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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale…
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Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937)

by Zora Neale Hurston

Other authors: See the other authors section.

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I didn't like all the essays in Zadie Smith's Changing My Mind, but the piece about Their Eyes Were Watching God was excellent - and all the more likeable to me because she talked about her teenage reluctance to a) have the cultural background of one side of her family foisted on her when she was more interested in other things; and b) read this book because of the demographics of the author. She was, of course, surprised to find that she loved the book when she finally did read it. And I was one of the readers she persuaded to pick it up.

Other selling points are that it's a mostly positive book in a subgenre that's full of misery, about a character who doesn't feel particularly constrained by traditional attitudes and ideas about how a woman should be. If you had reservations about The Color Purple, there's no need to be put off by Alice Walker's association with this book. [Pre GR my experience was that The Color Purple was almost universally disliked among people I'd heard talk about it. The GR ratings tell a different story.] Walker's book and this one, a clear influence on it, simply have era and the use of dialect in common. Hurston's writing is far better and livelier.

There's a vast amount of material online about TEWWG already if you want information and academic analysis. These are just things I want to remember and which, in some instances, surprised me.

- The metaphors and images are fresh and startling, as if they were from a country whose literature is unfamiliar. Not from an American classic. Hurston's background as a folklore collector comes through in descriptions like that of Death, containing a few familiar features, but others evidently from traditions I don't know. The known is grounding, the unknown exciting and together it works brilliantly.

- Criticism Hurston received from her contemporaries, e.g from Richard Wright - for not being social-realist enough (though this book is plenty kitchen sink to someone who knows that British movement) - and from a white critic who doubted the scenario, in TEWWG, of a town entirely populated and run by black people, bring to mind a parallel with the more recent 'gaytopia' subgenre and the criticisms and defences of it.

MILD SPOILERS FOLLOW. Big spoilers are in tags. I went into the book having forgotten most prior detail I'd heard about the plot, other than the blurb, and restarted the novel - but not the introduction - in 2014.)

- Janie at the start of the story, in her late teens, is kind of spoiled. To take a sentence from later in the book which sums up too much of the contents of my head: She found herself angry at imaginary people who might try to criticize. I know just the kind of holier-than-thou rants GR spews in reponse to characters who behave like young Janie, the word "entitled" being a particular favourite, but confoundingly I couldn't remember seeing any re TEWWG. Aside from the obvious 'she was seventeen; she grew out of it', there are other dimensions: at this point she is a rebalancing, a pendulum swinging far in the other direction from her grandmother's saying that the black woman is "the mule of the world". Society classes her as simply black, but she's also the daughter and grandaughter of two violent, hierarchical white men; she's had a loving upbringing which would greatly temper it, but possibly a propensity for arrogance is in her inheritance too - which under the right conditions becomes a kind of confidence that is unafraid to stand out from the crowd.
- She is never troubled by her origins. Like some awful background detail in a fairytale that was historically common, it's mentioned and that's that. Perhaps if born in the late 19th century African American South, it was so common to be recently descended from a slave owner or rapist that it wasn't something to be greatly remarked on (?) - and Janie has been sheltered from recent trauma by living with her grandmother - instead getting on with the here and now. TEWWG is a book that's very much in its present, in contrast to the vast pain of Beloved - the character of Beloved being a contemporary of Janie's grandma.

-I thought someone from Janie's hometown would turn up in Eatonville and expose her as a bigamist, but they never did.

- On to pleasanter things. That's the point of TEWWG after all. I rarely understand the attraction of romantic heroes in classic literature - but Tea Cake is obviously a lot of fun, and nice without being a faultless goody goody, so I could, for once, see why. Hurston writes some great scenes in which he and Janie bounce off each other, and even this embittered curmudgeon can be kind of excited for them. Their conversational chemistry is obvious in the most everyday exchanges without needing narrative - it brings back times with those rare people who made me feel like Katherine Hepburn in a screwball comedy.
The occasion when he beat her so the neighbours would know, is couched in such mischief and hints at enjoyment - she never sounds negatively affected by it as she did by Stark - reminds me of accounts from that SM subculture that plays with retro domestic violence scenes. It sounds like they were playing at it as a one off (and differently from their mutually physical arguments which would also be considered unacceptable today) whilst the other people in their community are simply caught in entrenched violent sexism.

- Overall-wearing Janie who's a better shot than her husband is very cool and not what you'd expect from the average 1930s book - and it's quite clear, in contrast to her teenage princessy self at the start, that she's more than happy to pull her weight if she's with the right person.

- I really enjoyed the hurricane scene and the action & excitement it added.

- I get on very well with semi-tragic endings like this. Far more so than with HEA. The whole portion of the book from the first hints of the hurricane to the end was just perfect in the way of things that kick into particular circuits. Maybe there's some corner of goths I can go to and talk about this so I don't offend everyone else.Main thing is though, they're not real.

I read a 1990s American Harper Perennial edition with foreword by Mary Helen Washington and afterword by Henry Louis Gates Jr. ( )
  antonomasia | Nov 7, 2014 |
I had not read this classic novel - I am glad I did. It is powerful on many levels. I struggled a little with the dialect, but once I was into the story, I found it to be easy. I found that I "knew" many of the characters from my own experiences growing up in the South. While this is a novel written by an African American, I found the issues transcend race. Taking place in the Depression years in the South, I think it's the story of many people. ( )
  hobbitprincess | Aug 27, 2014 |
This year, I've been picking a favorite book to re-read each month. This was my re-read for August. The opening lines provide a great illustration of Hurston's lyrical writing and her philosophical musings:

"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men."

Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of Janie Crawford, a Black woman living in Florida in the early part of the twentieth century. She struggles to find herself, instead being pulled into two all-consuming marriages before she meets Tea Cake, a drifter who she falls in love with. Their adventures take them to the swamps of Okechobee, where in the description of a hurricane, the book gets its name:

"The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God."

Janie's story is compelling. She is both light and serious, both wise and naïve. She lives and loves with every fiber of her being. But what happens to Janie and Tea Cake and the others is not the point of this book. This is a book that marks a time and a place, that tells the story of a Black woman who is diminished neither by the fact that she is Black or a woman. It held up well to re-reading and remains one of my favorites. ( )
1 vote porch_reader | Aug 14, 2014 |
This book is definitely in my top 5. I would highly recommend this book. I read this in the second semester of my senior year of high school, and the timing was perfect. I found many meaningful and beautiful messages in this story about living and experiencing life for yourself. I really liked the way Zora Neale Hurston wrote the story. ( )
  nfoto | Jul 9, 2014 |
You can talk about Their Eyes Were Watching God for what it is - or what it isn't.

What it isn't is a bitter angry get-Whitey book like some that came out of the Harlem renaissance. (I may be wrong but I don't think there is a white character in the book - which may be its greatest strength.)

What it is, is a coming-of-age story or a questing story in the classic style, except it's about a woman, with slavery not that long ago in her bloodline, going out in the world to find her way and find her place.

It's a book of lovely wonderful affectionate sketches of life among the Black communities of Northern Florida, in the time between the wars. There's love and laughter and fear and panic andlife and death.

And people! And stories! Insightful revealing stories about the lives of those who live in small Southern towns. Twain does this. Hurston does it too.

(Note that the Gullah accent that she renders flawlessly - if sometimes a little broadly - can take some getting used to.)

And Janie our heroine does not charm us or try to make us like her - she just walks the world to love and grow and learn and keep moving.

I think I've failed utterly in conveying to you the luminous quality of the writing, and the nitty-gritty dusty deep down details of Southern living that this book reveals effortlessly.

But authors who can take you to a new world and show you around while telling a story are always amazing and always welcome in these parts. ( )
2 vote magicians_nephew | Jul 9, 2014 |
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» Add other authors (17 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Zora Neale Hurstonprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Gates Jr., Henry LouisAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Washington, Mary HelenForewordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To Henry Allen Moe
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Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board.
When I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God, in the early 1970's, I devoured it as one devours the most satisfying romantic fiction - the kind that stems from reality and that can, in the broadest sense, become real for oneself. (Introduction)
I first encountered Zora Neale Hurston in an Afro-American literature course I took in graduate school. (Afterword)
Quotations
This singing she heard that had nothing to do with her ears. the rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep. It connected itself with other vaguely felt matters that had struck her outside observation and buried themselves in her flesh. Now they emerged and quested about her consciousness...

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.
Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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Book description
This is the story a girl who searches for the love she believes is true. Throughout her struggles she gains strength, independence, and wisdom. She overcomes the obstacles in her path to chase her dreams and they take her places she never thought she'd end up.

We read this book for class last year. And I don't like Janie at all. I think she's flighty, annoying, childish, and selfish. I don't like Janie but I do like what she learns throughout her life. I appreciate that she is determined and willing to fight for what she wants and believes.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0061120065, Paperback)

At the height of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston was the preeminent black woman writer in the United States. She was a sometime-collaborator with Langston Hughes and a fierce rival of Richard Wright. Her stories appeared in major magazines, she consulted on Hollywood screenplays, and she penned four novels, an autobiography, countless essays, and two books on black mythology. Yet by the late 1950s, Hurston was living in obscurity, working as a maid in a Florida hotel. She died in 1960 in a Welfare home, was buried in an unmarked grave, and quickly faded from literary consciousness until 1975 when Alice Walker almost single-handedly revived interest in her work.

Of Hurston's fiction, Their Eyes Were Watching God is arguably the best-known and perhaps the most controversial. The novel follows the fortunes of Janie Crawford, a woman living in the black town of Eaton, Florida. Hurston sets up her characters and her locale in the first chapter, which, along with the last, acts as a framing device for the story of Janie's life. Unlike Wright and Ralph Ellison, Hurston does not write explicitly about black people in the context of a white world--a fact that earned her scathing criticism from the social realists--but she doesn't ignore the impact of black-white relations either:

It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.
One person the citizens of Eaton are inclined to judge is Janie Crawford, who has married three men and been tried for the murder of one of them. Janie feels no compulsion to justify herself to the town, but she does explain herself to her friend, Phoeby, with the implicit understanding that Phoeby can "tell 'em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat's just de same as me 'cause mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf."

Hurston's use of dialect enraged other African American writers such as Wright, who accused her of pandering to white readers by giving them the black stereotypes they expected. Decades later, however, outrage has been replaced by admiration for her depictions of black life, and especially the lives of black women. In Their Eyes Were Watching God Zora Neale Hurston breathes humanity into both her men and women, and allows them to speak in their own voices. --Alix Wilber

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:24:42 -0400)

(see all 9 descriptions)

Meet the unforgettable Janie Crawford, an articulate African-American woman in the 1930s. Traces Janie's quest for identity, through three marriages, on a journey to her roots. When Janie Starks returns to her rural Florida home, her small black community is overwhelmed with curiosity about her relationship with a younger man.… (more)

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