Sunday, May 10, 2015


Their Eyes Were Watching God, published in 1937, is Zora Neale Hurston's masterpiece.  The novel is about the life of Janie Crawford and her search for love and meaning in her life.

I can't do any better than the synopsis from the Cliffs Notes:  

"This novel is the story of Janie Crawford's search for love, told . . . in the form of a frame.  In the first few pages, Janie returns to her hometown of Eatonville, Florida, after nearly two years absence.  Her neighbors are curious to know where she has been and what has happened to her.  They wonder why she is returning in dirty overalls when she left in bridal satin.

Janie tells her story to her friend Pheoby Watson, and after the story is over, the novelist returns to Janie's back steps.  Thus, the story, which actually spans nearly 40 years of Janie's life, is "framed" by an evening visit between two friends.

The story that Janie tells is about love - how Janie sought love in four relationships.  First, she looked for love from the grandmother who raised her.  Next, she sought love from Logan Killicks, her first husband, a stodgy old potato farmer, who Nanny believed offered Janie security.  Her third relationship involved Joe Starks. Their union lasted nearly 20 years and brought her economic security and an enviable position as the mayor's wife.  Janie endured this marriage in the shadow of charismatic, ambitious Joe, a man who knew how to handle people, money, and power, but who had no perception of Janie's simple wish to be respected and loved.

Janie's final relationship was with migrant worker Tea Cake, who gave Janie the love she had always desired.  With Tea Cake, Janie was able to experience true love and happiness for the first time in her life.  As a widow, Janie would sell Joe's crossroads store, close up her comfortable home, and leave with her new husband to share his life as a bean picker in the muck of the Everglades.  Tea Cake introduced Janie to a new life in the Everglades.  There she met new people, Tea Cake's fun loving friends, and experienced another community.  Her life with Tea Cake was far different than her life with Joe.  This marriage and Janie's happiness lasted about 18 months - until a powerful hurricane devastated the land, and Tea Cake became a victim of it.

A few weeks after Tea Cake's death, Janie returns to Eatonville because she cannot bear to remain in the Everglades, where she is surrounded by memories of her beloved Tea Cake.  She returns to her hometown, with her quest for sincere love having finally been fulfilled by Tea Cake.  After an evening of retelling her past to her friend Pheoby, the story of Janie's life is complete."

Zora Neale Hurston

Just a few observations:

(1)  Janie is looking for spiritual fulfillment through the love of a man and no amount of material wealth can ever satisfy this longing.  When Pheoby comes to Janie in Chapter 12 and tries to talk her out of marrying Tea Cake the following conversation takes place:

"How come you sellin' out de store?"

"Cause Tea Cake ain't no Jody Starks, and if he tried tuh be, it would be uh complete flommuck.  But de minute Ah marries 'im everybody is gointuh be makin' comparisons.  So us is goin' off somewhere and start all over in Tea Cake's way.  Dis ain't no business proposition, and no race after property and titles.  Dis is uh love game.  Ah done lived Grandma's way, and now Ah means to live mine."

"What do you mean by dat, Janie?"

"She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is blak folks, didn't sit down anytime dey felt lak it.  So sittin' on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her.  Dat's whut she wanted for me - don't keer whut it cost.  Git up on uh high chair and sit dere.  She didn't have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin'.  De object wuz tuh git dere.  So Ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere.  Ah felt like de world wuz cryin' extry and Ah ain't rad de common news yet."

Janie has found material wealth and high position in the community to be spiritually empty and meaningless without love.  She is happier with the gambler and drifter Tea Cake than she ever was with the wealthy Jody Starks.  

(2)  Richard Wright and other black intellectuals criticized Hurston for perpetuating black stereotypes and writing her novel in "Negro dialect."  This criticism was patently unfair.  In a review published in 1937 Wright wrote:  

Richard Wright

"Miss Hurston can write, but her prose is cloaked in that facile sensuality that has dogged Negro expression since the days of Phillis Wheatley.  Her dialogue manages to catch the psychological movements of the Negro folk-mind in their pure simplicity, but that's as far as it goes.

Miss Hurston vountarily continues in her novel the tradition which was forced upon the Negro in the theatre, that is, the minstrel technique that makes the "white folks" laugh.  Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally in that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live; between laughter and tears. . . . The sensory sweep of her novel carries no theme, no message, no thought.  In the main, her novel is not addressed to the Negro, but to a white audience whose chauvinistic tastes she knows how to satisfy.  She exploits that phase of Negro life which is "quaint," the phrase which evokes a piteous smile on the lips of the "superior" race."

Wright's criticism was misguided.  He misses the fact that, like Faulkner's Yoknapatawpha County, Hurston's Florida is only a backdrop to explore universal themes.  Their Eyes Were Watching God is also a feminist novel, dealing with a strong, independent woman who will not accept what society says should satisfy her.  

In defense of Hurston's use of dialect, a trained anthropologist, she was trying to capture the actual flavor of the people's speech.  In the few places where white characters appear, they don't talk any better than the black characters.  

I suspect that Wright may also have been offended that, in a few places in the novel, Hurston explores racist attitudes among blacks.  The restaurant owner Mrs. Turner likes looks down on dark skinned blacks but likes Janie because of her light complexion and straight hair and thinks that Tea Cake isn't a fit husband for her because he's "too black."  

(3)  As a lawyer, I was fascinated by how Janie was able to use the racism of the white community to her advantage in her trial for killing Tea Cake.  Bit by a rabid dog, Tea Cake becomes crazed and attacks Janie who is forced to shoot him in self defense.  The black community is outraged over Tea Cake's death and wants Janie convicted of murder.  The whites, who don't really care about a black woman shooting a black man, are very willing to accept Janie's plea of self defense and the jury of twelve white men very quickly return a verdict of "not guilty."

(4) The end of Janie's story may really be the end of her life.  After she shoots him, Janie is bitten by Tea Cake.  The book ends with the reader not knowing whether or not Janie has been infected with rabies.  If she has been infected, left untreated, Janie will suffer the same agonizing illness as Tea Cake and die in pain and madness.  She may well have returned to Eatonville to tell her story and end her life.  We will never know.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is, truly, a masterpiece and a great work of literature.

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