"Where's dat blue satin dress she left here in? Where all dat money her husband took and died and left here? What dat ole forty year ole `oman doing wid her hair swingin' down her back lak some young gal?"
I know nothing of Zora Neale Hurston except that she wrote a great classic in Their Eyes Were Watching God sometime in the nineteen thirties.
The books makes its focal point around Janie Crawford, the envy of all other black sisters because of her light skin and her below the waist long hair. A strong and independent Afro-American woman, Janie knows what she wants out of life and leaves her town of Eatonville searching for it; finding herself at the altar on three occasions.
Forced more or less into the first marriage with Logan which did not last longer than a snowball in hell, Janie does her best to be a good wife, but at this stage she is still young and does not understand what is required of her in this unity which is on the verge of breaking down. As this happens, she quickly hooks up with the sweet talking Joe Starks, a man whom she looks up to and who will become the mayor of the small county where they live. Life with Joe Starks is different to the marriage with Logan as all the folks look up to Starks who is responsible, thoroughly arrogant, stubborn and forces his opinions and standards on Janie, like it or not.
But a reprieve comes in Janie Crawford's life after the death of the Mayor, which finds her grown into maturity and with a better comprehension of the world around her, and a better understanding of her desires and how she may acquire this love which has eluded her all these years. From her past experiences Janie reaches out for marriage the third time over with a man twelve years her junior, and this is when she will taste love at its sweetest for the first time, and be acquainted with pain, racial prejudice and great loss. For lovers of classical books, this book comes highly recommended!!!
When Janie walks back into town eighteen months after leaving with a man 12 years her junior, her former friends and neighbours gossip and snigger, assuming he has spent all her money and then left her for a younger woman. But Janie's story is more complicated, a tragedy but also an awakening, her journey one of self-discovery.
Janie is 16 when we first meet her in the care of her grandmother, a slave who became pregnant to her owner just before abolition. Janie's own birth was as a result of the rape of her mother by a teacher. The date isn't given, but a quick calculation suggests that the bulk of the book takes place in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. This matters, because one of my major criticisms of the book is that it seems to be set quite apart from historical context. There is no mention of WW1, no suggestion that any of the men fought or, indeed, had an opinion on the rights or wrongs of fighting for the USA. My (shallow) understanding is that this was a time of great change for African Americans, when they began to demand that a country that expected them to fight and die for it should also give them rights as equal citizens, develop a true democracy that embraced all people equally. But Janie's world indicates none of this, and I found myself therefore not being able to entirely accept it as a realistic picture of the time.
Instead, Janie's contemporaries are shown as lazy, passive and unambitious on the whole, their aspirations beaten out of them by a world still run by and for the white elite. That I could accept more, though it seems in conflict with the idea of the development of the all-black town of Eatonville in which much of the story is placed. And Eatonville itself doesn't ring wholly true – when Janie and her new husband arrive there, it is no more than a plot of land with a few shacks, but within a few years it seems to be a thriving success story, without any indication of where that success comes from. And again, there is no discussion of politics or the wider world – Eatonville seems to exist in happy isolation, and the people Janie meets there and on her travels live carefree lives, based around drinking, gambling and sex – a happy-go-lucky existence, with no thought for the future. The position of women is one of almost total subservience to their men – a style of life where sexism and domestic violence is accepted by all. I was surprised at how negative a picture a black author was creating of the black community at a time when the political struggle for equality was building to a crescendo.
The reason I bring up these criticisms first is that, after I finished the book, I read the forewords and afterword in my copy, written by Edwidge Danticat, Mary Helen Washington and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and was rather stunned to discover that my criticisms echoed those of the male black writing community of the time, whose dismissal of the book was based pretty much on it not conforming to the political agenda of the black movement. The subsequent feminist critiques of the '70s and later, it seems to me, dismiss these criticisms too easily, perhaps because they think that to accept them would weaken their own argument that the book is a seminal text in the finding of the black female voice in literature. I beg to disagree - with both parties: the lack of a political context is a weakness but not one that prevents the book from making an important contribution; and the fact that it gives women in black culture a voice does not negate the fact that it would have been a greater book had it addressed, or at least acknowledged, the contemporary political situation.
Where the book excels is in its portrayal of Janie's character – her finding of her own way despite the male dominance of the society she lives in. As a person of mixed racial ancestry, Janie's light skin tone and unusual hair are used to great effect to show how indoctrinated the black psyche had become to accept the desirability of 'white' physical traits; showing within their community the same kind of prejudices heaped on them from outside it. Having been married off young to a much older man, Janie rebels and runs off with the good-looking and ambitious Joe to Eatonville, only to discover that Joe too believes that a woman is at her best in the kitchen and bedroom. We know from the beginning of the book that there is a third man in Janie's story – the younger Tea Cake, for whom she has left her comfortable home in Eatonville and gone off to work the fields in the Florida Everglades. It is in the few months that she spends with Tea Cake that Janie finally discovers what it is to love and be loved equally.
Although the structure of the book is that Janie is telling her story in retrospect to her friend Pheoby, this is a third person narrative for the most part, slipping into first occasionally as we are made directly privy to Janie's thoughts. All of the speech is in dialect, which Hurston handles brilliantly, and although the non-dialogue parts are in a more standard form of English, she maintains speech patterns, tone and vocabulary throughout. The dialect is not so broad that it makes the book hard to read – it's sustained so beautifully that it almost recedes into the background after the reader gets tuned into it. While I have criticised the portrayal of the society as negative, it's also done with great skill, making it completely believable within the internal context of the book. The writing is lyrical at times, especially the section in the Florida Everglades where the land and weather come to play a huge part in the story. The book has its share of tragedy and horror, but Hurston offers compassion to her characters at all times, and she draws them subtly, so that there are few of them who can't earn our empathy.
I am aware that this review has taken on gargantuan proportions, but that's a sign of the effect the book and the debate surrounding it had on me. I could write at length about my disappointment that fundamentally Janie's search for herself seems too much to be a search for a man who will love her right. I could mention my anger at the way Hurston seems tacitly to endorse wife-beating so long as it's done with love(!). I could wonder about the lack, not just of children, but of any mention of them. But instead, I'll say that, despite my quite severe criticisms of it, I loved the book for the language and the compelling story-telling, and for making me think, and it's one that I'm sure would deliver even more on a re-read. 4½ stars for me, so rounded up.
on 30 October 1998
I teach "Their Eyes" to high school juniors and seniors every semester. Usually, we read it aloud in class to get the full effect of the dialect. What fun! They really get into the story. They argue about whether Janie was a spoiled brat (because she wouldn't help Logan) and wonder why she didn't get rabies from Tea Cake (because he bit her as he died). But mostly they just love the whole love story. On a recent essay, one student wrote, "Janie always kept her door wide open. What she didn't like in her life, she let blow right through. And what she liked, she kept." You gotta love that kind of response as a teacher. It's a wonderful, thought provoking book.
on 15 May 2007
This book is one of the few that left me with a 'wow' feeling after I finished it. It is hard to describe just how amazing this book is, so I suggest that you read it to find out!
The racism is shocking at times, yet it invites us into the 'porch culture' that is so commonly associated with Black America. The protagonist is Jane, the product of rape by a white school teacher. Her mother runs away, leaving her in the care of her grandmother, who tries to shield her from the strong racism (Janie doesn't even realise she is black until she is 6!) and, wanting the best for her, arranges a marriage when Janie is just 16. Janie struggles but eventually takes her to a man worthy of her love. It is a beautiful tale, full of sadness, yet these downtrodden characters show admirable determination to survive and make the best of life. It is well worth reading, and easy to see how this book provided inspiration for authors such as Toni Morrison!
on 22 February 2006
Their Eyes Were Watching God was one of the best books that I've ever read. The book answered a lot of questions about life. We are faced with several conflicts in humanity with choices having to be made between Love, Good, Evil, Hope or reality, and Truth. It is a story about Janie, a young black woman, who tries to find herself through her grandmother's footsteps and eventually confronts herself to become the person she knows is of her own good. Taken along the memory lane in a small southern black town, "Their Eyes were Watching God" is a beautiful portrayal of the conflicts confronting Janie, not only about herself but also about how her society perceives her. Through an amazing creativity in characters, plot development, excellent narrative, lessons and dialogues and an easy ride through time, Zora successful made the reader to understand and appreciate black culture. This absolutely credible story is a highly recommended book to anyone with a taste for classic stories.Also recommended: USURPER AND OTHER STORIES,TRIPLE AGENT DOUBLE CROSS, THE GREAT GATSBY, UNCLE TOM'S CABIN
on 13 January 2004
Janie Starck is a woman with dreams - big dreams, romantic dreams. But her grandmother knows those dreams will only get her into trouble, for "De nigger woman id de mule ah de world".
Married at sixteen, Janie soon finds that wedded bliss is just as lonely and confining as her former life, and the world is to hold more mystery - and more men - before she decides that husbands are just things to "drop dreams over". When she finally meets the man of her dreams, the man who will truly liberate her, he tellingly offers her not diamonds but a packet of flowering seeds.
First published in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston's masterpeice is a rhythmic and beautiful tale of an unconventional woman's quest for self-fulfilment.
on 11 April 2006
I hadn't even heard of Zora Neal Hurston until a few weeks ago, till I was given the book as a gift, and then watched the movie (starring Halle Berry and produced by Oprah Winfrey). This is a book for every woman who has ever felt there has to be more. Much more. The story is about Janie, a free sprit if ever there was one, her spirit almost becomes a central character and carries her forth and helps her break free from the shackles of unworthy men. Essentially, a love story, but Janie's free spirit and love of life is the real story. Alice Walker describes this as "There is no book more important to me than this one" I agree, I feel it, I love it, I recommend it, read it, watch it, whatever, get it!