Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God was brilliant! I just thought I'd start with that before I go any further. Janie Crawford is a black woman, living in the early days of black emancipation in America, struggling to find her place in the world. She is raised by her grandmother after her mother deserts her, although this is after a brutal rape, of which Janie is the product. The grandmother herself escaped from slavery at its very end and raised both her daughter and her grand-daughter in the home of a sympathetic white family. Janie herself has a contented childhood, not even realising she is black until seeing a photograph of herself with the other children in the household. Her Grandmother, however, is very conscious of this fact and is determined to push Janie towards a life where she will not be used and abused.

That, in a nutshell, is Janie's back story, but that is not where this novel starts. It starts with a middle aged Janie returning to Eatonville (an all coloured town in Florida), and sitting on her porch explaining her life to her friend, and how she ended up returning. Throughout her life, Janie has had three marriages, two unhappy, and the third finally fulfilling her hopes, but ending tragically. The first marriage is arranged by her grandmother, but ultimately does not fulfill Janie and she leaves, and runs off with Joe Stark, which is when she ends up in Eatonville. Joe is business minded, and transforms Eatonville, sets up the shop, post office and eventually becomes mayor. In effect, this is the point when Janie has what her grandmother wants for her, but she is stifled by her husband. She is the mayors wife, and can do nothing unless he permits it, or tells her to do it. When he dies, she runs off a much younger man, named teacake, and finally becomes happy, although she comes down in the world to achieve this. She is by this point a fairly wealthy woman, and owns property, but she is happiest working on the plantations with Teacake, simply because she wants to spend as much time with him as possible.

In essence, this is the main discovery Janie has to make in this book. As a teenager she discovers what she wants and what love is through lying under a pear tree.

"She saw a dust bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch cramming in every blossom and frothing with delight"

Immediately after this she kisses a local boy, which sets in motion the train of events that lead to her grandmother to arrange her first marriage, which she grudgingly submits too, hoping love will come whilst at the same time not seeing how this will happen. Janie is constantly searching for her own pear tree moments in all of her husbands, and she finally finds this in Teacake.

Teacake is a fantastic character. Talking in rhyme, no pretences to be what he's not and so wonderfully in love with Janie. And Janie with him. Her Grandmother may have wanted her to be protected from the will of men, and that is totally understandable considering what she suffered in her life, but Janie just wanted happiness. And that is the major contradiction. Whilst trying to do her best for Janie, the grandmother forces the unhappiness, but she really was just trying to do her best for her beloved grand-daughter. Janie is such a strong woman, she seems to develop as the story progresses and eventually hold out for what she really wants, despite what people may think. The love she and Teacake feel for each other is total, and beautifully evoked that as readers we never doubt their feelings for each other. For example, when Teacake asks her to come and work with him in the fields, not as a submission, but just because he doesn't like to be apart from her, it is totally believable, and only enhances what we feel about the depth of their relationship.

I don't really know how Hurston manages to do this, but I think the reality of the situation is expressed mainly through the use of dialect. Janie tells the majority of the story herself, using a thick black-American dialect, which was difficult at first to interpret, but got easier as the novel progressed.

There is so much to this novel, I think it is one I would get more out of on subsequent readings. But as an insight into life as a coloured American in troubled times it's fantastic. Also a brilliant love story, a quest for personal fulfillment, with or without love, and an exploration of what makes happiness and contentment. In this case, it ends with a packet of flower seeds expressing hope for the future.

3 comments:

LizF said...

Came across this book last weekend while trawling through a charity shop's bookshelves. I bought it partly because it was a Virago and partly because something about it rang bells although I couldn't think why.
Having read your review I am very glad that I did and i look forward to reading it.

anothercookiecrumbles said...

I have a VMC edition of this, and I've been wanting to read it for a long time, as everyone speaks of it so highly. Of course, there are about a gazillion other books to read, but will definitely be reading this one sooner rather than later!

Thanks for a fantastic review.

santhi priya said...


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me: A truly motivational and life changing book
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