Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston lingered, unread, on my booklist for well over a year. The title immediately grabbed me, but there were a couple of things that put me off. Firstly, every modern copy of this book comes with something like four introductions and two afterwords. This made me feel like there wasn’t enough “real” words to put into the story, so the publisher decided to insert analytical essays to make more money each time the book hit print. While I do believe that this is what the publisher intended, I found there was more than enough meat in this novel to make it a worthwhile read. Secondly, somewhere down the line I began to view it as a “culture book.” Zora Hurston was a black writer who wrote a book about black life in the early 1900s. It was easy for me to assume that the book didn’t need to be well written – the strong impact of writing about black life in the late 30s would supersede the need for good prose… Upon finally finishing the book, I simply can’t believe that I put it off for so long.
Early on, I noticed that the dialogue didn’t match the descriptions. At first I found it very off-putting. The descriptions are beautiful and flowing, while the dialogue is filled with rough dialects and, initially, was extremely hard to read. The first bit of description in the novel reads, “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.” The first bit of dialogue reads, “What she doin’ coming back her in dem overalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on?–Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in?–Where all dat money her husband took and died and left her?” The contrast is obvious, and exceedingly important. A common theme throughout the book is that, while the blacks in that time were uneducated, they still had deep souls, and were just as capable as anyone else of understanding the depth that life has to offer. I came to greatly enjoy this contrast throughout the book. What’s more, the dialogue that, at first, was extremely difficult to read, became completely natural. It is my humble opinion that it rivaled anything that Steinbeck produced in both authenticity and readability.
The characters, Janie in particular, were authentic and complex. Hurston didn’t hide any part of society at that time to skew the story in her own political directions. She wrote truthfully about a generation once removed from slavery – their foibles and fortes; their dreads and their dreams. Janie’s evolution throughout the novel was a joy to see. Slowly, she breaks away from what was considered to be acceptable in black society at that time and discovers who she is outside of her social identity as a black woman at the turn of the 20th century.
The themes are powerful and vast. Zora didn’t shy away from any topic! One of her more powerful minor characters is Mrs. Turner, a black woman who hates the blackness in herself and in others. She dresses like a white woman would, talks down to blacks in much the same way, and supplicates herself to anyone, regardless of race, who looks whiter than she is. A running theme in the book, as shown through the residents of the town of Eatonville and through Mrs. Turner’s character, is that black society was partially responsible for keeping itself in a supplicant position… This is a risky theme even in modern day, but I’m sure it was shocking when the novel was released in 1937. Personally, I found these themes to be sadly haunting and profoundly human. The repression of a people for so long couldn’t be without consequences.
Let me clear on another point as well: this is not a black book. This is a human book. It is about how we as a people let our fears get the better of us, and it is a book about the many shapes of love. Janie’s relationships with her grandma, and her first and second husband hold the novel together as she discovers her own capacity to love in the midst of a very strenuous time in American history.
“[L]ove ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. 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.”