Book Review: Their Eyes were Watching God

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“It’s uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh GO there tuh KNOW there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” (183)

Written in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is a well known novel in African-American and feminist literature. I’ve had it and tried to read it a few times now; this time I can say I’ve accomplished it! This novel was originally well received but fell out of favor due to Hurston’s falling out with the Harlem Renaisance / Uplift political agenda. It was rediscovered beginning in the 1970s as part of new Black Studies and Women’s Studies college programs.

This book took me some effort to get into, primarily because it is written heavily in southern Black dialect. I had to concentrate to figure out what the characters were saying, since this isn’t familiar to me in aural or written form. Once I got the pattern, though, I can attest it was completely worth the effort.

Overall, this book is about Janie finding her voice. As a teen, her blooming womanhood is stifled by a rushed and unwanted marriage deemed necessary by her grandmother. A few years later she abandons that marriage with the hope of love, as Jodie stirs her heart and leads her down the road. But quickly he settles in to life as mayor of Eatonville and Janie is appreciated for her role, not her self. She’s set up on a pedestal and isolated from the community. Eventually (after 20 years) she finds her tongue and tells Jodie what-for, which dooms the end of their relationship as well as his life, as he succumbs to ill health.

Janie is left with money and freedom for the first time in her life. Although she goes through the motions of grief for the sake of the community, her mind is pondering what might come next. This is when Tea Cake comes into the picture. Honestly, he’s not good for much – a poor, dark man from farther south who is twelve years younger. But for the first time in her life, Janie feels SEEN. She marries him and they move about some, first to Jacksonville then to the Everglade swamps. Janie continues to explore who she is vs who she’s been expected to be, eventually joining Tea Cake in the bean fields and fire dances.

“He kin take most any lil thing and make summertime out of it when times is dull. Then we lives offa dat happiness he made till some mo’ happiness come ‘long.” (135)

The ending chapters of this book feel very rushed. Lots of things happen with little narration or dialogue. A hurricane sweeps through the area, flooding the lake and forcing a rapid flight towards Palm Beach. Tea Cake gets bitten by a dog. After the storm, he’s conscripted into labor burying the dead but flees from it and they head back to “the muck,” where Tea Cake becomes ill from the dog bite (rabies?). Little is said about his death, Janie’s trial, and her journey back to Eatonville, where apparently her house remains. Nothing is said about what comes next in Janie’s life. We leave her in her bedroom, gathering the horizon about her as she sits with the memories of Tea Cake. What we do know from the introduction is that she walks tall in her own strength, despite the chattering of neighbors. Janie has found her voice and will use it as she chooses.

This is my fifth book for the 2017 Back to the Classics Challenge, 20th Century Classic. You can find the link up here.

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