Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Positive Light on a Negative Image; a Review of the Average Black Man in Their Eyes Were Watching God

Despite being her most well-known work, Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is quite often ill-received by critics, especially black critics; Richard Wright and Alain Locke, two black literary critics, both gave negative reviews of the novel in 1937. This negative feedback is most likely due to Hurston’s anthropological attention to everyday black life of the time—exemplified through her use of folk-lore motifs, dialect, and other traditional facets of lower class black culture. In spite of the negative feedback it generated, it seems that Hurston’s intent for her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God was to shed a positive light on the average black man. Richard Wright, who reviewed Their Eyes Were Watching God in the American Marxist publication New Masses, seems to base his critique predominantly on the issue of Zora Neale Hurston’s focus on lower class black people as opposed to recognized proactive leaders. Hurston did a great deal of anthropological research in order to stay true to the dialogue and overall spirit of black people of that time. Wright claims that Hurston “voluntarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the “white folks” laugh”. In a 1990 review of the novel, Henry Louis Gates said that Hurston wanted to write a “black novel”. (Their Eyes Were Watching God) If she had taken her characters out of the so called “safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see Negroes”, than she would be straying from the truth of the historical content. To the reader, it does not seem that Hurston’s intention was to put black people on any kind of pedestal, but to draw attention to the actual culture and way of life of the common people. In his review, Wright also claims that Hurston is “exploiting the phase of Negro life which is ‘quaint,’...
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