Sunday, August 22, 2021

Their Eyes Were Watching God: Zora Neale Hurston

Published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford, a  black woman who has finally found the love of her life in her third marriage. Janie returns to the town she lived in, 18 months after leaving with a much younger man. He does not return with her and the townsfolk gossip about her, with only her best friend Pheoby defending her. She tells Pheoby her story, including the background of her youth and her two earlier marriages. 

Her grandmother, who had raised Janie, forced her to marry an older man when she was 16. Logan Killicks owned 60 acres and would provide for Janie. But Janie was not happy with Logan. So when she meets Joe Stark, who talks nicely to her and has plenty of money, they go off together and get married on the way to a new town comprised only of African-Americans that Joe wants to help establish. Life in Eatonville with Joe promises to be better but in the end she remains under Joe's thumb at all times. She is not allowed to express her own feelings without being put down by Joe. However she settles down and accepts the status quo, although not happily. When Janie is in her late thirties and Joe in his late forties, he dies of an unnamed ailment.

After Joe's death, Vegible Woods, also known as Tea Cake, comes into her life. He is 15 years younger than Janie and a free spirit. The citizens of Eatonville are shocked that she is going out with Tea Cake, and predict that it won't work out. Nevertheless, Janie and Tea Cake go off together to Jacksonville, Florida, where they get married. Then they move to the Everglades and for the first time she has a real companion in life. Unfortunately their happiness together is cut short.

My thoughts:

This was an amazing depiction of the life of one black woman in the South in the early 1900s. The story is told partially in the vernacular of the area. I thought this might bother me, but it felt natural and easy to read. It also has many lyrical passages. These are the first two paragraphs of the book:

Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men. 

Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.

This book is sad in part, but the ending is upbeat. You know that Janie is not beaten by life, she is in her forties with plenty of years left, and she will forge on and do what she wants to with her life. 

The setting is Florida, and I especially enjoyed the depiction of life in the Everglades. Having grown up in Alabama, I visited Florida several times before I moved to California, but mostly limited to Pensacola and Panama City. There is a lot of Florida I am not familiar with.

The town that Janie and her second husband move to is based on a real town. Eatonville, Florida, is the oldest black-incorporated municipality in the United States, established in 1887. Zora Neale Hurston grew up in Eatonville, which allowed her to have a childhood free of the prejudices and restrictions of other towns in the state. In the book, Eatonville is not an idyllic town at all. It doesn't turn out to be a haven for Janie.

Some people have called this a romance, and there is that element, but I see it as more about the journey of one woman's life in a hard world, and a quest for love and true companionship. There is much more to this story than I can include here, and I think it is a worthwhile read. However, for some readers it just won't be their cup of tea. 

The edition I read has a Foreward by Edwidge Danticat, and Afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a Selected Bibliography, and a Chronology of Hurston's life.


Publisher:  Amistad, 2006 (orig. publ. 1937)
Length:      193 pages
Format:     Trade paperback
Setting:     Florida, USA
Genre:      Fiction, Classic
Source:     I purchased my copy


pattinase (abbott) said...

Truly a great book and I had several others (Mules and Men at least) and must have donated them on a move to cut down my books. You are so right about the accent (which my book group worried about) it was very effective and lovely.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Tracy, great review. I loved this book. Very few novels bring up such strong emotions in me but this one did. I live in FL, not too far from the Everglades and I was kind of devastated that Janie and Tea Cake didn't get their happy ending. Janie is a strong woman but I don't know that she will ever get over Tea Cake but she does have her friend Phoebe and with Tea Cake she got to experience the love she had been searching for since she was a teenager.

Margot Kinberg said...

This is a powerful read, Tracy. For me, it's no wonder that it's on the list of classic books everyone ought to read. There's something about a first-hand account (whether it's real or fictional) of a time and place, in my opinion. It makes everything more authentic, if that makes sense. Add to that a really strong protagonist, and it makes for a memorable read.

TracyK said...

Patti, I am glad I read this book and sorry I did not try it before. The edition I read also had brief summaries of some of her other writing, and I will look for some of those too.

TracyK said...

Kathy, I think I would have liked it even more had I ever lived in Florida. I have zero experience with the Everglades, I am going to have to read more books set there. Janie is a great character and she represents a lots of struggles that we all go through. And on top of it all, I learned much more about Hurston's interesting life.

TracyK said...

Margot, you have pointed out another aspect of this classic that I did not emphasize in my review. This story is more meaningful because it was written in 1937 about events in Janie's life that happened leading up to that time, so the reader is truly getting a picture of that time and place.

Lark said...

I really need to read this classic!

Sam Sattler said...

I read this one a few years ago and remember being completely caught up in the life of its main character. I don't always enjoy Hurston's stories, mainly because I do find it difficult sometimes to read the vernacular she uses, but this one is truly outstanding...and I don't consider it a "romance novel" either.

TracyK said...

I agree, Lark, I think this is one you would like.

TracyK said...

Sam, this story pulled me in, although it got much better after she had some good things going on in her life. But the story was told so well I was caught up in it.

I have read nothing else by Hurston and I plan to try something else eventually. It is so hard to read everything I want to read.

Elza Reads said...

Lovely review! This book is still on my TBR and waiting to be read.

<a href="'>Elza Reads</a>

Debbie Rodgers said...

I read this book in the spring and wondered WHY it had been on my shelf for so many years, and not in my 'read-again-someday' pile. I think it might be the best book I've read this year.

I guess there's a reason Hurston is a classic. ;-)

TracyK said...

Debbie, this has been on my "want to read" list for years but I only recently bought a copy. The "extras" in that edition were helpful to me. Knowing more about Hurston's life and her inspiration for the story made me appreciate it even more. I am often intimidated by reading classics but then when I read them they are almost always enjoyable and have lots to offer.

TracyK said...

Thanks, Elza, I am sure you will enjoy this book when you read it.

And thanks for leaving a link to your Top Ten Tuesday list for this week. On your list of books you wish you could read again for the first time, you have A Town Like Alice. I have a copy of that and need to read that soon.

col2910 said...

Despite the overwhelming positivity expressed here towards the book, I'm sure it's one I can readily avoid. No one book appeals to everyone.

TracyK said...

I was actually surprised at the number of positive response here, Col. Although I knew this book was written with the dialog in the dialect of the area, I was surprised at the style of the writing for that period of time. Anyway, probably not one you would enjoy.