Zora Neale Hurston and "Their Eyes Were Watching God"

The Novel’s Outer Contexts and an Analysis of the Concept of Otherness

Term Paper (Advanced seminar), 2007

35 Pages, Grade: 1,0



1. Introduction

2. Biographical Data about Zora Neale Hurston - Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist

3. The Historical and Literary Context: Black History from 1890s till 1930s and the Emergence of the Harlem Renaissance
3.1 Racism, Violence and Injustice against Blacks
3.2 Black Mass Migration to the Northern Industrial Centers
3.3 The Black Literary Movement in Hurston’s Time - The Harlem Renaissance

4. Zora Neale Hurston as a Woman and a Writer

5. Hurston’s Reputation among Contemporary Writers and Today - Reviews and Opinions

6. Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God - An Analysis

7. Examining “Otherness” in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God
7.1 Othering as Affecting Social Class
7.2 Othering as Justifying Jim Crow Segregation
7.3 Anger at and Contentedness with Being Other: How Mrs Turner and Janie Perceive Racism
7.4 Janie - Deliberately Being Other and Associating with Other

8. Conclusion

9. Bibliography

1. Introduction

Nora Zeale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God can be considered “one of the sexiest, most ‘healthily’ rendered heterosexual love stories in our literature” (Walker, “Zora Neale Hurston” 88). This paper provides information about the outer contexts of the novel, as well as inductive analyses of the novel. The first part of the paper (Ch. 2-5) reveals information about the author and the historical and literary context of the time in which Hurston’s novel was published. The second part of the paper (Ch. 6-7) starts off with an analysis of the plot and characters of Their Eyes Were Watching God, and then focuses on the theme of Otherness as it occurs in Huston’s novel. The examinations of the concept of “Otherness”, alongside with other terms such as “Dichotomization” and “Stigma”, will be based on the concepts that Rosenblum and Travis describe in their work The Meaning of Difference: American Constructions of Race, Sex and Gender, Social Class and Sexual Orientation.

2. Biographical Data about Zora Neale Hurston - Novelist, Folklorist, Anthropologist

Zora Neale Hurston was an “American folklorist and writer associated with the Harlem Renaissance1 who celebrated the African American culture of the rural South” ("Hurston, Zora Neale." Encyclopædia Britannica). She is regarded the “last major figure of the period [of the Harlem Renaissance]” (Whitlow 103). According to Whitlow, “the ‘new Negro’ pride in black heritage and [Hurston’s] intense interest in black folklore2, dominate both the subject choice and style of virtually everything that she wrote” (ibid.).

Hurston was born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, U.S. and died January 28, 1960 in Fort Pierce, Florida (cf. "Hurston, Zora Neale." Encyclopædia Britannica)3. She grew up in “the first all-black independent community in the United States in Eatonville, Florida” (Whitlow 103)4. Hurston was “the daughter of a Baptist preacher and three-times mayor of Eatonville” (Lester xii). In Eatonville, she attended school till the age of thirteen (1904), the year in which her mother died (Whitlow 103). “After her mother’s death she was sent to live with relatives, first one family then with another” which resulted in “a chaotic childhood, from which […] she escaped” at about the age of fourteen” (ibid.). Walker maintains:

What is amazing is that Zora, who became an orphan at nine5, a runaway at fourteen, a maid and manicurist […] before she was twenty - with one dress - she managed to become Zora Neale Hurston, author and anthropologist, at all (“Zora Neale Hurston” 90-91).

At the age of sixteen, Hurston “joined a travelling theatrical company, ending up in New York City during the Harlem Renaissance“, where she attended Howard University from 1921 to 1924” ("Hurston, Zora Neale." Encyclopædia Britannica). After winning a scholarship to Barnard College (cf. ibid), she began her study of anthropology and - under the influence of scholar Franz Boas6 - became interested in black folklore (Whitlow 103). After her graduation in 1928, she pursued her graduate study in anthropology at Columbia University for which she also went on several expeditions (cf. ibid.): she went to “Harlem, Jamaica, Haiti, Bermuda […] (Walker, “Zora Neale Hurston” 88) and “also conducted field studies in folklore among African Americans in the South” ("Hurston, Zora Neale." Encyclopædia Britannica).

Hurston published the findings of her field studies in two travel narratives/folklore collections: Mules and Men (1935) dealing with stories from Florida, and Tell My Horse (1939), referring to the West Indies (cf. Whitlow 104). Furthermore, she produced three novels, of which the first two are “deeply rooted in folk tradition”: Jonah’s Gourd Vine (1934) and Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) (cf. ibid.). Her third novel, Seraph on the Suwanee (1948), talks about “the relationship between sex and racism” (ibid). She also wrote a satire on American race relations, called Moses, Man of the Mountain (1939) (cf. ibid.), and published various other novels, tales, essays and folkloristic collections - some posthumously. Additionally, she produced an autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942) ("Hurston, Zora Neale." Encyclopædia Britannica). Besides her literary career, Hurston always worked on a normal job as well, e.g. she “was on the faculty of North Carolina College for Negroes (now North Carolina Central University) in Durham […and] on the staff of the Library of Congress” (ibid.).

During her later life, Hurston is said to have encountered financial difficulties and health problems which affected her further career and life (cf. Walker, “Zora Neale Hurston” 89-90). She became indebted in order to pay for medical treatment; after surviving a stroke and suffering the effect of it, she - in need of money - still tried to keep on writing (cf. ibid. 93). Hurston finally “had a[nother] stroke and died in [a] welfare home”, and was buried in an unmarked grave (“Looking for Zora” 110). “By the time of her death Hurston was little remembered by the general reading public, but there was a resurgence of interest in her work in the late 20th century” ("Hurston, Zora Neale." Encyclopædia Britannica), as in 1973, the writer Alice Walker went on a field study to explore Hurston’s life (cf. Walker, “Looking for Zora” 94f.). Walker went to Florida and finally found and marked Hurston’s grave (cf. Walker, “Zora Neale Hurston” 87), and revived the interest in Hurston’s works by publishing her essay “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in the Ms. magazine in 1975 (cf. Lester xi and Hurston, Their Eyes, “Chronology” 219).

3. The Historical and Literary Context: Black History from 1890s till 1930s and the Emergence of the Harlem Renaissance

Hurston was born and lived in a time in which several developments took place that influenced black experience. Firstly, the turn of the century was marked by a decline of former political and civil rights, an increase of racial violence, e.g. lynchings7 and massive race riots, and wide-spread popular “scientific and pseudo-scientific theories of racism” (Wintz 10). Then, after World War I, blacks were no longer willing to accept their discrimination and started to fight back.

The second major social development that dominated black experience during the first quarter of the twentieth century was the vast migration which brought tens of thousands of blacks from the rural South into northern industrial cities (ibid. 13).

The third development can be argued to have evolved from the first two: the establishment of the black literary movement of the Harlem Renaissance.

3.1 Racism, Violence and Injustice against Blacks According to Wintz,

[t]he basic political experience of blacks at the turn of the century was that during the two decades following the end of Reconstruction8 they had witnessed the systematic erosion of the rights they achieved under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments9 and through the various acts of Congress and the Reconstruction governments in the South (6).

Though “a number of blacks successfully accumulated property and acquired an education, most remained poorly educated and mired in rural poverty”, and material success became more and more threatened again by segregation and racial violence (ibid.). “Supreme Court reinterpretations of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments left blacks defenseless against the segregationist enactments of southern legislatures” (ibid.).

Blacks did not only face these problems in the South, where most of the black population lived, but also in the Northern states (cf. ibid. 7). Wintz argues that [b]y the time that World War I began, blacks had seen their political rights and political influence almost totally evaporate in the North as well as in the South (8).

While political and civil rights declined, racial violence and terrorism against blacks increased (cf. ibid. 8). Around 1900, there have been several race riots in towns in the Southern and Northern states (cf. ibid.):

Even more than lynchings, [these riots] expressed an intense and highly advanced form of racial prejudice” [… and] were characterized by indiscriminate, wholesale violence directed against all blacks regardless of their actions (ibid. 9).

As mentioned above, various widely accepted “scientific and pseudo-scientific theories of racism” became popular at the turn of the century that marked blacks as inferior and immoral, and were used to justify anti-black political actions (ibid. 10-11). The predominant racial theory in the South argued that “[s]lavery […] had Christianized blacks and restrained their baser tendencies, but freedom had resulted in a rapid reversion toward barbarism” (ibid.). In the North, theories e.g. were derived from examinations of black soldiers in World War I that “expressed concern about distribution of land in the South that would have offered an economic base to support the newly won political rights of black citizens” ("Reconstruction." Encyclopædia Britannica). the intellectual and physical inferiority of blacks and alarm over miscegenation and a mongrelized America” (ibid.). During war time, black soldiers hoped that the uniform they wore and the sacrifices they were willing to make for their country would win them some measure of respect and equal treatment. They were proud of their military accomplishments and more reluctant than ever to accept a second-class position in society (ibid. 11).

However, this hope was disappointed as the black soldiers were denied positions and benefits of white soldiers, and were trained in segregated camps (cf. ibid. 11-12). After the war, the returning soldiers faced riots and racial violence again. Now, “there was a new element in the 1919 riots” (ibid. 13) which took place in cities such as Washington, Chicago and New York (cf. Whitlow 72).

The blacks, no longer willing to rely on ineffective police protection and no longer believing that the government would provide justice for them, armed themselves and fought back against white mobs (cf. Wintz 13).

Additionally, a “new militancy among American blacks” arose from the wartime in which the soldiers gained self-confidence from the military training and pride of their service in the war (cf. ibid.).

3.2 Black Mass Migration to the Northern Industrial Centers

As delineated above, many blacks from the South went northwards to industrial areas. This population shift started in the 1890s, but mostly took place since 1915 and continued through the 1920s (cf. Wintz 13-14). The reasons for this mass movement were mostly economic: during the years 1914 and 1915 an economic depression spread across the South, whereas the industrial cities in the North had an increased demand for factory workers as “stimulated by war contracts, the war also cut off its traditional source of industrial labor, the European immigrant” (ibid. 15- 16). The race tensions also were caused by “the great migration of blacks to the northern urban centers which […] had reached near flood proportions by the end of the war” (Whitlow 71).

Whitlow mentions a negative and a positive outcome of this mass movement. One result was a reaction among northern urban whites who feared the economic consequences of the influx of such masses - and the growth in these areas of organizations of the Ku Klux Klan and other terrorist organizations to keep the blacks “in their place” (ibid.).

On the other hand, black culture organizations developed in the northern cities, and Harlem, New York, “became the capital of black American culture during this period and served as the training ground for most of the major writers who began their work in their Twenties” (ibid.). Even though the most important reason for the migration was economic, “[f]rom the days of slavery the North had held a special position in the mythology of southern blacks as a place of refuge where equality and racial justice abounded” (Wintz 15). Although Harlem developed into a huge, overcrowded slum with “vulgar splendour”, and there was no black university available, “Harlem still became the race’s cultural center and a Mecca for its aspiring young” (ibid. 22).

3.3 The Black Literary Movement in Hurston’s Time - The Harlem Renaissance

The Harlem Renaissance, which is also called The Negro Movement, was as a literary movement among Black Americans in the 1920s (cf. "Harlem Renaissance." Encyclopædia Britannica.). It can be defined as a period of outstanding literary vigour and creativity […], changing the character of literature created by black Americans, from quaint dialect works and conventional imitations of white writers to sophisticated explorations of black life and culture that revealed and stimulated a new confidence and racial pride (ibid.).

According to Whitlow, the Renaissance developed out of the already mentioned “social energy [and tension]10 released at the close of the First World War” (71).


1 Further information is provided in chapter 3.3.

2 folk literature: “also called folklore or oral tradition the lore (traditional knowledge and beliefs) of cultures having no written language. It is transmitted by word of mouth and consists, as does written literature, of both prose and verse narratives, poems and songs, myths, dramas, rituals, proverbs, riddles, and the like. Nearly all known peoples, now or in the past, have produced it.[…] Nevertheless, during all the centuries in which the world has learned to use writing, there has existed, side by side with the growing written record, a large and important activity carried on by those actually unlettered, and those not much accustomed to reading and writing” ("folk literature." Encyclopædia Britannica.)

3 Author’s note: As Lester mentions Hurston’s birth date has long been unclear and differs in the sources about her, either stating that she was born in 1891, 1901 or 1903 (cf. xii).

4 According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “Hurston claimed to be born in 1901 in Eatonville, Florida, [though] she was, in fact, 10 years older and had moved with her family to Eatonville only as a small child”.

5 Author’s note: According to Whitlow and the Encyclopaedia Britannica her mother died when she was thirteen.

6 Franz Boas: “German-born American anthropologist of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the founder of the relativistic, culture-centred school of American anthropology that became dominant in the 20th century. […] few scholars of the early 20th century believed that the various races showed equal capacity for cultural development. It is largely because of Boas's influence that anthropologists and other social scientists from the mid-20th century onward believed that differences among the races were a result of historically particular events rather than physiological destiny and that race itself was a cultural construct. [Like other] cultural relativists, [Boas argued] that the evolutionary view is ethnocentric, deriving from a human disposition to characterize groups other than one's own as inferior, and that all surviving human groups have evolved equally but in different ways” ("Boas, Franz." Encyclopædia Britannica.).

7 Lynching: “a form of violence in which a mob, under the pretext of administering justice without trial, executes a presumed offender, often after inflicting torture and corporal mutilation. The term lynch law refers to a self- constituted court that imposes sentence on a person without due process of law. […] Statistics of reported lynching in the United States indicate that, between 1882 and 1951, 4,730 persons were lynched, of whom 1,293 were white and 3,437 were black. Lynching continued to be associated with U.S. racial unrest during the 1950s and '60s, when civil rights workers and advocates were threatened and in some cases killed by mobs” ("lynching." Encyclopædia Britannica.).

8 Reconstruction: “(1865-77), in U.S. history, period during and after the American Civil War in which attempts were made to solve the political, social, and economic problems arising from the readmission to the Union of the 11 Confederate states that had seceded at or before the outbreak of war. […] The Reconstruction experience led to an increase in sectional bitterness, an intensification of the racial issue, and the development of one-party politics in the South. Scholarship has suggested that the most fundamental failure of Reconstruction was in not effecting a

9 Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment: “The Fourteenth Amendment, defining national citizenship so as to include blacks, passed Congress in June 1866 and was ratified, despite rejection by most Southern states (July 28, 1868). […] Each state had to accept the Fourteenth or, if readmitted after its passage, the Fifteenth Constitutional Amendment, intended to ensure civil rights of the freedmen”( "Reconstruction." Encyclopædia Britannica.).

10 Author’s note.

Excerpt out of 35 pages


Zora Neale Hurston and "Their Eyes Were Watching God"
The Novel’s Outer Contexts and an Analysis of the Concept of Otherness
Hawai'i Pacific University
20th Century Women Writers of Color
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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661 KB
31 Seiten mit doppeltem Zeilenabstand.
Zora, Neale, Hurston, Their, Eyes, Were, Watching, Novel’s, Outer, Contexts, Analysis, Concept, Otherness
Quote paper
Christina Gieseler (Author), 2007, Zora Neale Hurston and "Their Eyes Were Watching God", Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/148730


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