7 Things You Might Not Know About Their Eyes Were Watching God

Harper Perennial Modern Classics
Harper Perennial Modern Classics

Published in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was not initially well-received. In an era when “black literature” was expected to be optimistic and uplifting, Hurston’s story of a woman sifting through the ashes of her love life was stark in its depiction of a woman’s independence and sexual freedom. It wasn’t until the 1970s that readers embraced God wholeheartedly, inspiring a generation of provocative artists from Maya Angelou to Beyonce. Take a look at some things you might not know about this seminal novel.

1. IT WAS WRITTEN IN JUST SEVEN WEEKS.

Hurston was raised in Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all-black towns in the U.S. to establish its own local government, and where her family was prominent in the community. After attending Barnard College for anthropology, Hurston became steeped in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s and set her sights on writing, publishing several short stories and one novel by 1935. Her 1937 follow-up, Their Eyes Were Watching God, was written in seven weeks, an incredibly short period of time for a book. Hurston said that she felt commanded by a "force somewhere in space,” finishing the novel in Haiti while researching another book on Caribbean culture.

2. IT WAS INSPIRED BY HER OWN LIFE.

God is the story of Janie Crawford, an independent spirit who recalls her relationships to a friend while visiting her home town. Hurston said that the novel was inspired in part by her own complicated personal entanglements. In her 40s, she dated a man in his 20s whom she perceived as the great love of her life. But the boyfriend—Percival McGuire Punter, a graduate student at Columbia University—began to implore Hurston to give up her career in favor of a more traditional domestic role. One evening, their inflamed feelings turned violent, and a physical scuffle ensued: To distance herself from what had become an emotionally draining relationship, she left for Jamaica and Haiti on the research trip.

In God, Janie falls for Tea Cake, a man much younger than she. The two also endure a hurricane, a natural disaster that Hurston patterned after a 1928 storm in Lake Okeechobee in Florida.

3. IT HAS AN INCREDIBLE OPENING SENTENCE.

You’ve probably seen many internet lists that catalogue memorable opening lines from classic novels. Hurston’s first sentence in God is a staple: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” Hurston's entire paragraph (which continues, “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…”) has been interpreted as the author's view of how men and women approach their desires differently.

4. THE BOOK GOT EARLY CRITICAL REVIEWS.

Upon its publication in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God was celebrated by many high-profile outlets for being a well-written meditation on what it meant to be a woman of color and independence in the 20th century. Simultaneously, some African-American critics were unimpressed, taking Hurston to task for not conforming to the underlying message among black authors to challenge racism. Fellow novelist Richard Wright spoke about his disappointment in Hurston not addressing the issue of equality; Hurston and her supporters argued that hers was a story about love, and that not every novel by a black author needed to touch on racial tension in order to be celebrated.

5. IT WAS REDISCOVERED IN THE 1970S.

The criticism lobbed at Hurston for presenting a strong feminist character grew more distant as the years went on. By the 1970s, the feminist movement and an increasing number of women's studies and black studies programs led to a fresh perspective on God. Authors Maya Angelou and Alice Walker credit Hurston with inspiring their own works. When the book was reissued in 1978, it sold 75,000 copies in one month.

6. SPIKE LEE WAS INSPIRED BY THE NARRATIVE.

In his 1986 film She’s Gotta Have It, filmmaker Spike Lee begins by quoting Hurston’s famous opening passage and then unspools a narrative about a woman trying to negotiate three complex romantic relationships, much like the Janie character of the novel.

7. IT WAS TURNED INTO A RADIO PLAY.

Although God has been adapted into film—notably by Oprah Winfrey for a 2005 TV movie—the book was also the basis for a radio drama. To celebrate the book’s 75th anniversary in 2012, the Greene Space produced an audio play that was broadcast nationally that September. Phylicia Rashad narrated the work, while actress Roslyn Ruff portrayed Janie.

The Top 25 Bestselling E-Books on Amazon Right Now

Is she reading Harry Potter for the 15th time?
Is she reading Harry Potter for the 15th time?
grinvalds/iStock via Getty Images

Right now, the ability to access books on your tablet or phone—without leaving your house or waiting days for an order to arrive in the mail—seems more magical than ever. With just about every book at your fingertips, however, it might be a little difficult to decide which one to choose.

You could ask for recommendations from friends and family, or use this website, which specializes in personalized reading lists based on books you’ve already read and loved. Or you could check out Amazon’s current list of bestselling e-books—updated by the hour—to see what the general population just can’t get enough of. As of this morning (March 31), Elle Marr’s highly anticipated thriller The Missing Sister sits in the number one spot; since its publication date isn’t until April 1, that means it’s gotten to the top of the list on pre-orders alone.

There are several other riveting thrillers on the list, including Dean Koontz’s latest, In the Heart of the Fire, and Christopher Greyson’s murder mystery The Girl Who Lived. Plenty of other genres are well-represented, too, from Stephen R. Covey’s classic self-help book The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People to Jory John’s charming children’s story The Bad Seed.

And, of course, it would hardly seem like a bestseller list if Harry Potter didn’t make an appearance or two. According to this data, more than a few people are spending their quarantine time reading (or re-reading) J.K. Rowling’s beloved series—Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone and Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets are at number seven and number 17, respectively.

Look through March 31’s top 25 below:

  1. The Missing Sister by Elle Marr // $5
  1. Girl, Stop Apologizing by Rachel Hollis // $13
  1. Wall of Silence by Tracy Buchanan // $5
  1. The Bad Seed by Jory John // $13
  1. The Overdue Life of Amy Byler by Kelly Harms // $2
  1. Where the Forest Meets the Stars by Glendy Vanderah // $5
  1. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone by J.K. Rowling // $9
  1. The Last Bathing Beauty by Amy Sue Nathan // $5
  1. The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People by Stephen R. Covey // $6
  1. When We Believed in Mermaids by Barbara O’Neal // $5
  1. Rough Edge by Lauren Landish // $4
  1. The Library at the Edge of the World by Felicity Hayes-McCoy // $1
  1. If You Tell by Gregg Olsen // $2
  1. Now, Then, and Everywhen by Rysa Walker // $5
  1. The Girl Who Lived by Christopher Greyson // $10
  1. Rain Will Come by Thomas Holgate // $5
  1. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by J.K. Rowling // $9
  1. The Other Family by Loretta Nyhan // $5
  1. In the Heart of the Fire by Dean Koontz // $2
  1. Little Fires Everywhere by Celeste Ng // $10
  1. Pete the Cat and the Missing Cupcakes by James Dean // $8
  1. The Splendid and the Vile by Erik Larson // $15
  1. Unlimited Memory by Kevin Horsley // $10
  1. Lift Her Up by T.S. Joyce // $1
  1. In an Instant by Suzanne Redfearn // $5

At Mental Floss, we only write about the products we love and want to share with our readers, so all products are chosen independently by our editors. Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a percentage of any sale made from the links on this page. Prices and availability are accurate as of the time of publication.

This Website Will Tell You What Book to Read Next

WhatShouldIReadNext.com will help you avoid the existential dread of coming to the end of a book without another lined up.
WhatShouldIReadNext.com will help you avoid the existential dread of coming to the end of a book without another lined up.
m-imagephotography/iStock via Getty Images Plus

If you’ve ever finished a book and thought, "What should I read next?" then the aptly-titled website WhatShouldIReadNext.com is for you. Enter in a title, author, or ISBN number, and the site analyzes reviews and ratings from other readers and recommends books.

This, as it turns out, is a really fun game for any bibliophile. Entering Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers leads to recommendations like The Secret Life of Lobsters, My Lobotomy, The World Without Us, The Lost Painting: The Quest for a Caravaggio Masterpiece, The Family That Couldn't Sleep: A Medical Mystery, and The Ghost Map: A Street, an Epidemic and the Two Men Who Battled to Save Victorian London.

Pop in The Devil in the White City and the site suggests The Monster of Florence, The Anatomy of Deception, and The Murder of the Century: The Gilded Age Crime That Scandalized a City & Sparked the Tabloid Wars. Enter The Stranger, and you’ll get titles like Antoine De St Exupery: The Life and Death of the Little Prince and William S. Burroughs’s The Cat Inside. A Tale of Two Cities returns recommendations for The Gift of the Magi and Other Short Stories by O. Henry and The African Queen by C.S. Forester. (Also on that list? The children’s classic The Stinky Cheese Man.)

The site doesn’t just serve up book recommendations, either: There’s also a blog, as well as a section that allows the user to find famous quotes and mark the ones they love. And there’s an option to create your own lists of books, which could include everything from a list of favorite books to a list of books you’ve read to a list of books you want to read. Signing up for the premium version of the site—which costs $9 a month, or $90 a year—will get you access to online book clubs, author interviews, and more.

While there are occasionally books that don’t return any recommendations (like The Inventor and the Tycoon) chances are, you’ll get recommendations that both delight and surprise you—and give you plenty of inspiration for titles to add to your "to be read" pile.

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