This classic novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, was set in Eatonville, Florida in the ’30s. It chronicles African-American Janie Crawford’s quest for love, freedom and her voice. On her journey, she overcomes dependence, gender issues, and tragedies at the hand of three husbands. Janie is feisty, full of opinions and deeply desires the love of a man, which she equates with being independent.
Janie was raised by her slave-born grandmother, who wanted a prosperous life for her only grandchild, whom she loved more than she loved her own daughter. Grandma too believes that a man is Janie’s answer, but not just any man. It must be a man with means to a prosperous-filled life.
Her grandmother arranges for her to marry Logan Killicks. Janie has clear guidelines on the responsibilities of men and women in marriage: The man’s role is outside working the land, while the woman’s job is in the home. Logan, on the other hand, has very different ideas. He believes the woman’s role is to serve her husband in any task and whenever he requests.
As time passes, Janie claims she is repulsed by Logan, who acts as if he is her Master and she the slave. She is certain her dream of romance and love is not happening with Logan; she divorces him.
Soon after Janie leaps into the arms of charming, ambitious Joe Stalks. Quickly she becomes Mrs. Stalks, the wife of the mayor, owner of the town’s only general store, and the most successful and respected African-American man in Eatonville.
Unfortunately, Stalks the charmer quickly transforms into a controlling overbearing tyrant, denying Janie her independence. He demands that Janie covers her head and be submissive to him at all times. At a town event, Stalks has just given a speech, and someone from the audience requested Janie to speak. Without a flinch, Stalks unveils his true feelings: “She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.”’ Consequently, her love fades and she closes herself up like the petals on a flower, until his demise.
Janie meets Tea Cake, an attractive, seductive young man (about 12 years her junior. Tea Cake worked odd jobs and had an addiction to gambling. Though Tea Cake sparked her interest, she was a bit hesitant because of her past marriages and his status. One day on the porch with the townspeople, Tea Cake invited her to play checkers. When she told him she didn’t know how to play he offered to teach her. Janie, totally surprised, dashed to the table: “Somebody wanted her to play. Somebody thought it natural for her to play. That was even nice. She looked him over and got little thrills from every one of his good points.” Tea Cake taught her how to fish and how to shoot a gun and she began to express her opinions and make decisions. She felt worthy, independent and valued as a woman.
The title, Their Eyes Were Watching God, explains the book totally by metaphorically describing the way people tend to look to others for answers. Janie’s journey shows that when she listens to her grandmother about marrying her first husband and when she turns to her second husband to help her reach the horizon, she isn’t being true to herself. Janie explains, “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh themselves . . . They got tuh go tuh God and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.” Consequently, after 24 years, three husbands and life’s tragedies, Janie finds her voice in the patriotic society, and she gives all the credit to Tea Cake.
Zora Neale Hurston was an acclaimed author folklorist, activist, and anthropologist during the time of the Harlem Renaissance. Of Hurston’s four novels and more than 50 published articles, short stories, plays, and essays, she is best known for Their Eyes Were Watching God. In 1937 she won a Guggenheim fellowship. Hurston attended Barnard College and Howard University.
I highly recommend reading this book., It is written in rhythm, which is no surprise since Hurston was a folklorist. The author’s style is deceptively simple, and the book is predominantly written in dialogue. Hurston narrates her story in a vernacular speech, and she successfully uses southern dialect to capture the uniqueness of the vale of tears in which her characters reside. She allows her characters to use humor and storytelling to showcase their individuality. Hurston strongly depicts the language and culture; in the deep south. it almost feels as if one has been there.