GAN Quest: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

A tide in the affairs of women…

😀 😀 😀 😀 🙂

their eyes were watching godWhen Janie walks back into town eighteen months after leaving with a man 12 years her junior, her former friends and neighbours gossip and snigger, assuming he has spent all her money and then left her for a younger woman. But Janie’s story is more complicated, a tragedy but also an awakening, her journey one of self-discovery.

I’ll start by saying that I think this is an excellent novel, fully earning its place as a contender for the title of Great American Novel. It has been analysed to death by people far more qualified than I over the years: adversely, on the whole, at the time of its original publication in 1937, and then positively, when it was resurrected in the ’70s by academics with an interest in female and black voices in American literature. I had never heard of the book until it was mentioned by several people when I asked for recommendations for GANs, and I assiduously avoided reading anything about it in advance so that I could enjoy the rare luxury of reading it without preconceptions.

Janie is 16 when we first meet her in the care of her grandmother, a slave who became pregnant to her owner just before abolition. Janie’s own birth was as a result of the rape of her mother by a teacher. The date isn’t given, but a quick calculation suggests that the bulk of the book takes place in the first couple of decades of the 20th century. This matters, because one of my major criticisms of the book is that it seems to be set quite apart from historical context. There is no mention of WW1, no suggestion that any of the men fought or, indeed, had an opinion on the rights or wrongs of fighting for the USA. My (shallow) understanding is that this was a time of great change for African Americans, when they began to demand that a country that expected them to fight and die for it should also give them rights as equal citizens, develop a true democracy that embraced all people equally. But Janie’s world indicates none of this, and I found myself therefore not being able to entirely accept it as a realistic picture of the time.

Halle Berry and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the 2005 ABC TV movie - which even from the stills looks dreadful.
Halle Berry and Ruben Santiago-Hudson in the 2005 ABC TV movie – which even from the stills looks dreadful.

Instead, Janie’s contemporaries are shown as lazy, passive and unambitious on the whole, their aspirations beaten out of them by a world still run by and for the white elite. That I could accept more, though it seems in conflict with the idea of the development of the all-black town of Eatonville in which much of the story is placed. And Eatonville itself doesn’t ring wholly true – when Janie and her new husband arrive there, it is no more than a plot of land with a few shacks, but within a few years it seems to be a thriving success story, without any indication of where that success comes from. And again, there is no discussion of politics or the wider world – Eatonville seems to exist in happy isolation, and the people Janie meets there and on her travels live carefree lives, based around drinking, gambling and sex – a happy-go-lucky existence, with no thought for the future. The position of women is one of almost total subservience to their men – a style of life where sexism and domestic violence is accepted by all. I was surprised at how negative a picture a black author was creating of the black community at a time when the political struggle for equality was building to a crescendo.

Before the week was over he had whipped Janie. Not because her behaviour justified his jealousy, but it relieved that awful fear inside him. Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. Everybody talked about it next day in the fields. It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams.

The reason I bring up these criticisms first is that, after I finished the book, I read the forewords and afterword in my copy, written by Edwidge Danticat, Mary Helen Washington and Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and was rather stunned to discover that my criticisms echoed those of the male black writing community of the time, whose dismissal of the book was based pretty much on it not conforming to the political agenda of the black movement. The subsequent feminist critiques of the ’70s and later, it seems to me, dismiss these criticisms too easily, perhaps because they think that to accept them would weaken their own argument that the book is a seminal text in the finding of the black female voice in literature. I beg to disagree – with both parties: the lack of a political context is a weakness but not one that prevents the book from making an important contribution; and the fact that it gives women in black culture a voice does not negate the fact that it would have been a greater book had it addressed, or at least acknowledged, the contemporary political situation.

Michael Ealy and Halle Berry, looking incredibly glamorous for a hard day's bean-pickin'...
Michael Ealy and Halle Berry, looking incredibly glamorous for a hard day’s bean-pickin’…

Where the book excels is in its portrayal of Janie’s character – her finding of her own way despite the male dominance of the society she lives in. As a person of mixed racial ancestry, Janie’s light skin tone and unusual hair are used to great effect to show how indoctrinated the black psyche had become to accept the desirability of ‘white’ physical traits; showing within their community the same kind of prejudices heaped on them from outside it. Having been married off young to a much older man, Janie rebels and runs off with the good-looking and ambitious Joe to Eatonville, only to discover that Joe too believes that a woman is at her best in the kitchen and bedroom. We know from the beginning of the book that there is a third man in Janie’s story – the younger Tea Cake, for whom she has left her comfortable home in Eatonville and gone off to work the fields in the Florida Everglades. It is in the few months that she spends with Tea Cake that Janie finally discovers what it is to love and be loved equally.

Ten feet higher and as far as they could see the muttering wall advanced before the braced-up waters like a road crusher on a cosmic scale. The monstropolous beast had left his bed. The two hundred miles an hour wind had loosed his chains. He seized hold of his dikes and ran forward till he met the quarters; uprooted them like grass and rushed on after his supposed-to-be conquerors, rolling the dikes, rolling the houses, rolling the people in the houses along with other timbers. The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel.

Although the structure of the book is that Janie is telling her story in retrospect to her friend Pheoby, this is a third person narrative for the most part, slipping into first occasionally as we are made directly privy to Janie’s thoughts. All of the speech is in dialect, which Hurston handles brilliantly, and although the non-dialogue parts are in a more standard form of English, she maintains speech patterns, tone and vocabulary throughout. The dialect is not so broad that it makes the book hard to read – it’s sustained so beautifully that it almost recedes into the background after the reader gets tuned into it. While I have criticised the portrayal of the society as negative, it’s also done with great skill, making it completely believable within the internal context of the book. The writing is lyrical at times, especially the section in the Florida Everglades where the land and weather come to play a huge part in the story. The book has its share of tragedy and horror, but Hurston offers compassion to her characters at all times, and she draws them subtly, so that there are few of them who can’t earn our empathy.

Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston

I am aware that this review has taken on gargantuan proportions, but that’s a sign of the effect the book and the debate surrounding it had on me. I could write at length about my disappointment that fundamentally Janie’s search for herself seems too much to be a search for a man who will love her right. I could mention my anger at the way Hurston seems tacitly to endorse wife-beating so long as it’s done with love(!). I could wonder about the lack, not just of children, but of any mention of them. But instead, I’ll say that, despite my quite severe criticisms of it, I loved the book for the language and the compelling story-telling, and for making me think, and it’s one that I’m sure would deliver even more on a re-read.

* * * * * * *

Great American Novel Quest

So…how does it fare in The Great American Novel Quest? To win that title it needs to achieve all five of the criteria in my original post…

Must be written by an American author or an author who has lived long enough in the US to assimilate the culture.

us flagAchieved.

The theme must shed light on a specific and important aspect of American culture and society of the time of its writing.

us flagYes, despite its lack of political context, it gives an excellent portrayal of this part of black culture.

It must be innovative and original in theme.

us flagYes, the examination of the place of women within this culture was clearly innovative for its time.

Must be superbly written.

us flagYes – the dialect and lyricism of the writing are undoubtedly excellent.

Must capture the entire ‘American experience’.

white_flagNo – and it’s not trying to.

 

* * * * * * *

So not The Great American Novel but, with 4½ stars and 4 GAN flags, I hereby declare this…

A Great American Novel.

.

* * * * * * *

 

47 thoughts on “GAN Quest: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

  1. I’m glad to hear that you enjoyed reading this book and that it scored 4.5 stars. Your criticism of it actually makes me want to reread it, as I don’t remember whether I had similar feelings, aside from thinking that Eatonville seemed a bit unrealistic.

    • I’m quite a political animal so I tend to always notice if a book doesn’t mention major political trends. But it certainly didn’t detract much from a great story told brilliantly. I think it’s one that would stand up well to re-reading – I shall probably want to read it again myself in a year or so, to see how it’s ‘settled’…

    • Yes, I pretty much did too, and enjoyed the journey, but I’m too much of a political animal not to notice when a book doesn’t feel properly grounded in the world of its time, if you know what I mean… didn’t spoil the story though!

  2. The history of cruelty in the form of slavery has been documented for as long as we know and probably before. There is something in human nature that humans cannot resist when it is put into their way need to be King of the Mountain. I was totally “color blind” until my granny pointed out the
    out the black family at the store. She told me that they were not quite as good as “we” are. And it isn’t just in the US. Wars have been lost and won over who is going to be King of the Mountain. The sad truth is that few are the days and soon there comes another cavalcade dying, literally dying, to be King (or queen) of the mountain. I feel frustrated about that.

    My sister sent me a YouTube thingy with a particularly disturbing rendition of The Sound of Silence that feels appropriate.

  3. Excellent review! I’ve never attempted this book, but I have been tempted. Zora Neale Hurston is forever etched in my mind as a pioneer for black conservatives. Her politics were quite radical for the time. So much has been made of her views, I feel it would be hard to separate all that; it’s wise you avoided much of this before reading. It’s curious then how much she avoided the political positions of the time in her book!

    • It’s actually one of the easier reads of the GAN quest books to date – the story and quality of the writing make it a ‘just one more chapter’ book. Yes, I discovered afterwards too that she was a anthropologist and I must say this book does have aspects of an observer describing a society alien to her rather than an insider account. In fact, I’m hesitant to say it because of all the racist baggage, but if I hadn’t known she was black I might have thought she was white – a bit like Twain, observing black culture from outside…

  4. I read this in my early twenties and thought it was brilliant. I agree about the disconnect from what we now see as the beginning of the Civil Rights movement, but when I consider how uninterested many of our fellow-citizens are in contemporary politics, despite much better access to information, I don’t really find the narrow focus all that surprising. Great review, hope it inspires a few people to read the book.

    • Yes, I’m coming more and more to the conclusion that, for me, any ‘THE Gan’ would have to have a political element or at least take account of the contemporary political scene. This one felt as if she just eliminated everything she didn’t want to talk about – politics, children, economics. Which is fine and left a very focused story, but made it too narrow in scope to be truly GAN material.

  5. A thorough and thoughtful discussion, FictionFan. I agree with you about the book not having a sense of the sociopolitical contexts of the times. That said though (and I do think you’re right!!) such a context isn’t absolutely vital for a book to be a beautifully written story of an evolving and interesting character. And it is, as you say, an important stride in terms of the voices of black women in literature. I’m glad you thought it was a well-written book.

    • Thank you, Margot! 🙂 Yes, I’m coming to the conclusion that for me a political aspect is probably a requirement for THE GAN, though not for A GAN. Probably because I’m a political animal, but also I think it adds depth if a book is clearly set within its own time. But I don’t think GAN requirements necessarily make a book better – it’s just a subset of all great books really…

  6. I read this book so long ago, I just recall enjoying the language and Hurston’s command of voice. I don’t recall the things that you point out. But I have so enjoyed your review that I’ll marked this as one of my re-reads—once I have those bookshelves and all my books lined up in perfect rows.

    • I always notice the political angle because I’m basically a political animal. I’m coming to the conclusion that that’s why, on the whole, I tend to rate books by ‘Dead White Men’ more highly than those by dead women – generalising hugely, it was always rare for men not to put their books into political context and almost equally rare for women not to write primarily about the internal life. Quite natural, given how circumscribed women’s lives were, and something that’s already changing quite radically in more recent writing, with a lot of women writers now looking outwards rather than in. And there’s nothing wrong with examining the internal life either – just not as much to my taste. That’s why I resist all these ‘must read more diversely’ challenges – actually I like the traditional classics even if they’re hopelessly skewed to a male perspective…

      But I digress! Yes, if you get the chance, this one is well worth a re-read – some of the language is superb and the story is compelling…

  7. Now I’ve never heard of this author. I must admit my hackles went up about the violence to your woman is okay if it is done with love aspect. I’m most impressed by your even handed ability to see what is clearly extraordinary, and powerful, AND call out what is indefensible. This might just be one for the TBR. Something I want to address in my reading this year is more books written by non-Caucasian writers

    • Nor had I – but it seems almost every American has read it, certainly all literature students anyway. It’s certainly a very American book in that it’s about a culture that only ever existed there, though of course humanity is pretty much a universal thing. I think you’d probably enjoy this one very much, as I did, for the language and for Janie’s character, though I suspect you might get riled up by some of the same things as annoyed me. Hurston very much took on the role of observer of this culture, IMO, rather than a judge of it – but when it comes to things like wife-beating I kinda want my narrator to indicate disapproval. But that’s ‘cos I’m so politically correct…

  8. A couple of points to consider: the Emancipation Proclamation was put into effect in 1863. If Janie’s grandma was raped by a slave owner, she was probably still a slave at the time. Janie’s mom is then raped by a teacher, meaning she is a teenager when Janie is born. Altogether, this book is most likely set during the Reformation, not WWI. The reformation was a time when people who had been enslaved and their children WERE typically restless, unemployed, and lacked hope. They didn’t want to be slaves, but many people who were set free weren’t sure what to do with themselves. As a result, a number of former slaves went back to their owners to work for the tiniest wage. Imagine never having held a job, owned a home, or even believed you were a HUMAN and then the one figure who “cares” for you–the slave master–tells you to go away and make it on your own. Some people are able to get an education, but it’s typically only one person in a community who “makes” it only to face being different for their skin color. If you’re interested in this, DEFINITELY read W.E.B. DuBois’s book The Souls of Black Folks.

    Eatonville sounds like a fake dream place for sure. But, it’s actually a real place–where Zora Neale Hurston grew up. She had tons of confidence for the time period and her skin color because she grew up in an all-black town. She didn’t face racism as a girl. Then again, this is why we stay “stranger than fiction.” Just because it really happened doesn’t mean it seems real, and I totally agree with that. I guess Hurston was writing what she knows?

    The final thing I want to say is about a woman’s place being in the kitchen and the domestic violence: at the time, that was what was expected of couples, and if a man doesn’t hit his wife every so often to “control” her, it suggested to the community that he wasn’t a man, which could have terrible effects on both the husband and wife. Some people even believed that if men didn’t hit their wives to “help,” that meant the husband didn’t love her. Janie is an unusual case because she always chooses what she does, which is very empowering for women, including control over her sexual self. The story begins with her masturbating under a tree (I still can’t believe Hurston got away with this in the 1930s). Her grandma shames her into marrying a man because Janie was caught KISSING a boy, but Janie chooses to leave her husband for a man she finds successful and handsome. She then chooses to leave him for a man she finds HAAAWT. She’s a cougar before cougars were a thing! And she loves him and has a great time. Altogether, if you consider the fact that women in the Reformation had zero choices, I’d say she made off pretty well!

    Whew, okay, I’m done.

    • Interesting points. I swayed back and forth on the date, but Janie’s mother was born just at abolition, so Janie was probably born round about the end of the 70’s. The bulk of the book takes place in her thirties and early forties so that takes it well into the 20th century. She’s 38, I think, when she goes off with Tea Cake, so WW1 would have happened already or would be happening. I agree it reads as if it’s set a couple of decades earlier. And maybe Hurston just didn’t work out the dates.

      Yes, Eatonville does feel like a dream place. Again maybe Hurston just didn’t know (or possibly didn’t care) how the town developed, sustained itself economically and related to the outside world, but by not indicating these things it all didn’t feel quite like a real place. And as you say, Hurston got an education in her real-life version of Eatonville – but the one in the book doesn’t seem like a place where anybody would have educated a girl…

      Haha! I must say she got away with it with me – I don’t read it as a masturbation scene at all! I’ve just re-read it and still don’t! I can see how it could be read that way, but I think that’s more up to the reader than the writer. I see her as dreaming dreams and becoming aware of herself as a sexual being, no more than that. As far as the wife-beating goes, yes of course it happened, still does, but I can’t admire an author who is educated and yet still condones it. She had enough skill to have shown it as something that happened, and how it was built into the culture, without trying to make it sound beautiful and positive. If I’m expected to revere women’s voices in literature then they must be at least aiming in the right direction…

  9. Well, gee, another one I’ve never read! This one sounds interesting (she says with a bit of caution!), but I don’t know if I can get past the beatings with love(!) Perhaps if I were to skip over those parts….

    • Oh, I thought this was one that all Americans had read at school – it’s almost unknown over here, I think. It is interesting and beautifully written, and though my jaw dropped a bit over her loving descriptions of the joys of wife-beating, in fact that was only a small part of it. And the rest made up for it… 🙂

  10. I just got really confused thinking I’d read this – I’ve read Jonah’s Gourd Vine in a collected works, took a while to get through it then couldn’t face this one. It does sound interesting, though!

    • I got the impression from reviews etc that this one is supposed to be far and away her best. Funnily enough, much though I enjoyed this one I don’t feel inspired to seek out her other stuff. But this one is definitely worth a read if you ever feel inclined…

  11. I haven’t heard of this book but I have to say it is probably the one in your GAN quest that most appeals to me – although I think I would probably be slightly perturbed at the missing changes that helped the cause at that time. A great review of what sounds like a book I’d enjoy!

    • Thank you! 🙂 I think you might well enjoy this one, but I suspect the next one, Beloved, is going to be right up your street – storywise anyway, though I have a horrible feeling the writing style might be ‘innovative’ – never a good thing! This one did feel a bit odd in the way that it seemed completely disconnected from the rest of the world, but it still managed to suck me in anyway…

  12. This is yet another great review. I read Moses Man of the Mountain (excellent) by Hurston in college and kept meaning to read Their Eyes Were Watching God. I can understand the criticisms you voiced here. I’ve noticed how many books wind up about the search for a good man. I still want to read this. (I didn’t watch the movie.)

    • Definitely one I’d recommend, despite my criticisms. I am a bit surprised that it’s apparently held in such high regard by feminists though – I can see that it’s great to hear a strong female black voice in that era, but I kinda wish Janie hadn’t been stumbling from man to man quite so much, and I’m gobsmacked by what seems to be Hurston’s laid-back attitude to wife-beating! I must check out Moses Man of the Mountain…

    • It’s not all that long in fact – maybe about 300 pages (it’s always hard to tell on the Kindle). Thank you, kind sir! *smiles appreciatively*

      She does! And don’t those eyes have a wicked twinkle?

    • Oh, I hope you enjoy it! I’m always more critical when I’m considering them as possible GANs, but really this was an excellent read – and one I’ll probably read again more than once, I suspect…

  13. Love the post and this discussion. I read it over 20 years ago, and what I remember is that it was great for discussion during my first year Humanities class. That may be a sign that it just wasn’t as dry as, say The Iliad, but hopefully I remember it because it was good itself. I’ll definitely reread it based on your review. BTW, we had to read http://www.amazon.com/Labor-Love-Sorrow-Slavery-Present/dp/0465018815 as a nonfiction companion to the book, and it was quite good as well.

    And good luck with Beloved. I liked it, but I don’t know if I could reread it.

    • Yes, I bet it would be a great discussion book – great for book groups too, I’d think. I reckon if I’d read it when I was student age, I’d actually have been much less critical of it, partly because I’d have been much less aware of the historical context. But despite my criticisms, I did find it a very enjoyable read, so I think it would stand up to a re-read well. I’ll look into the non-fiction book – thanks for the link!

      I’m just about to start Beloved, and truthfully I’m a bit apprehensive – from what people have said about it, I suspect it might not be totally my kind of thing. But we’ll see… 🙂

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