Friday, May 21, 2021

"Their Eyes Were Watching God" by Zora Neale Hurston--Fiction Review

Hello, my obscurists. In today’s review, we’re going to head into the deep south in the post-reconstruction era, with Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” It’s a story of loss and love, but most of all, it’s a book about what a life well-lived looks like despite all opposition.

Zora Neale Hurston

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

Usually, I’m a “narrative is king” sort of person, but to read “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and not note how absolutely gorgeous Hurston’s prose is—would be a disservice. There is a pastoral, naturalistic quality to it that her metaphors are all grounded in. Her use of regional dialect might be off-putting to some people, but I found that it enhanced the story for me. Her words described the world her characters lived in, and their words, and the language they used, told who they were and what it was like to live in that world.

The three men in Janie’s life that were her husbands at various points in her life are interesting contrasts of each other. They each represent a different mode of life for black men of their era. And while their “works,” or the lack of them in Tea Cake’s case, in some sense, defined them, they were also capable of surprising acts outside of their usual character, which means they never fall into becoming flat stereotypes.

Janie herself is a heroic character—a black woman, born into a world only a few scant generations after the American Civil War—finding her voice and achieving agency for herself in of itself was a radical idea for her era. That’s how oppressive her world was—that the very idea that she could have wants and dreams, hopes and goals, of her own, wasn’t even considered. The fact that it takes her the better part of the story to finally stand up for her belief that she, Janie, was a person with thoughts and feelings just as valid as anyone else doesn’t diminish her heroism. It’s still an achievement when she stands up for herself, her gender, and her race—even when sometimes those three elements weren’t necessarily aligned.

What I don’t love about this book:

There are many side characters in this book that can be described as people who should just mind their own business. They’re constantly insinuating themselves into Janie’s life, typically just picking at her and expressing disapproval for some such or other. As someone who grew up in a small-town setting, I can confirm wholeheartedly this is definitely authentic small-town behavior. My dislike for this kind of behavior, in reality, translates right into fiction, and I was often annoyed by some petty character or another whose whole role in life seems to be to give Janie a hard time. I get their function within the story and why they’re there, but I did find myself thinking several times, did there really need to be so many of them?

I’ve mentioned that I’m a big dog lover before on this blog—so it was horribly troubling for me that the ultimate antagonist of this story, other than the hurricane, was a rabid dog. The thing is, I saw it coming too, and when the dog bit someone, I knew exactly what the problem was going to be after that. All of that was very sad for the humans involved, don’t get me wrong, it works, but me being me, I was still going on about how sad I was about the dog in my head. So I was distracted by that.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

The story starts with a frame story of Janie returning home after a long day and not engaging with her gossiping neighbors, who proceed to talk about her—unkindly. Janie’s friend, however, excuses herself and walks over to Janie’s house to give her some food, and ultimately the conversation turns to the story of Janie’s life.

As a young girl, Janie was raised by her grandmother, the paid servant of a white family in Florida. Janie spent her girlhood playing with the white children. For a time, she didn’t even realize that there was any difference between her and them. The family Janie’s grandmother worked for were progressive for their time. Still, eventually, reality did catch up to Janie, and her ever-practical grandmother wanted Janie to marry before she died, so someone would look after Janie when she was gone. Janie wasn’t a fan of this idea—or the man her grandmother picked out for her. She did end up marrying him out of a sense of obligation, though, and was greatly unhappy.

Shortly after her grandmother passed away, and unhappy with her marriage to an old farmer, Janie met Joe Starks. Starks wooed and seduced Janie, who then quickly agreed to run away with him. They left for a new town, just getting started by a bunch of other southern black people. Janie and Joe marry, and soon after, he even becomes mayor of their little town. On top of becoming mayor, he establishes a post office and opens a general store. He’s a very practical person, like Janie’s grandmother—and while he dreams “big,” all his dreams are of a materialistic bent. Joe doesn’t actually love Janie. He married her for her beauty so she could be his trophy wife.

When Joe dies twenty years later, it’s at the height of his estrangement from his wife. Still, Janie mourns him and then coasts along for a while, still a relatively young woman. She runs the store, having nothing better to do and not enjoying it much. Then one day, a man everyone calls Tea Cake comes into her store. He’s much younger than Janie, and she resists her attraction to him, but eventually, she falls for his charms. They close the store, and to the town’s utter dismay, she decides to pick up stakes and leave with Tea Cake, and they get married.

Early on in their marriage, Janie struggles with doubts about Tea Cake, and the terrible thought that he just married her for her money enters her mind more than once. Being a bit of a drifter and a gambler, Tea Cake doesn’t initially do an excellent job of dispelling these fears. By the time they move to Florida together to work in the everglades, it becomes clear that Tea Cake is genuinely and deeply in love with his wife. He’s a flawed man, but unlike Joe Starks, he never pretends or even strives to be some paragon. Tea Cake’s loves are simple: his music, his gambling, his friends, and most of all, his wife.

When the hurricane hits Florida, Janie and Tea Cake don’t get out in time, and it is an utter disaster for them. Tea Cake manages to get Janie to safety but is bit by a rabid dog in the process. Not recognizing the problem immediately, and in the aftermath of the hurricane, Janie and the local doctor can’t get him medicine soon enough. Tea Cake succumbs to madness and even tries to shoot Janie, but he’d taught her to shoot better than even he, and before he can kill her, she shoots him. In the trial afterward, Janie is cleared of any charge of murder. She buries her latest husband and returns to her old home, where she had lived with Joe Starks. The neighbors look down their nose at her, assuming Tea Cake had run off with her money, but she doesn’t much care to correct them. She only cares to tell her friend what she learned and the story of her life.


“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a story of self-discovery and a love story, but it’s also a story set in post-reconstruction America. There is a racial element to the story, but it’s treated as just another aspect of life. Without coming out and just stating it, segregation was just what was expected by every character. Its inherent injustice and barbarity are self-evident, and no character has to go on a soliloquy about how bad racism is to prove that point. 

The very humanity of the novel’s characters and that denial of that fact about them by their society, and sometimes themselves, within the black community, is the driving dissonance that proves the absurdity of racism. The whole novel is a subtle and effective argument in that regard, which makes it genius. You can say racism is wrong, and that’s an appeal to the intellectual side of a person, which is ultimately why it fails. 

Show a person, living their life, stymied by expectations and limits arbitrarily assigned to them because of accidents of birth such as race and gender. Still, somehow she manages to bloom into a woman who loves and was loved for who she was—and now we have the workings of an emotional appeal. If Tea Cake, when press-ganged by some white men after the hurricane to clean up, was killed by them, it would have been a true-to-life tragedy, but it would have fumbled the greater point of the novel. Tea Cake and Janie were a man and a woman, before being a black man and a black woman, and therefore could suffer and succumb to the same arbitrary twists of fate as any other man or woman. The fact they also had to contend with this additional layer of misery laid onto them by society for the color of their skin isn’t just unfair; it’s ridiculous. Now that’s a compelling emotional appeal.

Parting thoughts:

So obviously, a book called “Their Eyes Were Watching God” has some religious themes. It really comes up in the hurricane chapters, and God, in this sense, is very much an old testament sort. If you’ve read the Bible, it’s a lot easier to catch all of the references in this novel, other than the obvious flooding motif.

This isn’t and wasn’t revolutionary in this novel’s day, to riff of the Christian Bible and make references to particular passages and stories. Referencing the Bible has been a time-honored tradition of countless writers for as long as the Bible has existed. I have personally read the King James Version of the Bible three times, from cover to cover, once for every decade of life I’ve lived. And, I intend to keep up the tradition despite being largely agnostic toward its whole message.

Early on, I read the Bible out of religious duty and whatnot, but now I read it as essential literature, which is why I will always defend that the Bible is worth reading. In fact, every Bible is worth reading, and all its analogs like the Torah, the Quran, et cetera.

Holy books, even if you don’t believe in them, are critical cultural flagstones. They work as scaffolding in literature, and reading them allows you to see how stories over the ages and writers of every stripe incorporate them into their work. Almost no other book, other than the Bible, has given me such broad insight into so many different people, how they thought and lived. For example, the Bible provides insight into Janie’s mind in this book, but it also provides insight into the whole plight of the human characters in Bram Stoker’s “Dracula.” Two stories that couldn’t be more different and written in two different eras of human history. I’m comfortable in saying that no other book has quite that same level of influence.

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