Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) by Zora Neale Hurston is a relatively short classic that I read because it was on my Fifty Books Every Woman Should Read Before She Turns 40 List. The introduction stated that the book is a classic because of its unique contribution to black literature: “it affirms black cultural traditions while revising them to empower black women.” I honestly wasn’t sure what to expect, and was afraid it was one of those classics that feels dated or is difficult to read and understand. Instead, I was somewhat surprised to find a fast-paced story, beautiful language and dialogue, and intensely relatable experiences as a woman growing up and finding herself through a number of relationships.
Zora Neale Hurston’s books were not, overall, received well when they were published, and they were all out of print for many years. Hurston did not conform to the expectations of the Harlem Renaissance, and it seemed that people did not know what to do with her writing. However, in the 1970’s, her books made a comeback, and now Their Eyes Were Watching God is a staple of black literature.
I find it both interesting and annoying when classic books begin with introductions that dissect the entire story before I even get to read it. I’m of two minds about it. Should I read the introduction so I can be aware and appreciate those aspects of the book that others have talked about for years? Or should I read this book without someone telling me all the major plot points and what they signify? I did read the introduction, and it did not ruin the novel for me. So, in the spirit of spoiling classic novels, I plan on digging right into the entire plot in this review.
The story begins with Janie Crawford, a woman almost forty years old, coming back to Eatonville, Florida–walking in overalls. The neighbors out on their porches judge her with jealous derision. She’d left a couple years before in a beautiful blue dress with a younger man, and they see her coming home in shame. But Janie sits down with one of her best friends, Pheoby Watson, and tells her the whole story of what’s happened to her. This story is most of her life and makes up the rest of the novel.
Janie’s story begins when she is a teenager, being raised by her grandmother. Her grandmother is a survivor of slavery, and the violence and lack of security that went with it. Her aspirations are for Janie to have a husband to take care of her before the grandmother dies. So she marries Janie off to Logan Killicks, a much older man whom Janie has no interest in. “Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon–for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you–and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her.” (77) Janie was hopeful that she could love her husband, but she felt nothing for him. “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.” (29)
Outside her home one day, Janie runs into Jody (Joe) Starks. He is energetic, a smooth talker, and the two have a lot of chemistry. She runs away from her husband with Joe, and the two move to Eatonville, Florida, where they are married. Joe has ambitions and he quickly becomes a major player in town. Unfortunately for Janie, Joe is more interested in her as a trophy wife than a woman with ideas and aspirations of her own. “He strode along invested with his new dignity, thought and planned out loud, unconscious of her thoughts.” (44) He expects her to work in the store, but not participate in any community social events. He becomes controlling and belittling. He thinks that being a part of his success should be more than enough for her. “Ah told you in de very first beginnin’ dat Ah aimed tuh be uh big voice. You oughta be glad, ’cause dat makes uh big woman outa you.” (46)
Janie stays with Joe for a long time and loses a part of herself in the process. “Then one day she sat and watched the shadow of herself going about tending store and prostating itself before Jody, while all the time she herself sat under a shady tree with the wind blowing through her hair and her clothes.” (69) After almost twenty years, Joe dies, and Janie is left alone, a relatively wealthy woman with the rest of Joe’s estate.
At this point, many men are interested in the wealthy and beautiful Janie, but she ends up falling for a drifter named Vergible Woods, who goes by Tea Cake. He is a gambler, and many years younger than her. By the town’s standards, he is unsuitable in every way, but Janie loves him. “He drifted off into sleep and Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.” (106) She leaves Eatonville with Tea Cake and they go to the Everglades to plant and farm. It is hard work, and their relationship has its problems, but Janie is finally happy.
Unfortunately, Janie only lives this bliss for about two years when a hurricane strikes Florida. In the ensuing struggle to survive, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog while he’s saving Janie from drowning. As rabies takes control of his body, Tea Cake goes crazy and almost kills Janie with his pistol. She shoots him with the shotgun to save herself. Although she is charged with murder and Tea Cake’s friends are against her, she is acquitted. She is in deep grief from the loss of Tea Cake, and she goes back to Eatonville, to tell her story to Pheoby.
There is so much going on with this book: the characters, the plot, the writing, feminism, and how it was received. I could see an entire college semester course not running out of things to talk about. I will limit my discussion to one aspect that I find disturbing and can’t quite wrap my head around. This is a feminist book because it’s from the woman’s perspective and Janie is a feminist character because she makes some decisions for herself, eschewing society’s expectations. I do see that, but it also bothered me that Janie’s entire life is formed through the three men she is with. Janie did not become her best self until she met Tea Cake. Of course, she does choose to save herself in the end, which is significant.
However, the other part that really bothered me was when Tea Cake beat Janie. The introductions and essays discussed this as problematic and had explanations, but I don’t buy them. Tea Cake beats Janie because another man is after her and he wants to show her as a possession of his. We never hear Janie’s perspective of the beating, just the narrator the next day saying how everyone in the fields are so impressed by Janie’s submissiveness and how well the bruises show up on her light skin. I can’t tell if Hurston approves or accepts this from Tea Cake, but we certainly do not get the clear denunciation from Janie that we see when her other partners mistreat her.
This book was more captivating, moving, and thought provoking than I was expecting. I would definitely recommend it.
“She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen.” (65)
You can find all of my reviews on my blog.