About the Book

Book Protagonist: Janie Crawford
Publication Date: 1937
Genre: Coming of Age, Historical Fiction


Their Eyes Were Watching God

By Zora Neale Hurston

In ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ Zora Neale Hurston narrates the story of a teenager’s journey into womanhood, in a world battered by racial prejudices, male dominance and control - along with other horrific aftermaths of slavery.

Remarkable is Hurston’s use of certain lingo and expressions typical to the black African American of her Floridian community. She partly embodies the attributes of her main character Janie Crawford – a defiant and fearless woman such as herself, who almost singlehanded explores the themes of the book. There is a range of interesting quotes in the book ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ and some of the finest we will analyze here in this article.

Pain and Agony 

Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought. Nanny entered this infinity of conscious pain again on her old knees.

A very poignant statement in Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God,’ this quote recaptures the depth of pain and agony the slave era brought to millions of ordinary people – especially members of the black folks – in America. 

Although the plot post dates the era of slavery, Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, is one of the few characters in ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God who lives through such an era and has a direct experience from such times. 

In the slavery back story, Nanny used to work at the Savannah plantation, where her owner sexually abused her on countless occasions. One such event led to her being pregnant for Leafy, who escaped into the wilderness after she got a life-threatening message from her owner’s legitimate wife. 

Agonizingly, she stayed in the forest with her toddler until after the war. With the character of Nanny, Hurston tries to photograph what pain and agony the typical African American woman had to undergo in the era of slavery and the American civil war.

Forgotten Dreams and Passions 

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.

What comes to mind with this Hurston’s quote in ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ is the consistency of women of Janie’s generation having to watch their dreams get shattered or sail to the other side of the horizon – untapped. 

The trend had become well settled for, crept in, and become a social norm, but not for people like Janie, who were never going to just fold their arms, sit pretty, and sink in the horror. Even if it meant doing it alone, Janie’s resolve to make a change was always a constant from early on.

Fear and Loyalty 

Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom.

Fear is needed for loyalty, and the way to instill fear is through suffering, hints Hurston. The author believes even God world this way to ensure man remains loyal and faithful to him.

The talks of a white supremacy culture that seems to sweep through every page of the book also happen in the same formula – and goes back to the slave era when white cemented their dominance over all races by assuming the role of merchants in human buying and selling that later translated into a colossal dehumanization of whole generations of race. 

Hurston believes this weapon of using fear to evoke loyalty is very paramount for humanity to operate well fully. This same technique, she hints, have been used by white to rule over black through the centuries – from the era of slavery to great wars.

Man’s Understanding and the End of it

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.

Arguably the most poetic lines in Zora Neale Hurston’s books – which also happens to be from where the book’s name is culled from, this scenic quote takes place at Everglades during the time that the disastrous hurricane hits the town. 

The town is torn apart, and the people are running helter-skelter, trying to save their lives and whatever belongings they can. For Janie, Tea Cake, and their friend Motor Boat, the place seems deadly from the onrushing wind, and they take cover, but the chaos peaks to its bleakest, and it is now looking like they won’t make it. It is at this moment that they realize that at the end of human understanding is God.

Fitting in and the Joy that Follows it

So when we looked at depicture and everybody got pointed out there wasn’t nobody left except a real dark little girl with long hair standing by Eleanor.

The Washburns in ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ is such a lovely family, frankly one of the few portrayed by Hurston as noble white people, and this is because of how kind and accommodating they are of all people – whether black or white.

Janie is lucky to grow up in the household of the Washburns, and she enjoys this privilege because her grandmother Nanny is a maid at the place. Janie is treated so well that she forgets she’s even colored.

White Supremacy and Racial Hierarchy 

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 nothin’ but what we see.

The entire plot of ‘Their Eyes Were Watching Godis replete with the tussle between the dominant white race and the black, and aside from the frontal theme of (black) women’s rights in society, this is probably the biggest subject in Hurston’s book.

White dominance appears to be one constant topic that runs throughout all the generations of the book’s reality – from Nanny’s to Leafy’s to Janie’s – and it particularly has an impact on the author’s surroundings and life, which is the reason she talks a lot about it through her main character Janie Crawford. 

The biggest backstory to Hurston’s book is that of slavery – where white traded blacks like they were foodstuff – so recovering from such an event for black people would obviously take time, and this is evident in how the white race still remained atop and bossing over their black counterpart way into Janie’s generation. 

The foregoing becomes the reason for the existence of the Harlem Renaissance – a movement of which author Zora Neale Hurston was a huge part of. White domination is also the reason Eatonville is such an important place for black people – both in the book and the 20s, and 30s reality – because it offers them a community where they’re free to express themselves and are treated equally.

Ambition and Go-Getting

Joe Starks from in and through Georgy. Been workin’ for white folks all his life… He had always wanted to be a big voice, but de white folks had all de sayso where he come from…

A degree of white supremacy is also gleanable from this quote, but the biggest moral passed here by the author circles around having an ambitious mentality, being passionate about your dreams, and going on to achieve them.

This is the life’s summary of Janie’s second husband, Joe Starks, or Jody, an ambitious go-getter who is passionate about his resolve to succeed. Despite being a black man and facing all the stringent allowable to his race by a white-dominated society, Jody’s relentlessness is unrivaled, and he eventually makes it in the end.

Envy and Jealousy 

Us colored folks is too envious of one ‘nother. Dat’s how come us don’t git o further than us do. Us talks about de white man keepin’ us down! Shucks! He don’t have tuh. Us keeps our own selves down.

The reality of a black man bringing a black man down is another serious issue author Zora Neale Hurston tries to raise in her book ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God.’ 

The reader has a glimpse at this early on in the first few chapters, as Janie returns to Eatonville from the shambles of her marriage to Tea Cake, but awaiting her are same-race villagers who are filled with haters, envious and jealous people who wish her no good and are happy she failed in her marriage so they could gloat at her.

Support and the Lack of it 

Mostly he talked about plans for the town when he got there…Janie took a lot of looks at him and she was proud of what she saw. Kind of portly like rich white folks

Leading up to this quote appears to portray a bit of frustration on the part of Janie, who, although supportive of her man Jody’s ambitions, is disappointed she is not supported in the same manner. 

This is a deal breaker and becomes the basis for Janie’s failed marriage to Joe Starks – even after spending more than 20 years together. Support and freedom to express herself are two of the most important things Janie cares for, and if she’s not getting it, it’s never going to work out – no matter how overachieving Jody is.


What kinds of quotes are found in ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston?

Zora Neale Hurston was a fearless and witty storyteller who has quotes across a wide range of subjects, including those on love, race, gender equality, and women’s rights. 

Did Hurston ever get married or have kids?

During her lifetime, Hurston was married three times, but none of these marriages were destined to last – much like the experiences of her book character Janie Crawford. The author doesn’t have any record of having had any children within or outside of her marriage. 

Why did Hurston die broke and homeless?

Hurston had a prolific and colorful career but still died broke and penniless, and the reason for this is summed up to one thing: she had a falling out with literary top dogs (tier A publishers and writers) and so couldn’t close any deals, her works wouldn’t get published, and her published work wasn’t getting any traction. It was like she and her legacy were deleted, and no one knew she existed.

What is the first line in ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God’ by Zora Neale Hurston?

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”

What is the most iconic sentence in Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes Were Watching God‘?

“They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

Victor Onuorah
About Victor Onuorah
Victor is as much a prolific writer as he is an avid reader. With a degree in Journalism, he goes around scouring literary storehouses and archives; picking up, dusting the dirt off, and leaving clean even the most crooked pieces of literature all with the skill of analysis.
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