Zora Neale Hurston and Metaphors of Black Womanhood in Their Eyes Were Watching God

[By Danielle Hall]

In Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), Zora Neale Hurston’s female protagonist Janie Crawford symbolizes both female empowerment and autonomy. By situating the life of character Janie Crawford as the focus of her novel, Hurston challenges perceived notions of gender in a style that provides an entrée into the communal and personal dimensions of black womanhood.

I have considered what Darlene Clark Hine describes as a “culture of dissemblance,” which is a set of behaviors and attitudes among African American women that “create the appearance of openness and disclosure” as a means of protecting “their inner lives and selves from their oppressors.” Hine also points out that this is “not a recent phenomenon,” but a recurring theme in “black women’s writing (Hine, 380).”

One of the reasons that the notion of “culture of dissemblance” exists in Their Eyes is due to agency or the degree to which Hurston allows her character Janie to develop, respond, and choose freely in light of the “threat and reality” of violence (domestic and verbal) and censure that she encounters throughout the novel. This becomes essential in our understanding of the “hidden motivations” and choices that inform black women’s experiences and consciousness.

One example of “dissemblance” that I have identified in Their Eyes is in the rhetoric of humor. Hurston introduces early on Janie’s interplay with words as a source of empowerment, “Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good (Hurston, 71).”

We later see Janie develop when she and her husband Joe are engaged in a round of “the dozens” where Joe tries desperately to castrate Janie’s womanhood (body, age, beauty) in front of a community of black men, but she replies “Talkin’ ‘bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life (Hurston, 79). This is a classic scene where Janie deprives Joe of his manhood and the only way that he is able to reclaim it is by hitting her (Hurston, 80).

Another example of “dissemblance” is what Henry Louis Gates, Jr. describes in the afterword as Hurston’s use of “free indirect discourse,” in which “the narrative of the novel shifts from third to a blend of first and third person (Gates, Afterword, 197).” This takes place most notably in the scenes while Janie is on trial and when she is conversing with her friend Phoeby.

“First thing she had to remember was she was not at home. She was in the courthouse fighting something and it wasn’t death. It was worse than that. It was lying thoughts…She didn’t plead to anybody. She just sat there and told and when she was through she hushed (Hurston, 187).”

Critics have debated over the silence of Janie’s voice in Their Eyes, particularly in the court. In Janie’s silence, however, I believe we must acknowledge the degree in which her consciousness and agency are both present and active. As historian Darlene Clark Hine concedes the “concepts of dissemblance… hint at those issues that black women believed better left unknown, unwritten, [and here] unspoken (Hine, 383).”

In Dancing in the Dark, Morris Dickstein describes “the motif of watching” as a major theme throughout the novel. When Janie is on trial for killing Tea Cake she must appear before the members of the black community, who once befriended her and had now turned their backs on her, but she is later “exonerated by a white court (Dickstein, 208).” There are always people who are observing Janie censoriously, which is analogous to how Hurston was often watched and perceived, whether by her critics or by her patrons.

For example, although Their Eyes received favorable reviews, Hurston received criticism from her literary contemporaries, rival Richard Wright and former mentor Alain Locke. Both Wright and Locke felt that Hurston’s content and use of dialect lacked depth and catered to her white audience (West, 126).

Such criticisms by Hurston’s male counterparts and patrons also demonstrate the types of societal pressures she faced as a female novelist in a male-dominated industry and patriarchal society, where stories of black love, intimacy, and emotions were not prevalent or acknowledged in mainstream white America or in literature, or among black writers and intellectuals.

What we can gain by thinking about the culture of dissemblance concerning Their Eyes is what Gates points to as the “relationship between Hurston’s art and her life.” Thus, Their Eyes is no illusory model. It is a story that we can look to as characteristic of Hurston’s inner life and experiences as a black woman seeking love and intimacy that will not suffocate her sense of self and freedom (West, 126).


Dickstein, Morris. Dancing in the Dark: A Cultural History of The Great Depression. (New York: W.W. Norton & Company, 2009), 208.

Gates, Jr. Henry Louis. “Afterword,“ Their Eyes Were Watching God. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), 197, 203, 205.

Hine, Darlene Clark. “Rape and the Inner Lives of Black Women in the Middle West: Preliminary Thoughts On The Culture of Dissemblance,” Words of Fire: An Anthology of African-American Feminist Thought, ed. Beverly Guy-Sheftall. (New York: The New York Press, 1995), 380-83.

Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. (New York: HarperPerennial, 1998), 71, 79-80, 187.

West, Genevieve M. West. ”Zora Neale Hurston,” in Harlem Speaks ed. Cary D. Wintz (Naperville, Illinois: Sourcebooks, Inc., 2007), 126.