Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Heale Hurston is one of those books. I knew of the book because of Oprah and even watched the TV movie but until The Classics Circuit never considered reading the book. I'm so glad I finally did.
Janie had a fairly happy childhood being raised by her grandmother. However, after Janie is caught kissing a boy, her grandmother marries her off to a farmer out of fear that Janie needs protecting. For Janie this is an unhappy situation. She is looking for true love and life on a farm hauling manure isn't the place to find it. Then one day Joe Sparks walks down the road and offers her a better life. Janie takes the opportunity.
She soon discovers that she's just traded one life of drudgery for another. Joe sets himself up as the mayor of the new town of Eatonville and as an important man, he expects certain behaviour from his wife. That is to say Joe wants meekness and gentility. Janie finds the pressure to bend to his will crushing and over the years she loses a part of her soul.
When Joe dies, Janie feels free and at first attempts to hide her feelings from the judgmental townspeople. Suddenly single men from everywhere turn up at her door telling her, "Uh woman by herself is uh pitiful thing." But as Janie points out to her friend Pheoby, they just want to marry her bank account. Janie enjoys her freedom until a younger man named Tea Cake shows her how to live. Janie no longer hides behind a facade of false grief which shocks the whole town. They are even more disapproving when she runs off with Tea Cake.
The book opens, with Janie walking back into town and through telling Pheoby the story of her life, we find out what happened to her and just what the relationship is between her and Tea Cake. The narration is an interesting combination of southern vernacular and some of the most lyrical prose I've ever read. Here is just the first paragraph:
Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever in the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.It's the kind of writing you can sink right down into. Hurston creates an atmosphere where you feel that Florida is the only place in the world, that nowhere else exists. You see the pear tree, hear the bees, experience the hurricane.
What I liked the most about the book was how Janie finally starts to please herself after 20 years of marriage to a bully. She doesn't let the ideals of the townspeople, who think they know what's best for her, dictate her life. They think they know Janie but all they know is the person Joe wanted them to see. That wasn't the real Janie. I thought it was funny how they blamed this new behaviour on Tea Cake, like she couldn't make any decisions for herself. Afterall she was 'just a woman'.
Even though times have changed, some things stay the same. When Janie hooks up with Tea Cake, the people of Eatonville are shocked. "She's 'way too old for a boy like Tea Cake." People still make a big deal about an older woman with a younger man. They call them Cougars like they are predators and make fun of them on TV and in movies. Meanwhile, old Hugh Hefner prances around with girls old enough to be his granddaughters and everyone treats him like a stud.
I'm actually glad to have just read Their Eyes Are Watching God at this point in my life. Since Janie and I are near the same age. I wonder what I would have thought of it 10 or more years ago. I can appreciate Janie's desire to please herself and not let other people's opinions matter to her. I'm starting to care less about what other people think, although it is hard to let go of those old habits.
While Their Eyes Were Watching God might have been dismissed when it was written, it is certainly is being appreciated now. This would make an excellent selection for The Woman Unbound challenge or a book club pick. There is so much to discuss in this book. There is also a Zora Neale Hurston website.
Thank you to the Classics Circuit for the opportunity to review this book. Please visit the Classics Circuit blog for more books on the Harlem Renaissance.