I’m a latecomer to Zora Neale Hurston’s third novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Though it ranks among the great American novels of the 20th century, I knew nothing about it until I started this blog. The book was never mentioned when I was at school, nor did it appear on any of my university’s reading lists.
I thought initially this was because the academics who set the syllabi were rather conservative and gave us a diet almost exclusively of British authors and texts. But it transpires that the gap in my knowledge could be down to history.
An article from the National Endowment for the Arts tells me that, after an unfavourable reaction when it was published in 1937, the novel disappeared from view. It was rescued four decades later amid the growing black feminist movement and the introduction of Black Studies programs in several universities across America in the 1970s and 1980s.
The new-found interest in her work came too late for Zora Neale Hurston. She died in poverty in 1960 by which time most of her written work was out of print. We have another author — Alice Walker — to thank for bringing Hurston back into the spotlight. She discovered Hurston’s grave in the cemetery at Eatonville, Florida and arranged for a proper stone to mark the spot. Her subsequent article about the search for the grave revived interest in Hurston’s prose work.
That’s enough background. What about the book itself? Would I agree with Zadie Smith whose introduction to my Virago edition describes Their Eyes Were Watching God as “a rigorous, convincing and dazzling piece of prose, as emotionally satisfying as it is impressive.”
Search for Freedom
Hurston’s depiction of a young woman’s search for love and the freedom to be herself, certainly has impact.
Her main character is Janie Crawford, married off at sixteen to a much older man because her grandmother worries about the girl’s future. Nanny is Janie’s only living relative and she wants to ensure there will be someone to protect the girl when she’s no longer alive.
There’s no love involved in this relationship because her husband doesn’t think of her as a human being. He views her merely as an object, an extra pair of hands to help with the farm work.
It’s hardly surprising that Janie finds herself attracted to Joe Starks, (often called Jody), who occasionally passes by the farm and stops to talk. Swept along by his charm, she runs off with him and gets married.
This relationship holds the promise of greater happiness for Janie. Joe is a snappy dresser with money in his pocked and big ideas in his head. He buys his way into the all-black community of Eatonville, Florida, becoming a store-owner, landowner and eventually mayor of the town.
The more important he becomes, the more pressures he puts on his wife to live up to his standards and ideals, and the more control he exerts over her life. He forbids from the jokes and storytelling he enjoys with other townspeople on the steps outside his store — those conversations are not appropriate for a woman of her class, he tells her. The marriage eventually falls apart after years of verbal abuse and a physical beating.
Real happiness comes at last with Vergible Woods (nicknamed Tea Cake.) In the eyes of Eatonville, he’s not a suitable mate for Janie — he’s not only twenty years her junior, he’s a gambler who loves to party. But he is the first man who respects Janie, giving her space to speak her mind and be herself. Their bond defies societal norms and racial barriers, illustrating the transformative power of love that transcends external constraints.
Through these marriages, Hurston shows Janie’s journey to understanding the true essence of love and fulfilling her desire to be someone who can speak for herself.
Their Eyes Are Watching God is a multi-themed novel. Gender roles, spirituality, desire and independence all get an airing, but it’s Janie’s story that really holds our attention. Although the point of view shifts frequently from one character’s perspective to another, it is Janie’s version of her life — as she tells it to her best friend — that drives the action and plot.
Though Janie is a brilliantly realised character, what makes this novel remarkable is Hurston’s wordcraft. The prose ranges from the literary and poetic, rich in metaphor and simiie to dialogue that uses distinctive colloquial patterns and idioms of speech. Within two pages we can go from Janie’s highly individual and direct description of her early years:
Ah ain’ never seen mah papa. And Ah didn’t know ‘im if Ah did. Mah mama neither. She was gone from round dere long before Ah wuz big enough tuh know. Mah grandma raised me. Ma grandma and those white folks she worked wid.
to a lyrical passage reflecting the harmony and energy of nature that has erotic overtones.
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. 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!
The vernacular of Southern Black Americans gives the book a distinctive quality but does make it challenging to read. There are long passages of dialogue full of colloquial language, aphorisms and phonetic spellings. I had to have several runs at it in the early chapters until the rhythm clicked. Once I began to “hear” it I found it easier to understand and could appreciate the beauty of Hurston’s cadences and inflections.
Zadie Smith found a special resonance in this book when she first read it at the age. of 14 and discovered characters whose her hair, skin, eyes and forms of speech echoed her own. Even without those personal connections, I could still feel the power of this book. Now I know what I’ve been missing all these years.