The Life of Zora Neale Hurston through Their Eyes Were Watching God

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The intrinsic qualities that define the person of Zora Neale Hurston include feminist, sentimentalist, passionate, deep-rooted and a maverick. Born a black female during a time when a person’s place in society was determined by the color of their skin and women were fighting for their rights. Proud of her race and gender; Hurston was indifferent to the norms of society. She is noted as one of the first black American female writers of her time and there are claims she is the pioneer of feminism. Her literary works include articles, novels, folklore, dramas, and an autobiography. The majority of her fiction is written in southern black dialect, which transports the reader back into time. Zora Neal Hurston’s life is prominent through the semblance of characters and events, which she depicts throughout her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.


The protagonist in the novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is Janie Crawford, a beautiful light-skinned black woman “who is unable to discover her true self until she begins to take charge of her life” (Galenet). Janie, at the tender age of seventeen, marries a middle-aged man, Logan Killicks. She marries Logan for the sake of her grandmother, who lived a painful life as a slave; raped and beaten by white men, she is determined to protect Janie from the trials and tribulations she had to endure. Janie dreams the marriage will lead to love, but the dream is shattered, until one day when Joe Starks, a handsome young man full of ambitions, enters into Janie’s life. He lures her with promises of wealth and happiness; his blandishments work and Janie leaves Logan cold. The promise of wealth is kept but the promise of happiness is broken; for twenty years, Joe stifles her individuality and growth as a person. She is trapped tending a store and living a lie. The death of Joe sets her free and she finally meets the man of her dreams, Tea Cup; their life together is short, but they are the happiest years of her life.


Hurston and Janie keep their true age a mystery. The veracity of Hurston’s age and birthplace has long been under scrutiny. In her autobiography, “Dust Tracks on a Road,” she claims her birthplace as Eatonville, Florida; however, there is evidence to prove otherwise. An article written in the African American Review states, “The ‘Family Record’ lists Hurston’s birthplace was Notasulga, Alabama, which conflicts with Hurston’s life-long claim that Florida was her native state” (Bordelon). She has been known to claim her birth year as 101, 10 or 110; however, records indicate her birth date circa 181. Hurston, in an insouciant manner, informs the world through her character Janie that she is not too concerned about the issue of her age. Janie becomes the topic of discussion amongst a group of gossiping women when her best friend Pheoby Watson defends her, “The worst thing Ah ever knowed her to do was taking a few years offa her age and dat ain’t never harmed nobody” (Hurston ).


Hurston lived her childhood years in Eatonville, Florida. The town of Eatonville’s claim to fame is “America’s first self-governing black town” (Sailer 58). Hurston’s father, John, served a term as the third Mayor of Eatonville. This part of her life is analogous to Janie’s second husband, Joe. When Janie met Joe he was headed towards a town being built by colored folks, “But when he heard all about ‘em makin’ a town all outa colored folks, he knowed dat was de place he wanted to be” (Hurston 8). They arrive in the town and Joe immediately takes charge when he discovers they have no Mayor. The town is initially named West Maitland until Joe buys two-hundred acres from a Captain Eaton, hence the name Eatonville. The acreage bought is for the town to expand and build a Post Office and General Store; naturally, the townspeople make him their Mayor.


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The indelible love Janie has for Tea Cup and the relationship they share closely resembles the relationship Hurston has with P.M.P. Hurston writes, “The plot was far from the circumstances, but I tried to embalm all the tenderness of my passion for him in Their Eyes Were Watching God (Wall, 750). Hurston has many love interests in her life, but P.M.P. is her one true love. He is a good-looking gentleman with an awesome physique; however, Hurston claims there is another reason she is attracted to him, his mind. Hurston proclaims, “When a man keeps beating me to the draw mentally, he begins to get glamorous” (Wall 745). Both Janie and Hurston are considerably older than their male counterparts are.


Two events depicted between Hurston and P.M.P. parallel those of Janie and Tea Cup. P.M.P. spends his last nickel on a ride to Hurston’s house and does not have enough money to get home. Hurston offers to loan P.M.P a quarter until payday; this gesture is an insult to him and he becomes enraged. He tells her he would not deserve her respect if he accepted the money and “No woman on earth could either lend him nor give him a cent. If a man could not do for a woman, what good was he on earth? His great desire was to do for me” (Wall 745). Tea Cup shares the same philosophy. Janie is left a wealthy widow and Tea Cup refuses to let her spend her own money; he boldly states, “From now on, you gointuh eat whutever muh money can buy yuh and wear de same. When Ah ain’t got nothin’ you don’t git nothin’” (Hurston 18).


Another incident involves jealousy and physical abuse. If Hurston is seen, being friendly with another male P.M.P would become insanely jealous and a fight was guaranteed to ensue. In the middle of one of their fights, Hurston slaps P.M.P; she claims he pays her back with interest and more. Tea Cup slaps Janie; the motive is the same but not the reason, “Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, [. . .] Being able to whip her reassured him in possession” (Hurston 147).


Hurston’s graduate study was in anthropology under one of her professors, the renowned, Franz Boas, at Barnard College. She is also the first black student to attend this college and earn her degree. Her passion was the Negro culture and she devoted herself to preserving the black folk heritage. Marion Holmes writes, “Fiercely proud of black culture, she collected hundreds of folktales and focused her studies on the Negro farthest down” (6). Hurston gathered her stories from sawmill camps in Florida and in New Orleans she collected sermons, children’s games, and hoodoo; she would then use them in her writings. Hurston’s love for story telling is glimpsed in Janie. A favorite pastime the menfolk enjoyed, while sitting on the front porch of Janie’s store, was conjuring up tales about an old mule. Janie listened and ached to tell stories herself, “Janie loved the conversation and sometimes she thought up good stories on the mule, but Joe had forbidden her to indulge” (Hurston 5).


Sheila Hibben writes in her critical essay about Their Eyes Were Watching God


As a great many novelists � good and bad � ought to know by this time, it is


awfully easy to write nonsense about Negroes. That Miss Hurston can write them


with simple tenderness, so that her story is filled with the ache of her own people,


is, I think, due to the fact that she is not too preoccupied with the current fetish of


the primitive.


In Hurston’s article, How it Feels to be Colored Me, she recalls that at the age of thirteen she realizes she is a colored person growing up in a white man’s world. According to Hurston, growing up black during her lifetime is not a tragedy; a different story could be told if she were born sixty years earlier. She does not feel oppressed or claim to be a person who the world owes something to because of events that had occurred in the past. Instead, she lives her life in the here and now (Wall 87).


Zora Neale Hurston died in 160 an impoverished but proud woman. She was buried in an unmarked grave until 17, until another famous black female writer, Alice Walker, made it her mission to make the author’s grave known. Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God left an impression on Alice Walker; she claims, “There is no book more important to me” (Sailer 58). Walker not only revealed to the world Hurston’s eternal resting place; she revived her literary works. Walker wrote a magazine article for Ms. Magazine in 175 titled In Search of Zora Neale Hurston, which opened the eyes of the literary world.


In conclusion, Zora Neale Hurston can be classified as one of the most widely recognized black woman literary writers. Hurston dedicated her lifework to learning and sharing her Negro heritage, which has touched those who have read her works. The novel Their Eyes Were Watching God can be viewed as looking glass into the life of Zora Neale Hurston through the characters and events, which are depicted throughout.


Works Cited


Bordelon, Pam. “New Tracks on Dust Tracks Toward a Reassessment of the Life of Zora Neale


Hurston.” African American Review. Spring 17 5-.


Holmes, Marion Smith. “Zora Neale Hurston out of obscurity.” Smithsonian. Jan. 001 6-108.


Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. NY Harper Perennial, 18.


Literature Resource Center. Contemporary Literary Criticism. Zora Neale Hurston.


0 April 00. http//galenet.galegroup.com.


Sailer, Steve. “The Secret Zora Neale Hurston.” National Review. Apr. 15 58-60.


Wall, Cheryl. Hurston Folkore, Memoirs, & Other Writings. NY Literary Classics, 15


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