Skip over navigation

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston

Important Quotations Explained

Chapter 20

Key Facts

1.
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.

This passage, which opens Their Eyes Were Watching God, establishes the novel’s unusual perspective on gender difference. Because it is the story of a woman and because it was the first major novel published by a black woman, Their Eyes Were Watching God is often classified as a feminist novel. But feminism is often associated with the idea that men and women are absolutely equal; here, the narrator immediately establishes a fundamental difference between men and women. The idea that men and women need certain things from each other recurs many times throughout the novel, as Janie searches for the man who can complement her and give her those things that she doesn’t have, and Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake attempt to fill their respective needs in their respective relationships with Janie. Finally, the passage foreshadows the novel’s thematic concerns: the statement about women is proud and defiant, saying that while men never really reach for their dreams, women can control their wills and chase their dreams. As the novel unfolds, Janie acts according to this notion, battling and struggling in the direction of her dreams.

2.
[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.

This passage from Chapter 2 marks the beginning of Janie’s spiritual and sexual awakening. She is a young girl under the care of her grandmother, and this incident propels her upon her quest to reach her horizon. The embrace between the bee and the flowers imprints itself upon Janie as an idealized vision of love—a moment of mutual, reciprocal fulfillment. The flowers arch to meet the arriving bee, and the consequent union of the two provides each partner something desired. Janie searches for such a give-and-take love over the course of the entire novel.

The passage also relates to an even deeper desire, which is the ultimate goal of the love that Janie seeks: a sense of enlightenment, of oneness with the world around her. The language of this passage is evocative of the erotic, naturalistic romanticism of Walt Whitman. Like Whitman’s poetry, Hurston’s prose here finds divinity and spirituality in the fertile lushness of the natural world (“the ecstatic shiver of the tree . . . frothing with delight”). Janie sees nature as she wants it to be: a world full of beauty and fulfillment. She chases after this ideal because she wants to experience a harmonization with the beautiful and wild forces that she witnesses under the pear tree. Later events—particularly the hurricane of Chapter 18—introduce a very different vision of nature, but the pear tree continues to serve as her vision of ideal love, of a perfect union with another person.

3.
“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.”

This interchange, which occurs in Chapter 6, is an excerpt from a lively debate between Lige Moss and Sam Watson on the porch of Jody’s store. In addition to being an excellent example of Hurston’s use of dialect and idiomatic English, this dialogue speaks to Janie’s developing understanding of herself in relation to the world. Here, Sam and Lige argue about the relationship between mankind and God and between themselves and the world around them. In modern terms, it is a discussion of nature versus nurture. Lige argues that humans are taught everything that they know; such a perspective implies a fundamental antagonism between humanity and the natural world. In Lige’s terms, there are hot stoves everywhere, and humans must learn and be vigilant to survive. Sam, on the other hand, argues that humans are naturally cautious; such a perspective implies a fundamental harmony between humanity and the natural world. According to Sam, humans, as creatures made by God, are inherently part of nature. Over the course of the novel, Janie progresses through the obstacles that the world presents her until she finally, harmoniously, reaches the horizon that she has long sought.

4.
It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.

In this passage from Chapter 16, Hurston carves out an exception to the gender dichotomy that she presents in the opening sentences of the novel. Mrs. Turner’s worship of qualities that she will never possess groups her with the men whose ships “sail forever on the horizon.” What is most peculiar about the passage, though, is the implicit comparison between Mrs. Turner and Janie. The “indiscriminate suffering” and “real blood” that may lead to wisdom could equally well belong to Janie. Janie’s trip to the horizon requires her to suffer at the hands of two husbands, shoot her third, and brave a ferocious hurricane. Yet for Janie, suffering is not an end in and of itself. She endures it so that she may experience the fullness of life and the good that comes with the bad. Mrs. Turner, however, worships her false gods because they give her a sense of superiority over her peers and because, something of a masochist, she enjoys the pain that these gods dole out. When she is mocked for her views by others, she feels like a victim and a martyr, a feeling she finds pleasurable. The narrator’s stylized description, in the paragraph just below the above quote, of her wish for “an army, terrible with banners and swords,” illustrates the fantastic vengefulness and inflated sense of self-importance that Mrs. Turner’s ostracism gives her. It is this pleasure in pain that motivates her to worship “gods who dispense suffering without reason.”

5.
The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.

This quotation from Chapter 18 neatly summarizes the central conflict of the novel, as Janie, Tea Cake, and Motor Boat seek refuge from the raging hurricane outside. The struggle at the heart of the novel is set forth in the starkest terms: humans against God, Janie and the others against nature. It is significant that Motor Boat joins Janie and Tea Cake in their house and that the narrator notes that everybody is united in the same struggle. We see here that the bonds of human interaction and intimacy provide refuge against the forces of nature. Tea Cake and Janie share an intimacy that allows them to struggle and survive these forces. The sense of self that Janie gains from the love that she shares with Tea Cake enables her subsequently to endure another hostile force—the mean-spirited scorn of the black women of Eatonville—and maintain her inner peace.

More Help

Previous Next
Dont read this book

by Mike_Halk, September 25, 2012

reading this book will send you into a deep depression because after you finish you will realize you spent hours translating this book into real english in your head and then you gained absolutely nothing from it.

12 Comments

461 out of 662 people found this helpful

Movie

by coco_woah, October 06, 2012

Theirs also a really good movie adaption of this book, we watched it in school. It's with Halle Berry as Jane Crawford.

4 Comments

24 out of 45 people found this helpful

tewwg

by chinchilla99999, January 29, 2013

abcdefg gummy bears are chasing me one is red one is blue one is trying to steal my shoe now im running 4 my life cuz the red one has a knife im running at full speed ahead but then i stop cuz i havent been fed i feel my energy bar depleting but then a turkey begins retreating he whines about his finga and then i prone walk since i havent unlocked ninja i barrel roll into the red teddy take his knife and get ready i stab his fluffeh gooey back and then prepare for the secret attack i drop it to the groung and get a predator missile to move a... Read more

2 Comments

251 out of 371 people found this helpful

See all 12 readers' notes   →

Follow Us