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Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel Paperback – January 3, 2006
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A PBS Great American Read Top 100 Pick
“A deeply soulful novel that comprehends love and cruelty, and separates the big people from the small of heart, without ever losing sympathy for those unfortunates who don’t know how to live properly.” —Zadie Smith
One of the most important and enduring books of the twentieth century, Their Eyes Were Watching God brings to life a Southern love story with the wit and pathos found only in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Out of print for almost thirty years—due largely to initial audiences’ rejection of its strong black female protagonist—Hurston’s classic has since its 1978 reissue become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.
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From the Back Cover
With a Foreword by Edwidge Danticat and an Afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.
One of the most important works of twentieth-century American literature, Zora Neale Hurston's beloved 1937 classic, Their Eyes Were Watching God, is an enduring Southern love story sparkling with wit, beauty, and heartfelt wisdom. Told in the captivating voice of a woman who refuses to live in sorrow, bitterness, fear, or foolish romantic dreams, it is the story of fair-skinned, fiercely independent Janie Crawford, and her evolving selfhood through three marriages and a life marked by poverty, trials, and purpose. A true literary wonder, Hurston's masterwork remains as relevant and affecting today as when it was first published—perhaps the most widely read and highly regarded novel in the entire canon of African American literature.
About the Author
Zora Neale Hurston was a novelist, folklorist, and anthropologist. She wrote four novels (Jonah’s Gourd Vine, 1934; Their Eyes Were Watching God, 1937; Moses, Man of the Mountain, 1939; and Seraph on the Suwanee, 1948); two books of folklore (Mules and Men, 1935, and Tell My Horse, 1938); an autobiography (Dust Tracks on a Road, 1942); an international bestselling nonfiction work (Barracoon: The Story of the Last “Black Cargo,” 2018);and over fifty short stories, essays, and plays. She attended Howard University, Barnard College, and Columbia University and was a graduate of Barnard College in 1928. She was born on January 7, 1891, in Notasulga, Alabama, and grew up in Eatonville, Florida.
- Publisher : Amistad; Reissue edition (January 3, 2006)
- Language : English
- Paperback : 219 pages
- ISBN-10 : 0060838671
- ISBN-13 : 978-0060838676
- Reading age : 13+ years, from customers
- Lexile measure : 890L
- Item Weight : 7.2 ounces
- Dimensions : 7.9 x 5.2 x 0.7 inches
- Best Sellers Rank: #21,435 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)
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SPOILER ALERT -
I like how the story unfolds. All the poor black people are finally done with work, so they sit on their porches and watch Janie as she comes home. Everybody gossips and wonders where she has been and what has happened to her. Her friend Pheoby goes to ask her, and Janie tells Pheoby all about what has happened in her life. She tells Pheoby about what Nanny said.
What happened was that when Nanny saw Janie kissing a boy, she (Nanny) decided to tell Janie that she always wanted to see Janie get married, instead of ending up like her (Nanny). She tells Janie that she (Nanny) was a slave, and that the overseer was the father of Janie's mom, and that the overseer's wife said she was going to see her (Nanny) punished for having a baby with her husband, the overseer. So one night Nanny and the baby (Janie's mom) escaped.
Eventually they were taken in by nice white people who helped put Janie's mom through school. Then Janie goes on to explain that one day her mom literally crawled back home to Nanny. It turns out she (Janie's mom) was molested by a schoolteacher, of all people. That's how Janie ended up coming into the world (she never meets the schoolteacher, who is her natural father. He's out of the story. He's just barely mentioned).
Anyway, Nanny said that she didn't want any of that sort of thing to happen to Janie. So Janie met Logan Killicks and married him. At first he was nice to her, but then he treated her like dirt, so she left him for another smooth-talking guy named Joe Starks, who was also called Jody.
Joe was very ambitious. He married Janie, then made himself become the mayor of the town, and of course, Janie became the mayor's wife. At first, Jody was nice to her, but then he was less and less kind and sweet as time went on. For example, he didn't let her wear her hair down. He scolded her about every little thing. They ran a grocery store, but he always told her she was doing everything wrong. Also, he didn't like to see her talking to anybody. He was very bossy and controlling.
After about 20 years, Janie became hardened and eventually told him off. She didn't hate him or anything, but she didn't let him mistreat her anymore, especially when she noticed that he was not as handsome as he used to be, and he had begun getting saggy and flabby and frail and weak. He soon died from poor health
After about eight or nine months, Janie was visited by another smooth-talker whose nickname was Tea Cake. They started hanging out together, and cooking fish and corn bread and eating together, and going hunting and fishing and to the movies. Eventually Janie and Tea Cake got married. Tea Cake wasn't a bad guy at all, although he was mainly good for only gambling (and winning), and growing beans. Growing beans is what he did when they moved to the Everglades in Florida.
Then there was a terrible hurricane. Tea Cake and Janie seemed to be watching the sky (but "their eyes were watching God", to see what God would do about the hurricane, and to see whether God would let them live).
While trying to escape the hurricane, Tea Cake got bitten by a dog when he was trying to prevent the dog from attacking Janie as she hung on to the tail of a cow in order to survive the hurricane floods. Eventually, Tea Cake ended up getting rabies (it wasn't specified in the book, but the symptoms of rabies were described---for example, Tea Cake could no longer tolerate water). When he lurched toward her with a gun in his hand, she had to end up shooting him dead.
She went to trial and was found innocent. After the trial, she picked herself up and went back home, and the story ends with her telling her friend Pheoby that this was the way things happened.
In the beginning of the novel, Janie is quickly ushered into an arranged marriage with Mr. Logan Killicks, a rich and older African-American man. Janie only agreed to the marriage because she had thought that eventually “she would love Logan after they were married...Husbands and wives loved each other, and that was what marriage meant. It was just so” (Hurston 27). Ever since the day Janie was sixteen and sat underneath a pear tree and gazed up at the bees merrily buzzing in and out of the blossoms, she believed that a marriage could be one of love and self-fulfillment. She tried to have that love but quickly discovered that she was never going to love Mr.Killicks the way the bees loved the pear tree’s blossoms: “She knew that marriage did not make love” (29). One cannot simply walk into a marriage without loving the other person first. Love already has to be present in the relationship for there to be love in the marriage. Love does not grow from unfamiliarity; it stems from trust.
When Janie married her second husband, Joe Stark, he became infatuated with power rather than with her. As the mayor of Eatonville, he left her to do the chores around the house and would yell at her for making mistakes in their store. Janie’s personality remained hidden inside of herself; she could not do as she pleased and obeyed her husband’s commands like a slave. Joe “wanted her submission and he’d keep on fighting until he felt he had it” (64). He also believed he was “building a high chair for her to sit in and overlook the world [but] she [was] pouting over it” (57). Because there was no true communication between the husband and wife, both were left unsettled by the other. In order for a marriage to last, there has to be honesty between the two partners. Both of them would have needed to drop their pretenses in order to fully accept and understand the other person. However, because Janie kept a part of herself locked away from Mr.Starks and because Joe kept demanding her submission rather than allowing her to be herself, she could never truly love him nor would he ever know her.
It was not until Janie’s final marriage to Tea Cakes that she began to feel happy and loved. Tea Cakes always wanted to be with her. He taught her to play checkers, made her laugh, and provided anything for her. He was even the only man Janie compared to her pear tree: “He could be a bee to a blossom-a pear tree blossom in the spring” (90). Though their relationship had its flaws, there was trust and honesty between the two. Their marriage may have been the briefest, but it was the only one that left Janie truly grieving when it was over: “No expensive veils and robes for Janie this time. She went on in her overalls. She was too busy feeling grief to dress like grief” (149).
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston expertly weaves the truths behind marriage through Janie’s experiences with failed and lost love. In the end, marriage is a contract; it does have its rules and obligations, but it is also about working together to build an open and caring relationship, not a dictatorship.
Top reviews from other countries
This 1930s deeply human story of one indefatigable black woman's life, loves and catastrophes dazzled and delighted me from start to finish.
It was apparently written in a hurry and the story does have a breakneck feel to it. Characterful expressions burst from its pages; the syncopated, lively dialogue of the black people of the day is lush and gorgeous to read.
But please don't accept my effusive review as a recommendation. This book is not a generic crowd-pleaser and won't suit all tastes.
It is dialogue heavy and at times I felt I was reading a theatre script, rather than a novel.
I've seen that some readers weren't able to get to grips with the spoken vernacular, which surprises me no end. This white English/Irish guy had no problem whatsoever!
For me, the writing was irresistible. I do however think it wouldn't be for everyone.
We are taken back in time to when Janie was a child and I felt privileged to be able to hear of her Nanny (Grandma), giving a bit of history to what life was like for her and Janie’s mum. It shows the dark side of what life was like many years ago with the author describing how diverse things were back then.
In fact the author deals with many subjects within this story. Diversity, racism, domestic as well as mental abuse to name but a few. It makes for quite a sombre read but Janie is such a larger than life character and there is much to take in of her life over time and her relationships with three different men. Each one brings something different with it to the reader.
I can see why this book has been described as an American classic. It makes for a good solid read and I enjoyed the author’s laid back style of writing. Whilst it didn’t quite impact me in the way I had hoped, Their Eyes Were Watching God is still a novel that people should consider giving a go.
The main thing I found difficult about the book was that much of Janie’s story is rendered in vernacular. This does give it a fantastic sense of authenticity but, initially, I found it difficult to get to grips with and found myself having to re-read sentences to ensure I understood what was being said.
Janie is a young woman who instinctively wants more from life (although she doesn’t know quite what) and snatches the opportunities that arise although more often than not, sadly, they don’t work out. A recurring theme of the book is the silencing of women, in particular by men but more generally by society. When Janie finally meets someone who seems to want her to be herself and not be constrained, it ends in tragedy.
I did find it strange that at certain points in the book the author chooses to switch from Janie articulating her story directly to the third person. The Afterword included in my edition (an essay by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) describes this as the author shifting ‘back and forth between her “literate” narrator’s voice and a highly idiomatic black voice found in wonderful passages of free indirect discourse’. In one section, the book even switches to the point of view of Janie’s second husband, Jody. And towards the end of the book, when Janie is on trial accused of a serious crime, the reader doesn’t get to hear her defence in her own words.
The author’s writing craft is demonstrated by some imaginative turns of phrase. For example, when Janie wakes up in time to see ‘the sun sending up spies ahead of him to mark out the road through the dark’ or, sitting on her porch one evening she watches the moon rise. ‘Soon its amber fluid was drenching the earth, and quenching the thirst of the day.’ And there is real drama created in the scenes set in the Everglades during which Janie, Tea Cake (her third husband) and others flee the flood water created by the passing hurricane. (It is during this section that the book’s title appears.)
Criticism: there’s a theme of domestic violence and it’s sometimes passed off as almost good and reasonable. I suspect it wouldn’t be nowadays, but the novel is a child of its time in that respect.