Everyone’s Eyes Watch God

Zora Neale Hurston, a significant female writer of the Harlem Renaissance, uses biblical allusion to communicate the love story found in her piece, Their Eyes Were Watching God. From the dialogue to the narration, Hurston alludes to scripture as well as Negro Spirituals subconsciously calling her readers attention to God, thereby fulfilling the nature of the title of the book; the reader “watching the eyes of God” through the dialogue and narration, while the characters “watch the eyes of God” in each other and their environment.

“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the 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 (160).

Many of the biblical allusions are experienced through the dialogue of the characters. Hurston introduces us to Janie, the protagonist, and her friend Phoeby, and their conversations consist of numerous biblical allusions and parallelisms due to their reference and recitation of scripture. Though it is usually misused concerning scriptural context, it is semantically correct based on scriptural interpretation. For example, Janie and her grandmother Nanny are having a conversation about her marriage to Logan Killicks, an older man who owns a lot of land, but in spite of the protection and financial security Janie is not interested in marrying him because she has no emotional feelings or attachment to him. Nanny replies, “’Tain’t Logan Killicks Ah wants you to have, baby, it’s protection. Ah ain’t gittin’ ole, honey. Ah’m done ole. One mornin’ soon, now, de angel wid de sword is gointuh stop by here. De day and de hour is hid from me, but it won’t be long” (15). Here the reader observes Hurston reference Matthew 24:36/Mark 13:32, which speaks to the fact that no man knows the day or hour when the Son of Man shall make his second appearance. When looking at the scriptural context we see that the text is speaking to man not knowing the days, or time of Christ second coming, but Hurston uses this as a way to speak to the uncertainty of Nanny’s death. Nanny here is acknowledging that she is growing old and is therefore only going to live for so long, therefore, because no man also knows the day or time of his death he should do his best to make the provisions he wants while he is alive. This is what we see Nanny doing by trying to marry Janie off to an older, but financially established man. Someone who can take care of her needs, ensuring that she would not be in want of any good thing.

Another way that Hurston causes the reader to subconsciously keep their eyes watching God is through the sporadic use verses from Negro Spirituals, particularly when used outside of a church context. We see this is in the second phase of Janie’s life as she marries Joe Starks who becomes the Mayor of a “colored” town. While Mayor he decides to build the street lamps, making his colored town the first to have street lamps. During this momentous occasion he makes an eloquent speech using the style of the Black Preacher of that time period. To culminate his speech he asks the people to look up at the light and, “…let de light penetrate inside of yuh, and let it shine, let it shine, let it shine” (45). Here we see him reference a Negro Spiritual, “This Little Light of Mine” to foster an image and an understanding that the reader as well as the participating characters can comprehend. This act implies that Hurston assumes that her audience is very spiritual or closely affiliated to the Church, or is very familiar with scripture as well as Negro Spirituals, particularly since many of the Spirituals are based off of scripture. “This Little Light of mine” for example is based off of Matthew 5:16, “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” (KJV).

Hurston’s work is not only a complete biblical allusion at its best, but it’s a spiritual masterpiece taking the reader on the spiritual journey of the protagonist. Ephesians 6:12 states, “For we wrestle not against flesh and blood, but against principalities, against powers, against the rulers of the darkness of this world, against spiritual wickedness in high places” (KJV). This text alludes to spiritual thinker that we are spiritual beings having a spiritual experience. Hurston portrays this concept beautifully in her work, Their Eyes Were Watching God, by the constant illusion to the spiritual realm. This constant frame of mind found so consistently throughout the work is created by the content, context, and vernacular of the conversations shown through the Character – Character relationship, Reader – Character relationship, and Reader – Narrator relationship. Hurston’s work is not so much about finding how Janie watches God, but how those who will read this book watch God. This is evidenced in her choice of the plurality, “their” rather than “her”. Hurston is speaking of both Janie and the reader experiencing God through the intentional biblical allusions placed in the text from start to finish. Were your eyes watching God?

 

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One thought on “Everyone’s Eyes Watch God

  1. I remember reading the book as an undergrad. It was pregnant with imagery and led my mind through so many concepts and illustrations and, oddly, it was the time I was deciding to give my life over to the Lord… I love the way you focussed on the apparent spirituality of the book. Great insight!

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