Written in 1937, Their Eyes were Watching God was one of the first African-American feminist novels to achieve widespread prominence in the U.S. Obviously, African-American novels had been written by women before this, but not widely published and, in fact, this one was written 13 years after she had published her first short story (although this was only her second novel).
This is a good read. It’s a bit of a challenge at first as it’s mostly written in a strong dialect from the South, but when you get used to this (and it doesn’t take long), this is a great read. The novel’s protagonist, Janie Crawford, is a young African-American woman who struggles to find her place in a pretty unfriendly world with regard to her ethnicity and gender. However, as the story progresses, Janie grows and learns and this ends up being a bildungsroman by the end.
Janie is a strong character who leaves her strict grandmother’s shack to start a not-very-enthusiastic marriage with a much older man who her grandmother wanted her to wed. Janie is struck with the notion of love being a very natural and romantic thing, of blossoms and beautiful moments, so when the marriage is not like that dream after a while, it’s a shock. She ends up running away with a very ambitious traveling salesman and then when that hits the skids, she elopes with a happy-go-lose guy. As her heart wanders, so does Janie with her husbands and this ends up a powerful story of growth written at a time when society did not support it (and in fact worked against it) for many people.
Not only is this a good story, but it’s brilliantly written and unlike my rather staid diet of mid-century British novels and Victorian old guys. This is lyrical and was very influenced by the African-American and Southern folklore that Neale Hurston has studied during her academic years. She was very familiar with the stories and songs and such lore is a frequent reference throughout the novel.
Janie weathers her life through awful marriages, through poverty, through misogyny, and it all really erupts when a hurricane careens through her small community on the Florida coast. The apocalyptic weather reflects her own life’s turmoil and as the hurricane passes, so does the life of Janie reach a new balance in many ways…
The hurricane description is really one of the best parts for me – Neale Hurston nails the descriptions and the feeling of powerlessness for people impacted by severe weather events – Janie’s community is small and somewhat temporary; its population consists of mostly transient field workers and it’s quite a close community for the short time that they are all together. Neal Hurston describes the hurricane as an all-powerful being in many ways – of an omnipotent god who takes no mercy and shows no fear. In a way, it may represent the feeling of impotence that African-American people may have felt living their lives in the US at that time – no vote, no representation, little self-determinative power etc… However you interpret it, it’s a powerful description and metaphor of a catastrophic storm.
“They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God…”
Horizons play an important and ongoing role throughout this narrative . For Janie, the horizon seems to be a far-off unreachable place until she meets Tea Cake. Her first marriage did not work out; her second marriage to the traveling salesman meant that they both ran off to meet their own new horizon, and the third (with Tea Cake) was described as them reaching their horizon.
At the end of the novel, Janie “pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it 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…”
Zora Neale Hurston had an interesting life as well, and it’s clear that some of this story’s plot is autobiographical at points. She attended Howard University for a few years around 1917 or so and gets an Associate’s degree – this at a time when very few women were even allowed in higher ed., and even fewer African-American women. She graduated in the end from Barnard (where she had been the sole black student and one of the oldest ones at the same time) and published fiction pretty widely as part of the Harlem Renaissance group. She led a life of academic research and fiction-writing, going through several marriages, and then ends up working as a maid in Florida, having a stroke and getting care at an indigent hospital and then being buried in an unmarked grave. She was a forgotten author until the 1970’s when Alice Walker and others brought her writing to the fore. It’s quite a fascinating story in and of itself.
So – good read. Not the easiest read in the world, but good all the same and thoroughly worth the effort.
ETA 06/29/2017: Even though this read is now a few years back, it’s one that I continue to think about and actually love more and more as time goes by. It’s worth sticking with…
For more reading by Zora Neale Hurston, try Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo” (written in 1931, but published only recently). Fascinating.