Sunday, March 06, 2011

Review of Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

I first read this book in the Spring Semester of my junior year at Pacific Lutheran University, which was sometime between February and May 1997. At the time, I was 21 and still reeling from the beauty and power of Toni Morrison’s Beloved. My American Literature Professor introduced this book to us with fervor and excitement. He was a big fan of Zora Neale Hurston and was very excited to introduce his students to this book he loved so much. He feverishly called this novel a great masterpiece of African-American literature and said it belonged with other great authors like Alice Walker and Toni Morrison. By the time we finished the book, I was disappointed in it. I did not agree with my Professor about the greatness of this novel. In fact, I hated the book and did not like any of the characters. It was my opinion, at the time and for well over a decade, that this book could not hold a candle to Beloved or The Color Purple.


Over the past couple years, my 1997 opinion of this novel has been challenged by people I know (family) and people I don’t know, but wish I did (the Goodreads community). I greatly appreciate the challenges put before me by book lovers on Goodreads and have found their arguments, both in support of my original review as well as against it, were enough to convince me to give this book a second read.

I have reread books after a decade (or longer) has gone by, mainly to see if my opinion of the story has changed. I have been surprised at times, but for the most part, my opinions rarely change. I still love The Diary of Anne Frank (first read in 1990, age 14), To Kill a Mockingbird (first read in 1990, age 14) and Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Alice Through the Looking Glass (first read in 1988, age 12). I changed my mind about Catcher in the Rye (loved it in 1993, age 17, but loathed it in 2007, age 31). I changed my mind about Julie and Julia (disliked at end of first read; liked after second read).

Which brings me back to Their Eyes Were Watching God – the question is: have I changed my opinion of this book?

The edition of the book I read is a copy I purchased in a rather wonderful used bookstore in Boulder, CO. I bought this book during the summer of 2009 with every intention of reading it at that time. The copy I purchased had an attractive cover, a cover that I have stared at quite often while rereading this book. This particular edition has a foreword by Edwidge Danticat and an afterword by Henry Louis Gates, Jr. I have to admit here that I am not familiar with Ms. Danticat, but I enjoyed her foreword. I learned a lot more about Zora Neale Hurston from Ms. Danticat’s foreword than I remember learning in my American Lit class at PLU. It was in this foreword that I learned that Ms. Hurston was in Haiti doing research when she wrote this novel. I also did not know that Ms. Hurston was an anthropologist; my Professor told us that she was a relatively unknown author who became famous posthumously, but I have since learned that Ms. Hurston was pretty well known during the Harlem Renaissance and slowly disappeared from the literary landscape until being rediscovered by Alice Walker in the 1970s. So, I’m not trying to say he was wrong, but maybe he didn’t do enough research about his “favorite” African-American author before teaching us about this book. Just a thought. Anyway, after reading Edwidge Danticat’s foreword, I was actually looking forward to rereading this book.

As I proceeded into the actual story, there were several things that I had forgotten about the basic story. I forgot that Janie was married twice before meeting Tea Cake, I only remembered one marriage. I did not remember her marriage to Logan Killicks. What an odd marriage they had. To be perfectly honest, after 14 years the only thing I remembered about the plot was that Tea Cake is bit by a “mad” dog while trying to save Janie from the same dog and I remembered that there was a hurricane. So, in some ways, I felt like I was reading this book for the first time.

I have to say I really liked the way Ms. Hurston described the scenes, settings and characters. One of my favorite descriptions is of Mrs. Bogle; although Mrs. Bogle is a grandmother, she “had a blushing air of coquetry about her that cloaked her sunken cheeks. You saw a fluttering fan before her face and magnolia blooms and sleepy lakes under the moonlight when she walked. There was no obvious reason for it, it was just so.” (Page 69) and “She was a wind on the ocean. She moved men, but the helm determined the port.” (Page 70). Whew! That’s definitely a woman who turns heads. My other favorite descriptions lie on page 84: “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.”, and “Rumor, that wingless bird, had shadowed over the town.” Mrs. Bogle is something beyond human in her appearance and walk, while Death and Rumor become flesh, one a man and the other a bird but both perplex those around them.

Hurston does more than write, she paints. Whether it is through the conversations of the characters or the narration between conversations, each scene is painted in a way that lets the reader see and feel and experience the same thing as the characters. As the reader meets Janie in the beginning of the novel, we clearly see her walking by all those eyes, ignoring all the noises coming from those poisonous mouths. We hear the women as they talk about her, hissing like a pit of vipers, wondering where her man is and if he robbed her blind and ran off with a younger woman. There’s nothing like hateful, catty women who will say anything to break down one of their own in order to make themselves feel better. Hurston couldn’t have described them better when Janie calls them “The Mouth-Almighty”. I’m actually going to adopt that phrase for the frenemies in my own life.

As much as I would love to continue my praise of the way Ms. Hurston writes and her use of imagery and authentic vernacular (which I enjoyed immensely) I think I should move onto the characters and my thoughts of them.

In 1997, one of my biggest complaints was about the characters. I recently reread the review I posted of this book on Goodreads back in 2007, and in that review I stated that I did not find the characters to be likeable nor did I feel any kind of sympathy towards any of them when I read this book in college. In 1997 (and still today), I was a fan of the following African-American female characters: Sethe (Beloved), Miss Celie and Shug Avery (The Color Purple), and Edana “Dana” Franklin (Kindred). My American Lit Professor put Janie in the same category as these characters and I protested that decision at that time. I have changed my mind about Janie. Janie is a strong woman with a certain amount of independence and stubbornness that sometimes could get her in trouble. I think the best decision she made was when she left Eatonville to be with Tea Cake down in the Everglades. Of course, if she hadn’t left Logan Killicks to be with Joe “Jody” Starks, she never would have met Tea Cake but that’s not really the point. Tea Cake was her true love, not the other two men.

Joe Starks = big talker. Now, here’s a man who could convince paint to peel itself from the wall. He is definitely a man with a plan. I didn’t dislike Joe, I think he knew what he wanted and how to be a leader when there weren’t any, but I didn’t really like him either. I was bothered by his attitude toward Janie when he got sick, but I do think it made sense (in a way). Joe had spent so much time telling Janie what to do and how to do things and how to act, that it caught him completely by surprise when she finally talked back to him (which she did in a public fashion, in front of several men who hung out at Joe’s shop/post office). In some ways, it makes sense that he would concoct this idea in his head that Janie had jinxed him or made him sick in some way because her comments that day in the store were not a common occurrence. Of course she would suddenly have the courage to speak up and speak out if she was poisoning him in an effort to kill him, except that Joe Starks has it all wrong. His illness had nothing to do with Janie, but unfortunately, once your heart has gone cold towards someone it’s very easy to blame them for every wrong you’ve experienced. In the end, as big a talker as Joe Starks was, he wasn’t really as big a man as he tried to make others believe he was.

Tea Cake: well, I’m a bit torn on this character. I can’t say I liked him much, actually. I do believe that Janie made a good decision when she decided to leave Eatonville with Tea Cake and live her life elsewhere. Tea Cake was very good to Janie, which I don’t think she was prepared for but it made her love for him all that much more genuine (and same with his for her).

I felt that Tea Cake’s reasoning behind why he beat Janie (pages 147-148) made me dislike him some. He felt it was important for Mrs. Turner to know that he was in charge and that Janie was his, so why beat Janie? Why not just tell Mrs. Turner? She is a busy-body type of person with hurtful opinions about Tea Cake, but hurting Janie isn’t going to make Mrs. Turner think any better of him or be discouraged from trying to convince Janie to leave Tea Cake because he’s “too black”. Tea Cake explains why he did it in a conversation with Sop-de-Bottom, one of the men from the town, “Janie is wherever Ah wants tuh be. Dat’s de kind uh wife she is and Ah love her for it. Ah wouldn’t be knockin’ her around. Ah didn’t wants whup her last night, but ol’ Mis’ Turner done sent for her brother tuh come tuh bait Janie in and take her away from me. Ah didn’t whup Janie ‘cause she done nothin’. Ah beat her tuh show dem Turners who is boss. Ah set in de kitchen one day and heard dat woman tell mah wife Ah’m too black fur her. She don’t see how Janie can stand me.” (page 148). Obviously, he was hurt and offended by Mrs. Turner’s actions, but it just doesn’t make sense to me to beat Janie for Mrs. Turner’s insensitivity and self-imposed superiority towards him. I’ve been insulted and offended by the ignorance and insensitivity of others, but I’m not going to beat my best friend or my boyfriend as a way to show others who the boss is. Thing is, life was different for Tea Cake and Janie, and things that seem logical then may not necessarily be so now. I accept and appreciate that and it does make me understand why he did what he did (I just don’t like that he did it).

Overall, my favorite part of the book is the period that begins with Janie and Tea Cake leaving town because of the hurricane and ends with the deliverance of the verdict at Janie’s trial. This period of the story is, in my opinion, the biggest show of how much Tea Cake and Janie loved each other. There are several times, during the flooding, where Tea Cake saves Janie from drowning, even though each rescue leaves him a little more drained. Janie also makes an effort to care for Tea Cake as they escape the floods; she tries to protect him from the wind but the piece of roof she finds flies off, almost taking her with it, which results in her almost drowning (again). Thankfully, a cow comes swimming by, with a wet and angry dog riding its back. The dog. I saw a picture once of a dog floating on a piece of furniture, waiting to be rescued from a flooded area and it didn’t look mad or angry at all, actually it appeared frightened and sad and miserably wet. As it was rescued from the water, it wagged its tale and licked the face of its rescuer. There is definitely something wrong with the dog in this book, and possibly under different circumstances Janie would have had warning bells going off in her head. I don’t think she took the dog’s actions to be those of a “mad” dog but rather as those of a dog protecting its territory – the cow.

The dog first attempts to attack Janie and then ends up biting Tea Cake as he wrestles with it. Growling and snarling and attacking are definitely things a dog does when it is trying to protect its territory. The dog is wet and miserable, so it does make sense that he would be growling and it would even make sense that he growls and barks at Janie as she grabs hold of the cow’s tail. It gets more frightening when the dog starts fighting and bites Tea Cake as he tries to keep it from biting Janie. The thing is, I think Tea Cake knew that the dog was sick; he wasn’t trying to calm it down when he grabbed it, his intention was to kill it but it struggled against him which he wasn’t expecting. I don’t think Janie knew that the dog was sick, not until three weeks later when Tea Cake became ill and started acting strange.

Janie loves Tea Cake so much that she is willing to spend every penny she has to cure him, which isn’t possible. She also loves him enough to end his life and put him out of his misery. I admire her very much at this point in the novel. She knows that the day will come when she may have to either kill him or put him in a hospital and she begins to mentally keep track of all the changes that Tea Cake goes through as his illness gets worse. She sees him turning into someone else, a stranger. The kind man she fell in love with is no longer home, and is replaced by a jealous stranger who is a danger to her and himself. She took precautions with the guns in the home, making sure she knew where they were and if they were loaded or unloaded. I think she knew that the day was coming when she’d need to protect herself. When she does finally take action against Tea Cake, I think it was out of her love for him that she was able to kill him. It was both an act of self-defense and an act of love, and I do think that the jury saw that during her trial.

Janie’s arrest and trial raised several questions for me. The arrest and trial happened on the same day, shortly after Doctor Simmons told the Judge and sheriff “how it was”, which I took to mean he told them about the rabies and the bite marks Tea Cake left on Janie’s arm as he died. Get her tried quickly so she can be treated as soon as possible? Was that the driving force behind why the trial happened so quickly? The trial itself was also very interesting to me. I found it interesting that neither the District Attorney nor Janie’s defense attorney called any of the members of the Black community forward to testify. They all wanted to, that was obvious, and it was obvious they all were standing in judgment of Janie’s actions, but in accordance with the laws of the time, it was a jury of twelve White men who sat in judgment of her. These jurors knew nothing about Tea Cake or Janie, and they knew nothing about the loving and wonderful relationship that the Black community had seen between Tea Cake and Janie. In the eyes of her own community, she was a murderer and an ungrateful woman, yet it was up to the White community to pass judgment. I found it interesting that the District Attorney, Mr. Prescott, had no interest in calling any members of the Black community to testify about Tea Cake or Janie. He made it very clear to Sop-de-Bottom, at one point, that he didn’t need or want the testimony of him or any other member of the Black community in this case. Why? Weren’t they perfect witnesses for the prosecution? Weren’t they the best ones to speak out against the character of Janie, the accused murderess, and on behalf of Tea Cake, the loving, angel of a man who devoted his life to Janie?

Actually, I think the trial was a farce committed to keep an angry community from growing angrier and causing harm to the larger population in the form of an uprising. I am under no impression that the Judge, the Sheriff, the DA or the jury truly believed that Janie acted in malice or with ill intent towards Tea Cake. I’m sure Doctor Simmons told the Judge and sheriff that Tea Cake was in the downward decline attributed to untreated rabies and it had only been a matter of time before he killed Janie, or someone else; she was acting in self-defense when she fired upon Tea Cake, nothing more and nothing less. I don’t think any member of the White community, who was sitting in that courtroom, thought Janie was guilty the way the Black community did, and I base that first on how long it took the jury to deliberate. I’ve worked in the Judicial system for 12 years and, usually, when a jury deliberates for less than 15 minutes, there’s a pretty good chance the jury already knows how they are going to rule and knew their decision long before testimony was completed. It doesn’t always mean they come back with Not Guilty verdicts, there have been many times where our jurors deliberated for 5 minutes and came back finding the defendants guilty. It just means that they already knew what they were going to do and the testimony gave them the justification they needed for their verdict. In Janie’s trial, the jury was out five minutes before finding “the death of Vergible Woods to be entirely accidental and justifiable, and that no blame should rest upon the defendant Janie Woods.” (page 188). The farce worked, the Black community is appeased (and somewhat ashamed of its actions towards Janie) and Janie was acquitted of any wrong doing.

In the end, when Janie returns to Eatonville, she is a woman who has grown and lived a full life. She discovered there were things that she wasn’t willing to do just because a man told her to and she discovered there were things she loved doing cause the man she loved, loved them. She found true love, the kind that keeps you warm on a cold day. She learned about the power of love and how it can not only save those you love the most but also save you. She returned home a changed, and seemingly, better woman.

So, time for the answer to the question – has my opinion of this book changed from when I first read it in 1997? Yes, it has. In 1997 (and in the review I put on Goodreads) I said this book was okay, but not good, and I said I hated it. Well, I’m changing that comment. Zora Neale Hurston’s writing is beautifully descriptive and her characters are engaging. Through the strong narration of Janie, the reader is taken on a journey of growth and self-discovery. For me, the bigger question is did I like this book more now than I did in 1997? Yes and no. I liked Janie a little more after rereading this book, but I didn’t like Tea Cake any more (or less) than when I first read this. I like books where a character perseveres and overcomes some situation, and I think Janie overcame quite a bit in this book, and I do like her more now than I did in 1997, but she is not one of my favorite heroines. I still really like Sethe, Miss Celie, Shug Avery and Edana “Dana” Franklin more than Janie. This book, still, is not one of my favorite pieces of African-American literature, but it does have an important place in the literary history of African-American writers. I’m willing to change my rating from 1 star and give this book 3 stars. Maybe in another 14 years, I’ll see this book differently and give it 5 stars (or put it back at 1 star), we’ll see.
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