Review: “Their Eyes Were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston (I of III)
Originally posted December 2005
Credits: for my book club, who once again chose something fascinating I wouldn’t ordinarily have picked up.
This is the story of Janie, a black beautiful woman in the 1930’s. Told in flashback to a close female friend, she relates her childhood and three marriages. In doing so she also reveals the process of her growth as a human being.
Janie’s three marriages are symbolic steps on her life path to maturity. Her first marriage to Logan Killicks (when she is but 16 years old) is an unhappy and loveless one arranged by her grandmother so Janie will be “owned” by a man who can care for her, so she will not be “available” for random rape. This empty relationship does not last long, as Janie reaches for love in her second marriage to the confident, wealthy, and far-traveled Joe Starks.
Joe takes her to Eatonville, the first all-black town ever. There he helps it grow and thrive with his money and his driving manner, becoming the well-respected, financially secure mayor. Despite being comfortable and well-cared for, Janie finds she is placed on a distancing pedestal by her new husband, who uses her as an ornament to his success rather than allowing her to become his partner. In spite of this she manages to safely tuck away her dream of true love, saving it for a life partner rather than losing it in the numbing emotional abuse of her daily life. Due to her inner strength (and her ability to hide her true self) she is even able to forgive her unforgiving husband on his deathbed, twenty years later.
As a woman of means, Janie is now able to pick and choose who her next partner will be, and this time she holds out for who she desires in a man. Eventually she falls in love with the charming Tea Cake, leaving Eatonville to be with him for the next year or so. While he is not perfect, he most closely matches her ideal partner, and she is as madly in love with him as he is with her. Unfortunately, while defending her from a dog they do not know is rabid, he is bitten. Despite her best efforts to care for Tea Cake, the rabies maddens him and she is tragically forced to shoot him in order to save herself.
After the white folks’ trial and exoneration of her, Janie goes back home to Eatonville, where (on her arrival) her best friend Pheoby sits and hears the story of her life. The story closes with Janie sending Pheoby away, then experiencing a beautiful and euphoric vision of enlightenment similar to the one which opened her to sexual awareness.
Much like I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, this is a fascinating book of a very different time and place, in which the title left me wondering a bit bemusedly where I’d missed the connection. It’s a lovely, lyrical story written in the common patois as was used in 1937. This made it occasionally hard for me to read when the characters were speaking, but also gave a rich feeling of verisimilitude.
The author’s voice (as opposed to that of the protagonist) is quite grammatically correct for the time, of course; there’s nothing “degrading” about it, despite the critical literary furor aroused by her using the local patois for her protagonists. As an individual and a novelist, she speaks like an anthropologist, which was her calling. She seems to feel (quite rightly, I believe) her primary duty is to represent accurately, not to project her personal dreams onto the culture.
This appeared to be the main issue Richard Wright, the most famous black author of the time, had against her. His public tirades against her works were based on his need to show the black man to the white man in the best possible light. Wright wrote straightforward, fiery tirades against white men’s abuse of black men, in a time where it was becoming socially viable to do so.
I believe he felt his primary duty was to demonstrate that black people could be just as educated and cultured as white people. For Hurston to write of “degraded” blacks (Wright’s term), just as they appeared in their own culture, using their own dialect, was to Wright a great betrayal of the black race. To him, Hurston pandered to white desires to see the black man as stereotypically and inherently less than the white man.
However, I’m not sure that’s truly the case. Hurston’s book is a delicate contestation, a subtle polemic against chauvinism delivered with a very light touch. So unobtrusive is her touch, in fact, I’m not even sure it is consciously written in — it’s easy to miss. Hurston quietly pointed out a far more difficult and contentious subject: the abuse of black women by men both white and black, due to the inequity of hierarchical power.
Furthermore she did so in a time where the very subject of abusive male hierarchy was, if recognized at all, considered simply part of the “natural order.” As a single example, one white reviewer thought her story was amusing enough, but unlikely, since he had trouble believing black people could actually manage to create and run a thriving town without white assistance — that wasn’t how the black race worked.
In effect, Wright seems to virulently deny who blacks are or were, in order to blame whites for their condition — where Hurston has no need to locate the black person within white culture, and finds pride in blackness itself. To Hurston, expecting blacks to aspire to whiteness was a “false picture that distorted,” a capitulation to a white-originated theory of black inferiority due to their status as white victims. True freedom, she felt “was something internal. … The man himself must make his own emancipation.”
Today I find in Shelby Steele’s determined economic individualism strong reminders of Hurston’s fierce cultural independence, and denial of Wright’s vision of black victimhood. Where Wright seemed to feel blacks had something to be ashamed of due to their not being “white behaving” enough, Hurston believed blacks are whole and complex in and of themselves — they are not just “stunted” imitations of whites, and black lives are not “only defensive reactions to white actions.”