Enjoy this staff post reviewing Zora Neale Hurston’s seminal work Their Eyes Were Watching God! Check back throughout the month of February to see reviews of books written by and about African-Americans.
WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD
Every reader has one book that speaks to their soul more than any other. For me, that book is Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston.
This book came to me at a crucial point in my life. As an English major in college, I was always reading for school and started seeing it as a chore. By my junior year, I had almost lost all pleasure in what was once my favorite hobby—that is, until I read Their Eyes Were Watching God. I was hooked within the first few pages and, after months of drudging through an endless mountain of books, finished Hurston’s book in one sitting. Of the almost 20 books I had been assigned to read that semester, this one story dragged me out of my funk and helped me fall in love with reading again.
The book is about an African-American woman named Janie Crawford and her lifelong quest for self-fulfillment. Janie tells her story in a series of flashbacks and starts by talking about her unstable sense of self in childhood. In a pivotal moment early on in the book, teenage Janie sits under a pear tree and marvels at its beauty and all the possibilities it holds, feeling at once connected with nature and with herself for the first time. She also kisses a boy under this tree, further solidifying the bond between natural imagery and the euphoria she experiences from her sexual awakening. She imagines that this feeling is what she should be chasing in life, and the tree symbol stays with Janie throughout her life and comes to represent her dreams and desires.
Janie’s sudden maturation prompts her grandmother to marry her off to ensure Janie will be taken care of. The symbol of the tree becomes desecrated when she marries Logan, a much older man who owns land and a house. Even at a young age, Janie knows that mere economic stability is no basis for a marriage. She sees how the role she’s been forced into has stunted her and yearns for a space to nurture herself. When Logan becomes surly and controlling, she runs away so she can begin to resurrect the perfect image of her tree.
Upon escaping her dreadful marriage, Janie meets Joe, who she thinks will give her the freedom she craves. They marry and move to a town named Eatonville, where she expects to start her life in earnest. However, Joe soon proves to be as domineering as her first husband and becomes physically and emotionally abusive. Janie is yet again relegated to the background of her own life and her vision of the pear tree remains unfulfilled. When Joe dies, Janie is relieved as she finally has the ability to explore herself, but her solitude doesn’t last for long.
Janie meets Tea Cake soon after Joe’s death, and there is an instant attraction. Janie doesn’t have to worry about money because Joe left her with enough to live on, so she has the freedom to marry for love. The freedom she finds within the relationship entices her out of the stifling environment she’s been in for almost two decades, so readers initially expect Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake to be more equitable and fulfilling than her first two marriages, but he too becomes controlling and physically abusive. Though he was crucial in helping Janie in her search for autonomy, she comes to realize that Tea Cake was not who she was searching for either. She eventually kills Tea Cake in self defense and returns to Eatonville.
Janie discovers more about herself in each marriage, and her eventual return to Eatonville signifies the fulfillment of her journey to selfhood. As she recounts what happened to her, her symbolic pear tree fully blooms. She now realizes that this vision of hers does not represent romantic love but, rather, self-love and self-discovery. None of the men she ended up with were who she was searching for, because she was searching for herself all along.
I love Their Eyes Were Watching God for all the reasons critics don’t. At the time of publication, many of Hurston’s peers criticized her use of African-American dialect throughout the story. As an anthropologist, Hurston wanted to preserve her culture’s oral tradition and successfully captured the essence of the African-American community’s speech patterns on the page. The story itself resembles African oral tradition since it’s framed around Janie telling her life story to her friend Pheoby. While it was initially a bit difficult for me to get used to the dialect, the words soon flowed and I could feel the warmth of authenticity through the pages.
Critics also dislike the book because they misunderstand the themes of the story. There is often a focus on Janie’s reliance on men and the story is misinterpreted as either a love story or a story about toxic relationships. While there is plenty of that throughout the book, at its core Janie’s story is about how she must overcome these obstacles in her life to discover who she truly is. Her grandmother initially marries her off so Janie won’t be made into a “spit cup” by men, but that seems to be what happens anyway.
In Janie’s time, women—especially Black women—had virtually no options and had no ability to become independent. Janie’s grandmother intended to stop the cycle of abuse that she and Janie’s mother endured, but she was ultimately concerned with survival and couldn’t understand why Janie would want to take it a step further by seeking emotional fulfillment. Janie had no choice but to achieve her eventual self-fulfillment through her relationships with men and their financial support. By reading the novel through this lens, it’s easier to see how Janie is not merely subservient but is an active participant on her path to self-discovery.
I’ve since reread Hurston’s novel multiple times, and each time I’m struck by how much care was put into the novel. Hurston’s obvious love for her character is as palpable as Janie’s love for herself. So maybe critics are right; Their Eyes Were Watching God is the ultimate love story.