Rating: 4 stars
Read as a May BOTM for the Goodreads 1001 Books group
Shame on me, but I hadn’t heard of Zora Neale Hurston or Their Eyes Were Watching God before it was voted to be a May BOTM for the Shelfari 1001 Books Group on Goodreads. Hurston led quite a life, and there are elements of her self-awareness and unconventionality in the novel’s main character, Janie.
I really enjoyed this book. It was unlike the African-American literature I’ve read before. It felt more honest, grittier, and as much about being a human struggling to be true to yourself as it was about being black.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Janie. She returns to her hometown and becomes the latest topic of gossip. So Janie tells her life story to her friend Pheoby.
As a child, Janie doesn’t realise she’s coloured until she sees herself in a photograph. She lives with her grandmother in the grounds of a white family’s house and grows up with the grandchildren of the white family. Janie is illegitimate, the result of her mother sleeping with a good for nothing. From the description of her father being chased by the sheriff with dogs, I wasn’t sure whether it was rape, or unbridled passion misunderstood. Janie says her father returned to try to marry her mother, but doesn’t say where she found that out. Later, her grandmother makes it clear that it was rape, and reveals who Janie’s father is.
At sixteen, Janie has her first kiss, witnessed by her grandmother who cheapens it by insisting Janie needs to marry before any old good for nothing can take advantage of her. “Nanny’s words made Janie’s kiss across the gatepost seem like a manure pile after rain.”
Poor Janie. She’s 16 and full of new feelings of romance that she wants to explore. The description of her awakening, focused on her daydreaming under a pear tree in blossom and watching the bees pollinating the tree, is like lying sun-kissed alongside Janie. Her grandmother is frightened of the past repeating itself, though, and wants to settle Janie with a responsible man. Janie just wants to feel the new things she’s feeling. What 16 year old wouldn’t? When her grandmother reveals that someone has already asked to marry her, Janie is appalled. Her reaction is wonderful.
‘Naw, Nanny, no ma’am! Is dat whut he been hangin’ round here for? He look like some ole skull-head in de grave yard.’
The vision of Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree, but Janie didn’t know how to tell Nanny that.
Her grandmother gets her way, and Janie’s hopes for love on her own terms are shattered. She suffers her loveless marriage for as long as she can but, as is often the case with loveless marriages, one day her head is turned by a man who shows her some interest and inspires her independent mind.
Janie is a sparky character, and her view of the world sparkles and fizzes. She doesn’t stand for convention. Her existence is all about getting the best for her, even if it involves mistakes along the way. She isn’t static, but is full of movement and thought. She wants fulfilment. She wants to be the woman she feels she was born to be, and not some worn down drudge who complies with the expectations of society.
She heads off on an adventure with her new husband, moving to a new town being set up just for black people. Joe, Janie’s new husband, is a go-getter and quickly takes over running the town. It soon becomes apparent that Joe doesn’t view Janie as an equal, and Janie feels just as lonely in her second marriage as she did in her first. At first, she isn’t willing to compromise just to make Joe happy any more than she was for Logan. She expects the compromises of marriage to be two-way. Eventually, something within her that felt passion for Joe dies, and Janie separates into an inside and an outside person, the marriage becoming nothing more than a show of civility in public, and Janie keeping secret from her husband the depths of passion she is capable of feeling.
The spirit of marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again.
She had no more blossom openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where petals used to be. She found that she had a host of thoughts she had never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about. Things packed up and put away in parts of her heart where he could never find them.
That made me feel sad, because we all enter relationships hoping to be everything we are, able to share the most secret things about ourselves with one trusted person. Not everyone turns out to be interested in our secrets, though. Sometimes relationships end up being about one person’s comforts, and the other person has to separate the inside from the outside. I recognise that in my parents’ relationship. My dad was old fashioned to the extent that he should have lived in another century, and my mum felt the coldness of his displeasure every time she went against what he thought a wife should be. Being a product of their union put me off marriage for a long time! It also convinced me that a man should feel proud of who his wife is, not try to break her spirit.
Janie recognising that she is now two people gives her a certain freedom. After she recognises that she does not love Joe, she inserts herself into the male conversation on the store porch for the first time, telling the assembled men that God doesn’t just speak to them, he speaks to women too, and tells them that one day men will be surprised to learn that they don’t know about women after all.
Years pass at stalemate until Joe sasses Janie once too often in public and she points out his aging body. Stalemate turns to war of attrition and Janie is the universal villain within the town. Only Pheoby will acknowledge the truth, everyone else plays into Joe’s lie. Janie has long been isolated from her community by Joe’s expectations of how she should behave, but this new isolation hurts her.
After Joe dies, Janie mourns for as long as she can get away with, then starts to get on with life on her terms. She’s courted by men who are interested in Joe’s property, but she no longer wants the life her grandmother envisaged for her. She meets Tea Cake and realises what it is to be loved for who she is, not what she has or how she can make a man look.
When she takes up with Tea Cake and no longer behaves in a way the townspeople think befits a Mayor’s widow, she becomes the subject of gossip, and Pheoby is sent to warn her that her behaviour is causing concern. It’s not just tradition centred on skin colour that matters here, it’s the received tradition of what a respectable woman should be. The townspeople are clear that a respectable woman can’t do what she wants and certainly can’t fall in love with a younger man of no means.
Janie explains to Pheoby how she understands her grandmother’s ambitions for her:
‘She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me.’
Janie doesn’t want that life, the life that Joe gave her, because it involves too much compromise of who she is. Her reaction to the expectations placed on her is to expand her horizons by selling up and starting a new life somewhere else with Tea Cake.
Janie is such an interesting character. She rejects the black dream of being more like white people, which comes from the only experience black slaves have had of respectability. She chooses something more honest. She understands that she isn’t white people, she never will be, and the only way to be happy is to develop her own rules for living as a black woman. She kicks against the conventions of what a respectable woman is, which is a universal convention devised by men who hold the power in society. She won’t be dismissed because she is a woman. She won’t be in the background, making a man look good. She has her own voice and her own dreams, and she is determined to make her life what she wants it to be.
I loved the paragraph that describes Janie leaving Eatonville for Jacksonville.
Janie’s train left too early in the day for the town to witness much, but the few who saw her leave bore plenty witness. They had to give it to her, she sho looked good, but she had no business to do it. It was hard to love a woman that always made you feel so wishful.
Poor repressed townspeople! Clinging to their conventions when they could be as free as Janie, following their own path, taking control of their destiny. How dare Janie seize the initiative and unsettle them so?
Janie’s move away from Eatonville transforms her. At first Tea Cake tries to keep her on a pedestal, thinking her too refined to live among the people he knows, but she convinces him she wants to share his life and doesn’t care about class. When they move to the Everglades, her transformation is complete, and her immersion into the community breaks down the barriers her apparent refinement and her light skin put up for other people.
There is an awful character, Mrs Turner, who is desperate to be seen as white. She amplifies the subtler feelings of Janie’s grandmother. Her racism is shocking, particularly the language she uses. She behaves as though whiteness is a God to be worshipped.
I was surprised by how what it is to be black plays out in the book. I expected that the all black town of Eatonville would be the place black culture was strongest, but instead the town attracts people who want to ‘up-class’ and live like white people, specifically the white people who owned slaves and kept them on as servants. Black culture is strongest among the workers in Jacksonville and the community that comes and goes on the muck in the Everglades. Blackness in this book comes across to me as similar to being working class in the UK – the sense of community that comes from working together and then playing together at the end of the working week, of not having so much money and therefore understanding money as a source of pleasure through spending it, rather than accumulating wealth. That’s what made the racism of Mrs Turner shocking, that she saw so little value in being part of the community that she despised it.
I was interested and confused by the depiction of violence against women in the book. When Janie goes against his vision of what a wife is, Joe is more than ready to slap her. The violence is almost incidental. Janie isn’t shocked by it, so it must be a familiar aspect of life in her community – back chatting women must be punished. She doesn’t let it cow her, though. Instead it strengthens her resolve to be true to herself, and is the trigger for her separating into a public Janie and a private one. When Tea Cake slaps Janie around, out of fear that she will prefer another man to him, it is a stronger symbol of male ownership of women, because Janie doesn’t fight back. The other men are envious that Janie doesn’t fight back and that Tea Cake’s hand marks have branded her. Tea Cake’s reasoning appalled me.
‘Ah didn’t whup Janie ’cause she done nothin’. Ah beat her tuh show dem Turners who is boss.’
Hurston describes it as not a brutal beating, but it is still a beating. It made me think about the news story a few years ago about Rhianna being beaten by Chris Brown following a row about a former girlfriend of Brown’s, and how Rhianna took Brown back.
Tea Cake beating her makes no difference to Janie’s love, and they carry on together, through the hurricane that decimates their community. Not even Tea Cake’s death can bring an end to their love, and Janie returns to the house where their memories began, pulling her horizons in with her, and surrounding herself with the world she has experienced.
This is an incredible book. Hurston has created a black female character outside of the stereotype found in other literature of the period. The use of vernacular language must have been shocking at the time, especially because it is used to reveal the true nature of the people who speak it, rather than turn them into a cartoon version that people might have felt more comfortable with. The characters in the book are real. They’re not ‘Mammies’ or ‘Sambos’, but human beings with the same loves, hopes and frustrations as anyone. The most striking thing for me was that the book challenges the goal of many of the characters, that equates respectability with living like rich white people. Hurston is clear that black people needed to find their own way of living, post slavery, and not be afraid or ashamed to be themselves. That’s a lesson for everyone.