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This paper reexamines African-American writer and anthropologist Zora Neale Hurston’s presentation of the self in Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), generally considered one of the most important African-American novels of the twentieth century. Originally criticized by Hurston’s contemporaries as a retrograde folk portrait of African-American life, Their Eyes presents the oral narrative of Hurston’s protagonist, Janie, a woman surrounded by natural and social cycles. Building on the novel’s allusive title and the convergent Biblical and folkloric frameworks of the work, I trace the evolving concept of “God” throughout the novel as external forces continually shape and reshape Janie’s world for her, questioning whether she can retain any individual agency navigating through these cyclical, predetermined pathways. The redefined vision of the individual that emerges from this reading counters the criticism of Hurston’s contemporaries, as Janie herself assumes the role of “God” at the novel’s conclusion and gains the power to create her own cycles, free from external control. I thus argue that the novel transcends its supposed function as a depiction of the African-American self to make a broader, humanistic claim for the power of the individual, not contingent on social distinctions.
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