They saw God before their eyes

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They saw God before their eyes (original title: Their Eyes Were Watching God ) is the title of the current German version of a 1937 novel by the Afro-American author Zora Neale Hurston and her best-known work. Hurston wrote the novel within seven weeks on an anthropological trip to Haiti . The book is set in Florida in the 20th century and is about the life of the protagonist Janie Crawford and her awakening from a powerless existence when she takes the reins of her fate into her own hands. Hurston's work was initially frowned upon by critics after its first publication because of the linguistic style used, but a good 40 years later the story gained new meaning in literature for the topic of black feminism . TIME voted “ Their Eyes Were Watching God ” in 2005 among the top 100 English-language novels since 1923.


The story begins with the return of the protagonist Janie Crawford to her adopted home Eatonville after an absence of over a year. When this causes malicious rumors to be spread among the residents, Janie is visited by her old friend of 20 years Pheoby Watson. They sit down on the terrace of Janie's old house to talk about what happened last year. This marks the beginning of a retrospective that will span the majority of the novel and encompass the entire life story of the protagonists up to this point in time.

Janie's grandmother - only called Nanny in the book - was a slave who was raped by her owner because of her appearance. These assaults resulted in the birth of their daughter Leafy and the jealousy of the wife of Nanny's tormentor. To escape the wrath of her mistress, Nanny runs away with her daughter and finds a good home at the end of the American Civil War . But instead of building a new and happier life, Nanny is faced with new problems. Her daughter Leafy is raped and impregnated by her teacher. After Janie is born, Leafy turns to alcohol, leaving her daughter and mother alone. All the hopes that Nanny had placed in Leafy are now placed on Janie, resulting in a strict upbringing. When Janie was 16 years old, the protagonist was confronted with her sexual awakening, and still in the dark about her true feelings, she experienced her first kiss with the boy next door, Johnny Taylor. Unfortunately for them, it does not go unnoticed at this moment. Nanny witnesses this first rapprochement and shortly afterwards takes Janie hard. She reminds Janie that if she is not careful enough, she will become the mule of society, which she only wants to abuse for her body and work.

To avoid this, Nanny decides that it is best for Janie to marry Logan Killicks - an elderly gentleman looking for a wife - because she believes she is unable to look after herself. Nanny manages to convince Janie of this idea after she has shown her the advantages of such a marriage, ie stability and new possibilities, although she has no interest in old Logan. After the two of them married, everything is initially in balance, as Logan treats her fairly on his farm. But the longer the marriage lasts, the more unhappy Janie becomes. Because for them it goes without saying that a marriage must involve love. But from the start, Killicks was not interested in a love affair, but in a farm laborer who plows the fields. Both nanny and her husband assume that she is a spoiled and ungrateful brat who simply wants to evade her duties on the farm.

In order to finally escape her misery, Janie decides to run away with Joe Stark, called Jody, a young, articulate man who occasionally kept Janie company to charm her with his words. They make their way to Eatonville, one of the first completely black cities in America, to start their life together there. But Jody is not satisfied with what he finds there. He believes that the locals lack any ambition to move the city forward, and he takes it into their own hands. He bought the surrounding land and asked the residents to build a general store to reinforce his own influence in the city. Eventually he is appointed mayor. During the time her second husband is busy enriching himself and the city, Janie becomes aware of her own position in Jody's life. For him it is nothing but another possession that he can do what he wants with. He dictates how to dress and behave and limits her interactions with the rest of the community to a minimum, harshly criticizing any shortcomings in her. But Janie doesn't dare to rebel against this treatment at this point.

After a few years, Janie can't stand the way her husband treats her and she expresses her feelings towards Jody in a tirade about his behavior. Jody, in turn, returns the verbal attack with violence and hits Janie with all his might. Here the two of them part ways, and although both remain in town, there is hardly any communication between them. But Jody becomes seriously ill while they are apart; as it turns out later, he suffers from kidney failure. Janie, who learns of his imminent death, goes to see him one last time to tell him about who she really is and who he never saw because of his constant urge to control her. Reassured by the knowledge that Jody died after meeting the real me, she continues her life as a wealthy widow.

In this phase of life Janie finds herself surrounded by many admirers, partly because of her appearance, partly because of her wealth, but this is of no importance to her as she refuses any offers on principle. But after a while she meets the young drifter and gamblers Vergible Woods, who prefers to be called "Tea Cake". When he's around, he visits Janie in the general store, which she has been running since the death of her second husband. Tea Cake casts Janie under its spell with its unleashed attitude. He woos her by giving her the respect she craves and makes her laugh with his improvised serenades on the air guitar. At first Janie has doubts about his feelings, she is older than him and richer, but she still falls in love with him. She sells the store and the two head to Jacksonville to get married. They move to the Everglades , where they find work as bean pickers. Although the relationship is a constant ups and downs of emotions, in which both Janie and Tea Cake get jealous and Janie struggles with Tea Cake's gambling addiction and glimpses of possessiveness, this marriage is exactly what she is as a young girl wished a relationship full of love.

But their luck did not last long when the area was hit by the Okeechobee hurricane and Janie and Tea Cake were trapped in the water. On their way to safety, they meet a rabid dog who tries to attack Janie, but Tea Cake intervenes and is bitten in her place. After these events, Tea Cake contracted rabies itself, which resulted in a personality change. He becomes jealous faster and can hardly contain his anger. In the end, Tea Cake tries to shoot her with a pistol out of his emotional rage, but Janie manages to grab the shotgun in the house and kill her lover in self-defense . However, Janie has to appear in court for her crime. Tea Cake's male friends appear to hold them accountable, but a group of local white women appear to support them. The all-white jury acquires her guilt free, and Janie says goodbye to Tea Cake with an elaborate funeral. Here Tea Cake's circle of friends apologizes and wishes that Janie would stay in the Everglades. Janie forgives the friends but decides to return to Eatonville. As expected, her return is greeted with bad gossip and then the story ends where she started, with Janie and Pheoby together on the terrace behind Janie's old house.


Janie Crawford

Janie is a very naive child at the beginning of her life. Until she was 6 years old, she was not aware that the color of her skin was different from other children until someone pointed it out. Furthermore, it speaks for a lack of self-awareness that it was given many different names early on, so that it is simply called "alphabet" and acts more like a representative of several characters than to convey its own personality.



After the first publication of her work, Hurston received little support. On the part of the other authors of the Harlem Renaissance , too, rarely came more than contradiction to their subjects. Richard Wright complains that Hurston refuses to write serious fiction and cannot break out of the style and formula "from the days of Phyllis Wheatley", and Ralph Ellison expressed himself similarly. But not all reviews of the novel were so negative, among the white critics her book was very well received, although it did not have any financial impact.

After the rediscovery

With the introduction of Black Studies - a program that gave black literature a place in the academic world - in universities in the United States during the 1970s and 1980s, Hurston was rediscovered. This coincided with the growing era of black feminism led by Mary Helen Washington , Audre Lorde, and Alice Walker . Walker in particular noted that Hurston's book was exactly what she wanted.


English editions

  • Zora Neal Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God . Virago. 1990. ISBN 0-8606852-4-1 (paperback)

German editions


In 2005, a television film adaptation of the book came out in the USA , which was first broadcast on ABC . The script for this was written by Suzan-Lori Parks , among others , and Oprah Winfrey was executive producer . Directed by Darnell Martin , actors like Halle Berry and Terrence Howard brought the book to life, with Berry receiving a 2006 Golden Globe nomination for her performance .


  • Crabtree, Claire. "The Confluence of Folklore, Feminism and Black Self-Determination in Zora Neale Hurston's in 'Their Eyes Were Watching God'." The Southern Literary Journal. Vol.17. No.2 (1985): 54-66.
  • Daniels, Janice. "De understandin 'to Go' long Wid It": Realism and Romance in 'Their Eyes Were Watching God'. " The Southern Literary Journal, Vol.24, No.1 (1991): 66-76.
  • Jordan, Jennifer. "Feminist Fantasies: Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God." Tulsa Studies in Women's Literature. Vol.7. No.1 (1988): 105-117.
  • McCredie, Wendy. "Authority and Authorization in Their Eyes Were Watching God." Black American Literature Forum. Vol.16. No.1 (1982): 25-28.
  • Newman, Judie. "'Dis ain't Gimme, Florida': Zora Neale Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God'." The Modern Language Review. Vol.98. No.4 (2003): 817-826.
  • Simmons, Ryan. "The Hierarchy Itself: Hurston's 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' and the Sacrifice of Narrative Authority." African American Review. Vol.36. No.2 (2002): 181-193.

Individual evidence

  1. "Edition five" ( Memento of the original from March 5, 2015 in the Internet Archive ) Info: The archive link was inserted automatically and has not yet been checked. Please check the original and archive link according to the instructions and then remove this notice. @1@ 2Template: Webachiv / IABot /
  2. ^ "National Endowment for the Arts"
  3. ^ "All Time 100 Novels" . TIME. October 16, 2005.
  4. Daniels, Janice. De understandin 'to Go' long Wid It: Realism and Romance in Their Eyes Are Watching God. The Southern Literary Journal. Vol.24. No.1. (1991). P. 68.
  5. ^ Wright, Richard. Review in New Masses , Vol. 10. No.5. (1935). quoted in Bloom, Bloom's Guides - Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God. P. 15.
  6. Ellison, Ralph. quoted in Burt, Daniel. The Novel 100 . Checkmark Books, 2003. p. 366.
  7. ^ "A Woman on a Quest, via Hurston and Oprah," The New York Times. March 4, 2005
  8. ^ "Golden Globes Awards 2006" IMDB.