Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes were watching God’: Analysis

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  • Post last modified:July 8, 2017

Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes were watching God’

Zora Neale Hurston’s ‘Their Eyes were watching God’ came out to be a shocking and controversial novel at the time of its publication. Its unique sense of freedom and the way it struck at the established gender conventions were the reasons the novel proved to be outrageous. Use of figurative language and dialect make it a unique novel rich in language and characterization. Important themes of love, sex and freedom make it just as captivating as shocking.

All these things together make the novel so special and real that the novel rather than being pure fiction gives the feel of a real life drama. Use of regional dialect provides authenticity to the characters and settings. It is also central to the development of the novel’s theme. By mixing standard English with Southern dialect, the author has created a highly interesting and engaging novel. It impresses by its mix of idiomatic discource with lengthy literary narration. Especially, Janie’s and Teacake’s conversations are rich in southern dialect, and highlight the unique bond between the two.

The novel is mainly outstanding  for  its  unique use of  language and for the author’s excellent use of southern dialect in it. The language that the author has used in the novel is very  close to the southern dialect. Most characters speak in similar patterns including Janie and Teacake. This is also something exquisite about the novel, not found in the other works generally.  Janie undergoes several ups and downs as a part of her journey to find her real love. The uniqueness and depth of the novel are due to its excellent style and the amazing narrative.

“Listen, Sam, if it was nature, nobody wouldn’t have tuh look out for babies touchin’ stoves, would they? ’Cause dey just naturally wouldn’t touch it. But dey sho will. So it’s caution.”

“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.”

In these lines Sam and Lige discuss the relationship between humankind and God as well as  between the people and their worlds. The debate takes place in regional dialect, however contains philosophical themes giving a glimpse of the ordinary people’s lives and the things they consider important to their worlds and their well being. For Lige it is caution that is required to exist and that does not come naturally but one has to learn it, otherwise a child would not touch a hotstove. Sam on the other hand believes that alertness is the most unique gift from God to humans.  Apart from a rich use of language and dialect, the symbolism in these lines makes them special. Symbolism at various points in the novel provides depth to the narrative. The uniqueness of the characters and especially that of Janie is based strongly on these symbols and metaphors. Janie climbs the pear  tree and watches the  horizon from it. Pear tree and  horizon are all symbols that are related to Janie’s inner  quest. Janie is always just as far from her freedom as she is close to it. The horizon is a symbol of freedom which she can feel when she climbs atop the pear tree.  From there the horizon is visible but always at a distance that is impossible for Janie to cover.

“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. 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. That is the life of men. Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”

However, the excellence of the novel is not limited to the author’s masterful use of regional dialect or its symbolism but the imagery in the work as well as other elements also make the work very special.  Ships, tides, dream are all images linked to Janie’s inner quest and her journey towards her dream.

At other points in the novel also the author makes excellent use of imagery to visualize the various points in Janie’s quest.

“[Janie] was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.”

These lines paint a picture of a woman’s search for true love and freedom. She imagines how fulfilling an experience is to find true love. For a moment nature liberates her of her personal boundaries and she watches the revelation growing ecstatic to see the flower’s beautiful embrace of the bee. The stylish narrative plays an important role in portraying gender issues as well as the basic theme of the novel which is a “woman’s inner quest for love and identity”.

Abhijeet Pratap

Abhijeet has been blogging on educational topics and business research since 2016. He graduated with a Hons. in English literature from BRABU and an MBA from the Asia-Pacific Institute of Management, New Delhi. He likes to blog and share his knowledge and research in business management, marketing, literature and other areas with his readers.