Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was revolutionary at the time that it was written. Hurston not only made the bold choice to write in African American vernacular English, but the main character was also an African American woman who was independent, wealthy, and beautiful. At this time of the Harlem Renaissance, African American artists and writers were trying to normalize this type of literature in which black characters were not a rarity and spoke in their own dialect. However, the norm still stood with thousands of novels being published with the protagonist a wealthy, white man with a wife on his arm as nothing but a trophy. Almost every successful writer in the 1930s was white and wrote in standard English. Hurston deviated from this standard of writing with her use of dialect and unique characters in order to make a statement to those who held prejudices.
When looking at the general structure of the book, there does appear to be an exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and resolution. The book does conform to the general structure of a novel. The heavy deviation is found in the composition. At this time of segregation and prejudice, and even now, standard English was seen as correct while black English was considered wrong and uneducated. Hurtson used this dialect to demonstrate the benefits of this type of writing. It adds voice and character to the writing.
The protagonist, Janie, is a light skinned black woman who is wealthy at a time where many African Americans were still under the strong weight of political oppression. Janie makes her own choices in regards to her life and her heart and her body at a time in which women obeyed their husbands despite opposition. Janie drew the attention of every single person in the community despite societal prejudice telling black women that no one wanted them and that they were lesser in every way, shape, and form. Hurston essentially took the personality and qualities of the ideal person in America and instead of placing them in a white male body, placed them in the most degraded body of all: a black woman. Janie’s second husband, Jody, is an African American man who builds up an entire town out of almost nothing. To quote the legend Mr. Kodak Black, “They don’t want to see you winning.” After the civil war, nobody saw the African Americans becoming successful. But yet, here comes Hurston writing about this man who is indeed winning and is African American. Hurston’s characters are not necessarily internally different from that of character in other novels but just placed in different bodies.
The purpose of this deviation is to make a statement. If it were not for the use of dialect, you would almost forget about race all together and it would fit the structure and character type of novels at that time. Hurston is essentially calling out all those who have prejudices about black people. She shows that black people can be happy, rich, sad, heartbroken, struggling, in love, or even be in positions of power. By digressing from the cookie cutter American family, Zora Neale Hurston makes readers reconsider their prejudices and begin to humanize African Americans and empathize with them.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is unlike any book written at the time. It uses dialect to make the characters come alive. Hurston opens up a world to all new sets of characters instead of just fair-skinned, thick-pocketed men. She knew what she was doing when she was writing this book. She uses this book in order to stick it to the man. It makes us question everything we thought we knew when it comes to literature. Why, when we think of a rich mayor, do we envision a white man? Why do we assume that the young black girl will never find love? Hurston uses this novel to challenge our thinking . She doesn’t conform to the others. Their Eyes Were Watching God was written to be unique and different. It is not just a simple love story between a woman and three men, but a story of the challenges and struggles of not only a woman, but an African American woman.