I have just finished the classic Their Eyes Were Watching God by the incredibly beautiful Zora Neale Hurston. Published in 1937 it is set in central and southern Florida in the early twentieth century. The novel has no real inherent structure but rather relies heavily on analepsis for the recounting of a story, Janie’s story, as she tells it to her friend Pheobe. In fact it is just one extended flashback. Janie Crawford is a beautiful, intelligent, robust and loving woman who is in her forties and who has made a return to the town she lived in with her second husband. Upon her return she is immediately made the subject of rumours and innuendo as to her leaving the town after her husband’s death with the younger Tea Cake, the man who although nearly twenty years her junior is the love of her life and the one who reveals to Janie her own beauty and strength.
Janie’s life follows three major periods with each of these periods corresponding to the men in her life. The initial years of Janie’s life were extemely difficult. Her Grandmother, a slave, gave birth to Leafy, Janie’s mother, after a sexual relationship with the white slave owner whom she worked for. Leafy is then raped as a teenager by her school teacher and falls pregnant with Janie. Despite her best attempts, Leafy succumbs to her demons and eventually abandons her mother and daughter. Granny likewise does her best to raise Janie and in the end marries her off at 16 to Logan Hicks, a much older man who is looking for a wife. Janie has the vision, after watching some bees pollinating a pear tree, that marriage must be the human equivalent of this process, replete with love and passion. However she soon realises that Logan wishes her to be more a labourer than a lover and eventually she runs off with Jody Starks, an ambitious and driven man who takes her to Eatonville. In Eatonville Starks instates himself as the powerbroker of the town and to complete his statesman-like image he demands that Janie play her part of the dutiful wife, more an adornment to him than an independent free-thinking woman. However Starks passes away and leaves her financially independent and the interest of many suitors. To the surprise of all she meets and falls in love with Vergible Woods, a drifter and a gambler who goes by the inspired name of Tea Cake. Janie and Tea Cake leave Eatonville for the Everglades where they work picking and planting beans. Their marriage is like any other with its ups and downs but in Tea Cake Janie finds the love and warmth she has always looked for. But of course these kind of stories never have happy endings. This is black America in the early twentieth century. It isn’t Hollywood. The Everglades is struck by ferocious storms and during an attempt to save Janie from a rabid dog, Tea Cake is bitten on the face and within a short period becomes desperately ill and even more desperately deranged. During a crazed fit of insanity Tea Cake tries to shoot Janie and in self-defence Janie shoots him dead with a rifle. It is an horrific end to their story but also one which seems inevitable. Janie is charged with murder and goes to trial but is acquitted by an all-white and predominantly female jury. She returns to Eatonville and the waiting gossipy mouths.
Now I understand it is not good etiquette to reveal the final passage of a book before giving others the chance to read it but the final lines of this book are some of the most beautifully crafted I have ever read.
Then Tea Cake came prancing around her where she was and the song of the sigh flew out of the window and lit in the top of the pine trees. Tea Cake, with the sun for a shawl. Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.
Likewise the opening passage is incredible but I will let you find that for yourself. I don’t want to be too insensitive.
Although all that I have just written about this book may make it come off as something a little wishy washy or sentimental, it is in fact a marvellously beautiful book, tender and heartbreaking. Hurston is so skilled in drawing us into Janie’s thoughts and character and it would be near impossible not to emotionally invest yourself in her. What is at first a trial is the way in which the book is written. Words are written phonetically in the manner of speaking that was common to this community at this time. For example the following passage gives you an idea of what I mean:
‘Mist’ Starks, de pig feets is all gone!’ he called out.
‘Aw naw dey ain’t, Lum. Ah bought uh whole new kag of ’em wid dat last order from Jacksonville. It come in yistiddy.’
Joe came and helped Lum look but he couldn’t find the new keg either, so he went to the nail over his desk that he used for a file to search for the order.
‘Janie, where’s dat last bill uh ladin’?’
‘It’s right dere on de nail, ain’t it?’
‘Naw it ain’t neither. You ain’t put it where Ah told yuh tuh. If you’d git yo’ mind out de streets and keep it on yo’ business maybe you could git somethin’ straight sometimes.’
Initially it took me time to get used to this style as it takes longer to read and at times you have to pause to decipher what is being said. However it doesn’t take long for it to become natural and you realise that so much is gained from Hurston’s use of the language. The voice of the narrator becomes so loud and heavy in your mind as you read and it only serves to draw you closer to the characters and the narrative. It is an incredible choice on behalf of Hurston. Yet despite what I think, the book was heavily criticised for the use of African and Caribbean dialects. Richard Wright called Their Eyes Were Watching God a “minstrel-show turn that makes the white folks laugh” and said it showed “no desire whatever to move in the direction of serious fiction.” Other critics and peers of Hurston were angered by the way the book explores racism amongst black people in terms of lightness or darkness of skin colour. Others still were angered by the division between men and women protrayed in the book. Personally, I think this criticism has more to do with the period in which people were initially reading the book, accepted social norms and the politics that were inherent with the artists of the Harlem Renaissance. In today’s world this kind of criticism wouldn’t hold up and indeed Their Eyes Were Watching God is on numerous reading lists in schools and universities and was included in TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
I was initially compelled to read this book via an interview I had read with Zadie Smith who cited it as one of the most important books for her personally. Indeed she named a character Zora in her brilliant novel On Beauty, an obvious homage to Hurston. Many other writers, most of them women, also name Hurston as a big influence. Reading Their Eyes Were Watching God makes you understand why. However I also believe it was the woman herself. By all accounts she must have been a formidable presence. If you would like to read more about her I recommend starting at her official homepage http://www.zoranealehurston.com/ and then going from there.