'Their Eyes Were Watching God' Quotes Explained

Zora Neale Hurston centered her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God around the protagonist Janie and her journey to find herself. Published in 1937, it was revolutionary for readers to explore themes of love, language, gender, and spirituality through the eyes of a young Black woman. The following quotes encapsulate those themes.

Quotes About Gender Dynamics

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.

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. (Chapter 1)

These are the first paragraphs of Their Eyes Were Watching God. In these opening lines, Hurston introduces a crucial idea that is carried throughout the novel: the metaphor of “ships at a distance” describes how reality is shaped differently for men and women. Men view their dreams far away, and few are able to fulfill them (only “some” who are lucky to have them "come in with the tide”). Women, on the other hand, don’t think of dreams as far-away vessels they will never set foot on. For women, “the dream is the truth”—Hurston seems to be stating that their hopes and desires are woven into their immediate realities.

This essential difference does two things: it foreshadows the exploration of gender dynamics in the novel, and it serves as an introduction to Janie’s search for identity. She lives her life adhering to her truth, and the reader follows Janie’s journey as she comes into her self, controlling her own destiny and actualizing true love.

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. (Chapter 6)

Janie makes this statement to Jody and the men hanging around his store. Mrs. Robbins had just come in begging for food for her starving children. When she leaves the men laugh and joke cruelly about her behavior, which incites Janie to speak in her defense. 

This quote is significant in two ways: it emphasizes the inequities between women and men, and it foreshadows Janie’s ability to prevail over this power imbalance. Up to this point, Janie has been submissive to Jody and his belief that women (and chickens) “don’t think none theirselves.” This speech marks the first occasion in which Janie voices any defiance against his beliefs on female autonomy. Though she is quickly silenced in this instance by Jody, Janie will completely debase her husband later on with only her words. This quote thus highlights one of the central ideas of the novel: language is power.

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. She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels. (Chapter 7)

In this quote, the narrator describes the suffering that Janie endures in her marriage to Jody. Jody wants Janie to play a specific role for him: the role of the beautiful, obedient, submissive wife, a trophy to exist among his many expensive things. Janie becomes an object to him, and as a result, feels “beaten down” like a “rut in the road.” Hurston uses this metaphor to express the effects of the toxic concepts of gender. Such objectifying treatment by a life partner is devastating, and it causes Janie's life and soul to be buried in silence. 

This quote further emphasizes the idea that language is power. Jody believes that women shouldn’t talk, that their place is in the home, and so Janie learns to "[say] nothing.” It isn’t until Janie learns that her words have power, and until she has the courage to use them, that her life flourishes renewed.

Quotes About Love

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. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid. (Chapter 2)

Sixteen-year-old Janie is sitting under a pear tree in the backyard of her grandmother’s home. This passage of nature writing marks her sexual awakening. While gazing up at the blossoms, she realizes the concepts of love and union for the first time. She also is suddenly aware of her body, and the “pain remorseless sweet” that this awakening brings to her—and so Janie begins her existence in relation to the opposite sex, is kissed by a boy, and shortly after is arranged to be married. Hurston infuses the natural imagery with the spiritual, emphasizing the divine weight of this moment in Janie’s life with mentions of “sanctum,” “revelation,” “marriage” and “ecstatic.”

This pear tree embodies the divine love she searches for throughout the rest of the novel. She wants to experience its “revelation” for herself. She measures each of her subsequent relationships in reference to the pear tree, which is always with her like a piece of her soul. When she is treated with hatred or coldness, the pear tree withers. When she finds her true love, Tea Cake, she thinks of him as a bee to a “pear tree blossom.”

This quote is significant for another reason as well: it ties Janie’s human experience to the environment. Janie is constantly (as are the other characters) turning to nature for an experience of the divine, and Hurston infuses the novel with language like that of this passage, in which God is united with the natural world.

Quotes About Spirituality

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in 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. (Chapter 18)

This passage comes later in the book, in the moments before the Okeechobee Hurricane devastates Janie and Tea Cake’s home. The title of the novel is taken from this quote, and Hurston wraps up one of the central ideas of the narrative here. Waiting for the hurricane, the characters suddenly are confronted with the equalizing and total power of God in comparison to human life. Janie has suffered many injustices at the hands of others, mostly due to her succession of abusive husbands. But this hurricane, and nature more broadly, is the ultimate judge of suffering. It is the precipitating cause of Tea Cake’s death.

Janie, Tea Cake, and Motor Boat face God completely humbled. The power dynamics explored in the novel, the issues of gender and poverty and race, are eclipsed in the face of the ultimate deciding powers: God, fate, and nature. Once again, Hurston is drawing a connection between the divine and the natural, as she draws the image of the group facing the hurricane and watching God at the same time.

Dem meatskins is got tuh rattle tuh make out they’s alive... It’s uh known fact Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves. (Chapter 20)

Janie makes this statement to Pheoby, and in doing so, encapsulates one of the most powerful takeaways of the novel. After telling her life story, the reader is brought back to the present in this conversation between the two women. The “meatskins” are the townspeople who cruelly criticize and judge her upon her return, and Janie here is laying out the difference between herself and the gossipers: in order to live you must act.

This passage calls to mind the opening paragraphs of the novel, and the concept of dreams as “ships at a distance.” Janie has lived a full life up to this point; she has found herself and experienced her own version of the pear tree revelation. The novel ends with the image of Janie pulling in “her horizon like a great fish-net” and draping it over her shoulder. With this comparison, Hurston signals that Janie has realized her dreams in grasping her horizon. This quote highlights that she found contentment on account of her choice to follow her own path in the light of God, in the understanding of his power. And so her words of advice to others are just that: "they got tuh go tuh God, and... find out about livin' fuh theyselves."

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Pearson, Julia. "'Their Eyes Were Watching God' Quotes Explained." ThoughtCo, Feb. 16, 2021, thoughtco.com/their-eyes-were-watching-god-quotes-741626. Pearson, Julia. (2021, February 16). 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' Quotes Explained. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/their-eyes-were-watching-god-quotes-741626 Pearson, Julia. "'Their Eyes Were Watching God' Quotes Explained." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/their-eyes-were-watching-god-quotes-741626 (accessed June 10, 2023).