Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

I read this book for the monthly CASA book of the month club in our local chapter [1], and in reading this book I found it strangely topical and a far better and deeper book than I remember when I first read it as a somewhat jaded high school student.  Perhaps the depth was there, it just simply was not apparent to me at the time.  I may perhaps be forgiven for having not always been a deep a reader as I fancy myself to be now.  At any rate, this book is one that is much higher regarded now than it was for the first few decades after its initial publishing, to the point where it was long out of print.  The reasons for that are somewhat worthwhile to point out.  For one, the book is mostly written in the patois of an uneducated black woman of the early 20th century, which is not the most appealing dialect for most people to read, even though it is clear that the author’s narrative voice is much better educated and consequently much more enjoyable for these eyes.  For another, the book itself speaks to the debate within black circles concerning whether it is best to focus on black people (or women, or both) as victims of a white male order or whether it is acceptable to admit, as at least one of the characters in this book does openly, that black people don’t need others to keep them down because they do a good enough job of doing it to themselves [2].

The narrative of this novel is a frame story told by the independent-minded Janie, who like many women (including the author) was a poor judge of men.  After [spoiler alert] losing her third husband Tea Cake to complications from rabies and being found not guilty of murdering him in his diseased state, she returns home to Eatonville, a place where the author herself actually lived and which may have seemed unbelievable to many people as being a town run by black people.  The author looks at Janie’s childhood, her unhappy first and second marriages, the way that she served as a romantic quest and struggled to find a voice of her own.  The character, and this is important to recognize, is not written merely as a symbol for womanhood in general as being oppressed and beaten, though Janie certainly is, but rather as a particular woman, both noble and flawed, both worthy of respect and criticism.  And the same could be said of this book–it is worthy of criticism but it is also worthy of respect, and if the novel can be hard to read because of its dialect, it must be admitted that the author was herself a close student of the dialects of the South and if an educated person herself, certainly did not come from a privileged background.

Ultimately, this book speaks to contemporary readers in several ways.  For one, it represents the tension and ambiguity of a woman who does not wish to fill up the silence of life with words as much as choose for herself whether she wants to speak or be silent, and how.  Janie finds herself resentful when her politically ambitious second husband silences her from giving speeches, finds her own voice when she unmans him later on in the face of his repeated verbal abuse, and finds herself silent when she is in the courtroom and the details are filled out with an omniscient narrator who gives the scene and does not let Janie speak for herself in her most decisive moment.  One wonders how much of that ambiguous relationship with speech and silence relates to the author herself, especially given her fall from grace and her long struggle with poverty.  The other layer of contemporary political meaning is the way that the author speaks to the struggles of black people, a struggle not only with racism without, but within as well.  One can easily imagine that Janie would have much to tell blacks in the post-Obama period as she notes that while some blacks, like her grandmother, focused on getting in the big house, they didn’t think about what they were going to do once they were there.  The achieving of offices, and the gain of political power hasn’t solved the problems faced by blacks, hasn’t made them feel safer or made others feel safer around them.  What is to be done?

[1] See, for example:’

[2] It should be noted that this is a widespread human problem, and is certainly not something that is limited to any one particular segment of the population.  See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
This entry was posted in American History, Book Reviews, History, Love & Marriage and tagged , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Lost Children Of Wilder | Edge Induced Cohesion

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  3. Pingback: Book Review: Nickel And Dimed | Edge Induced Cohesion

  4. Pingback: The Winding Down | Edge Induced Cohesion

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