Their Eyes Were Watching God

their-eyes-were-watching-god-zora-neale-hurston-book-cover-artTheir eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. Originally published in 1937.

The novel,  (thought to be a roman à clef),  opens with its heroine Janie Woods, nearing age 40, returning to her hometown of  Eatonville, FL.

Zora Neale Hurston was nothing was if not adept at packing a lot of insight into few words. Before we are treated to a review of Janie’s life and travails as recounted by Janie to her best friend Phoeby, Hurston drops this bit in as the very second paragraph of the book:

Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.*

This does not fully prepare for what follows, because what follows is the very thing that made Hurston’s book largely dismissed by her fellow writers in the Harlem Renaissance movement: a headstrong, free spirited female protagonist and what they viewed as too much emphasis on the less dignified aspects of Negro life.

The book only gained modern acclaim and redemption because of the black feminist writers who made huge waves during the 1980’s: Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, Gayl Jones et. al.

Janie’s return to Eatonville, alone, was quite the event and the gossip mill wasted no time churning up speculation about the nature of her reemergence. From the fact that this “ole woman” of 40 came walking through town with her waist length hair let down “lak she a young girl”, to the fact that she was wearing “overhauls” rather than a dress and everything in between, curiosity was high.

Her life was turbulent from birth. She never knew her mother or father. She was raised by her grandmother whose only desire was for Janie to be secure; not be used as “any man’s, white or black, spit cup”. The source of this worry was that Janie had more than a scant bit of cream in her coffee and she drew the attention of men. Café au lait skin and hair that flowed long, atypical for a black woman, made her stand out.

To see her granddaughter suitably cared for before her fast approaching demise, her grandmother arranges for 15-year-old Janie  to marry a widowed older farmer, who  owned 60 acres of land. Janie had envisioned marriage as a place where love blooms and grows to fruition, and although she has grave doubts about whether this union can provide such an experience, she obeys with fervent hope that it might do just that. She is bitterly disappointed:

The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off. She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.**

It was also clear to her husband that Janie would never want him as he wanted her, so his treatment of her grew cold. When a smooth talking, well dressed man name Joe Starks comes to town, he notices Janie and strikes up a friendship with her. He’d heard tell of a new town in in another part of the state started by Negroes and run by Negroes, and that’s where he was headed. He planned to be a big man in this new town and he needed a woman like Janie by his side. When he got ready to head off to the new town Janie, then 17,  left her husband Logan behind to start anew with Joe. She “marries” him as they ride out of town.

Turns out there was a town for us, by us (it’s still there, trust me), but it needed direction. Joe wasted no time and before long he had parlayed the $300 dollars he had in his pocket when he arrived into a mini-empire. He built a general store, got a post office installed, bought land and sold lots to Negro families that he met traveling around the state advertising the new town. He was soon elected mayor. Janie was his trophy wife, mostly seen and not heard.

When the tension between Joe’s expectations and her desires reached a breaking point, in an argument he revealed his belief that:

“Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chicken and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves!”

When Janie objects and asserts that women have thoughts worth something too, it gets even worse:

Aw, naw they don’t. They jus think they’s thinkin’.

It was the beginning of a shift for the rest of their 17-year marriage life until Joe took sick and died in his early 50’s:

Times and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn’t do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it.

So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again. So she put something in there to represent the spirit like a Virgin Mary image in a church. The bed was no longer a daisy-field for her and Joe to play in. It was a  place she went and laid down when she was sleepy and tired.

As a widow, she learned to avoid the few suitors who had the means and status. She was enjoying her freedom she said, until she shocked everyone by getting involved with a man 12 years younger who called himself “Tea Cake” Woods.

A man of no means or reputation, he had milk chocolate skin, a charming smile and a swagger that won Janie’s heart. He was unimpressed by her status as the widow of  Joe Starks. She was just a woman, and he was a man. That was that, and it was what she’d longed for. She sold the store, took a train out of Eatonville, married Tea Cake, and went from ladylike porch sitting to wearing overalls and working the muck fields of the Florida Everglades.

For Janie, this is when her life really began, as if she spent her older years when she was a child and her older years (it feels strange that at this time 36 was considered “old”) living the excitement of youth. She loved Tea Cake desperately, and he loved her. Jealousies, his gambling, even his physical abuse does nothing to dampen it until his life tragically and prematurely ends.

At 17, I read this book and had a highly romanticized view of Janie, her plight, and her choices. This time was different. I still had moments of great sympathy for her early plight, but they are balanced with a more mature view of her choices. I have a more black and white view of life and marriage and duty.

It was interesting that the black feminists writers of the 70’s and 80’s chose this book of all Hurston’s work as the crown jewel, given Janie’s desperate desire to be loved by a man and her acceptance, embracing even, of Tea Cake’s abuse.

All said, it’s a wonderful book. Full of rich history and language, touching all the themes that were front and center of the black experience at the turn of the century. However, with the exception of a few moments in defense of the dignity of woman, Hurston refrains from being preachy or dogmatic. She leaves things out there for the reader to discern and she clearly loved who she was, loved her people, and loved where she came from.

B+

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15 thoughts on “Their Eyes Were Watching God

  1. This is a long review, but I actually cut it by about 300 words because I’d taken so many notes and had so many pages marked in it that I had more stuff than any person besides me would have been bored witless. Couple of thoughts:

    ~ I couldn’t help but see the images of my GMIL as a young woman when I read physical descriptions of Janie. It was so much like the pictures I’ve seen of her over the years.

    ~ When I was young, I was unmoved by seeing the names of places I’d lived, played, and even went to school as a child. Now it was different. The weight of the historical significance of that place is clearer to me me now than it was then.

    ~ And for the record, the streets are clean and well kept, landscaped. There are very few run down areas (there are one or two). While the politics is rife full of the infighting and budget woes typical of American politics, that little town is nothing like what you envision when you envision the black inner city. The people there take pride in and are serious about maintaining the dignity of what it represents.

    ~Folks take pains not to curse and act up when they pass my daddy’s house.

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  2. Comparing women to cattle, chicken, and children; how very ancient Greek of him. Personally, I don’t get how women can even think of submitting without having Christ to protect them. It’s like laying yourself open to be slaughtered. Logically, it makes sense to grow hard and protect yourself when someone is not on your side. Sounds like she learned how to survive with what she was given. These books are romanticized because it probably assumes she finds happiness in sexual freedom, that’s the feminist myth.

    This is obviously a very personal book for you, I don’t understand what you mean when you say “Folks take pains not to curse and act up when they pass my daddy’s house.”

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  3. The author occasionally paints Janie’s (2nd) husband in a fairly sympathetic light. He was very protective of her. And possessive. He saw how men looked at her and as he got older was scared that if she realized for a split second the realities of the difference in their ages she might leave. He loved her but because he was afraid of making himself vulnerable to her, he covered it with sternness and bluster.

    Hurston wants the reader to get the impression that had he just opened up and let her in, she would have been able to open up and let him in, and theirs could have been a very different marriage.

    That last bit was a note about the air of respect that an old man can command if he’s honored, even in a time and place when most people would assume it would be the exact opposite.

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  4. You’re right that one of the reasons for the adoration this book has gotten from feminists is because Hurston was very earthy in her approach to relationships, and made clear that female sexuality was something to be embraced rather than suppressed. I suppose even her romanticizing of the number one feminist taboo isn’t enough to override that.

    The truth is that Janie’s response to Tea Cake’s slapping her around was probably not too far off from many women’s initial response to it. It’s only after years of it that they get a clue and realize it isn’t evidence of his great passion for her. Janie and Tea Cake were only married 2 years before Hurston kills him off though and wraps the book.

    Yes, this book was very personal to me. I tried to read from a detached place and found it nigh impossible to do so. Too many of my own younger memories were wrapped up in the names of the lakes and and neighboring towns, the old spiritual she inserted that they sang in my church as a kid.

    Even with all that though, I still am able to see Janie as not necessarily a heroine, but a typical woman whose good looks put her in a position to be independent at a time when women were not because she was able to marry an influential man. Religion was peripheral in this book. No sooner than her husband the mayor died, Janie stopped going to church.

    Hurston (like the most of the Harlem Renaissance writers) was not particularly religious. Hurston paid homage to the role of the church and the faith in black life, but wasn’t a true believer. The idea of submission (with Christ or without) was not one she could conform to

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  5. I will likely never read this book but your review was very descriptive and it moved me to wonder why the title is: “their eyes were watching God.” Do you have a guess?

    (I did check out the one book exhaustive jane austen collection from my local library because that was the first review I read on this site.)

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  6. A key moment near the end of the story is when Janie and Tea Cake are living and working in the Everglades and what I believe was the great Okeechobee hurricane of 1928 hits. It’s this storm in which Tea Cake is injured leading to his fatal sickness and death.

    As the storm gets more and more fierce, Hurston describes the state of the group who stayed behind to wait out the storm this way: ‘Their eyes were watching God”, or His handiwork as expressed in the hurricane.

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  7. Having spent the first twelve years of my life in Florida, I can really relate to the historical aspect of this book, but what I really love about this book is at the end of the day, nothing else really matters–only love. Love your in-depth review!

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  8. Thanks for the reblog, Lynette! Love really is what we’ve been put here to do. To sound cliche: Love God, and love people whom He created in His image.

    Thanks again for the bump!

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