Their Eyes Were Watching God: A commentary

10 min readFeb 22, 2023

I am writing this summary to the sound of Alice Smith’s cover of ‘I put a spell on you’, because this is a book about love. The love of a black woman. This is exactly as it should be.

“They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” The first time I saw these words, I knew, instinctively, that I had to read from the source.

It is for this poetic use of language and the vivid imagery that it felt like I was an observing character in this book. An example of vivid imagery was a description of a hurricane and flooding disaster — “The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel”.

Flowery writing is not always cohesive. Sometimes, the metaphors leave their meaning behind, making the interpretation of each sentence a chore as the reader struggles to catch up. This is not the case in this book. Zora Neale uses lots of epigrams in her writing and personifies abstracts like time, night and death. However, she does this skillfully, proving an outstanding level of intention and creativity.

For instance, in chapter one, she paints a picture of the timing when Jamie starts speaking with her friend, Phoebe — “they sat there in the fresh, young darkness” — speaking of dusk. In the closing paragraph of the same chapter, she represents the graduation of dusk to night — “Time makes everything old so the kissing, young darkness became a monstropolous old thing”.

The Plot

It is the early twentieth century. Janie walks into her community alone, wearing dirty overalls and her thick, long hair down her back. This gets the community talking. She had left years ago in a blue dress, rich and in love with a younger man. Her friend Phoebe advocates for her amongst the gossips and goes to her for answers.

The book is the telling of Janie’s story, narrating her childhood, her consciousness of blackness, her ponderance on love, her arranged marriage to an older man, her second marriage to a man who promised her the world and finally, her love marriage to Vergible Woods, whom she fondly called Tea Cake.

The Main Character

Janie was a dreamer and a romantic. She starts off with a curiosity, wanting to know what love is, especially as expressed in romance and marriage. At the end of her story, Janie tells her friend, Phoebe, “ love is lak the sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”

Beyond contemplating love, Janie loved to observe nature and conjure her ideals from said observation.

“She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making.”

Janie was also self-aware, embracing her multiplicities and the yinyangness of life.

“Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.”


On the difference between how men and women approach living.

The book starts with a commentary on how men and women dream, hope and live. This is of course a prelude to the story of the main character, Janie, and is therefore, in tandem with how her story plays out. This is how the book opens up.

“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.”

Perhaps this is a commentary on the ambition and fortune (or lack thereof), of the men Janie interacted with. The plot is set only a few years or decades after the freedom of black people from institutionalised slavery in America. All men have hopes and wishes. Some see their wishes come true, by strokes of luck like the rising and falling tide. Some live in a constant state of wishing because the thing that they hope for seems near enough but never really arrives. Eventually, despair takes over, as in the scripture that, “hope deferred makes the heart sick”. Proverbs 13:12

In this world, however, the woman keeps her dream as the standard, the tune to which she dances. When a woman hopes, and when a woman forgets to hope, it is as intended.

“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.”

On Marriage

Janie’s idea of marriage was idealist. She had observed pollination between a bee and a flower in her grandma’s garden and this informed her idea of what marriage should be — a symbiotic relationship. A partnership. A welcoming to give and receive of each other. A delightful effect on one another.

“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.”

It was this ideal that she upheld as she was to be married off at 16 to Logan Killicks, a much older man. She felt nothing but disgust for Logan, yet she channeled her curiosity.

“There are years that ask questions and years that answer. Janie had had no chance to know things, so she had to ask. Did marriage end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated? Did marriage compel love like the sun the day?”

It was this ideal that led her running to her grandmother in dissatisfaction, “but Nanny, ah wants to want him sometimes. Ah don’t want him to do all the wantin’”

After a couple years of enduring a lack of delight in her marriage, she makes a brave decision to run off with a younger man who promised her the world.

“What was she losing so much time for? A feeling of sudden newness and change came over her. Janie hurried out of the front gate and turned south. Even if Joe was not there waiting for her, the change was bound to do her good.”

On heterosexual marriage in a patriarchal world

Through Janie’s second marriage, Zora Neale explores the misogynist ideas held by the men: that women were eye candy, objects of sexual gratification, owned by the men and useful for domestic labour, classed with children and domestic animals. Thus, women were to be quiet as they had no productive intellectual capacity.

“Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves.”

The men spoke casually of hitting and even killing their wives as they would speak of taming or putting down an animal.

“‘If dat wuz mah wife,’ said Walter Thomas, ‘Ah’d kill her cemetery dead.’

‘Dat’s ’cause Tony love her too good,” said Coker, ‘Ah could break her if she war mine. Ah’d break her or kill her. Makin uh fool outa me in front of everybody.’

‘Tony won’t never hit her. He says beatin’ women is just like steppin’ on baby chickens. He claims ‘tain’t no place on uh woman tuh hit” Joe Lindsay said with scornful disapproval, ‘bhut Ah’ d kill uh baby just born dis mawnin’ fuh ah thing lak dat”

The men who wouldn’t hit their wives were considered weak but even they did not refrain from hitting out of respect but out of benevolent sexism.

In Janie’s last marriage, the one where she lived her dream of partnership and mutual delight, she still got a beating.

“Janie is wherever Ah wants tuh be. Dat’s de kind uh wife she is and Ah love her for it. Ah wouldn’t be knockin’ her around. Ah didn’t wants whup her last night, but ol’ Mis Turner done sent for her brother tuh come tuh bait Janie in and take her way from me. Ah didn’t whup Janie ’cause she done nothin’. Ah beat her tuh show dem Turners who is boss. Ah set in de kitchen one day and heard dat woman tell mah wife Ah’m too black fuh her. She don’t see how Janie can stand me.’”

In almost every heterosexual pairing in a patriarchal world, women become collateral damage in the fight for men’s ego.

On the intersection of racism and misogyny

Janie’s grandmother gave her a lesson on the pecking order of oppression, at the bottom of which black women exist. You would expect the black man to understand oppression and equality, instead, they find the backs of black women to dump the burden of hate on.

“Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.”

On leadership and followership

Janie married a man who fancied himself a leader. When they arrived at a new town with no government, he appointed himself the mayor. While he did the work of developing the town, he also placed himself, and by extension, Janie, on a pedestal of deity.

“The town has a basketful of feelings good and bad about Joe’s positions and possessions, but none had the temerity to challenge him. They bowed down to him rather, because he was all of those things, and then again he was all of these things because the town bowed down.”

This commentary led me to contemplate leadership and worship. Followers make a leader. Worshippers make a god. Neither would exist without the other.

On familial love

The first love Janie knew was that of her grandmother, who had married her off at 16 in a bid to protect her. Years later, Jamie would reflect on the love she had for her grandmother and rename it pity. She felt obligated to her grandmother but she resented her grandmother for her inability to dream. She did not consider her grandmother’s love for her genuine. In Janie’s eyes, true love frees you.

Some people could look at a mud-puddle and see an ocean with ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon — for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you — and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her. She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love. Most humans didn’t love one another nohow, and this mislove was so strong that even common blood couldn’t overcome it all the time.”

On Internalised colorism

In Chapters 15 &16, Zora Neale explores the thinking behind internalised colorism through a character — Mrs. Taylor — who worshipped white people and light-skinned black people.

“Insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can’t”

Once again, the pecking order of oppression makes its way into the conversation. Mrs. Taylor treated the people more light skinned than herself with reverence and the darker-skinned people with deference. She expected this reverence and deference too, from those darker-skinned and lighter skinned than she was, respectively.

“Once having set up her idols and built altars to them it was inevitable that she would worship there. 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.”

This reminds me of lines in WanaWana’s discourse on beauty standards in her poem, Conversations with your Mother — “when you become a woman, your mother will tell you how she mutilated her body, splayed each part to be sanctified by the sun so that your father could love her.”

On self reclamation and the need for authenticity in community

In her resurrection to self, set against the backdrop of her second husband’s death and funeral, Janie solidifies her expectations of love as freedom, looking within first. In this reclamation of self, she starts to seek community that gave her room to be everything she wanted to be.

“She had found a jewel down inside herself and she wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around . . . When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.”

One of my favorite writers, Kamsi Asuzu once twote,

Other Comments

  1. Zora Neale teaches me that words are malleable. She makes her own words in this book, some of which are now (somewhat) accepted in language or pop culture — e.g. diasticutis, monstropolous, disfavorite, mislove.
  2. I struggled with the punctuation in this book because of course, it was written in a different time when writers did not debate the use of the Oxford comma. I did think many sentences could have used extra commas.
  3. A 21st century reader, like myself, may also struggle with the use of negro folk language for dialogue in the book. I did get used to it eventually.


If it is not already apparent by my commitment to writing a 2500-word summary of the book, I absolutely enjoyed reading it. I did pause a few times to reread and take in the brilliant, poetic writing but I looked forward to picking up the book again every time I had to put it down. I therefore wholeheartedly recommend it as required reading.




“Silence is a dangerous thing to give yourself to, especially if you were born to speak.” - Eloghosa Osunde