Getting started

From the very first instance of a character speaking in Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston’s writing style makes the reader take notice:

“What she doin coming back here in dem overhalls?”

Much has been said about Hurston’s use of vernacular speech in the book. Fellow writer Richard Wright criticized Hurston for what he saw as giving white readers the stereotypes of African Americans that they expected.

However, after the revival of interest in her work in the 1970s and beyond, those same characters’ speech patterns were no longer seen as pandering to white readers but a reflection of Hurston’s anthropological training, her affirmation of people as they are, and her outright talent as a writer:

“Her fidelity to diction, metaphor, and syntax… rings, even across forty years, with an aching familiarity that is a testament to Hurston’s skill and to the durability of black speech.”
  –Sherley Anne Williams, Foreword to Their Eyes Were Watching God (Univ. of Illinois Press, 1978)

How do you feel about the way Janie speaks? Do you find it easy to follow along? What impact does it have on the story? Is it more real to you, or is it a stumbling block to understanding?

“Between Laughter and Tears,” review of Their Eyes Were Watching God written by Richard Wright (New Masses, (5 October 1937: 22-23).

Reviews of Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937-1938 (Univ. of Virginia)

The Sound of 1930s Florida Folk Life (NPR): Zora Neale Hurston participated in a WPA program that documented Florida culture in the 1930s. Hear her sing “Evalina.”  Hear Zora Neale Hurston’s recordings held by the Florida Memory Project

“Power of Prose: African American Women” by Christa Smith Anderson (PBS’ “Do You Speak American?”)

Ruby Dee reads an excerpt of Their Eyes Were Watching God (HarperAudio) (via


One response to “Getting started

  1. I did not find Janie’s speech a stumbling block to the story — It is so integral to it, as I see it. However, reading it does require (for me) an extra effort of imagination, not unlike reading a play, when you have to picture the drama occurring on a stage, actors moving and speaking to and around eachother. I would even compare it to reading Shakespeare since it is really a separate language –separate from traditional/modern schoolbook English — and similarly gains in intelligibility when heard spoken aloud, or imagined spoken aloud.

    I read the book years ago but didn’t remember much, apparently. Instead of re-reading it I listened to it on CD, which makes criticism of the speech dialect a non-issue.

    Having said these things, I can’t help agreeing a little with (or at least understanding) Otis Ferguson, who wrote in the New Republic in 1937
    “Suggestion of speech difference is a difficult art, and none should practice it who can’t grasp its first rule–that the key to difference must be indicated by the signature of a different rhythm and by the delicate tampering with an occasional main word. To let the really important words stand as in Webster and then consistently misspell all the eternal particles that are no more than an aspiration in any tongue, is to set up a mood of Eddie Cantor in blackface. ” (from the ‘Reviews of Their Eyes Were Watching God’ link above.)

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