On September 18, 1937, the world was introduced to Zora Neale Hurston’s novel, “Their Eyes Were Watching God.” The world didn’t pay adequate attention, and the title went out of print for years. A 1978 reprinting brought the book recognition as an American classic. Alice Walker and Zadie Smith both cite Hurston as an influence.
Hurston grew up in Eatonville, Florida, a town established and run by African Americans. It serves as setting for much of her novel. She went to New York for an anthropology degree from Barnard College and stayed for the Harlem Renaissance, with trips back to the south for story collection and research.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” was groundbreaking for its time — written by an African American woman and portraying African Americans interacting primarily with each other. Janie Crawford is one of the most fully realized characters you could wish for in under 200 pages.
Janie is raised by a grandmother who had been a slave and had born a daughter as a result of rape by her owner. Wanting security and stability for her granddaughter, Nanny arranges for 16-year-old Janie to marry a successful farmer. Through her upbringing and two marriages, we see Janie struggling to free her real self from the confines of those who define the parameters of her life. She finally achieves this in her third marriage, to the man who is much less respectable in the eyes of society, but who encourages her true nature.
Janie comes to recognize that she doesn’t fear death as much as she fears being misunderstood. She feels a divine spark in herself, but it is constantly dimmed by those closest to her. Her first husband, Logan Killicks, wants her more as a farmhand than as a wife. She leaves him for Joe Starks, who becomes the most prominent man in Eatonville, serving as mayor, landlord and store owner. But he forces silence and isolation upon Janie, who keeps her spark alive by nurturing a rich inner life. “She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.” Janie’s third husband, Tea Cake, is her junior by twelve years. He’s a gambler and widely viewed as a ne’er-do-well. But he sees Janie as a person and listens to her thoughts.
The book is rich in dialect, with the characters speaking as Hurston knew her family and acquaintances in Florida to speak in real life. Many a high school student has complained about this when assigned the book to read, but I find it’s like watching a movie with subtitles. At first, it’s a little more work, but soon enough I don’t even remember I’m doing it. It all flows naturally.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is a deeply human story with unforgettable characters, something that will never not be relevant.