Monday, February 13, 2012

Their Eyes Were Watching God - 75th Anniversary

Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston, New York: Harper & Row. 1937

This year is the 75th anniversary of Zora Neale Hurston’s classic novel Their Eyes Were Watching God. When it was first published in 1937, it won both critical praise and criticism within the black community for its perceived stereotypical portrayals of black southern life. Over the years it fell out of favor until it was rescued from oblivion by Alice Walker in the 1970s. Since then it has ranked high on the canon in English Lit, African American, and Women’s Studies.

Hurston’s novel has gone on to inspire many writers, including myself. I first heard of Their Eyes Were Watching God after reading Alice Walker’s essay “Finding Zora,” in her book of essays In Search of Our Mother’s Gardens, and made it high on a list of books I wanted to read. When I finally read it I was swept away by Hurston’s rich language and languorous imagery of the 1930s South. Janie Crawford is a young, beautiful woman who battles both racism and sexism to find love and happiness. Unlike most heroines in romance novels, Janie doesn’t wait for things to happen to her, but reaches out and grabs at life, for both good and bad. As Janie herself understands early on, she “saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.” After her grandmother marries a teenage Janie off to farmer Logan Killicks so that she can spare her granddaughter the hard life she believes is the fate of all black women, Janie languishes on the farm, dreaming that something better soon will come along to whisk her away. That “something better” arrives in the form of Joe “Jody” Starks, who indeed whisks Janie off the farm and delivers her to Eatonville, Florida, where he becomes both the town’s mayor and its successful businessman. Yet Joe’s early promise of liberation turns into another form of enslavement for Janie. In Jody’s store she is put up on a pedestal, prized more for her light skin than her mind and heart. Janie suffers for years under Jody’s abuse until he finally passes away, allowing Janie to free herself physically and emotionally from his chains.

Janie’s third and final chance at love comes in the form of the much younger Tea Cake Woods, a man who arrives in Eatonville with his guitar and harmonica and quickly sweeps the widow off her feet. In Tea Cake, Janie finally finds the love and freedom she has longed for since childhood. Unlike Logan and Jody, Tea Cake is Janie’s soulmate, as much comfortable in nature and song as Janie. In fact, Tea Cake woos Janie by taking her out on picnics and “making flower beds in Janie’s yard and seeding the garden for her.” Nature unites them as lovers:

[Janie] couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. 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 follows Tea Cake to the Everglades where they work side-by-side in the bean fields. While Janie is working as she did when she was living on Killicks farm, she does so because she chooses to. Janie’s choice to be with Tea Cake, to go with him to the Everglades, are all her choices, even when those decisions rub against the resistance of the Eatonville community. Janie is neither a pretty doll to be put up on a pedestal nor a mule, but a woman who is slowly coming into own. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel about one black woman’s struggle toward self-realization.

One of the strengths in this novel is its metaphoric language. “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” so begins the novel. “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.” This is the life Janie is born into, but it is the life she escapes from with Tea Cake. She is not content to be the “Watcher” bearing witnesses to the fulfillment of others. Trees, bees, and blossoms are also repetitive motifs which represent the flowering of Janie’s physical, emotional, and sexual maturation. The novel’s other greatest strength however is in its dialect. I usually detest dialect in novels. They’re rarely done well and often call attention to themselves in the worst way. Yet Hurston had a sharp ear for the musicality of black vernacular:

“It takes money tuh feed pretty women. Dey gits uh lavish uh talk.”

“Not lak mine. Dey loves to hear me talk because dey can’t understand it. Mah co-talkin’ is too deep. Too much co to it.”


“You ain’t never seen me when Ah’m out pleasurin’ and givin’ pleasure.”


“It’s uh good thing he married her befo’ she seen me. Ah kin be some trouble when Ah take uh notion.”


“Ah’m uh bitch’s baby round lady people.”

Hurston, who grew up in Eatonville, Florida with a father, like Jody Starks, who was also its mayor, used to sit on the porch of her home, listening to the men talk and trade jokes. Her ability to draw from their stories and distinctive way of speech resonates strongly in her work. Their Eyes Were Watching God is effecting precisely because she was a sharp observer of human behavior (Hurston also studied under anthropologist Franz Boas and spent several years in the field collecting folk tales and legends before she became a writer).

Their Eyes Were Watching God is not without flaws. There is one curious scene where Tea Cake, Janie’s soul mate, physically hits her to keep her from running off with Mrs. Taylor’s son. Mrs. Taylor, a woman in the camp, latches onto Janie for her light skin and nearly Caucasian features. She dislikes Tea Cake and thinks her son would be a more appropriate husband for Janie. While Tea Cake acknowledges he has no reason to believe that she would leave him for Taylor’s son, Tea Cake, mostly out of insecurity, conjures up this plan to keep her dependent on him. While there might be many arguments for why Hurston included this episode, much of which could center on the prevalence of colorism (blacks judging each other based on skin tone) within the black community, it’s still a bit shocking considering that Tea Cake was otherwise very tender toward Janie and treated her as his equal.

Nonetheless, Janie’s journey toward self-actualization grows deeper when both she and Tea Cake brave the hurricane and floods which ravage the Everglades. After Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog, he goes mad. After Janie is forced to make the ultimate sacrifice to save herself, she is put on trial. Janie’s character is held in judgment as the black community of the Everglades blame her for killing Tea Cake.

[Colored people] were all against her, she could see. So many were there against her that a light slap from each one of them would have beat her to death. She felt them pelting her with dirty thoughts. They were there with their tongues cocked and loaded, the only real weapon left to weak folks. The only killing tool they are allowed to use in the presence of white folks.
Hurston rarely deals with racism in Their Eyes Were Watching God, focusing instead on her beloved Eatonville and the Everglades communities which existed wholly without the white gaze. Hurston’s refusal to tell stories that reduced life to sociological study earned her the derision of writers like Richard Wright, who felt it was his responsibility as a writer to shine a light on the social condition of black people. However, Hurston’s work nonetheless strikes a nerve for the way it presents black folks as complex human beings, as burdened by problems of love, friendship, community, and gender as it was by race. On the surface, Janie’s pursuit of love might seem frivolous next to works such as Wright’s Pulitzer prizewinning Native Son, but it is in fact every bit as important for its insistence that the sexual liberation of black women is a revolutionary statement. Her voice, along with Hurston's, is a powerful one and certainly worth reading again 75 years later.

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