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 Decades later, however, outrage has been replaced by admiration for her depictions of black life, and especially the lives of black women.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
(Unfortunately, I only took sparse notes from this discussion, obviously planning to complete the write up somewhat sooner than this. As a result, this will only be a mini-write up. Apologies – the write up’s have been more regularly and thoroughly recorded recently!!)
We found it interesting that this book was based on a real town, but unsurprising as there were a number of specifics and details that *felt* very real to us.
Janie was a fascinating character, only one generation removed from slavery; she shifted from passive to active participant in the direction of her life over a fifteen year period (though we did acknowledge that she demonstrated certain rebellious traits in her teenage years). She was the first woman in her family to do so. Her grandmother remained tied to societal expectations and her mother had been raped by a school teacher – the experience sending her down the path of dissolution and alcoholism. Leafy eventually abandons her child and mother altogether.
Janie is a character that self defines the periods of her life via the men in them, though we none of us saw that as a limitation. Given the time frame when the book is set and written – it would have been beyond radical to have envisioned it any other way. The three phases of her life demonstrate her considerable growth and progress. She was married off to a dismissive man who wanted more of a skivvy than a wife. Her second husband grows jealous and possessive as he witnesses her strength, determination and recognition of her talents and strengths. Finally, her tumultuous affair with Tea Cake affirms her position as an independent agent (as long as you excuse the whole HE WHIPPED HER incident…but as Janie was happy to do so…we felt we sort of had to also).
Joe was a very poor communicator, but at least one of us actually quite liked him, up until he become violent. As a character, his motivations and actions felt very direct and made sense to us…even when we really disliked them. Tea Cake never felt fully developed to us. He was like a bright and shiny thug.
Despite our admiration for her survival; there was at least two of us that really didn’t like Janie all that much. We were far more interested in Zora Neale Hurston – she based several of the emotional aspects of this book on her own life and certainly seems to have been a force of nature. We enjoyed that in the end, it is women coming together (regardless or in spite of race) than ‘saved the day’. It made for a refreshing change.
Watch the trailer from the 2005 tv film HERE