Monday, February 26, 2018

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Originally Published 1937
Source: my copy purchased for my Nook

Fair and long-legged, independent and articulate, Janie Crawford sets out to be her own person -- no mean feat for a black woman in the '30s. Janie's quest for identity takes her through three marriages and into a journey back to her roots.

My Thoughts:
Their Eyes Were Watching God is the Omaha Bookworms' classic book selection for 2018; I picked it, as I've done so many of the books I've picked in the past couple of years, because I thought it was a book that would take us out of our comfort zone, a book that "should" be read. It's a short book, just 200 pages; but it is not a quick read.
This is a book that's dialogue heavy and the dialogue is written in dialect. I suggested to a friend that I would have enjoyed the book more if I'd listened to it, rather than read it. That's even more true once I found out that Ruby Dee reads the audiobook. While I very much appreciate the use of dialect, particularly in light of when the book was written, it makes reading this book more difficult and I often felt that I lost the beauty of the book in the work it was to read it. 

There is so much beauty in this book; Hurston's writing is often stunning.
"Ships at a distance have every man's wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
Now, women forget all those things they don't wan tot remember, and remember everything they don't want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly."
"So Janie began to think of Death. Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has Death for a cover, and winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all day with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then. She was liable to find a feather from his wings lying in her yard any day now."
Their Eyes Were Watching God is not a book now considered a classic because it was beloved from the moment it was first published. Readers in 1937 didn't know what to make of a woman like Janie, who simply walked away from her first marriage because it was loveless and who refused to grieve for her second husband in the expected way because she was more than a little relieved to be rid of him. Other readers may not have known what to make of Hurston's exploration of race in the book.

The very things, though, that made this a tough book for readers in 1937 to "get" are what makes this book one that is now considered so important and what makes it still so timely. Hurston explores gender roles, the value of women in relationships, the liberation of women, and women looking to find their own voices and equality. She also looks at race but primarily as it has created a divide within black communities and the impact it has had on African Americans' way of looking at the world.

Janie represents all of the women now fighting vigorously to find their own voices and make them heard. We find that in the #metoo and #timesup conversations, in the Women's Marches, and in all of the women now running for political office. The divides within the black communities in this book are still seen in the divides that blacks are struggling with today (favoring lighter skin over darker skin, for example). In the wake of the Black Lives Matter surge, I often heard black voices saying to other blacks things very much like this:
"Us talks about de white man keeping' us down! Shucks! He don't have tuh. Us keeps our own selves down."
I liked this book when I finished reading it. I appreciated it much more after taking some time to explore what makes it a classic. Because it truly is a book that should be taught and read and understood.


  1. I've never read this one. I think my book club read it the one year I was taking a break. Figures.

  2. I agree--this is a powerful, important book. All three of my kids read it in school, and I only read it after they recommended it to me.

  3. I read this several years ago and thought it was beautifully written. I remember marking on passage that was so beautiful. Something to do with word pictures. I'll have to see if I can find it. I'll bet this is a great book to discuss with a group or in a classroom setting.