Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God

THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GODI have been out of commission since October, which is a little extreme. I attended that wonderful writing residency and finished a novel, but within weeks of returning I came down with something like the flu and destroyed my Thanksgiving season. I struggled with recovery until I decided that I had a secondary sinus infection. Worked on healing that when I concluded that I was also suffering from my seasonal allergies—in December!—because of an unseasonably warm winter. Back on my meds but by then I was a mess of symptoms and circumstance-induced-cortisol and I landed at the doctor’s office with a diagnosis that was linked to a vitamin deficiency or two. That’s when I grabbed my schedule and meal plan by the, ahem, balls and reworked it all. After four weeks on mega-vitamins, a fresh “diet,” and a valiant attempt at relaxation, I managed a book review last week. And here comes another…

I don’t think this will be a long review, as I’m not sure I have that much to say about Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston. There’s a lot that has been said about it. It’s just that, like another reviewer I found on GoodReads, I wanted to like it but I just didn’t really.

ZORA NEALE HURSTONThe short of it is: Zora Neale Hurston struggled in her life in the early twentieth century. She was an African American writer (as well as odd-job-er) who received no fame and fortune in her time. A later famous, female African American author (Alice Walker) gave her unmarked grave a headstone and revived her work, in the 1970s. Now, her books, especially Eyes Were Watching, are considered important classics of American literature and great novels.

There is some debate over Their Eyes Were Watching God. Is the main character an emancipated female? Or not? Did she find love and meaning in her life? Was she ever her own woman? Is the use of local vernacular patronizing? Or is it respectful reportage? (Hurston studied anthropology and the people she was to portray in her work.) Can we view this novel as a novel about race? Or just an early feminist novel? Are politics involved? Or just the universal human struggle for love and perhaps meaning?

Here’s why I like it: the language. It is lyrical, tactile, beautiful, and honest in its writing. Here’s why I don’t like it: it doesn’t have much in the way of a conventional plot. It’s slow. Meandering. And not exactly fulfilling if you’re looking for Janie to find the meaning of life or for the princess to get the prince or for a standard trajectory of plot points. The truth is, if the story were pruned a whole lot, there are scenes that could have given it—at the least—a structure that would draw the reader into the story more. As it is, we’re relying solely on character and scenery and that’s a hard sell for me, especially when I’m not too sure about the characters involved. Atmospherically, it’s interesting and engaging (and if you want a glimpse into the Southern African American culture of the early 1900s, especially into the woman of that time and place, I can see why you would turn here for its earnestness and immersion), but I’m just not the fan I could be with a sturdier plot and resolution.

I am going to leave you with a more favorable review of the book, or at least an excerpt from a review by Melissa Rudder on GoodReads. It is one that I can agree with, whether or not I enjoy the book or will re-read it. “When I teach Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, I tell my students the Alice Walker headstone story and teach the book as a Black Feminist novel that is far, far ahead of its time. I noticed this year that my introduction made my students expect the protagonist, Janie, to jump from the novel’s pages as a woman warrior, take no shit from anyone, and–I don’t know–burn her bra. But the real beauty of Hurston’s novel is that her heroine is a real character living in a real world–albeit, one that is touched by literary genius and reflective of literary genres as varied and vital as (Hurston’s scholarly focus) African American Folk Tradition and the odyssey of the “high mimetic form”. (A Black woman presented as the hero of an epic journey in 1937–simply amazing.) Janie struggles. Janie submits. Janie silences herself. But Janie grows. And, in my mind, a revolution begins.”

QUOTES

“De way you talkin’ you’d think de folks in dis town didn’t do nothin’ in de bed ‘cept praise de Lawd” (p3).

“Freedom found me wid a baby daughter in mah arms, so Ah said Ah’d take a broom and a cook-pot and throw up a highway through de wilderness for her” (p15).

“Put me down easy, Janie, Ah’m a cracked plate” (p19).

“But folks is meant to cry ‘bout somethin’ or other” (p23).

“Logan was accusing her of her mamma, her grandma and her feelings, and she couldn’t do a thing about any of it” (p31).

“He’s got uh throne in de seat of his pants” (p46).

“It happened over one of those dinners that chasten all women sometimes. They plan and fix and they do, and then some kitchen-dwelling fiend slips a scorch, soggy, tasteless mess into their pots and pans” (p67).

“Here Nanny had taken then biggest thing God ever made, the horizon …. And pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her” (p85).

“Ah’m born but Ah ain’t dead. No tellin’ whut Ah’m liable tuh do yet” (p101).

“Pheoby, ded educated women got uh heap of things to sit down and consider. Somebody done tole ‘em what to set down for. Nobody ain’t told poor me, so sittin’ still worries me. Ah wants tuh utilize mahself all over” (p107).

“…if he love property he ain’t no different from the rest of us” (p107).

“Dis ain’t no business proposition, and no race after property and titles. Dis is uh love game. Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine” (p108).4

“It was hard to love a woman that made you always feel so wishful” (p111).

“All she found out was that she was too old a vessel for new wine” (p114).

“People don’t die till dey time come nohow, don’t keer where you at. Ah’m wid mah husband in uh storm, dat’s all” (p151).

“If you can see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door” (p151).

“…the wind and water had given life to lots of things that folks think of as dead and given death to so much that had been living things” (p152).

“The sea was walking the earth with a heavy heel” (p153).

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