Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) begins with our eyes fixed on a woman who returns from burying the dead. Written in only seven weeks while on a Guggenheim Fellowship in Haiti, Zora Neale Hurston's novel chronicles the journey of Janie Mae Crawford from her grandmother's plantation shack to Logan Killicks' farm, to all-black Eatonville to the Everglades—until a tragedy brings her back to Eatonville. From this vantage point, Janie narrates her life story to her best friend, Pheoby Watson, satisfying the "oldest human longing-self-revelation."
Forced to marry for money at sixteen, Janie at first believes that love automatically comes with marriage. Unable to endure her mule-like servitude and the desecration of her dreams, she spontaneously leaves Logan for Joe Starks, a handsome, ambitious man determined to put her on a pedestal once he becomes mayor of Eatonville. After enduring a mostly joyless twenty-year marriage to him, Janie finally meets a young, uneducated wastrel named Tea Cake. With him she thinks she can find genuine love for the first time, but fate intervenes, and Janie fears she may have to choose between his safety and her own.
Although the novel is not an autobiography, Hurston once reflected that it is, at heart, a love story, inspired by "the real love affair of [her] life." She also fictionalized another important incident in her life in the novel: In 1929, Hurston survived a five-day hurricane in the Bahamas, getting herself and another family out of a house moments before it began to collapse.
Hurston's conviction that black culture is valuable, unique, and worthy of preservation comes through in Their Eyes Were Watching God via its harmonious blend of folklore and black idiom. In Janie Mae Crawford, Hurston rejects nineteenth and early twentieth-century stereotypes for women and creates a protagonist who though silenced for most of her life ultimately finds her own voice.
"The wind came back with triple fury,
and put out the light for the last time.
.... They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God."
—Zora Neale Hurston
Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston, 1934 (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)
Illustration by Jerry Pinkney for the 1991 edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God (University of Illinois Press)
Hurston demonstrating the Crow Dance at her home in New York, 1935 (Yale Collection of American Literature, Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library)