Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

8/10 (Forced language, inconsistent narration)

I enjoyed this book more than I thought I would. Being a somewhat-conventional man, it is difficult for me to get excited about books with female protagonists. But a (male) friend recently told me this was his favorite book of all-time, piquing my curiosity. Additionally, the fact that I’m a teacher and work with students who are reading this made it sort of a professional necessity.

The first page was enough to interest me. Hurston’s unique lyricism is on display from the get-go. The simple yet bizarre descriptions she gives to things and events are both jarring and natural. You have to stop a minute to figure out exactly what she’s talking about, but once you see it you wonder what was stopping you from seeing it that way yourself. Here’s the fourth paragraph to show what I mean:

The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. 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.

Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up from other times. So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song. 1-2

This is just brilliant and beautiful any way you look at it, and it’s a good example of the bursts of poetry you will find throughout the book (although perhaps none so concentrated as in the first couple of chapters). “The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky”. . .”Mules and other brutes occupied their skins”. . .”They chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish”. . . “killing tools out of laughs.” I love it.

The story of a woman searching for fulfillment is not unique but it is certainly well-told. The brevity and the prose kept my interest the entire time. I grew to care for Janie and admire her for the sensibility of her worldview, however unlearned it was. In that way Phoeby, Janie’s friend in the envelope narrative, serves as a surrogate for the reader.

I wasn’t entirely convinced, however. Occasionally Hurston can’t keep learned words and phrases out of her ignorant protagonist’s mouth. Those times gave me the distinct impression of an academic slumming it with the tribal folks. Not knowing enough about Hurston’s personal life I can neither confirm or deny those suspicions; I can only report on my impressions.

Other times the language seems forced. An example: “They sat on the boarding house porch and saw the sun plunge into the same crack in the earth from which the night emerged. 33” This sounds poetic and profound, but upon second thought the night doesn’t emerge from the same direction as the sun sets. It emerges from the opposite direction. So while it sounds pretty it doesn’t really make sense. And yes I plead guilty to being overly literal.

I’m also skeptical that the narrative technique really works. I’ve seen it praised in the foreword and afterword, but to me it seemed a little slippery to have Janie ostensibly telling the story but the narrative hopping between 3rd-omniscient, 3rd-limited, and 1st (among various characters). It made it difficult to settle into, and difficult to really develop empathy for Janie.

Speaking of the foreword and afterword, they provided valuable context to the novel and Hurston’s life. (Although I have yet to come across a foreword/introduction that isn’t better read after you’ve finished the novel. Read it fresh and then analyze, people!) It was interesting to read about the controversy surrounding a novel that seemed relatively unassailable (after all, my only real problems with it were quibbles). While I understand Richard Wright’s and others’ objections that Hurston’s work was not political enough and was perhaps abnegating responsibility by ignoring the black plight in the face of white injustice, I disagree with the accusation.

First of all, any mindset or literature that requires an opponent with which to struggle is by definition too weak to stand on its own, or in other words inferior. There is something strong and natural about black characters too wrapped up in their own lives to really worry about the racial pressure they face from whites. Why shouldn’t blacks be able to enjoy characters that don’t constantly feel downtrodden?

There is something inherently immature about the figure with the perpetual chip on his shoulder (here I’m thinking of Wright’s autobiographical Black Boy). At some point you have to grow past rebellion and into productive self-actualization. And that is precisely the journey that Janie embodies, complete with returning to her community to report back on her odyssey.

Secondly, just because race is not overtly addressed does not make it absent in “Their Eyes.” There’s a lot of racial feeling around the figure of Jody, who though black begins to embody the white “bossman” in many ways. One of the most memorable characters is Mrs. Turner, who hates the dark-skinned “niggers” because she was born with lighter skin and whiter features. Then in the hurricane’s aftermath, the injustice of Tea Cake’s forced inscription is palpable, as is the bitter absurdity of Janie’s trial by whites (and the white comments about her afterward).

This is not ignoring racial politics, it is simply not focusing on them but rather addressing them as they appear naturally during the course of the story. And after all, isn’t there more to black identity than being the victims of whites? I love this book for being perhaps the first to show what that might look like.


Original Review


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