Their Eyes Were Watching God



There is a definite amount of autobiography in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. For example, the setting of Eatonville in the novel is a real one. Hurston herself was born there in the all-black community. The town mayor was a man named Joe Clarke, after whom Janie’s second husband, Joe Starks, is modeled. The porch of the store, owned by the mayor, is as it was in Hurston’s own time—and so too were the porch sitters.

But the similarities do not end there. The quasi-cosmic opening of the novel, with the philosophical speculations of the omniscient narrator may be said to be Hurston’s own speculations as she looked back on her life, having lived to be roughly the same age as her heroine Janie in Their Eyes Were Watching God. Like Janie, Zora had entered into adulthood virtually alone and without a guardian. In reality, it was Zora’s mother who died when Zora was just 13. In the novel, it is Janie’s grandmother who dies shortly after Janie’s wedding to Logan Killicks. But rather than move to Eatonville, as Janie does in the narrative, Zora left Eatonville at the time, and began her life of roaming, study, and adventure.

Like Janie, Zora’s first marriage did not last very long. She left her first husband Herbert Sheen after only a few months of marriage and moved to New York City to take part in the so-called Harlem Renaissance, a period of black creative output in the arts. Zora’s passion for recollection and story-telling was given voice during this time. She was an entertaining and vivid oral storyteller, and often captivated audiences with her humorous anecdotes. Her Eatonville Anthology (a series of vignettes) is essentially the literary equivalent of her oracular narratives, which she relayed to her audiences in New York City during the Renaissance. It is a work full of real-life characters complete in all their quirks and eccentricities. Hurston was first and foremost a describer of humanity—only incidentally, she liked to point out, was she...

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