Published by Harper Perennial on November 1998
Genres: Classic, Fiction
Source: my shelves
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Their Eyes Were Watching God, first published in 1937, was written by Zora Neale Hurston in just seven weeks. It is the story of Janie Crawford, a black woman living in central/southern Florida in the early 20th century. The story begins around 1928 with 40-year-old Janie returning to her home in Eatonville after being away for about a year. The townspeople are all gossiping about why she has come back and why she’s wearing the clothes she has on, and they’re all wondering why she has come home without Tea Cake, her much younger husband. Janie’s best friend, Pheoby, goes to talk to Janie to find out what has happened and Janie tells Pheoby her whole story—from childhood to the present—so Pheoby can go back and tell the rest of the townspeople. Janie doesn’t feel the need to explain herself to those people, but she knows that if it’s not her real story they hear, they’ll just make something up in its place.
Janie’s grandmother was a slave who had been raped by her owner, and as a result, had given birth to Janie’s mother. When Janie’s mother was seventeen, she was raped by her school teacher, which led to the birth of Janie. Not long after Janie was born, her mother started drinking and staying out all night and she eventually ran off, leaving Janie to be raised by her grandmother. Janie’s grandmother never knew anything but subservience to white people. Even after slavery ended, she worked as a maid for a wealthy white family. She was never really free to think for herself or act for herself. Her main desire is to see Janie married to someone who will provide for Janie financially and give Janie the things that she (the grandmother) never had:
“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. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different wid you. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd!”
But teenage Janie has just discovered her sexuality; she is dreaming about life and love and everything she has yet to learn about herself. So when Janie’s grandmother arranges a marriage for Janie to a much older man, Janie complains that she doesn’t want to get married at such a young age. She’s not ready for marriage. When she complains that she doesn’t love this man, or even really know him, her grandmother responds, “Tain’t Logan Killicks Ah wants you to have, baby, it’s protection.” So Janie (at the age of sixteen) marries Logan Killicks to please her grandmother and, naturally, she’s absolutely miserable. She cannot make herself love Logan, and he basically ends up treating her like a pack mule (the very thing her grandmother didn’t want her to become). So she takes off with a man named Joe Stacks and they move to the town of Eatonville, which is being built up and governed solely by black people. This starts Janie’s journey into discovering who she really is as a person—what it means for her to truly live and love—and trying to find her own voice.
She eventually goes through three marriages in her life: her first marriage is to Logan Killicks, her second to Joe “Jody” Stacks and her final marriage is to Vergible “Tea Cake” Woods. She learns something about herself, and about life and love, through the unique relationships she has with each of these men. In the end she finds contentment—in who she is as a person, in the real love that she finally shared with Tea Cake, and in the voice that she carries inside herself—and she doesn’t feel the need to explain herself to the townspeople. She explains to Pheoby that no matter what she tells those townspeople, they won’t understand a bit of it until they have walked in her shoes:
“ Now, Pheoby, don’t feel too mean wid de rest of ‘em ‘cause dey’s parched up from not knowin’ things. Dem meatskins is got tuh rattle tuh make out they’s alive. Let ‘em consolate theyselves wid talk. ‘Course, talkin’ don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else. And listenin’ tuh dat kind uh talk is jus’ lak openin’ yo’ mouth and lettin’ de moon shine down yo’ throat. 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.”
To Janie, none of these people have truly lived or loved in the same way as she, and therefore will never understand her or the choices she has made.
When reading the Foreword to this edition, I learned that quite a few black male critics (Richard Wright, Sterling Brown and Alain Locke among them) were very tough on Hurston for writing a book that they thought would give white people another reason to laugh at their race. These men were critical of the dialect she chose to use for her characters, accused her of being a “sensual writer,” and accused the book of being no better than a minstrel show. Mary Helen Washington (the author of the Foreword) tells us that Richard Wright specifically accused the book of having “no theme, no message, no plot,” which I found to be absolutely untrue. These men were critical of Their Eyes Were Watching God for not being written in the context of what they considered to be the more important social trends of the times (see: Harlem Renaissance). I find it amusing that Hurston, who had written about a woman searching for her own voice and for her freedom from domineering men, was being criticized, by men, for writing with her own voice and not conforming to the standards of what they considered to be acceptable writing. I also find it interesting that these men felt Hurston should have been writing with white people in mind—and how they would use her book to further stereotype the black community—when it is obvious to me that she was using the book to speak to black women and the conflicts taking place within the black community itself (ie: the argument concerning light skin vs. dark skin). To Hurston, these issues were no less important than the issues the male Harlem Renaissance authors were writing about. It speaks volumes that Their Eyes Were Watching God was ultimately resurrected as an important piece of literature in many discussions, from those concerning black cultural traditions to those concerning feminism and the empowerment of women.
I think Their Eyes Were Watching God is a fantastic novel. The prose is beautiful and I love that the characters speak in their authentic dialect; to me, that is a large part of what makes the prose so beautiful. Janie’s story brought forth from me a number of conflicting emotions: happiness, sadness, love, fear, frustration and a feeling of power. Her story is very bittersweet and heart-warming. It is, ultimately, the story of a woman who takes her fate into her own hands and finally finds true love. This is one of those books which I really want to recommend to everyone. So let me sum this review up with four words: Just read it. Please.
(To learn more about Zora Neale Hurston, please visit The Official Zora Neale Hurston Website.)