Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the definitive works of feminist, African-American and twentieth-century literature. The life of Janie Crawford runs rich with the daily struggles and little triumphs of every woman. Even though, in a sense, every story has already been told, it is in the way Janie tells her story that sets it apart from others and lures you into her luxurious and sometimes painful world. By the time I closed the back cover I understood why Hurston’s book is on so many reading lists and assigned in so many literature programs. The book speaks for itself.
Janie’s life begins as most children’s do: bursting with wonder and color and an innocence untouched by the weight of adulthood. It takes her several years before she realizes she is a “colored” girl and not white like the other children on the farm where she was raised. As she grows her sense of awe and delight in the natural world grows, causing her to pause and stare at trees in bloom and the sun streaking across the sky. However, while she is staring at nature, people begin to stare back at her.
Growing up of mixed heritage, her skin color causes jealousy and mortification in some people and barely contained lust in others. For a long time Janie does not notice this, and it isn’t until she is married off by her grandmother that Janie realizes that women – and women of her situation in particular – have an unfair way in the world. Happiness, joy and a sense of purpose are things which ought to be available to all, regardless of their station. But Janie spends most of her life searching for those things in various ways.
Marriage, she was told, was a happy occasion and a place of security and safety. Surely a woman who is married is happy. But it takes three marriages to three different men to teach Janie that both marriage and happiness depend on what you make of it yourself – along with the other partner involved. Through these men Janie learns about life, relationships and her own fearless, uncompromising soul.
Logan brings security, stability and respectability. And in his way he loves her, although Janie tries in vain to love him in return, and so she learns that marriage and love are not interchangeable terms. Joe offers creature comforts, money to spare and the high pedestal life that some people (men and women included) feel necessary in relationships. But worship does not equal love either, only the shadow of affection draped over jealousy. It is only with Tea Cake that true feelings grow, and not without struggle.
The best part of Hurston’s story is how well Janie and Tea Cake’s love blooms within the world and among the people they meet, cherish and sometimes despise. Like all relationships there is jealousy, worry and fights. And Hurston is not afraid to portray the ugly parts of life and love. People lie, people judge too quickly, people do harm both unintentionally and with malice. Even to those they claim to love best. It is what happens after – when the hate and the fear have given way to silence – that matters.
Themes run strong throughout this novel: of perseverance and hope through dark times, of some things being worth the wait, of others being worth remembering even if memories bring pain. Life is not perfect, but to recognize the light you must feel the dark.