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A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.

Their Eyes Were Watching God ~ by Zora Neale Hurston

Their EyesTheir Eyes Were Watching God is a book that comes complete with its own luggage: a seminal work of African-American literature – a milestone in women’s literature – a feminist classic even …

Fortunately I didn’t know any of that when I read it or, indeed, when I wrote most of this piece … so what follows is simply a review of a book that was recommended to me by a friend.

The recommendation came with a warning not to be put off by the first few pages, a warning well taken because Hurston starts as she means to go on – with phonetically rendered black vernacular dialogue – which she maintains to the end of the book.

Set in central and southern Florida in the early years of the 20th Century Their Eyes tells the story of Janie Crawford, a light-skinned black woman who kicks against the confines of her birth and upbringing.  Raised by her grandmother after being deserted by her mother, Janie yearns to see and experience the world that lies beyond her local community, but for her grandmother – a former slave – the freedom to sit on her own front porch is the greatest luxury the world can offer.  All she wants before she dies is to see her granddaughter safely settled, and so – when she witnesses the 16-year-old Janie experimentally kissing a local boy – she decides it’s time the girl was married . . .

Their Eyes follows Janie’s life from her first marriage into her forties.  Two of her marriages are loveless, but her third union – with the engaging and irresistibly-named Tea Cake – finally provides her with the emotional fulfilment  she’s been seeking since that first innocent kiss.

The book is dialogue-heavy, and to begin with the faithfully-rendered black dialect threatens to scuttle it, but gradually the natural rhythms of the speech patterns begin to assert themselves and you start to appreciate the wit and beauty of the way language is being used.

Once upon uh time, Ah never ‘spected nothin’, Tea Cake, but bein’ dead from standin’ still and tryin’ tuh laugh. But you come ‘long and made somethin’ outa me. So Ah’m thankful fuh anything we come through together.

Hurston’s authorial voice is equally distinctive and startlingly at odds with the dialogue:

It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.

The unlikely combination of the reported speech and Hurston’s own fiercely intelligent prose style produces a slightly jolting effect that results, unexpectedly, in a compulsively readable book.

Janie Crawford isn’t by any means a standard issue feminist heroine.  For a large part of the book, she’s a doormat and tolerates being belittled and abused by her second husband partly for the sake of a quiet life and partly through fear that she is too old to start over again.  We as readers however are privy to her lively inner life and know that eventually, inevitably, the worm must and will turn.

I’m not remotely qualified to speak to the novel’s credentials as a seminal work of African-American literature …  but I can tell you that, academic labels aside, Their Eyes works beautifully as a love story, a shared journey and a sensitive and wryly humorous exploration of the human need to belong, be wanted and be loved.  In fact, after the strangeness of the dialect and the setting had worn off, I basically became so wrapped up in this very human story with its large and vivacious cast of characters that I completely forgot about their ethnic origins.  For me, at least, the colour of their skins was the least important thing about them – and that, surely, is how it should be.

Harper Perennial Modern Classics.  2006.  ISBN: 978-0061120060. 256pp.

2 comments on “Their Eyes Were Watching God ~ by Zora Neale Hurston

  1. Kirsty
    May 5, 2009

    Like you, I had no idea of the book’s reputation before reading it last year. In a classic instance of judging a book by its cover, I bought it because it was one of those beautiful Virago Modern Classic 30th anniversary editions, plus it had an introduction by Zadie Smith (who I love).

    I’m so glad I read it though, and it made it into my personal Top 10 books of 2008. The dialogue took a few pages to get my head around, but the simplicity and beauty of the story itself carried me through and in the end I devoured the whole book in (almost) one sitting.

  2. Jackie
    May 5, 2009

    It seems like I read this book, but from the review, surely I would’ve remembered something so different? So perhaps I haven’t but have always intended to.And if I have & forgotten, this insightful review makes me want to read it again. It definitely gave us a sense of the flavor of the book & though I’ve long been aware of the reputation, shouldn’t be intimidated by such a very human story.

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Acknowledgment

  • (The header image is from Aesop's Fables, illustrated by Francis Barlow (1666), and appears courtesy of the Digital and Multimedia Center at the Michigan State University Libraries.)
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