction can I get from a court order for somebody to associate with me who does not wish me near them?" She made it clear that she felt that forced integration was insulting to African Americans, threatened their cultural traditions, and could result in violence.

6. Hurston said an outside force urged her to write Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Hurston, an anthropologist at the time, received a Guggenheim fellowship to study religious traditions in the Caribbean. She went to Jamaica and then to Haiti. In November 1936 she was inspired by what she described as "a force somewhere in space" to begin writing the novel that would become Their Eyes Were Watching God. She finished in mid-December of that year, a mere seven weeks later.

7. Hurston refused to marry when her fiancé asked her to give up writing.

When she was in her 40s, Hurston fell in love with Percival McGuire Punter, a man in his 20s. Their love affair was passionate but turned violent after Punter asked her to give up her career and marry him. She said, "I really wanted to do anything he wanted me to do, but that one thing I could not do." Hurston fled to Jamaica to do research and write. The relationship between Janie and the much-younger Tea Cake in the novel has its roots in Hurston's own relationship.

8. Hurston's use of dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God garnered critical praise.

The New York Times review stated that the dialect was not "the speech of white men with the spelling distorted" but rhythmic and balanced. The Nation said it was full of "earthy and touching poetry." Philosopher and critic Alain Locke praised Hurston's "gift for poetic phrase...and rare dialect."

9. Oprah Winfrey produced a television adaptation of Their Eyes Were Watching God.

In 2005 Oprah Winfrey produced a television movie of Their Eyes Were Watching God. However, the film, starring Halle Berry, received poor reviews, with Variety stating that the screenwriting "boils it down to a simpleminded Harlequin hash." The New York Times also compared it to a book from Harlequin (a company that publishes women's romances) and said, "If it's too gauzy, it's also dull at times."

10. Their Eyes Were Watching God lives on in an acclaimed play.

In 1983 playwright Bonnie Lee Moss Rattner finished a play she began in graduate school based on Their Eyes Were Watching God, which she titled To Gleam It Around, To Show My Shine, two phrases from the book. The New York Times raved:

[W]hat is ultimately ennobling about the play is that it communicates the specificity of an uncommon experience that is utterly, singularly Janie's, yet it strikes a common chord, with its transcendent humanity and rapturous language.

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