Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale HurstonFebruary 3, 2010
Today, I welcome Zora Neale Hurston as part of the Harlem Renaissance tour that is happening this month in the Classics Circuit. In her foreword, Edwidge Danticat calls Zora Neal Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God a “brilliant novel about a woman’s search for her authentic self and true love.” That’s just about the best short summary that I could possibly find. Zora Neale Hurston was one of the luminaries of the Harlem Renaissance. Although we may know her best for her novels and short stories, she was actually a trained and practicing anthropologist. She wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 while she was living in Haiti to research the people and culture of that country. While she was writing, Hurston was a popular writer, but she never benefited monetarily for all of her hard work. Sadly, she died penniless in a welfare hospital. For decades, her work was lost to us, because her writing was not deemed appropriate for correct political opinions of the time. But in 1975, Alice Walker published an article about her attempt to find Hurston’s unmarked grave, and ever since then, her books have been popular again. Aren’t we lucky that they are?
Hurston’s anthropological eye is one of the things that makes this novel so wonderful to read. As we learn about Janie and her adventures in Florida, it feels like we are transported to a different time and place. Hurston does such a great job of making us feel like flies on a wall. As soon as I finished reading this novel, I knew that I loved it simply for the realistic characters, the beautiful story, and the impressive writing. But once I started thinking about it more, so many questions came to mind. It’s great that Janie was so independent and didn’t care what other people might think about her actions, but why did it sometimes take her so long to stand up for herself when men were treating her badly? Why did it sometimes seem like all of the people, with the exception of the main characters (Janie, Joe, Tea Cake, Pheoby) always acted goofily? What role does family play in the culture we are reading about? Sometimes it seems so expendable to Janie, yet at other times, we hear of touching stories of families helping each other out.
There’s a lot to ponder in this book. It seems like such a brief, beautiful glimpse at an entire time, place, and people that I would so love to learn more about. I almost wish that Hurston had written a whole catalog of books just like this, Zola-style, that examined different characters in different novels.
Can anyone recommend a second Hurston book to read after this? Has anyone seen the Oprah production movie of this book? Is it worthwhile to watch?