Honesty time here, I had never heard of The Eyes Were Watching God before taking on this book list. It also has one of those titles that I would normally stay clear from since I don’t get on that well with books that are overly religious. With no real preconceptions I was able to go into this book completely cold.
I wish I had known one thing. That the speech patterns were written nearly phonetically, like Joseph in Wuthering Heights. It came as a bit of a shock to start the book off on such unsure footing. It didn’t take too long for me to get used to it though, in fact it’s one of those rare books that almost made me cry on a crowded train.
Now here is the thing, when Margaret Mitchell did a similar thing, in Gone With The Wind, to mimic the voice patterns of black Southern character it felt racist. Then again, as much as I love the book it definitely had a pronounced racist streak to it.
Anyway, back to THIS book which is the only black feminist book I have ever read other than The Colour Purple. At some point I will get to some Toni Morrison books.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a book of three parts – all told as a prolonged flashback by Janie, the central character, to her friend Pheoby. Each part of her story is centred around each of her three husbands (I say ‘husbands’ but I swear she never got divorced from her first one…) and how she is able to develop her own sense of self and independence.
With this book taking place in the 1910s and 1920s, Janie does not live in a world that affords her many options. It is a world where there are men who are jealous of her husband as he is the one who gets to beat her. A world where her men do not allow her to speak her mind. This is the life she has with her first two husbands (again, Janie is probably a bigamist). Marriages marred with crushed dreams and unrealistic expectations.
To be honest, a lot of these early chapters are hard to read as you are watching a woman who has been denied her intellect and her dreams. It all changes at the appearance of husband number three – Tea Cake (the name is stupid).
These chapters with Janie and Tea Cake are an incredible contrast to the ones that preceded them. He does not afford her EVERY liberty, but there is actual love between the two of them. He allows her to do things that neither of her previous husbands allowed her to do. Tea Cake is nowhere near perfect – he does hit her at one point and you can never defend that. He is still, however, the only person that has not only allowed Janie to be herself, but loved her on those terms.
I am not going to go much further into this book, other than to finish on this note. Despite the fact that this book is now ranked as one of the essential books to read, the author Zora Neale Hurston ended her life working part-time jobs and was put to rest in an unmarked grave.
When Their Eyes Were Watching God was released her contemporary African-American writers derided it. Since she wanted to tell a story not laced with social commentary she was not taken seriously. The fact that an African-American character dies in a hurricane because he would rather go to sleep than run away from the coming storm… well that probably didn’t sit too well.
I feel that I have learnt a lot from reading this book. I probably won’t be leaving it too long before delving back into the world of African American literature.