Their eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston. Originally published in 1937.
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.