publication date: 1937
Their Eyes Were Watching God starts with a woman walking through a town. She’s familiar to the town, but unexpected. It’s Janie, the main character, who left the town with a man years earlier and now returns alone and unexplained. Janie simply walks right past the town square and returns to her former, empty house. Janie’s friend Pheoby, who has the strength of the whole town’s curiosity behind her, approaches Janie’s house to find out the story. Janie is happy to oblige and Zora Neale Hurston starts her story off like this: “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone.”
And Hurston proceeds to beautifully chronicle Janie’s life. Janie’s life isn’t extraordinary, but it is described by Hurston with feeling and intensity. Janie was raised by her grandmother, a slave on a plantation before the Civil War. When Janie was young, she had an epiphany and felt herself capable of great love. However, after she married, she felt unfulfilled and unloved. As explained by Hurston, “Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.”
Throughout the book, Hurston peppers her prose with wonderfully written passages that at first seem eccentric but upon closer examination are completely perfect. Here’s a fun one: when Hurston is describing one of the sexiest women in town, she explains that the woman has “negro hair, but it’s got a kind of white flavor. Like the piece of string out of a ham. It’s not ham at all, but it’s been around ham and got the flavor.” Explaining how something is similar but not the same by comparing it to ham string was utterly surprising, yet effective.
Hurston also captures the striving of Janie in several passages. For example, in a passage where Janie is considering leaving the husband she doesn’t love, Janie cautions herself that, although she doesn’t love him, he does provide for her and maybe that is enough. Hurston responds that Janie “didn’t read books so she didn’t know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop. Man attempting to climb to painless heights from his dung hill.” Another example of Hurston’s wonderfully-crafted passages describing the human endeavor:
When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each on over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine.
There was one aspect of Hurston’s writing I found problematic: the dialect. All Hurston’s dialogue is written in heavy dialect. Here is an example of a random bit of dialogue from the book: “Ah don’t blame yuh but it wasn’t lak you think.” Dialect is my second greatest literary pet peeve, behind foreshadowing. Dialect is cumbersome, alienating, and sometimes offensive. But even with all that in mind, let me tell you something: by the end of the book, I enjoyed the dialect! Hurston’s use of dialect was the most effective example I have ever encountered. Maybe it’s because it was so consistent. Or maybe it’s because Hurston was not ashamed of it. I don’t know what it was, but it worked.
Overall, Their Eyes Were Watching God was a stirring and important book about one woman’s effort to live a full life. But Janie’s striving was not unique; it was universal. Because Hurston captured that, she was able to craft a remarkable book.
4/6: worth reading
Some other reviews of Their Eyes Were Watching God: