The name of the famous writer – Zora Neale Hurston – has been related to the period of the Harlem Renaissance for many years already. She is a well-known American folklorist and produced four novels and around fifty shorts stories within her life period. Zora Neale Hurston is considered to be the brightest female author of the Harlem Renaissance, who was able to present all the major themes and problems of this period most vividly in her works, especially in her best-known novel – Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Hurston was born in the family of a Baptist preacher and schoolteacher in Notasulga, Alabama. Her family moved to Eatonville when she was three. Life there found reflections in her essays and works, as she was much impressed by a possibility for black people to live separately and create the society they desired. After the death of Hurston’s mother in 1904, the new stepmother sent the girl to Jackonville in Florida. Several years later Hurston entered Morgan Academy. Being an adult already Hurston was very much interested in anthropological researched and traveled a lot.
She married twice, but both marriages were rather short and not successful and Hurston devoted her life to literary career at the same time working on the faculty of North Caroline College for Negroes (Gates, 18). Last years of her life Hurston worked as a freelance writer and as a substitute teacher. After she suffered a stroke and died of hypertensive heart disease she was buried in cemetery in Fort Pierce in an unmarked grave (Gates, 18).
The famous work “Their eyes were watching God» by Zora Neale Hurston was written in 1937. She needed around seven weeks to finish it. For the first time the book was published in the same year, but unfortunately it was absolute no success. First of all there was little recognition from black readers, because for them the author seemed to mitigate the hardships of black people in the South. Famous black writer Richard Wright said about the novel that there was no theme and little meaning in it. However later, the novel was absolutely recognized as a perfect and unique example of the Harlem period literature. “The common themes of the Harlem Renaissance were alienation, the use of folk material, and the use of the blues tradition. The Harlem Renaissance was a movement across every form of art, from literature to jazz to painting to drama.” (Crabtree, 60).
Although there are a lot of similar points between Hurston and other writers of Harlem Renaissance, her political views were different. She was a supporter of black movement led by Marcus Garvey. Due to this fact, her work exceeds the characteristic themes and political views of Harlem Renaissance and this makes her work unique in comparison to others.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God is a multi-layered novel, which garnered attention and controversy at the time, but remains one of the most important books revealing the origins of black culture and heritage.” (Jordon, 111). The main hero of the story – Janie is a typical black woman of new generation. Her spirit is free and independent, whereas her grandmother is still living with her slavery mentality, which certainly confronts the Janie’s views. Janie is the closest character to the author, Hurston’s views and spirits are in a way reflected through this imaginary young girl.
To make the novel really authentic Hurston uses the language of African Americans, her dialogues are aesthetic, all absorbing, and philosophical. The author was perfect in rural black dialect of South, which is no wonder if to consider the place where she herself grew up. The whole narration of the story is built upon idiomatic discourse and high literary language. The way the characters of the novel are speaking contributes to the presentation of the individuality. Henry Louis Gates Jr. wrote about the later editions of the book: “Their Eyes Were Watching God is primarily concerned with the project of finding a voice, with language as an instrument of injury and salvation, of selfhood and empowerment.” (Jordon, 110). The theme of voice and silence is really important for the main heroin of the novel, as Janie has to learn not only to use her voice but also to keep silence and discover that saying nothing is also a way of having power in relations with others. The narrator in the story is also keeping silence from time to time, for example not explaining the reasons why Janie is not distressed by the fact the Tea Cake beats her, not telling about Janie’s speech during her trial. The usage of language and silence are closely connected with identity and empowerment themes for the author. “Hurston maintains an emphasis on the worth of humanity. All characters have flaws, whether they be overt or subtle, and they are almost never outright admonished for them; rather they are, at the very least by the omniscient narrator, forgiven for simply being themselves–imperfect beings.” (Jordon, 106).
Although the name of the novel supposes a lot of spirituality it is not in reality so, there are some spiritual overtones, but they are absolutely not the central point of the story. Thus the title doesn’t describe the religious beliefs of its characters, it has more to do with human emotions, mostly the characters are Christian, but there is no appeal to God from them, there is only their interest what is going to happen to them, what did God “prepare” for them? God in not viewed in the story as an entity, but as a “diffuse force”. This idea is reflected in the whole text of the story, however the religious organization – Church is presented only in Chapter 12. “The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God” (Hurston, 82) . The readers feel it when they follow the descriptions of the nature: the sun, sky, sea, moon and other things – they are full of deity, which penetrated into them. “Naw it ain’t, it’s nature, cause nature makes caution. It’s de strongest thing dat God ever made, now. Fact is it’s de onliest thing God every made. He made nature and nature made everything else.” (Hurston, 95). The notion of God from the title is also connected with these divine forces. Spirituality of Janie refers to her goal to find her place in the world and to learn to live peacefully with environment.
The theme of black power is very important as for all Harlem renaissance writers also for Hurston in her novel. The characters of the story were developing their own ways for gaining power in the world where white people dominated. Nanny thought the best way was to marry a wealthy man; Joe saw the power source in leader’s position and domination over other people. Attitude to power of Janie is absolutely different from others’, for her a person could gain power only if he had enough personal experience in order to contact the surrounding people in a proper way.
The gender distinction theme starts from the beginning of the novel, when Janie as a woman is not allowed to do certain things like speak everything he wants to say or go to mule funeral. With the help of Tea Cake the author shows that such distinction seems absolutely ridiculous, as Tea Cake allows Janie to forget about these limitations.
An important theme is of course race of the characters. “There is a high incidence of African-Americans with mixed black and white descent in this novel. Janie’s mother, Leafy, was the product of a rape by a plantation master, and was visibly white enough to garner punishment of Nanny by the plantation master’s wife.” (Gates, 22). The author pays a lot of attention to description of the skin color of all characters in detail, for example Janie’s skin is of coffee color. Hurston underlines that characteristics of Caucasian appearance can add beauty or be ugly: shiny hair of Janie and pointed nose of Mrs. Turner. The main idea of the author here is as soon as somebody tries to look in way he doesn’t really looks (in this case heroes did their best to look whiter than they were in reality) they look awful at the end.
Overall, “Their eyes were watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston is a vivid, well constructed, revolutionary, deeply emotional story, revealing various themes of self- discovery, equal relations, racial relations, love and sexuality, material and spiritual values. Due to her own life experience the author managed to develop such characters and themes and thus was named the one of the brightest writers of the Harlem Renaissance.