Saturday, January 7, 2017

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God
Zora Neale Hurston
Published 1937

Two things everybody's got tuh do fuh theyseles.  They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin' fuh theyselves.
This story is either beautifully tragic or tragically beautiful.  Maybe it is not meant to be tragic at all, but I felt the tragic.

Jules Andre Smith (1880-1959)

Some details and some spoilers

The setting is Florida, early 1900s.  Slavery had been abolished for fifty years, and black men and women were building their communities.  The protagonist, Janie, a young woman, was raised by her grandmother, whose view of the world was still set in the time of slavery.  She married Janie off to save her from developing a bad image.

That union did not last long because it was a cheap relationship, lacking in love and a million other important things.  Before long, Janie ran off with another man - younger than her first husband, at least - and married him.  He promised her the world, and converted her into a fine lady; together they built up the first black incorporated town of Eatonville.

For twenty years, Janie obeyed her husband and supported his egotistical image, when all she wanted to do was to simply love him.  He did not treat her as an equal, with dignity; he treated her like his many possessions.

One day he got sick and died, and Janie was so free and happy, you could taste it.   She was also set for life and did not need to rely on anyone to take care of her.   That is, until a much younger man came to town - literally sweeping Janie off her feet - and took her away from Eatonville.

I know you may be thinking, "NOOOOOO!  Don't do it!"  That was what I was screaming, too. But this was different than her last two relationships.  This man, Tea Cake, made Janie (pushing forty) feel like a little girl.  She felt like she could finally be herself.  She experienced her love and life for the first time.

Now personally, I did not trust Tea Cake.  (It is my own experience.)  But I was leery of him, and why not?  He took Janie away from her livelihood, her friends, and what I perceived to be her freedom.  And he did some questionable things; but for Janie, it worked for her.

Then something tragic happened and changed life all over again.  In that time of uncertainty, Janie learned that she must look to God for His provisions.  All of life was out of their control, and the white people whom they thought knew everything were actually not in control of their circumstances either.  They were in the dark, too.  And so, her eyes were on God, waiting for what He would do next.

In the end, Janie returned to Eatonville, to the speculation of the town as to what really happened to her; and no one knew anything.  But she did share her whole story with a close friend, and she explained that
love ain't something 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.
End spoilers

Jules Andre Smith

This is an amazing story, full of beautiful language and themes and truths.  It is a proclamation of Hurston's viewpoint regarding issues of marriage and society in the 1900s, effecting black women. But even more so, it is an account of human nature, and how we think of love and life and other people.

I loved this book; I am so happy to have read it, and I would definitely read it again in the future.

P.S.  Immediately afterward, I watched the 2005 film on YouTube, which was equally enjoyable, even though the movie had to leave out or change little details.

Watch the entire movie via YouTube:


Gently Mad said...

I have always wondered about this book. I've been leery about reading it because so many of those types of books seem to adhere to a certain formula. But because the author includes God in a respectful manner I think I will give this book a try. Thanks for an informative review.

Anonymous said...

I loved this book. I didn't trust Tea Cake either, but it turns out that I did learn that love can look very differently for different people. Not at all like the abuse is acceptable, nor is is love, but I always saw these situations as involving a mousy woman with neither man or woman really feeling love at all.
I thought the book was full of tragedy too, but it made me feel something time and time again which is a sign of crafty writing. I would love to see the movie.

Anonymous said...

I hope that you do try it. It is so very different than anything I believe you could have read before.

Ruth said...

The idea about God is somewhat general that it has been thought of to mean many different things; but I like it this way: that Janie really did see life in His hands - according to His will. She knew He knew all things and she recognized that He was in control of everything. And she sort of accepted whatever God wanted was what would be. And she was content with that.

The movie doesn't focus on this or explain it, but the author does.

Ruth said...

I'd love to read your review if you have one at your blog. I'll go check it out. Now that I've read it, I'm curious what others thought or how they understood it.

Paula Vince said...

I have had this book on my TBR list for some time. Thank you for your reviews, which have been giving me a great idea whether or not any given classic might be something I'd like to pursue. I appreciate it, since choosing to start books of this nature could turn out to be a big commitment.

Ruth said...

You're welcome.

This book is not very long, but the challenging aspect is the language. There is a lot of dialogue and it is written in the phonetics of the people of that time and region. You get used it after a short time, but it takes some deciphering.

Carol said...

I've seen this book mentioned in various places but wasn't sure what it was about. I think the colloquial dialogues would mess with my head.

Ruth said...

For me, it was not as difficult as Captains Courageous, by Rudyard Kipling, which I am reading aloud to my kids. The characters use a sailor's accent, which I cannot even translate into proper English - so my kids can understand better. Instead, I'll read dialogue, and then I'll admit, "I have no idea what he just said," and leave it at that. So the sailor's voice is more complicated to determine than the language in Their Eyes. After awhile, my mind replaced the words with my own voice.

Anonymous said...

I had it on Goodreads, so I added it to my blog and dated the post for the date when I finished it.

Silvia said...

LOL, I did the same, read the book, watched the movie. I cannot read dialect in books, but this book I had no problem reading and understanding (go figure!) Captain Courageous was more difficult for me too. But I read Captain C. aloud, and Their Eyes to myself. Scottish dialect is to me harder than the black dialect of this book.

Ruth said...

Captains Courageous was ridiculous. I hated reading it out loud.

Brona said...

Isn't this a wonderful book. My reading was nearly 4 yrs ago now, but I still remember it fondly.
I suspect most modern readers suspect Teacake's intentions and integrity, but Janey's journey into love was such a beautiful thing, it was hard to fault her.

My review is here -

Ruth said...

Thanks for sharing your review. I answered you over there. : )

Joseph said...

I think you enjoyed your 20th Century Classic more than I did mine. I'm sure this is in TBR somewhere, but I'll have to move it up now. My choice for 20th Century Classic - Appointment in Samarra.