I’m doing pretty well with my Mount TBR Challenge at the moment – not so well with Support Your Local Library, but that will be rectified next month when the library reopens! Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of those books which has been on my TBR list for about the past six or seven years, and I just never got to it despite it being sat on my shelf for probably around four of those years... I have read so many glowing reviews of it over the years and now I see why! As well as being a great, well –written and totally intriguing novel, it is also one of those books which made me want to know more about the author and about its’ social context. I’m a total geek, so I love books that give me an excuse to find out new stuff! As has been previously mentioned I know next to nothing about American literature and the history thereof – terrible for a literature graduate I know, and I’m working on rectifying it. I feel like this book helped a lot.
Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 in Notasulga, Alabama and moved as a toddler to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first black townships, and the setting for much of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Her mother died when she was 13 and she didn’t get along with her stepmother – eventually she joined a Gilbert and Sullivan troupe as a maid to the lead singer. At age 26 she passed for 16 in order to be able to finish high school for free. Zora became part of the Harlem Renaissance (if you’re as clueless as I am about American history and cultural movements as I am, Wikipedia and this website have lots more information!), and Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937. Her second novel, it is generally regarded as her masterwork, but she never received the financial reward she deserved for both it and her other novels. She died in 1960 at the age of 69 without enough money to pay for her funeral and was buried in a grave which remained unmarked until 1973 when Alice Walker placed a marker on it as a tribute to the writer who so inspired her.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is basically a love story. It is the story of Janie Starck, a woman who refuses to accept life without love, and follows her in her pursuit of it from age 16 and an arranged marriage to a much older man, through various men and adventures, to the final love of her life. It isn’t a happy story at all, but I often find that I’d rather read a novel which feels like it tells a story that people may actually have experienced, and although it is nice when people are happy in everyday life, not everything ends with happy ever after. Having said that, although it is not a happy book per se, Their Eyes Were Watching God didn’t make me feel sad, maybe because the novel begins with Janie returning to Eatonville alone and telling her story to her friend Phoeby, so from the outset there is no expectation for it to turn out well.
The thing that I loved most about this novel was the writing – it was so unbelievably beautiful! This is possibly one of my favourite descriptions of anything, ever:
“She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the grey dust of its making”
The novel really takes form through Janie’s emotions, and the description is really vivid and immersive. It took me a while to get into Their Eyes Were Watching God, because it is written in dialect which is kind of hard to follow, but once you relax and start to read it as if it were being spoken, it’s a really easy read. Apologies if this review becomes a little quotey but I want to remember the things which I really loved. It’s been a while since I discovered a book where I enjoyed the language this much:
“She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels. Sometimes she stuck out into the future, imagining her life different from what it was. But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods – come and gone with the sun”
Hurston manages to combine two totally different tones really successfully in her novel. The descriptive passages are as above – flowing and full of imagery, but the narrative is voiced in the Afro-American dialect of Janie (mostly) and various others. The important point to make, though, is that the novel (published in 1937, remember), focuses entirely on Janie, a woman. And she is a strong woman; she doesn’t let men tell her what to do, and she follows her own heart. I have to admit, I loved her!
Their Eyes Were Watching God left me feeling hopeful and invigorated and I definitely want to get hold of Zora Neale Hurston’s other books now, as well as reading some more Alice Walker, Toni Morrison and various other authors who were inspired by her work.