Let’s Discuss — Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nuthin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his women folks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so far as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different wid you. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd! (14)

This book is about the ‘love life’* of Janie Crawford…her three marriages and her development of self. But now that I’ve finished reading about this brief segment of her life, I still ask–who is Janie Crawford? The reader never gets a sense of her intellectual or emotional capacity, only physical. She’s a beautiful, light-skinned woman, with a long braid of hair which fascinates many men. But other than that I’m not sure. Her marriage and relationship with three different men says more on a societal level of analysis than a personal one.

In her first marriage, Janie is subservient to a husband who sees her as another beast of burden, a vessel, a workhorse. She marries for protection, not love.  In her second marriage to Joe Starks, she’s subservient but instead of being an instrument, she’s a trophy. She marries Joe Starks to escape her first marriage…I have to say I hated Joe Starks. I hate his character and what he stands for. I actually wished ill upon a fictional character.** The thing is, he’s actually the best written character in the book. He is so disgusting in his thirst for envy and status among others in the black community.

Her marriage to Tea cake was the most normal of all three marriages. It had the most ‘love’ and more egalitarian qualities. The whole, ‘through sickness and in health, for richer or poorer, till death do us part, blah, blah, blah’ applied to them…sort of…especially when Tea cake contracts rabies. But even in this most love-filled marriage, she’s still somewhat subservient, content even, and the lack of character development is disappointing.

“Tony won’t never hit her. He says beatin’ women is just like steppin’ on baby chickens. He claims ‘taint no place on uh woman tuh hit,” Joe Lindsay said with scornful disapproval, ” but Ah’d kill uh baby just born dis mawnin’ fuh uh thing lak dat. ‘Taint nothin’ but low-down spitefulness ‘ginst her husband make her do it.” (75)

Folkloric charm gives this book a spark of life…and interest for that matter. And the gravity in the thoughts of secondary characters, those outsiders looking in, the gossip, is all revealing of the time.

“You’se different from me. Ah can’t stand black niggers. Ah don’t blame de white folks from hatin’ em cause Ah can’t stand ’em mahself. ‘Nother thing, Ah hates tuh see folks lak me and you mixed up wid ’em. Us oughta class off.” (141)

This book makes many ‘must-read’ lists but honestly, I’m having a hard time seeing why. Maybe it’s because it’s uncovering a truth about intra racism that I already know exists. Maybe because I personally reject the old-fashioned gender roles and power struggles between black men and black women. Maybe because I’m a northern, black woman that inevitably comes from the same southern, black heritage. I don’t know.

But I feel as though I’m missing something. Someone tell me…what am I missing?

* In the comments section, someone informed me this story was not so much about her love life as it was her love of life. Important distinction.

** Thankfully, the plot didn’t disappoint on handling Mr. Starks.



  1. It’s not so much about the ‘love life’ of Janie as it is her ‘love of life’. She has rejected the notion that life cannot be full of passion and love which makes your soul sing and heart dance. Remember, during this time, a Black woman being able to marry a man who could provide and take care of her was equal to love. Hence, the reason you hear so many men saying things like, “Do I love you? I take care of you don’t I?” Janie seeks passion. Her desires are shown, not so much in what she says but in what she does. Her quest is the quest of us all—to find the One who awakens, provokes and engages us. It is this beauty, this passion she seeks. Even into her forties, she knows something is missing even if she’s never witnessed or experienced it yet. The beginning of the book says it all: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail on forever…” The first time I read this book I couldn’t even get through it. But later it rang so clear and is now one of my favorite books of all time.

    1. Thank you for sharing! The ‘love of life’ v. ‘love life’ explanation makes way more sense. I still feel Janie is a little flat. Something in the writing just didn’t convince me of her passion…or is that the point? She never found it? Even with Tea cake–maybe she sort of found it with him, but it was cut short? If so, that makes this story more sad to me…not necessarily empowering.Then again, I’m not sure, if that’s the point. I knew I was missing something, but I didn’t enjoy this book enough to reread it, not yet anyways.

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