I have just completed Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. If you haven’t read the book and plan to, I warn you that there are some spoilers here.
Alice Walker, a great admirer of Hurston’s (and responsible for the revival of interest in Hurston since the 1975 publication of her article “In Search of Zora Neale Hurston” in Ms. magazine, which can be read in In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose) said of this novel: “There is no book more important to me than this one.”
I did enjoy the book a great deal, but I cannot say it was impossible to put down. It made me laugh out loud, and it made me tear up, but it did not resonate with me as it did Walker.
Henry Louis Gates, Jr. said that “Hurston became a metaphor for the black woman writer’s search for tradition.” I can see the influence of Hurston strongly in Alice Walker’s short story “Everyday Use.” Hurston was a student of anthropology, and she brings that to bear in her fiction as well. It really gives the novel a particularly genuine feeling.
Janie is the main character. The novel begins as she returns to town. The old gossips watching her on the porch wonder why she’s back, and did that no-account Tea Cake she ran off with take all her money, leaving her no option but to return to town in shame? Her friend Pheoby (spelled as Hurston did) comes over to talk to Janie and find out what happened. What enfolds is the entire story of Janie’s self-discovery. It begins like this:
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Janie was abandoned by her parents and raised by her grandmother, who wanted her to choose a secure man to marry. Her grandmother didn’t listen to what Janie wanted. She silenced her dreams.
She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage!
This was, I think, what Janie would have liked to have had from marriage. She did as her grandmother asked, but felt empty. When Jody Starks wandered down the road, he looked like adventure. He took her to Eatonville, one of the all-black towns established in the early part of the 1900s, and so asserted himself among the townsfolk that he was quickly elected mayor. Once this happened, he silenced Janie with intimidation, verbal abuse, and physical abuse. She grows to despise him for suppressing her:
“Ah knowed you wasn’t gointuh lissen tuh me. You changes everything but nothin’ don’t change you — not even death. But Ah ain’t goin’ outa here and Ah ain’t gointuh hush. Naw, you gointuh listen tuh me one time befo’ you die. Have yo’ way all yo’ life, trample and mash down and then die ruther than tuh let yo’self heah ’bout it. Listen, Jody, you ain’t de Jody Ah run off down de road wid. You’se whut’s left after he died. Ah run off tuh keep house wid you in uh wonderful way. But you wasn’t satisfied wid me de way Ah was. Naw! Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded out tuh make room for yours in me.”
After Jody’s death, she relished her new freedom for a while when along came Tea Cake Woods, whose deadly eyes captivated Janie despite the fact that he was much younger than she. She found herself falling in love, but Tea Cake was different from her grandmother, her first husband, and Jody: he treated her as an equal (most of the time) and valued her voice. He encouraged her to be herself, because he loved the real Janie. With the exception of $200 he spent when they first married, he never appropriated any of her money — and he always referred to it as her money. He was extremely likable and charming. He respects Janie as a person and an individual.
After Janie finds her voice, she learns how to use it. According to Mary Helen Washington, at the 1979 MLA convention, Robert Stepto of Yale “raised the issue that has become one of the most highly controversial and hotly contested aspects of the novel: whether or not Janie is able to achieve her voice in Their Eyes.” Stepto brought up the courtroom scene near the end of the book, which is told through the narrator. Janie is “curiously silent in this scene.” It’s a pivotal scene in her life. She must prove to the jury, in her mind, that she had honestly loved Tea Cake:
It was not death she feared. It was misunderstanding. If they made a verdict that she didn’t want Tea Cake and wanted him dead, then that was a real sin and a shame. It was worse than murder.
The narrator (and Janie) are silent, too, after Tea Cake beats Janie for the one and only time. Stepto put forth the idea that “the frame story in which Janie speaks to Pheoby only creates the illusion that Janie has found her voice, that Hurston’s insistence on telling Janie’s story in the third person undercuts her power as speaker.” Alice Walker, at that same conference, countered that this was not so. Janie had not only found her voice, but she had also learned, as Walker put it “that women did not have to speak when men thought they should, that they would choose when and where they wish to speak because while many women had found their own voices, they also knew when it was better not to use it.” Mary Helen Washington calls Walker’s defense the “earliest feminist reading of voice in Their Eyes.” In this way, Janie’s speech and silence become a means of learning who she is and becoming empowered as a person after having been suppressed for most of her life.
I was troubled that Hurston chose to put such an emphasis on romantic love as a means of personal realization. After all, I thought, if Janie is “finding her voice,” why does she need Tea Cake to show it to her? Actually, after thinking about it, one realizes that for most people, relationships are a necessary component of fulfillment. And sometimes, someone believing in you and encouraging you is what it takes. I believe that Janie’s dream of marriage (the bee and the flowers) was achieved with Tea Cake. When Janie is alone at the end, while you know she misses Tea Cake, she also seems at peace with being alone. By the end of the novel, she isn’t worried about those old gossips on the porch:
“Now, Pheoby, don’t feel too mean wid de rest of ’em ’cause dey’s parched up from not knowin’ things. Dem meatskins is got tuh rattle tuh make out they’s alive. Let ’em consolate theyselves wid talk. ‘Course, talkin’ don’t amount tuh uh hill uh beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else. And listenin’ tuh dat kind uh talk is jus’ lak openin’ yo’ mouth and lettin’ de moon shine down yo’ throat. It’s uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
Can you tell yet that I am teaching this book next year?
Anyway, I won’t delve into the symbolism, etc. I am trying to figure out why this novel didn’t speak to me as it did Walker. I asked myself if it was because I’m not black. While that’s possible, one also has to consider the fact that racism is not really a theme of the novel. Of course Janie encounters it, but it’s not the focus. This isn’t a story about a “black quest” so much as “human quest.” I really did enjoy it, but it didn’t affect me the way I expected it to. Still, I have to recommend it highly. I very much enjoyed the contrast between the literary prose of the narrator and the dialect of the characters. It was very well written that way.