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.

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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.

 

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

A Great American Novel.

.

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TBR Thursday 69 – The TBR Book Tag

Confession time!

 

This tag has been doing the rounds recently – I first saw it here on Cleo’s blog – Cleopatra Loves Books. So I thought I’d share some of the arcane secrets of the TBR with you…

Part of the problem...
Part of the problem…

How do you keep track of your TBR pile?

 

I have a ridiculously complicated spreadsheet with different cross-referenced lists for the TBR, the GAN Quest, where I’ve posted reviews, lists of reviews by ratings (to aid in the FF Awards thingy), books from NetGalley, books that aren’t yet published that I want to acquire and my reading schedule for the next three months (which I almost never stick to, but have great fun rearranging)! Then there’s the list for a new feature I’m considering for next year. And a list to keep track of what reviews are doing well (and badly) on Amazon – UK and US. Oh, and a list of authors who got 5-stars for the last book I read, to remind me to read one of their other books as soon as I can fit them in. It’s a wonder I ever have any time to read, really…

Did I mention the colour coding? And the blame list of who made me add it?
Did I mention the colour coding? And the blame list of who made me add it?

Is your TBR mostly print or e-book?

 

Mostly e-book, but I do like to read paper books as well, especially factual and classics, or illustrated books. E-books for crime fiction mostly, though.

Another part of the problem...
Another part of the problem…

How do you determine which book from your TBR to read next?

 

Sadly, for the last couple of years that’s been driven by my addiction to NetGalley, and trying to review as near publication date as possible, but I’m making a big effort to take far fewer review copies so that I can go back to choosing on the basis of mood. It’s actually beginning to work…

A book that’s been on your TBR the longest?

 

Green for Danger by Christianna Brand. I only started having a TBR list when I started blogging and this was one of the first books I was tempted into by a blog review. It’s been on the TBR for nearly three years now… it would almost be a shame to read it!

green for danger

A book you recently added to your TBR?

 

The most recent addition is The Wheel Spins by Ethel Lina White. There’s a reason for that… but I’m not telling you what it is yet. Crime aficionados might be able to guess though…

the wheel spins

A book on your TBR strictly because of its beautiful cover?

 

Nope – I do like covers but am never influenced by them alone, good or bad, though if they’re especially good, they might at least tempt me to look at the blurb. This one did, and it introduced me to an author who’s now a firm favourite…

Equilateral

A book on your TBR that you never plan on reading?

 

Why would I do that? (Though Moby Dick does keep getting moved down… and it might be a while before I get around to The Narrow Road to the Deep North…)

An unpublished book on your TBR that you’re excited for?

 

I Am No One by Patrick Flanery. Flanery has won my Book of the Year Award twice in four years for Absolution and Fallen Land. His new one is due out in February. And Peter May’s new one, Coffin Road, is being kept aside to read over Christmas. Publication due in January.

A book on your TBR that everyone has read but you?

 

Hmm… not really. The closest that I can think of is The Kite Runner by Khaled Hosseini, although a few of the GAN Quest books have been read by most Americans, it seems, often at school. But they often haven’t been read by many Brits.

A book on your TBR that everyone recommends to you?

 

The aforesaid Moby Dick! Though I reckon they only recommend it ‘cos they like it when I hate a book…

A book on your TBR that you’re dying to read?

 

Pretty much all of them (except Moby Dick) or they wouldn’t be on there. But if I have to pick just one then I’m really keen to read Let the Great World Spin. And Gone with the Wind, Americanah, and Even the Dead. (You didn’t really think I could stick to one, did you?)

How many books are on your Goodreads TBR shelf?

 

None! I don’t use it – I only list books I’ve read or am reading on Goodreads. However, since both Cleo and MarinaSofia have ‘fessed up, I’d better too. I’ve spent most of this week reorganising my TBR (great fun!). Since most people seem to think of their TBR as books they actually possess, I took off most of the books I don’t own yet, and replaced them with all the books I do own that weren’t previously on it – the hidden list, you might call it. Then I added the removed ones that I don’t own yet to my Amazon wishlist. So here goes…

Books for review from NetGalley and publishers                                             28

Owned (mostly unread, but a few re-reads)                                                  126

Total TBR                                                                                                154

GAN Quest books owned but not yet on the TBR (complicated, isn’t it?)         12

On the wishlist (which I consider to be part of the TBR really, since
they don’t get on there unless I mean to read them)                                     195

Must reads being published in the next two months
that I haven’t managed to acquire yet                                                             4

Grand total                                                                                              365

Or roughly 3 years worth…!!!

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So better get some reading done soon! Here are a few that are coming up…

 

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I shall be making some booky New Year’s Resolutions soon – guess reducing the TBR might have to be Number 1…

Great American Novel Quest – The Second Batch

The Quest continues…

 

Great American Novel Quest

The first batch of ten contenders produced some fantastic reads, but so they should have since they were carefully chosen as some of the traditional front-runners in the race to be The Great American Novel. However, the list was also heavily weighted towards Dead White Men, with the addition of the occasional living one. All white and only one woman. This time round I’ve selected a rather more diverse group – 6 from the pens of female writers, three of whom are black, and a couple of recent books that haven’t been around long enough for us to know what their eventual status will be.

peanuts writing 4

There has been much interesting and thought-provoking chit-chat amongst my fellow readers as to the near impossibility of a book achieving that pesky fifth criteria which it needs to be declared The GAN…

For the elusive fifth flag, it must capture the entire ‘American experience’. That is to say, it must seek to include all the various very different aspects of culture that make up the American whole.

…though I would (and did) argue that American Pastoral does. I’ve found coming up with a revised fifth criterion that’s better than this one to be impossible also – to skew it so that favourite books can get in would certainly increase the number but would kind of take away the point, which is surely that The Great American Novel is one of the rarest of beasts, perhaps mythical. And entirely subjective.

peanuts writing 2

But, to be honest, the quest is more about finding Great American Novels in general than identifying one ‘winner’, so I’m quite content that several in this second batch are unlikely to be The GAN. I’m hopeful that some will be GANs and that more will be great novels. And if one of them happens to gain the elusive fifth flag, then that will be an added bonus.

peanuts writing 3

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So… a drum roll, maestro, please… for…

The Second Batch

.
Beloved by Toni MorrisonStaring unflinchingly into the abyss of slavery, this spellbinding novel transforms history into a story as powerful as Exodus and as intimate as a lullaby. Filled with bitter poetry and suspense as taut as a rope, Beloved is a towering achievement by Nobel Prize laureate Toni Morrison.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale HurstonWhen Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds …”

Americanah by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichiea story of love and race centered around a young man and woman from Nigeria who face difficult choices and challenges in the countries they come to call home. Fearless, gripping, at once darkly funny and tender, spanning three continents and numerous lives, Americanah is a richly told story set in today’s globalized world: Adichie’s most powerful and astonishing novel yet.

 

Moby Dick by Herman Melville In part, Moby-Dick is the story of an eerily compelling madman pursuing an unholy war against a creature as vast and dangerous and unknowable as the sea itself. But more than just a novel of adventure, more than an encyclopaedia of whaling lore and legend, the book can be seen as part of its author’s lifelong meditation on America.

Absalom! Absalom! by William FaulknerThe story of Thomas Sutpen, an enigmatic stranger who came to Jefferson in the early 1830s to wrest his mansion out of the muddy bottoms of the north Mississippi wilderness. He was a man, Faulkner said, ‘who wanted sons and the sons destroyed him.'”

Gone with the Wind by Margaret MitchellMany novels have been written about the Civil War and its aftermath. None take us into the burning fields and cities of the American South as Gone With the Wind does, creating haunting scenes and thrilling portraits of characters so vivid that we remember their words and feel their fear and hunger for the rest of our lives.”

The House of Mirth by Edith WhartonThe tragic love story reveals the destructive effects of wealth and social hypocrisy on Lily Bart, a ravishing beauty. More a tale of social exclusion than of failed love, The House of Mirth reveals Wharton’s compelling gifts as a storyteller and her clear-eyed observations of the savagery beneath the well-bred surface of high society.

 

Middlesex by Jeffrey EugenidesMiddlesex tells the breathtaking story of Calliope Stephanides, and three generations of the Greek-American Stephanides family, who travel from a tiny village overlooking Mount Olympus in Asia Minor to Prohibition-era Detroit, witnessing its glory days as the Motor City and the race riots of 1967 before moving out to the tree-lined streets of suburban Grosse Pointe, Michigan.

Lolita by Vladimir NabokovHumbert Humbert – scholar, aesthete and romantic – has fallen completely and utterly in love with Lolita Haze, his landlady’s gum-snapping, silky skinned twelve-year-old daughter. Hilarious, flamboyant, heart-breaking and full of ingenious word play, Lolita is an immaculate, unforgettable masterpiece of obsession, delusion and lust.

Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher StoweStowe’s powerful abolitionist novel fueled the fire of the human rights debate in 1852. Denouncing the institution of slavery in dramatic terms, the incendiary novel quickly draws the reader into the world of slaves and their masters.”

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson – (carried over from the first batch) an intimate tale of three generations from the Civil War to the twentieth century: a story about fathers and sons and the spiritual battles that still rage at America’s heart. Writing in the tradition of Emily Dickinson and Walt Whitman, Marilynne Robinson’s beautiful, spare, and spiritual prose allows “even the faithless reader to feel the possibility of transcendent order” (Slate).

(NB All blurbs taken from Goodreads.)

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Many thanks to everyone who has joined in the discussions and/or suggested contenders. I have another 25 or so still to come after this, but am still looking for recommendations. I’d particularly like to add some more cultural diversity to the list (there are no black male authors on it, for example, and none from authors with Latin-American or, indeed, Native American heritage). Also, more women are needed to even things up a bit – there are very few female authors amongst the remaining 25, since I’ve included most of the ones on my list in this batch. And I’d love to mix some outstanding modern American fiction (1980 to 2010, say) in with the classics, whether they would be contenders for GAN status or not. For preference, though, they should shed some light on that great conundrum which is America.

peanuts writing 1

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So… what do you think of the list? Are there ones that you would endorse… or dump? Any recommendations?