I don’t know how this book isn’t on the 100 Best Novels list, but I’m assuming that it’s on someone’s 100 Best Books list, so I’m going with it.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston was published in 1937 and is lauded for being an outstanding work of African-American feminist literature both by and about a woman. Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, which was one of the first all-black towns in the United States, and her father became the mayor. Throughout her life, Hurston remained influenced by her life in the South, even after moving to the North and becoming associated with the Harlem Renaissance — Hurston traveled through the South, collecting stories and serving as a cultural anthropologist. With Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston actually was criticized for her portrayal of African-Americans living their lives in happiness and without any struggles that were plaguing the rest of her Harlem Renaiisance contemporaries. Richard Wright reviewed the book by saying, “Miss Hurston voluntarily 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.”
Their Eyes Were Watching God gets a lot of flak for Hurston’s portrayal of her characters satisfied with their lives, yes, but also for the use of vernacular dialect, which is so strong that it takes a lot of concentration to follow what the characters are saying.
“Please God, please suh, don’t let him love nobody else but me. Maybe Ah’m is uh fool, Lawd, lak dey say, but Lawd, Ah been so lonesome, and Ah been waitin’, Jesus. Ah done waited uh long time.”
This isn’t very good poolside reading, which is unfortunate as that’s where I read a majority of this book (hey there, summer vacation!). My book club had chosen this book for June and I had procrastinated so poolside it was!
The book begins with Janie Crawford walking home and being observed (and gossiped about) by the neighbor women sitting on a porch. Her best friend, Pheoby Watson, sees her and goes to her house to find out where she’s been and where her younger husband is, as she’s arrived alone. Janie decides to tell her so that she can relay the tale to the other gossiping women. She begins with her childhood, which seems a strange place to start when the question was “where have you been for the past two years?”
Janie was raised by her grandmother, called Nanny, who is a former slave, after her own mother runs off and leaves her. Nanny was raped by her white master and thrown out by his wife after she gives birth to Janie’s mother, and then Janie’s mother is raped by her teacher, so Nanny doesn’t have the most trust in men. When Janie is sixteen, she is overwhelmed by her developing sexuality (which she compares to a blooming pear tree) and kisses a neighbor boy, much to Nanny’s chagrin when she discovers them. Nanny decides that she wants better for Janie, whether Janie wants it or not, and marries her off to Logan Killicks, an older farmer. Janie wishes to marry for love, as she was inspired by the bees pollinating the pear tree, but Nanny isn’t trying to wait around to see Janie be used and abused by a man — she wants what she could never have, security and happiness, and seeks an established man who can take care of Janie.
Nanny dies shortly after the marriage, which is lucky, as Janie finds herself stuck in a loveless marriage, as Logan wants a worker rather than a wife. A man named Joe Starks walks by the farm one day and he and Janie flirt. He’s a smooth talker and she’s been starved for attention, so she leaves Logan and marries Joe, who she calls Jody. Jody has heard of a town in Florida that is being run by Negroes, and he means to go down and buy some land there.
When Janie and Jody get to Eatonville, they find that it’s without leadership and the residents themselves have no ambition to make the town anything other than a few sporadic farms. Jody buys land from the neighboring landowner and starts building a town, creating a store and a post office, and serving as a landlord, as he parcels out the land that he’s bought. He’s a natural politician and soon becomes the mayor, postmaster, and storekeeper. Unbeknownst to Janie, she has a place in Jody’s world, but it’s not one she anticipated — she’s become a trophy wife, as Jody won’t let her associate with the other people in the town. On the surface, she submits to Jody’s vision, but her internal monologue remains as passionate and spirited as ever.
Twenty years go by and Janie is thoroughly disenchanted with the lonely life she lives with Jody and she finally asserts herself one day in the store when Jody insults her appearance:
“Naw, Ah ain’t no young gal no mo’ but den Ah ain’t no old woman neither. Ah reckon Ah looks mah age too. But Ah’m uh woman every inch of me, and Ah know it. Dat’s uh whole lot more’n you kin say. You big-bellies round here and put out a lot of brag, but ’tain’t nothin’ to it but yo’ big voice. Humph! Talkin’ ’bout me lookin’ old! When you pull down yo’ britches, you look lak de change uh life.”
Jody is so embarrassed and pissed off by Janie making fun of him in front of some men from the town that he beats her, moves into a downstairs room, and refuses to talk to her. It’s then that Janie notices that Jody is starting to look older, thinner, and sicker than he was before. Jody refuses to let Janie into his sickroom, until she has enough and forces her way in. She berates him for the way she’s treated her, and as she’s telling him what a terrible husband and person he’s been, Jody dies. As she realizes he’s dead, she lets her hair down (as tying up her hair had been one of Jody’s rules for her, to keep men from lusting after her gorgeous hair) and contemplates her new freedom.
After Jody’s funeral, Janie relishes her independence — she ignores suitors, as she enjoys being in charge of her life for the first time in forty years. However, one day at the store, a younger man comes in to the store and talks to her. His name is Tea Cake and he’s twelve years younger than her and is just dreamy. He’s also unemployed, but that doesn’t matter to Janie, who sells the store and goes with Tea Cake to Jacksonville. The book suddenly becomes How Janie Got Her Groove Back.
They get married in Jaacksonville, but it isn’t all wedded bliss — one night, Janie wakes up and the money she has kept secret from Tea Cake is gone, and he doesn’t return all day. Janie is sure that Tea Cake has only married her for her money, but he comes back the next day — it turns out his theft of her money was a moment of weakness, but Tea Cake is an accomplished gambler and wins all of her money back and then some. Oh, okay.
After Jacksonville, they travel to the Everglades (or as it’s called in the book, “the muck”) to work during the bean harvest season. They have a spartan lifestyle, but Janie finally has the love that she’s always wanted. But alas, disaster strikes — two years after their marriage, the Everglades are struck by a hurricane that becomes lethal when it hits the dyke of Lake Okeechobee. As they’re trying to survive the flooding, Janie grabs the tale of a cow that is already inhabited by a dog, and Tea Cake gets bit by the dog as he’s saving her from the dog’s attack.
They survive the hurricane and go back to the Everglades, but about three weeks later, Tea Cake starts feeling ill and acting strangely: he gets headaches, fevers, he can’t drink water, he wakes up in the night with savagery that manifests by hurting Janie. Janie calls a doctor, who tells her that the dog that bit Tea Cake must have had rabies and given him the disease. That never ends well.
Sure enough, Tea Cake gets sicker and sicker and has increasing bouts of madness to the point that Janie checks to make sure that her rifle is loaded. Tea Cake becomes convinced that Janie is cheating on him and he comes at her with a pistol. He points the gun at her and when she realizes that he isn’t going to put the pistol down, she grabs her rifle and they shoot at the same time — Tea Cake’s bullet hits the wall and Janie’s bullet kills Tea Cake. She cradles his body and weeps.
Rabies or no rabies, Janie has killed Tea Cake and is put on trial for his murder. The town is split between the black and white citizens — the black people oppose her and think she should be found guilty, where the white people find her justified. Sure enough, the all white jury find her innocent and let her go.
She took a room at the boarding house for the night and heard the men talking around the front.
“Aw you know dem white mens wuzn’t gointuh do nothin’ tuh no woman dat look lak her.”
“She didn’t kill no white man, did she? Well, long as she don’t shoot no white man she kin kill jus’ as many niggers as she please.”
“Yeah, de nigger women kin kill up all de mens dey wants tuh, but you bet’ not kill one uh dem. De white folks will sho hang yuh if yuh do.”
“Well, you know whut dey say ‘uh white man and uh nigger woman is de freest thing on earth.’ Dey do as dey please.”
Janie throws a lavish funeral for Tea Cake and invites all of Tea Cake’s friends — when they show up, they apologize for wanting her to be thrown in jail, but Janie’s too heartsick from the loss to care. They ask her to stay in the muck with them, but she can’t face it without Tea Cake, and decides to head back to Eatonville with a package of seeds she plans to plant in memory of Tea Cake.
There Janie wraps up her story to Phoeby, who is thoroughly impressed; Phoeby promises to not let anyone criticize Janie. Janie tells her that she knows the women in the town will gossip about her, but she doesn’t care — she feels sorry for them as they don’t know what love really is and that they have not truly lived for themselves.
“…Love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”
When Pheoby leaves, Janie thinks about Tea Cake. At first, she remembers his body and is upset, but then she thinks of all that Tea Cake has given her and realizes that he’ll never be gone when she can remember him and he will always be with her. He showed her the horizon, and now she feels at peace.
This book is considered a feminist book, which is valid — Janie is discovering her identity as a woman with her own thoughts and feelings, and the struggles that she overcomes by men who don’t allow her to be a person — it’s no coincidence that her first two husbands’ names are Killicks and Starks. Tea Cake, though he’s a much better husband to Janie in that he loves her and doesn’t stifle her in that he encourages her to pursue her interests and try new things, is guilty of a major no-no where it comes to women — at one point, he hits her.
Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behavior justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.
Now, I know this book is about a different time and culture, but the idea that Tea Cake, the man who is the love of her life and the person who makes her feel like a natural woman and the wind beneath her wings hit her because he needed to show POSSESSION?! That is the same sentiment that made Jody tell her to keep her hair pinned up. Not cool, Tea Cake.
Other than that, Janie accomplishes personal growth by the end of the novel, if not because she has experienced love, then because she has become so self assured and self satisfied that she doesn’t care if people gossip about her. That is truly what every woman strives for.