Their Eyes were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

★★★★★ (5/5)

A selection of my favourite passages from the book

Beautifully Crafted Sentences

  • “There is no agony like bearing an untold story inside you.”
  • 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.
  • It was not death she feared. It was misunderstanding
  • Dey all useter call me Alphabet ’cause so many people had done named me different names.
  • She bolted upright and peered out of the window and saw Johnny Taylor lacerating her Janie with a kiss
  • Mind-pictures brought feelings, and feelings dragged out dramas from the hollows of her heart.
  • One day Tea Cake met Turner and his son on the street. He was a vanishing-looking kind of a man as if there used to be parts about him that stuck out individually but now he hadn’t a thing about him that wasn’t dwindled and blurred. Just like he had been sand-papered down to a long oval mass

She was a wind on the ocean. She moved men, but the helm determined the port.

  • Things packed up and put away in parts of her heart where he could never find them. She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.

“Sometimes God gits familiar wid us womenfolks too and talks His inside business. He told me how surprised He was ’bout y’all turning out so smart after Him makin’ yuh different; and how surprised y’all is goin’ tuh be if you ever find out you don’t know half as much ’bout us as you think you do. It’s so easy to make yo’self out God Almighty when you ain’t got nothin’ tuh strain against but women and chickens.”

  • The years took all the fight out of Janie’s face. For a while she thought it was gone from her soul. No matter what Jody did, she said nothing. She had learned how to talk some and leave some.

On Womanhood

  • Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget.
  • The men noticed her firm buttocks like she had grapefruits in her hip pockets; the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume; then her pugnacious breasts trying to bore holes in her shirt. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye. The women took the faded shirt and muddy overalls and laid them away for remembrance. It was a weapon against her strength and if it turned out of no significance, still it was a hope that she might fall to their level some day.

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?

  • He ain’t kissin’ yo’ mouf when he carry on over yuh lak dat. He’s kissin’ yo’ foot and ’tain’t in uh man tuh kiss foot long. Mouf kissin’ is on uh equal and dat’s natural but when dey got to bow down tuh love, dey soon straightens up.
  • She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.
  • The store itself kept her with a sick headache. The labor of getting things down off of a shelf or out of a barrel was nothing. And so long as people wanted only a can of tomatoes or a pound of rice it was all right. But supposing they went on and said a pound and a half of bacon and a half pound of lard? The whole thing changed from a little walking and stretching to a mathematical dilemma. Or maybe cheese was thirty-seven cents a pound and somebody came and asked for a dime’s worth. She went through many silent rebellions over things like that. Such a waste of life and time. But Joe kept saying that she could do it if she wanted to and he wanted her to use her privileges. That was the rock she was battered against.
  • “Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me”
  • It was part of him, so it was all right. She rather found herself angry at imaginary people who might try to criticize. Let the old hypocrites learn to mind their own business, and leave other folks alone. Tea Cake wasn’t doing a bit more harm trying to win hisself a little money than they was always doing with their lying tongues
  • “You sho loves to tell me whut to do, but Ah can’t tell you nothin’ Ah see!” “Dat’s ’cause you need tellin’,” he rejoined hotly. “It would be pitiful if Ah didn’t. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves.” “Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!” “Aw naw they don’t. They just think they’s thinkin’. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don’t understand one.”

Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further.

On Love & the Self

  • It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness.
  • Then you must tell ’em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de 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
  • “Thank yuh, ma’am, but don’t say you’se ole. You’se uh lil girl baby all de time. God made it so you spent yo’ ole age first wid somebody else, and saved up yo’ young girl days to spend wid me.”

He drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.

  • “Ah ain’t grievin’ so why do Ah hafta mourn? Tea Cake love me in blue, so Ah wears it. Jody ain’t never in his life picked out no color for me. De world picked out black and white for mournin’, Joe didn’t. So Ah wasn’t wearin’ it for him. Ah was wearin’ it for de rest of y’all.”
  • It was hard to love a woman that always made you feel so wishful
  • She had waited all her life for something, and it had killed her when it found her.
  • Most of the day she was at the store, but at night she was there in the big house and sometimes it creaked and cried all night under the weight of lonesomeness. Then she’d lie awake in bed asking lonesomeness some questions.

The Downtrodden

  • 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.
  • People ugly from ignorance and broken from being poor

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

  • They were there with their tongues cocked and loaded, the only real weapon left to weak folks
  • Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour. Work all day for money, fight all night for love
  • It was bad enough for white people, but when one of your own color could be so different it put you on a wonder.

The town had 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 these things, and then again he was all of these things because the town bowed down.

On Nature

  • 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.
  • Havoc was there with her mouth wide open. Back in the Everglades the wind had romped among lakes and trees. In the city it had raged among houses and men
  • The sun from ambush was threatening the world with red daggers, but the shadows were gray and solid-looking around the barn.
  • Anybody that didn’t know would have thought that things had blown over, it looked so quiet and peaceful around. But the stillness was the sleep of swords which soaks up urine and perfume with the same indifference.

So she sat on the porch and watched the moon rise. Soon its amber fluid was drenching the earth, and quenching the thirst of the day.

  • They sat on the boarding house porch and saw the sun plunge into the same crack in the earth from which the night emerged.
  • 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.

Aphorisms

  • You know if you pass some people and don’t speak tuh suit ’em dey got tuh go way back in yo’ life and see whut you ever done. They know mo’ ’bout yuh than you do yo’ self. An envious heart makes a treacherous ear.
  • It troubled him to get used to the world one way and then suddenly have it turn different.

“Whut Ah don’t lak ’bout de man is, he talks tuh unlettered folks wid books in his jaws,” Hicks complained.

  • She got so she received all things with the stolidness of the earth

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