Their Eyes Were Watching God
By Zora Neale Hurston
Author Zora Neale Hurston was a renowned folklorist, as well as an author, and this background shows in her richly detailed novel that chronicles Janie Starks' life and her dissatisfaction with the role that she is expected to play as a black woman in society, from the time of her birth in approximately 1877. An eminently feminist novel, Janie wants the world to move her, and she is not content to conform to the role that her grandmother and her first two husbands would have her assume. Because of her beauty, particularly her long straight hair, she quickly achieves material comfort, but her spirit remains restless.
Her first two husbands fail to recognize her human qualities. It is not until she meets Tea Cake that she finds a man who appreciates her ostensibly as an equal. The book's portrayal of violence against women is not shocking for its graphic qualities, but rather for the fact that it is acknowledged and accepted that a man will beat his wife and that doing so is a token of his ownership. When Mrs. Turner lets it be known that she would like to see her brother paired up with Janie, Tea Cake beats Janie "tuh show dem Turners who is boss." We don't hear how Janie feels about the beating, but we are told that "It aroused a sort of envy in both men and women. The way he petted and pampered her as if those two or three face slaps had nearly killed her made the women see visions and the helpless way she hung on him made men dream dreams." We are also told that those "two or three face slaps made it possible for "uh person can see every place you hit her." He first two husbands are brutal and repressive, and their violence is not surprising. So it rankles to see that unjustified violence is also legitimized in the hands of Tea Cake, the "ideal man."
Set in different black communities in southern Florida, the dialect and pronunciation of the local black people is reproduced with great precision, making the text somewhat difficult to read for those who are not familiar with these speech patterns. This is not deficiency in the text but rather a caveat to the reader that the language and telling are challenging. I found that it was sometimes necessary to read the dialogue out loud in order to apprehend its meaning, which I note was a possibly intentional nod on the part of the author, to the black oral storytelling traditions.
Aside from the violence, there are a few other points in the story with which I could not reconcile myself: Janie apparently has no qualms with the fact that Tea Cake steals her $200, spends it having a party, and then informs her that he will win it back by gambling, because that's how he earns his living. The only point she objects to, is that he went off and had a good time without her.
Also disturbing is the lingering discomfort of having read the author's biographic information. Despite her ample education and her obvious feminist beliefs, author Hurston, died alone, impoverished, unloved, and unknown, and was buried in an unmarked grave. Unlike her heroine who journeyed to find her heart's desire and be true to herself, finding love, riches, and a sense of acceptance and community, Hurston's life belies everything that her heroine represents. This is not necessarily valid literary criticism: an author's own life is not the standard by which a piece of fiction should be judged. Fiction is, after all, made up. In this case it is written with the intention of being inspirational, rather than documentary. The concept of the fairy tale keeps running through my mind, in the style of the Grimm brothers, and Hurston uses many symbolic and iconographic elements in the telling of the story and her portrayal of the black community.