Thanks to Bonnie for sending me this book for the Cannonball holiday book exchange! Their Eyes Were Watching God is a love story and an odyssey. It is a feminist story about a woman named Janie who struggles to live the life that she desires, to fulfill her own dreams instead of being trapped in others’ dreams. In telling this story Zora Neale Hurston employed a language new to African American literature — the vernacular, the genuine language of African American communities, particularly of women. While she experienced some success in her lifetime with her literary and anthropological works, by the time of her death in 1960, she had been more or less forgotten and had been living in poverty. Thanks to Alice Walker, the genius of Hurston was rediscovered in the 1970s, and her works have inspired countless writers since. The forward to this edition was written by Haitian writer Edwidge Danticat, who beautifully expresses how Hurston’s work, especially this novel, influenced her and her formation as a writer.
A number of themes run throughout the novel, including the formidable power of nature as creative and destructive force, and the power of dreams which will not be denied. The novel opens with the return of Janie Crawford to Eatonville, Florida. It’s sundown, and the locals are on their porches as this striking long-haired woman in overalls makes her reappearance walking silently and regally through the center of town. Hurston tells us that their tongues start wagging immediately although not to Janie’s face. Only her old friend Phoeby reaches out to her with food and sympathy. It’s to Phoeby that Janie reveals her entire story, not just what has happened to her in the two years since she left Eatonville, but her life story, which includes her dreams as well as those dreams that others had for her.
Janie’s dream has to do with love, with a genuine and natural communion of male and female, and is inspired by her observation of nature. Hurston describes it in a particularly beautiful passage near the beginning of the novel:
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!
Janie is still young, but she sees the world in its wide expanse before her, with great possibility for love and fulfillment. Her grandmother Nanny, however, has different dreams for Janie. Janie was the first member in her family to be born free. Nanny had been a slave and gave birth to Janie’s mother Leafy just before the end of the Civil War. Leafy’s father had been Nanny’s master, and the mistress nearly killed Nanny for the crime of being raped by her husband. Nanny escaped with Leafy and found a “good white family” to work for in Florida, a family where the Madam treated both Nanny and Leafy, and later Janie, like family. Janie was born after 17-year-old Leafy was raped by her teacher. Janie, never knowing either parent, was raised by Nanny, whose primary goal is Janie’s safety and security. She tells Janie that her own dreams have been thwarted.
Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high, but there wasn’t no pulpit for me…. Ah been waitin’ a long time, Janie, but nothin’ Ah been through ain’t too much if you just take a stand on high ground like Ah dreamed.
Janie later explains to Phoeby that her grandmother’s dream was to have Janie sitting idle on a porch living like a white woman would, not having to toil as she had. Thus Nanny arranged the girl’s marriage to a respectable and prosperous farmer whom Janie did not love.
It’s not long before Janie runs away from her husband to take up with Joe Stark, a man with big dreams and a forceful personality. While Joe has the vision that might help Janie expand her horizons, and he is very successful in his many ventures, he treats Janie as a sort of trophy wife. He wants her on a pedestal, separate from and above the other members of their new community in Eatonville, Florida. While Joe turns this black community into a real town with a store (Joe’s), post office, street lamps and a mayor (Joe himself), he also stifles Janie’s personality to the point where she recognizes that a part of her is dying, that she has to hide who she really is and that Joe doesn’t really care to know the real Janie. He forces her to hide her long hair (too enticing to men) and discourages her interaction with the community, which creates the image that she is somehow superior to them. Janie tells Phoeby that she felt as if she were “a rut in the road.” After Joe’s death, Janie, who is only 40, finds herself with some wealth as well has her good looks. A number of men try to win her over, but Janie is now in a position of independence and will not sacrifice her dream any longer. When a younger man named Tea Cake enters her store, she senses that this might be the love she has been waiting for. Eatonville is scandalized both by her lack of mourning for Joe and for her involvement with Tea Cake, but as Janie tells Phoeby, mourning shouldn’t outlast grief, and Joe’s treatment of her limited her grief for his death. Moreover, Janie sees that Tea Cake is not after her for her money. He treats her as a treasure but also as an equal, as someone who can work alongside him and whom he wants to be with all the time. Tea Cake is the fulfillment of Janie’s dream, which Hurston again expresses with the gorgeous language of nature:
He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom — a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.
Janie and Tea Cake leave Eatonville for a community in the Everglades where they can work the bean fields together and Tea Cake works on his guitar playing and gambling. They are happy together and deeply love one another, but we know from the first page of this novel that when Janie returns to Eatonville, she is alone and Tea Cake dead. The reason for his death has to do with the forces of nature and of love, forces that can be both creative and destructive. His death is a tragedy, yet Janie maintains her connection, her communion, with Tea Cake, her love, her dream. She is not broken or defeated. Janie is resilient and at peace.
Hurston’s novel deals with questions of race as well, although in ways that I found unexpected. Certainly white racism is a given through slavery and segregation, but Hurston also shows class division and racism within the black community. Still, these issues are not dominant in the novel. From what I’ve read (Henry Louis Gates Jr.’s afterword is excellent), Hurston’s placement of race issues in the background instead of the forefront of her novels is one reason for her fall from the limelight over time. Hurston seems to have been unapologetic about this. According to Gates, she said that she wanted to write a “black novel and ‘not a treatise on sociology,'” a novel about a community that is complete, and not about its relationship to whites. Despite her detractors, Hurston has continued to influence writers to write about that community and about women’s voices there. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a timeless novel and has earned its place in the canon. Having read it after The Color Purple and some of Toni Morrison’s novels, her influence on contemporary authors is all the more apparent.