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[185] Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston

watchinggod1“All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.” [45]

Whether one agrees with Alice Walker that “there is no book more important to her than this one”, Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the most significant works of twentieth-century American literature by a woman writer. While her peers renounced her use of black vernacular text, which rendered blacks ignorant, modern critics reclaim Zora Neale Hurston, who imbued Janie Crawford with some of the questing quality that characterized her own life. Not only does she ransack the English language as well as Eatonville Ebonics, to achieve a precision of expression that exudes aesthetics, she captures the Eatonville experience through the mouth and the mind of a woman.

“Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ’em nothin’, Pheoby. ‘Tain’t worth de trouble. You can tell ’em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf.” [6]

In her early forties, but her experience bespeaks a lifetime, tells the story of her life and journey via an extended flashback to her best friend, Pheoby. Her life has three major periods corresponding to her marriages to three very different men. Although slavery has long since ended, but living with her grandmother constrains her to a restricted vision of a black woman’s life. Nanny pushes Janie into a loveless marriage to Logan Killicks because the old woman was born to slavery and had no choice over her destiny. She likes her granddaughter to have comfort and money even if such amenities only come at the expense of emotion.

“The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off. She knew now that marriage did not make love.” [25]

Janie certainly manifests a will of her own in spite of her grandmother’s efforts to prune her and her first two husbands’ to dominate her. Rebelling against Logan’s attempts to turn her into a workhorse. She runs off with Joe Starks, a “citified man” with big dreams who eventually builds up Eatonville and becomes its mayor. Cowed by Joe’s chauvinism, she becomes “a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels.” [76]

After Joe’s death, against public opinion that grows to be a “mass cruelty”, she takes off with Tea Cake whose association to her at first she is ashamed of. But Janie is constantly evolving to become Janie, not someone who is bound by social purview. Like all individual thinkers, Janie Crawford pays the price of exclusion for nonconformity, much like Hurston herself, who was accused of stereotyping the people she loved when she simply sought to reclaim and amplify their voices. The charting of her fulfillment as an autonomous imagination is a lyrical novel that correlates to the need of her first two husbands for ownership of larger physical space with the suppression of self-awareness in their wife.

Whereas her hidebound contemporaries viewed her use of dialect as solecism, Hurston found a voice, with language as an instrument of injury and salvation, that is apropos of Janie’s prodigal status as well as Hurston’s herself. But she is never critical of her neighbor’s carping reactions to her. She either ignores them entirely or pities them for never having left the safety of their town and never having lived and loved as deeply as she has.

“She was sorry for her friends back there and scornful of the others . . . Only here, she could listen and laugh and even talk some herself if she wanted to.” [134]

It’s too close to conclude that she is solely defined by the men in her life. The novel is about self-revelation. At the end of the book, a whole new life lies ahead, uncharted for a still relatively young Janie Crawford. Although she will never forget tea Cake, who has opened up her world and gives his life for her, it’s hinted that she will continue to live on her own uncompromising terms; because she has unearthed many hidden layers of herself.

“…jus’ lak Ah told yuh. So Ah’m back home agin and Ah’m satisfied tuh be heah. Ah done been tuh de horizon and back now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons.” [191]

In addition to the dialectical language that Hurston refused to bowdlerize, a free indirect discourse forms the backbone of the narrative, which constantly shifts from third to a blend of first and third person. Hurston herself becomes Janie’s echo by picking up the narrative thread in intervals, places where in real life or in real time, that Janie can’t bear to talk. Her escape from the Everglade inundation is a prime example of this shift. Tea Cake’s southern black dialect gains rhetorical distance as it becomes a third person narrative. That Zora Neale Hurston has claimed her place in American literature, belonging to the same league as F. Scott Fitzgerald and William Faulkner, is fait accompli, whether she is a legacy of protofeminist, a subject matter that sits outside of my purview, I’ll leave that to the readers. 256 pp. [Read/Skim/Toss]

24 Responses

  1. I’ve not read any of Hurston’s work, but I probably need to. Her hometown is Eatonville, which is basically just a ‘burb of Orlando. She gets alot of press here. They have a huge festival every year in her honor, and are very proud of her. Didn’t they make this book into a TV movie?

  2. This is the only Hurston I’ve ever read, and I just had such a hard time getting through the vernacular, but I powered through eventually and am glad I did. It really is quite the book and am glad to see that you enjoyed it, as well! Hows the Fitzgerald coming along? 😀

  3. I’ve always found the dialect to be one of the charms of this novel, because it carries the flavor of the conversation, much the way you can only get the nuances of a conversation in a foreign language by knowing some of the words that are more full of meaning or idiomatic in that language. Jamaica Kincaid’s prose poem “Girl” is funnier if you read it with some Antigua accent and tempo (faster than English).

  4. I feel the same way Alice Walker does about this book. When I was an undergrad at Barnard, this novel was on the reading list but with no mention that Hurston was a graduate herself. I started reading it, and like many others, it took a while to get used to the language, but very quickly, I was engrossed and couldn’t put it down. The story’s ending devastated me, and I don’t recall crying so hard after finishing a novel. At the time I was also upset that Hurston wasn’t in the mainstream as she is now; these days I am really pleased to see her books on the shelves of stores and libraries.

  5. I can identify with Janie because I have written a novel about a woman courageous enought to think outside of a box and thrash through the illusions and fallacies that are preventing her from living an authentic life. Should you be interested, please access http://www.strategic.bookpublishing.com/GettingEnough.html

  6. I’m tempted to read this but not sure if I will be able to make it through. I always enjoy your reviews and the way you write.

  7. After reading this novel and discovering that Zora Neale Hurston was the recipient of 2 Guggenheims, the author of 4 novels, 12 short stories, 12 essays, 2 musicals, and 2 black mythologies, I could not help wondering how this literary giant disappeared from us for nearly 3 decades. To my disappointment I learned that her disappearance was due to her peers (mainly Richard Wright) criticizing her openly and publicly for not writing about the so-called “serious social trends” of the time. But what I cannot understand is how her peers could not think what happened to Janie Crawford (and women like her) by husbands and the community at large was not a serious social trend of the time. Just because Zora chose to write about the injustices done within the black community rather than the injustices done to the black community did not make her works any less poignant. The appeal and rediscovery of this novel by scholars, women writers, and the American public in general has definitely made Their Eyes Were Watching God into a timeless classic of the Harlem Renaissance era.

  8. I rank this as one of the best American novels of the 20th century. But I will confess that I had to listen to it on tape. I’ve never been able to read long passages written in dialect.

    However, this is one book I intend to listen to again someday.

  9. Sandy:
    I’m on the lookout for more of her works, which, aside from Their Eyes, are pretty rare. I just came back from the used bookstore without any luck of her books. I bought a few more Toni Morrison though.

  10. Chelsea:
    She might very well be one of the most important writers in 20th century American literature. I’m looking for Mules and Men, which haven’t been re-released.

    • I actually have an older addition of that book. My grandfather had bought a used copy in about 1964. The best part is that when he bought it, he found that the inside of the cover was signed by Zora herself. He could make a good amount of money if he sold it, but he loves it so much, he wants to wait until he can find a replacement book.

  11. Jeanne:
    By writing in vernacular text, Hurston is revitalizing that experience of being a black in the south at that time. The flow of the novel, in spite of the switch between 3rd and 1st person narrative, is seamless. In a sense Hurston herself has fused with Janie’s voice, and the dialects also brings alive the community. The minor characters of the novel are multicultural as well.

  12. mari:
    I was off to a slow start because of the dialects, which was a bit cumbersome to read. Once I was acclimatized to the language, like you, I am so engrossed to the book. I didn’t see the ending coming, although the beginning hinted at Tea Cake’s death. I’m off to reading more of her works, which should be read more widely.

  13. Leonard:
    “thrash through the illusions and fallacies that are preventing her from living an authentic life”
    This is a very precise and beautiful summary of Janie’s life. I’ll head over to check out your novel. Thank you. 🙂

  14. Staci:
    Like Toni Morrison, this book also need a mood for it. Try reading the beginning and see how you can attach yourself to the time and the story, and also the dialect. 🙂

  15. John:
    Great comment! That Hurston chose to write about the injustices within the black community rendered her being viewed as some kind of traitor. Her choice of language didn’t help either, as Richard Wright vehemently accused her of looking down the black community and setting it up to be the laughing stock of the whites. Over the years, her voice and works have been rediscovered by scholars and feminists who have been claque of her literary legacy. I’m off to read more of her for sure.

  16. CB James:
    I’ve been listening to the audio during commute. It’s very well-done. Ruby Dee’s reading of the story is masterful: rich, lyric and beautiful, much like the story itself. While I deeply love the book, I also highly recommend the CD as well. It is a sublime reading.

  17. […] [185] Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston […]

  18. […] month of February has been devoted to reading literature by African American writers. Beloved, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Another Country, Sula, And This Too Shall Pass and Like Trees, Walking were read. On to the […]

  19. Matt.. I just finished this and am stunned by its beauty.

  20. i like penutbutter 🙂

  21. […] Giovanni’s Room by James Baldwin, Maurice by E.M. Forster, The Hours by Michael Cunningham, Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, Beloved by Toni Morrison, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoevsky, and The […]

  22. […] Peace – John Knowles (2292) SF GLBT Film Festival: Solos (1945) Mama Mia!: The Film (1801) [185] Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston (1426) [70] The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (1407) [95] The Stranger – […]

  23. […] better understood when you hear the flow of words. A perfect example is Nora Nearle Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Toni Morrison’s beautiful language that piles one perspective on another, usually between […]

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