Classics Project Book #2 - Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
What brought me to Their Eyes Were Watching God were two amazingly intelligent and talented women who shared a devotion to the life and work of Zora Neale Hurston. In an interview with Dr. Brown on African American Legends , they discuss how they came to write the middle-grade novel about Hurston’s childhood. Something interesting they talk about in the interview is Zora’s history with Eatonville, Florida. Eatonville was a primarily black town, inhabited and governed by African-Americans. That’s virtually unheard of during the early 20th Century. Hurston grew up in a community of equals and according to one of the authors interviewed “coming from that context in which there was black autonomy, [Hurston] never had this sense of black inferiority... inside of herself she carried that kingdom.” I thought this was really interesting. Also, the authors enthusiasm for Zora Neale Hurston was infectious and I knew I just had to try one of Hurston’s books.
I guess it's been quite a long time since I have done serious analysis of literature and when I came to Their Eyes Were Watching God I was a bit rusty. What threw me off perhaps was the dialect in the dialogue spoken by the different characters. It took some getting used to. I'm never one to turn down a linguistic challenge so for the first few chapters I read the dialogue out loud until I became used to it. However, it did slow down my reading overall and this book took a lot longer than I would have liked. The beautiful poetic language at the beginning of each chapter was something I longed more for as I continued to read. Perhaps there is another Hurston novel, not so heavy on the dialogue with more of the poetic prose that I could read?
What I enjoyed about the novel was the intimacy with the characters. We are right in Southern Florida, traveling alongside the main character Janie as she moves from husband to husband and town to town. I felt like I was right there with the characters, fully immersed in their world.
However, I lost any sense of theme and I never got the bigger picture. I appreciate the afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. at the end of the Harper Perennial edition. He states at one point that Janie was an object with her first two husbands and only found her own personal identity and became a subject when she married her third husband Tea Cake. I guess I could see this if I really compare all three husbands. Tea Cake adores Janie in a way that her other two husbands didn't. I am not sure what the feminist or anti-feminist message is here. Janie was held back from knowing her true self because of her relationships with men? Or Janie needed a man in order to become her true self?
Personally, I could relate to the book because of my own romantic relationship with my soon-to-be Husband. Like Janie, I discovered that relationships are never what we want them to be and they are a lot harder to maintain than we expect. Janie enters her last relationship at an advanced age and with some good life experience under her belt. This allows her to be more clear-minded when making the decision to be with Tea Cake. I met my fiance when I was in my late '20s and by that point I had already lived on my own, had finished my education (including post-graduate) and already had an established career. I was in a much better position to make a big life decision at this point than I would have been several years earlier.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is not a new favorite but it hasn't put me off reading another work by Zora Neale Hurston in the future.