Originally published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a story of a woman struggling to define herself and live her life independent of the desires of others. The tale is set in Florida in 1928. The woman is Janie Crawford. If I just told you this much, you would have a totally different idea of the themes of this novel. Now, if I told you that Zora Neale Hurston, the author, was a critically acclaimed African-American writer, you might immediately assume that her book would be about class and racism. And while those themes do play a role in Their Eyes Were Watching God, it is so very much more than that.
As in real life, our lives our shaped not only by the color of our skin (Janie’s is high yellow), but also our sex, our background and the events that occur in our lives. Being a mixed-race woman, in the south, in the 1920’s, from a poor family and raised by a grandmother who has definite ideas of what her granddaughter needs, Janie already is faced with obstacles. But Hurston’s character is vibrant and determined to do exactly as she pleases. And that is one of the reasons this book is so impressive. In spite of her background and her struggles, Janie Crawford is a woman to be admired.
It is interesting to note that when this book was released, some of her peers (including famed novelist Richard Wright) dissed this book. He thought Janie’s voice, which Hurston presents in the dialect of a poor black southern woman (which Janie was!) was somehow racist and demeaning to African-Americans. I imagine, if Janie Crawford had been a real person, would she have told Richard Wright that she didn’t care two hoots what he thought of her. And I hope Zora Neale Hurston did too. The black elite were obviously too political and too racist themselves to see the strength and beautiful character of the protagonist Hurston created.
All of this is set amidst stunning prose and a story that has you sitting on the edge of your seat, laughing, emitting romantic sighs and shedding a few tears. Bravo!
4 1/2 stars (out of 5)
Published in 1937