Book: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Genre: Fiction (Classic #3)
This was my March Classic for the year. I had heard great things about Miss Hurston’s work, and I remember many years ago when Oprah produced a television version of the novel with, I believe, Halle Berry in the lead role, so I decided to read this one during Women’s History Month. I admired the main character, Janie, as well as Miss Hurston’s work, but not without a few reservations.
Janie Crawford has come back to a former community after she left it rather abruptly and scandalously. All the women talk about her, but Janie ignores them with the exception of her friend Pheoby. The two women gather together and Janie tells her, not just what happened since she left, but the story of her life.
Janie, a mixed-race girl raised by her grandmother in West Florida, was forced by that grandmother, Nanny, into a marriage with a man she did not love. Nanny and her daughter both became pregnant due to rape and Nanny wants to ensure that the beautiful and somewhat exotic Janie does not end up with a man who wants her only for her body. Janie marries the much older and respectable Logan to please Nanny, but the marriage quickly turns sour as Logan treats Janie as a possession rather than a wife. Janie meets Joe Starks, a man with money and a plan destined to ensure success. He and Janie leave West Florida and settle in the all-black community of Eatonville. Joe builds a store, invests heavily in the community, and soon becomes Mayor, post-master, and leading citizen. Janie has exalted status as his wife, but Joe never sees her as more than an extension of himself, never considers that she has any intelligence, ambition, or abilities of her own. After many years together, the two become estranged and Joe eventually dies due to an illness that he refused to acknowledge. Soon after Janie marries the younger Vergible Woods, known as Tea Cake, much to the astonishment of the town. Tea Cake and Janie leave and head for the Everglades where they work the fields. They are happy together until a hurricane hits. While trying to save Janie struggling in the rushing water, Tea Cake is bit by a rabid dog. The disease soon affects his mind, and in his delirium he attacks Janie. She kills him in self-defense, is quickly acquitted of his murder and returns to Eatonville.
As I mentioned before, I found much to admire in Janie. She is born with ever so many strikes against her. She is illegitimate, she is the product of a rape, she is mixed-raced (so she is not quite accepted by either), and she lives in the South in the 1910s-20s. She is a woman in a male-dominated society. Her circumstances force her to live her life how other people decide she should. Yet in the end, she triumphs in finally finding her independence and her voice.
Interestingly, what I like most about Janie is that she presents as ordinary. So many characters today (in films, television, and contemporary books) are super-people. They are the best at their jobs, they are beautiful, they are disarmingly clever, etc., ad nauseum. Janie does not fit in this mold. She is different, perhaps, from the other women around her because she questions her circumstances instead of mutely accepting them. However, she is not a revolutionary. She does not actively fight to change her life as a super-person might. All three of her husbands are guilty of treating her as a possession (the first two more than Tea Cake), and while she eventually voices her own opinion about this state of things she is not defiant. She bides her time, takes the few opportunities that come her way, and evolves into a confident, responsible, independent person. I am not saying that I admire female characters who submissively take the evil their men dish out, I am saying that you don’t have to look like a superhero to be one. Think tortoise, not hare.
So what didn’t I like? I didn’t like the physical violence toward Janie. It was difficult to keep it in context. It and its aftermath were realistic for the time and place, but that doesn’t mean I have to like it. Tea Cake’s abuse of her in particular was tough to swallow. Here she was finally in a marriage with a man she loved and who truly seemed to love her, but he hits her. And the reason? Not because she sassed him, or cheated on him, or failed to please him in any way (not, of course, that these are acceptable reasons) but because other men noticed her. He didn’t hit her to make her less attractive to these men, but to assure his possession of her. I had liked Tea Cake before, but in proving himself just like the others, my admiration of him certainly dimmed. Again, I realize that Miss Hurston was being true to the times and the experience of black women in that place, but it was hard to take.
The other thing that hindered my enjoyment was the dialect. Again, I have no doubt that this was accurate to time and place, but it made for difficult reading. I don’t mean this as a negative comment on Miss Hurston’s choice to write in dialect or the dialect itself, just on my ability (or lack thereof!) to comprehend it. Perhaps if I had seen the movie it would have been easier to understand, but I’m much more of a book person rather than a movie person. Perhaps it’s like The Commitments. After seeing that movie multiple times I was able to understand the thick Irish brogue. Perhaps I need to reread this book to get a better handle on the dialect.
If I do reread this book, it would be no chore. As a character-driven reader, I certainly found one to admire in Janie Mae Crawford Killicks Starks Woods.