Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston is a story of the strength that grows from sadness and tragedy. The book deals with the themes of personal identity, race, love and men through the eyes of Janie Crawford - a thrice-married woman in 1930’s Florida. Janie is vulnerable and tough, sheltered and worldly, coddled and self-sufficient. She is a study in contrasts. She is a woman.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is, to me, a uniquely black woman’s story but the themes of this novel transcend color. It’s the story of a woman, of women.
And my first reaction upon finishing the novel was that it is sad.
Their Eyes begins with a young Janie, raised by her Grandmother, the maid in a white household. Janie and her Grandmother live together in the white family’s back house and little Janie plays often with the white children. Janie’s identity issues begin at a young age, “Ah was wid dem white chillun so much till Ah didn’t know Ah wuzn’t white till Ah was round six years old.” Janie goes on to tell the story of a photographer who came around one day and took pictures of all the children. When the photographer came back to the house with the developed photographs, Janie didn’t recognize her self in the photos. She could not tell which child she was or what she looked like; she didn’t know she was a black girl.
The search for her identity as a woman - a person - is what drives Janie’s choices and the story. At 16, her dying Grandmother marries her off to a local man. He is not a man Janie loves but she marries him despite her feelings. That marriage doesn’t last.
Through Janie’s two subsequent marriages she learns what she wants, and what she doesn’t want, out of life. Janie’s second husband is ambitious and successful and he treats Janie as though she were his possession. He is thoughtless to Janie’s wants and needs; her only role is as his wife. Janie becomes a bit hardened with this marriage, but more sure of herself as a woman.
Janie’s third husband, a younger man, gives her a taste of what life and love are about. Janie is opened up to new worlds, both outside of her small FL town and inside herself. Janie’s third husband is a man who loves her and understands her and lets her be her self. They love each other. The story doesn’t end happily.
It is through Janie’s relationships with the men in her life that she learns to stand on her own, to be her own woman and to live her own life. Janie is brave and independent and a beautiful example of womanhood.
This novel is like a lyrical poem. There are turns of phrase that are filled with beauty and honesty and Hurston’s usage of colloquial dialogue brings a realism to the story that would be lost if she had chosen to have the characters speak “proper” English. It is a beautiful story and a definite call to live life on your own terms, “two things everybody got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
I also urge you to dig deeper into the life and legacy of Zora Neale Hurston. Hers is a fascinating story and she is an American literary treasure.