Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Genre: Fiction (first published in 1937)
In 1936, Zora Neale Hurston received a Guggenheim Fellowship to conduct anthropological research in Haiti. She went to escape from a tempestuous love affair and later said that she tried to channel her feelings into her work. In the course of seven weeks, Hurston wrote her most famous novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, which was published the next year. In it, she uses dialect to give her characters a unique voice.
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.
Janie Crawford, our heroine, was raised by her grandmother in the southern United States. As her grandmother grows older, knowing that she won’t be around much longer, she thinks about what to do with Janie. In an effort to ensure a safe future for her granddaughter, she makes a match between Janie and an older man. With romantic notions filling her head, Janie agrees to the marriage, knowing that she doesn’t love her future husband, yet hoping that love will come with time. She dreams of a love that resembles the feeling she has when sitting under a tree on a warm summer’s day.
Oh to be a pear tree – any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!
It doesn’t take Janie long to realize that love doesn’t always follow marriage. After her grandmother’s death, she meets a well-dressed man, named Jody Starks, walking along the road and follows him, hoping that perhaps he’ll be the key to the sort of freedom she craves.
But life with Jody is in some ways more confining than anything Janie has known thus far. They move to Eatonville, Florida, one of the first all African American self-governing municipalities in the US. Jody arrives with a large amount of money and uses it to gain influence in the town, eventually becoming the mayor. He buys Janie fine clothes and builds a house for them, and they run the town store. As she sits at the front counter, Janie feels distant from the other townsfolk, who see her as Mrs. Mayor and not as an equal. Although she has everything she needs in terms of clothes and food and shelter, she finds that her emotional needs aren’t being met. Jody wants to control her, wants to dictate how she should act and who she should talk to.
Above all, this is a novel about trying to find a sense of freedom in a world where women still didn’t have much power. When Janie finally meets Tea Cake, the wonderfully named man who will become the love of her life, life begins to alter for her. The tree she had always dreamed of begins to grow and branch out. The most charming part of the book is Hurston’s use of language. There were phrases that hit me as being beautiful, such as “she starched and ironed her face, forming it into just what people wanted to see.” This is one of those books that has the power to transform a vision of life. It is about becoming yourself, finally, through all of the joys and sorrows of experience.