It was the title that I had first noticed, although I can’t remember when. It took up residence in my consciousness as a book that I should read. Had I read anything else by the author Zora Neale Hurston? Nothing at all. But I was aware that she was a woman, black and American. And I was aware that this book in particular was recommended by readers I admire. So this was an obvious choice for the Decades Project.
Their Eyes Were Watching God was published in 1937 and is the third book in the Decades Project for 2020 (see below for more details), from the decade 1930-1939 highlighted in the Virago collection called Brilliant Careers.
Their Eyes Were Watching God
At the start of Their Eyes Were Watching God Janie returns home to Eatonville, Florida, and the town is agog to hear what has happened to her third marriage, this time to Tea Cake. Everyone assumes that he has dumped her because she is older than him. But this is not the case as we find out. The novel is framed as the story that Janie tells her best friend Pheoby about her life and three marriages.
As a child she was brought up by her grandmother, who had been born a slave. Like other women who had been slaves, she had a child by a white man and she has brought the child up on her own. The daughter, Janie’s mother had her own child, Janie, by Lord knows who. She disappeared leaving the grandmother to raise Janie. The grandmother decides when Janie is in her teens that it is time for her to marry and packs her off to her first husband, Logan, who is a farmer who simply wants her to work for him.
She is rescued by the smart-talking Joe Starks who is determined to make something of himself and has been doing well in Georgia. Now he is on his way to a town in Florida.
But he was making money where he was. But when he heard all about ‘em makin’ a town all outa colored folks, he knowed dat was de place he wanted to be. He had always wanted to be a big voice, but de white folks had all de sayso where he come from and everywhere else, exceptin’ dis place dat colored folk was buildin’ theirselves. (37-8)
The two leave Logan’s farm, get married and travel to Eatonville, where Joe sets up a store and becomes its first mayor and becomes rich. Although Joe treats Janie better than Logan had, he stifles her, wanting to possess her, to make of her what he wants. In the end she finds it oppressive.
But Joe dies, too stubborn to seek medical help and after his death Janie becomes a woman of substance. She meets and falls for sweet-talking, kind Tea Cake. They can’t quite believe they love each other. He treats her right, and she loves him. They marry and move to the Glades, and for the first time Janie feels valued and loved and is able to feel she can do what she wishes. But their lives are disrupted by a Hurricane. This is a vivid episode, and the title is taken from the moment when the wind begins to blow.
The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in their shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny weight against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God. (211-212)
The friendly community is destroyed and Tea Cake dies. This too is vividly described, as is Janie’s anguish. She returns home with her story.
‘Now, dat’s how everything was, Pheoby, jus’ lak Ah told yuh. So Ah’m home again and Ah’m satisfied tuh be heah. Ah done been tuh de horizon and back and now Ah kin set heah in mah house and live by comparisons.’ (256-257)
Janie imparts her hard-earned wisdom to Pheoby, able to rest in the knowledge that while her three marriages were different, Tea Cake had enabled her to reach the horizon.
Zora Neale Hurston
The author was born in Alabama in 1891 and raised in Eatonville itself. She died in Florida in 1960. Her grandparents had been slaves, but she was able to make the best of new opportunities becoming available in the 20s and ‘30s. Her name is often associated with the Harlem Renaissance (as was Nella Larsen’s, the subject of the previous choice in this series). She was not able to access higher education in her late teens so later she took ten years off her chronological age and entered college, becoming a noted anthropologist. She was also a teacher as well as a writer.
Their Eyes was her second novel and she had already published short stories. It is told in a mixture of phonetic colloquialisms or dialect and more conventional narrative style as can be seen from the quotations. This allows her to invent some excellent words and use turns of phrase that are enchanting. I thought I might find it difficult to read, but I soon got used to the rhythms and heard some of the voices in a slightly more authentic way.
Janie’s story can be seen as the triumphant acquisition of a voice by a black woman. In her early years and first two marriages she had no voice, but with Tea Cake and after his death she was able to speak for herself. Its appeal is universal and, as Zadie Smith points out in her introduction, it is a novel of soulfulness.
Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, first published in 1937and then as a Virago Modern Classic in 1986. 259pp The latest edition is introduced by Zadie Smith and has an afterword by Shirley Anne Williams.
The Decades Project 2020
This year I am indulging my pleasure at rereading and discovering previously published novels. I am framing my choices from the Virago collection: Brilliant Careers: The Virago Book of 20th Century Fiction, edited by Ali Smith, Kasia Boddy and Sarah Wood. This collection reproduces an extract from one hundred books, one published in each year of the century and reissued by Virago. My choices include rereads, classics and some new discoveries.
The first three choices for the project were
My Brilliant Career by Miles Franklin (1901)
Mary Olivier: A Life by May Sinclair (1919)
Passing by Nella Larsen (1929)