Their Eyes Were Watching God, first published in 1937, is a story of a southern black woman seeking love and self-fulfillment in 1930’s Florida. It’s considered to be a standout among African American literature due to its affirmation and celebration of the culture as well as the fact that it has a strong female protagonist, which was unique for its time.
For those of you that have been reading my blog for a while, you might remember that I periodically read what my daughters are reading for their high school literature classes. This has introduced me to gems like Kindred and A Thousand Splendid Suns and allows me to enjoy conversations with my daughters about the books. A couple of weeks ago, both girls asked me to read books with them – one was Their Eyes Were Watching God and the other was Mrs. Dalloway by Virginia Woolf. And so I got to experience the bizarre sensation of alternating between the two extremely different books. I wouldn’t recommend it. Both authors have such unique writing styles that it was a bit disorienting to switch back and forth.
Anyway, enough about me. Let’s talk about the book.
Their Eyes Were Watching God starts off with the protagonist, Janie, returning to her home after a prolonged absence. Her friend, Pheoby, seeks her out and Janie proceeds to tell her story. It starts with her childhood and covers all the major incidents in her life that represent a milestone or turning point for her. As her tale unfolds, we learn that Janie is a very complex character – sometimes strong and outspoken, but sometimes submissive; searching for true love but also valuing her periodic independence; wise but also foolhardy. And her story is a combination of happiness and heartbreak.
The narrative writing is wonderful, often poetic. Here’s how a newly flowering tree is described: “From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom. It stirred her tremendously. How? Why? It was like a flute song forgotten in another existence and remembered again. What? How? Why? This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. The rose of the world was breathing out smell.” This passage is also used as a metaphor for her sexual awakening, which triggered a significant event in her life.
Although the narrative prose is superb, the dialog takes a lot of getting used to and there is a lot of it. It’s written with a very strong dialect and it dominates the first part of the book. I did become accustomed to it eventually and the reading became much smoother when I did. So, if you decide to read Their Eyes, don’t give up on it.
Their Eyes Were Watching God and its author, Zora Neale Hurston, have an interesting history. According to the foreword, it was misunderstood by critics when it was first published, and some prominent black male authors panned it because they didn’t think it focused enough on the bitter struggles faced by African Americans at the time. A counterpoint is that it, instead, joyfully celebrates the culture, including a rich storytelling tradition and close community living. The book fell out of favor for many years and wasn’t even in print, but it was rediscovered in the 1970s and now figures prominently within black literature.
I really liked Their Eyes Were Watching God. The writing was terrific, the glimpse of this slice of black culture was fascinating, and the characters, though flawed, were powerful. I strongly recommend it!