Rating: 3.5 out of 5
To celebrate Black History Month, I chose to review Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937). The novel follows Janie Crawford, a middle-aged African-American woman who discusses her three marriages.
Janie was the product of rape, and because of her mother’s unwillingness to parent, she is raised by her grandmother Nanny. Nanny pushes Janie into her first marriage to Logan Killicks, but after being forced to do hard labor on his farm, Janie runs away with second husband Joe Starks.
This marriage isn’t any better, and after Joe passes away, Janie is finally independent. She falls in love with a man who goes by Tea Cake, marries him and moves to the Everglades. Unfortunately, the area is struck by a hurricane and Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog while saving Janie from drowning. Sick with the disease, he tries to shoot Janie, but she kills him first in self-defense. Even though she is acquitted from her murder charge, when she returns to Eatonville, she becomes the subject of gossip.
I read this novel in high school, and when it came to African-American literature, I ranked this story much better than Toni Morrison’s Beloved, but not as good as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man. The reason for this was because although it did not contain any ridiculous voodoo elements, I still felt it hard to empathize with Janie. She continuously fell for men who were abusive and wrong for her, and you wished she would learn from her mistakes.
The dialect that’s used in the novel is difficult to read if you’re not familiar with it, but it adds authenticity and unique voice to the characters. While it’s not a style I particularly gravitate toward, I appreciate Their Eyes Were Watching God for opening people’s eyes to the perspective of black women, which is so often ignored in society. I always tell my high school students to broaden their horizons to more ethnic writing, and this book would be one I’d recommend–simply for the sake of experiencing it.
However, I must admit that the strongest memory that I have of this story was when my English teacher claimed that teenage Janie’s braid was a phallic symbol. I’d acknowledge that the scene of her kissing Johnny Taylor was one of sexual awakening, but I wondered whether phallic hair was pushing the interpretation a bit far. Needless to say, it made for an interesting discussion that day in class!
So if you’ve got some time this February, celebrate Black History Month with a classic like Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Favorite Quote: “She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels.”