I read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God for a new book club I was invited to join.
Story: Sixteen year old Janie dreams of a bright future as she’s smooching with a Johnny Taylor, but she’s thwarted when her grandmother arranges marriage with a successful farmer who’s a much older man. Grandma prioritizes financial security and turns away from Janie when she visits pleading for help out of an unhappy marriage. Granny thinks Janie’s ungrateful and impractical.
Janie remains stuck living with a husband who just wanted a maid till sweet talking Jody comes to town. When she gets a chance, Janie runs off with Jody to Eatonville, a Florida town where all the townspeople are African American. Charismatic and visionary, Jody convinces the people that they need a store, a street lamp and a mayor. Once he’s mayor he develops the town till it becomes a real city that other visit to shop or do business. Yet Janie’s second marriage isn’t much better than her first. Jody puts beautiful Janie on a pedestal for all to admire. He forbids her from befriending people who aren’t as prominent as he is. Jodie insists Janie work in their general store and nitpicks her every move.
When Jodie dies, Janie gains freedom as a woman of means. But as she experiences one bad relationship after another I feared that she’d meet someone new. Yet she does when another wayfarer walks into her life. Though tentative at first, Janie does take Tea Cake up on his offer of love. As readers come to expect, their life wasn’t smooth and peaceful.
My thoughts: I thoroughly enjoyed Their Eyes Were Watching God. While the book is mainly dialect I got accustomed to it. Dialect was Hurston’s strong suit as was a brisk paced plot. The book moves quickly and before I knew it this 17 year old girl was in her mid 40s. I was always hoping for the best for Janie and worried that her spirit would be broken or she’d give up on life.
At different points Janie’s husbands beat her. I flinched when it happened and was surprised by how Janie sometimes defended her abuser. Yet that often happens in real life. It also was revealing how the subordinate male characters considered wife beating necessary to marriage and how they praised Janie when she was beaten publicly.
An anthropologist by profession, I appreciated Hurston’s slice of life naturalist novel . It transported me to Eatonville. Janie’s life is often hard and she’s isolated so that she has few friends and her best husband was a gambler, whom I wasn’t sure I’d trust, yet all that drew me into this novel.