Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic of American literature, Southern literature, African-American literature and culture and thinking and – it’s just a must-read. I’ve had this one on my list for years, and I finally got around to picking it up. Better late than never.
A brief synopsis: Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of a woman’s journey from adolescence to middle-age, through the lens of her three marriages. We first meet Janie as a middle-aged woman preparing to tell the story of her life, but she quickly takes us back to peer in on herself as a blooming teenager, kissing a man over a fence. All the world is possibility in that moment:
She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.
Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, sees her kiss the young man and quickly moves to stamp out any ill-advised romance. Nanny informs Janie that Janie must marry a man who can provide for her; it is this eventuality that will mark the culmination of Nanny’s hard work and sacrifices – and she has just the man. He’s much older than Janie, and Janie doesn’t love him – nor he, her – but no matter. He means security. Janie, complacent, marries and is shocked to discover that she can’t fall in love with her husband; she’d just assumed that love would follow marriage naturally and without any prodding from her. So she’s easily tempted to run off when a new man, Joe Starks, appears on the scene. Joe – or Jody, as Janie calls him – promises to keep her in the style in which she, as a shockingly beautiful woman, ought to be kept. On his arm, as Mrs. Starks, Janie enters the town of Eatonville, where she will spend most of her life. Joe strides into town and immediately takes the community in hand, getting himself elected Mayor and setting up a thriving business. But Janie struggles against the bonds in her new life – working in Joe’s store, covering her lustrous hair upon his orders, and staying silent instead of joining in the life of the town as she longs to do. After twenty years of serving as Joe’s adornment, she is widowed and free for the first time. And then Tea Cake appears on the scene.
All next day in the house and store she thought resisting thoughts about Tea Cake. She even ridiculed him in her mind and was a little ashamed of the association. But every hour or two the battle had to be fought all over again. She couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom – a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.
Tea Cake is younger than Janie – by about fifteen years – and the town speculates that he’s after her money. He’s not, though. When Janie finally agrees to marry him, they quickly come to an understanding (after he finds and spends her secret emergency stash – I wasn’t too impressed with him in that scene) that she’ll live on what he provides. If they’re hungry, they’ll be hungry together. And she works alongside him – not grudgingly, as with her first two husbands – but because he wants her with him and she wants to be there. They struggle and strive and fight sometimes, and it’s a gloriously even partnership – and gorgeous to read.
The book culminates with a hurricane and its tragic aftermath, and some of the most compelling writing I’ve ever experienced, including the passage from which the title comes:
The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.
It’s a slim volume, and completely absorbing, so it makes for a quick read if you’re inclined to steam through books, which I certainly am; I finished it in a day. But I did try to slow down and appreciate Hurston’s gorgeous writing, and to make sure I didn’t miss the dialogue, which Hurston writes in dialect – which takes some getting used to, but once you’re accustomed it enhances the texture and the atmosphere of the story.
I won’t spoil the ending, because everyone should read it for themselves – on the edge of your seat, if you’re anything like me. I can certainly see why Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic, and I’m sure I will be revisiting it.