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Their Eyes Were Watching God Paperback – Deckle Edge, May 30, 2006
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At the height of the Harlem Renaissance during the 1930s, Zora Neale Hurston was the preeminent black woman writer in the United States. She was a sometime-collaborator with Langston Hughes and a fierce rival of Richard Wright. Her stories appeared in major magazines, she consulted on Hollywood screenplays, and she penned four novels, an autobiography, countless essays, and two books on black mythology. Yet by the late 1950s, Hurston was living in obscurity, working as a maid in a Florida hotel. She died in 1960 in a Welfare home, was buried in an unmarked grave, and quickly faded from literary consciousness until 1975 when Alice Walker almost single-handedly revived interest in her work.
Of Hurston's fiction, Their Eyes Were Watching God is arguably the best-known and perhaps the most controversial. The novel follows the fortunes of Janie Crawford, a woman living in the black town of Eaton, Florida. Hurston sets up her characters and her locale in the first chapter, which, along with the last, acts as a framing device for the story of Janie's life. Unlike Wright and Ralph Ellison, Hurston does not write explicitly about black people in the context of a white world--a fact that earned her scathing criticism from the social realists--but she doesn't ignore the impact of black-white relations either:
It was the time for sitting on porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skins felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment.One person the citizens of Eaton are inclined to judge is Janie Crawford, who has married three men and been tried for the murder of one of them. Janie feels no compulsion to justify herself to the town, but she does explain herself to her friend, Phoeby, with the implicit understanding that Phoeby can "tell 'em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat's just de same as me 'cause mah tongue is in mah friend's mouf."
Hurston's use of dialect enraged other African American writers such as Wright, who accused her of pandering to white readers by giving them the black stereotypes they expected. Decades later, however, outrage has been replaced by admiration for her depictions of black life, and especially the lives of black women. In Their Eyes Were Watching God Zora Neale Hurston breathes humanity into both her men and women, and allows them to speak in their own voices. --Alix Wilber --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
For me, Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the very greatest American novels of the 20th century. It is so lyrical it should be sentimental; it is so passionate it should be overwrought, but it is instead a rigorous, convincing and dazzling piece of prose, as emotionally satisfying as it is impressive. There is no novel I love more Zadie Smith There is no book more important to me than this one. It speaks to me as no novel, past or present, has ever done Alice Walker Zora Neale Hurston was a knockout in her life, a wonderful writer and a fabulous person. Devilishly funny and academically solid: delicious mixture Maya Angelou --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Top Customer Reviews
In "There Eyes," Hurston tells the life story of Janie, an African-American woman. We accompany Janie as she experiences the very different men in her life. Hurston's great dialogue captures both the ongoing "war of the sexes," as well as the truces, joys, and tender moments of male-female relations. But equally important are Janie's relationships with other Black women. There are powerful themes of female bonding, identity, and empowerment which bring an added dimension to this book.
But what really elevates "Their Eyes" to the level of a great classic is Hurston's use of language. This is truly one of the most poetic novels in the American canon. Hurston blends the engaging vernacular speech of her African-American characters with the lovely "standard" English of her narrator, and in both modes creates lines that are just beautiful.
"Their Eyes" captures the universal experiences of pain and happiness, love and loss. And the whole story is told with both humor and compassion. If you haven't read it yet, read it; if you've already read it, read it again.
One of the issues with reading Hurston's novel is that it's written in dialect--in Hurston's rendition of how Southern Florida black dialect could be spelled out to her. So reading the book is a bit slow; you have to sound out the words in your mind. If this is a problem, then I'd suggest you listen to the book on tape (ably performed by Ruby Dee) and then read the book afterwards.
The story has barely a plot; Janey is a young woman whose grandmother was born in slavery. Her aspirations are no further than the front porch; to live in comfort means being simply able to sit, to sit on the porch and not be in constant motion, working every hour of every day for bare subsistence. She finds an older, established husband for Janey and insists she marry. Janey, then, has a life where, with reasonable work, she can fill her belly and sleep in shelter. Her life is not much better than that of a well-cared-for mule.
One day, Janey runs off with Jody Starks, a man of means who charms her with his worldy ways. This is a man going places. And they do go places; to Eatonville, a town that was chartered as an African-American community. Starks sees opportunity in every corner of dusty Eatonville, buys land, builds a store and a house and installs the beautiful Janey as a symbol of his mastery.
As Mayor, Starks has appearances to keep up. He has Janey stay in the house or work in the store, and when in the store, she is to keep her head covered. Janey has a wealth of long abundant hair, which Hurston uses as a symbol of life. Janey's hair is flowing and startling; men covet it. As the hair is covered, so is every enjoyment and thought Janey has. She chafes for 20 years under Stark's restrictive rules.
The scene where the "town mule"--a mule freed by Starks from an abusive owner and that became a sort of mascot, dies and is buried in the swamp is exceptional writing, worthy of Mark Twain. The mule is eulogized (by Stark, standing at one point on the mule as podium) and then abandoned to the waiting buzzards. The following scene where the buzzards arrive to do their undertaking is a flight of fancy that is hardly equalled in American literature. All along the book, Hurston takes smaller flights of language; her descriptions sometimes soar, or are humorous or completely imaginative.
Janey runs off after Stark's death with "Tea Cake"--a younger man. While her first two marriages were for the sustenance of the body (food, shelter, comfort, a home) this marriage is for the sustenance of the soul. Tea Cake plays guitar, plays games, dances, gambles, sings and flirts. Hurston is too clever to make him perfect; he hurts Janey, as only someone who loves another person can hurt them, and he is a bit of a cad, yet he brings out something in Janey that no life of pure material wealth could do--freedom and sensuality and joy. The culmination of the story is rather contrived, but still, the completion of the three marriages tells almost a fable-like story of a quest for personal growth. Janey comes home to Eatonville, and tells her story to Phoeby, her friend. The rest of the tale is up to us to fill in.
Sometimes the writing reminds me of Virginia Woolf--the interior dialog and mood of the character is the action as much or more than the action happening on the story's stage. Sometimes Hurston reminds me of Twain in her delving into the linguistic richness and uniqueness of Floridian life. Her education as a folklorist sharpened her ear, but her deep honesty into the interior life of women is what makes this story so great. It's definitely one of the top American novels and deserves to be read.