Election Day is November 3rd! Make sure your voice is heard

Their Eyes Were Watching God

Zora Neale Hurston

Chapters 1–2

Summary Chapters 1–2

One of the most commented-upon aspects of the novel is Hurston’s split style of narrative. The book begins in an omniscient, third-person narrator’s voice, one that is decidedly literary and intellectual, full of metaphors, figurative language, and other poetic devices. This voice anchors the entire novel and is clearly separate from Janie’s voice. Hurston splits the narrative between this voice and long passages of dialogue uninterrupted by any comment from the narrator. These passages are marked by their highly colloquial language, colorful folksy aphorisms (“Unless you see de fur, a mink skin ain’t no different from a coon hide”), and avoidance of Standard Written English. These unusual passages celebrate a rich folk tradition that is not often expressed on the page.

The oscillation between Standard Written English and Black Vernacular English mirrors one of the novel’s central themes: the importance of controlling language. Throughout the book, we see Janie struggle with her own voice and control of language. As Gates writes in an afterword included in most modern editions of the book, Hurston views the “search for voice” as the defining quest of one’s lifetime. The divided style of narration, however, suggests that the quest is complicated and lacks a singular resolution. Gates argues, “Hurston uses the two voices in her text to celebrate the psychological fragmentation of both modernity and of the black American . . . [H]ers is a rhetoric of division, rather than a fiction of psychological or cultural unity.” Against this division, though, Hurston, in subtle ways, opens lines of communication between the two narrative styles. The third-person narrator is a voice that, while different from Janie’s, partakes of figures and experiences in Janie’s world. Hurston colors the narrator’s sophisticated prose with colloquialisms, like the “Now” that opens the novel’s second paragraph, nature metaphors, and a tone that reveals that the narrator delights in storytelling as much as any of the characters. Because of these qualities, the narrative voice is more than just the absence of dialect; the narrator has a personality that is related, though not identical, to those of the characters. Hurston’s affection for black folklore and dialect is evident not only in its raw presentation in dialogue form but also in the traces it leaves on her high prose. The subtlety of the traces allows her to integrate the widely divergent styles into an aesthetic whole; the styles remain in tension but can speak to one another.

In Chapter 2, an important symbol is introduced: Janie’s moment under the pear tree is a defining moment in her life and one that is referenced throughout the book. This experience relates symbolically to several themes: most obviously, Janie resonates with the sexuality of the springtime moment, and for the rest of the book, the pear tree serves as her standard of sexual and emotional fulfillment. At first glance, the tree seems to mirror traditional gender stereotypes: the tree (the female) waits passively for the aggressive male bee who penetrates its blossoms. But Hurston’s careful language tweaks stereotypical notions of the female role: “the thousand sister calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree. . . .” Although the tree waits for the arrival of the bee, the love embrace is reciprocal. From the opening passage of the book, it is clear that men and women are seen as fundamentally different. Janie doesn’t want a male identity but rather a female one to parallel a male one; in the natural world, male and female impulses complement each other, creating a perfect union in a mutual embrace. Each gives the other what the other needs but does not yet possess. This ideal of love and fulfillment is at the center of Janie’s quest throughout the book.