Zora Neale Hurston writes in her own very distinctive voice. She also put a lot of her soul into Their Eyes Were Watching God. Zora had an intense affair with a younger man: she fell in love "like a parachute jump". After they ended it, Hurston was researching folklore in Haiti, and this novel poured out of her in seven weeks. In it she "tried to embalm all the tenderness of [her] passion for him". But the book holds much more than one great romance. In it Janie Crawford (later Starks) tells her whole journey from childhood to becoming a strong, deep woman; all the relationships that help and hinder her along the way; and how Blacks founded the first town of their own in the US, leaving behind the shadows of slavery, and building a place for freedom and joy on their own terms.
Hurston's story comes both from the heart of America, and from outside my own experience. Traveling to Eatonville, Florida in the 1920s was like visiting another country, where fables and customs were brand new to me. My job as a reader is not to cram this tale into my mental boxes: it's just to listen carefully, and find the rhythm of Janie's (and Zora's) song. I can't explain this novel to you - there is too much I sense, but can't wrap into words. I'll just point out three aspects that charmed and impressed me here: Hurston's language, psychology, and inspiration.
There are two voices in this book, braided together: Zora's and Janie's. Janie Starks tells most of the story to her friend Phoeby Watson, on her back porch, through the length of one night:
'Time makes everything old so the kissing, young darkness became a monstropolous old thing while Janie talked.'Monstropolous. Perfect. The made-up word underlines the freshness of the narrator's voice; but it also resonates both with the kissing, young heroine who lives through decades and horrors in her tale, and with the fabulous, otherworldly tale she tells. (Monstropolous is now slang - but I don't think it was in 1937. Hurston also uses "freezolity" and "combunction", among others.)
Janie's voice, and her tale, are wrapped within Zora's. Hurston traveled widely and led an adventurous life. She soaked up the dialects of many societies, including the bright voices of writers, musicians and artists in the Harlem Renaissance. She studied folklore, in universities and in the field. Drawing on all she had heard and read, Hurston achieved a marriage of powerful oral traditions and graceful literary style.
There is so much poetry, and freshness, and heart in this book. I love how Hurston has precise, subtle insights, and then wraps them in phrases nobody else could have thought of. Here are a few examples:
'When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another.'.
'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 above him. He was a glance from God.'
'Of course he wasn't dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.'
Just as Hurston weaves together oral and literary traditions, she also brings resonant fables and fine-grained realism on to the same stage, in the same characters. She writes people who are larger than life - who seem to represent universal types. But however good or bad they are to Janie, we also see their other side, and the forces of personality growing and fighting within them. Sometimes we will see a character fully lit, know exactly who they are - and then, many pages later, Hurston will take us in deeper, showing us why they were that way. She'll get you to dislike someone, to throw them away - and then get you to pick them up further down the road, and feel bad for your mistake. So much humanity and insight here.
Hurston is particularly good at the psychology of relationships, both one-on-one, and how we respond to the eyes of the world. Janie evolves, both gradually and in sudden leaps, throughout her tale. When she moves forward in life, she finds people who allow her to be a larger Janie, who accept and encourage her in ways her Grandma or her last home couldn't (or wouldn't) see. But the people and towns that give Janie room to grow, also demand that she only grow in certain directions.
This is especially true of Joe Starks (Janie calls him "Jody"). He offers Janie a better life and a broader horizon than she ever knew - but the more she grows, the harder he leans on her.
*SPOILER* (in block quote) There are a lot of incidents in this book, but this is one of the larger ones. It won't ruin the book for you; it does reveal a plot-turn, and some of Jody Starks's nature. But it demonstrates well just how deeply Hurston sees, and how clearly she tells it.
Joe: "All you got tuh do is mind me. How come you can't do lak Ah tell yuh?".
Janie: "You sho loves to tell me whut to do, but Ah can't tell you nothin' Ah see!"
"Dat's 'cause you need tellin'," he rejoined hotly. "It would be pitiful if Ah didn't. Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don't think none theirselves."
"Ah knows uh few things, and womenfolks thinks sometimes too!"
"Aw naw they don't. They just think they's thinkin'. When Ah see one thing Ah understands ten. You see ten things and don't understand one."
Times and scenes like that put Janie to thinking about the inside state of her marriage. Time came when she fought back with her tongue as best she could, but it didn't do her any good. It just made Joe do more. He wanted her submission and he'd keep on fighting until he felt he had it.
So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush. The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor. It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again. So she put something in there to represent the spirit like a Virgin Mary image in a church. The bed was no longer a daisy-field for her and Joe to play in. It was a place where she went and lay down when she was sleepy and tired.
She wasn't petal-open anymore with him. She was twenty-four and seven years married when she knew. She found that out one day when he slapped her face in the kitchen. It happened over one of those dinners that chasten all women sometimes. They plan and they fix and they do, and then some kitchen-dwelling fiend slips a scorchy, soggy, tasteless mess into their pots and pans. Janie was a good cook, and Joe had looked forward to his dinner as a refuge from other things. So when the bread didn't rise, and the fish wasn't quite done at the bone, and the rice was scorched, he slapped Janie until she had a ringing sound in her ears and told her about her brains before he stalked on back to the store.
Janie stood where he left her for unmeasured time and thought. She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside her to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over. In a way she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further. She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be. She found that she had a host of thoughts she had never expressed to him, and numerous emotions she had never let Jody know about. Things packed up and put away in parts of her heart where he could never find them. She was saving up feelings for some man she had never seen. She had an inside and an outside now and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.
"I love myself when I am laughing. And then again when I am looking mean and impressive."My favorite spell in the book was the joyful, unbowed soul Zora put into it. As we go with Janie on a journey through the miles and the years, we encounter hardship, disappointment, betrayal, sickness, death, natural disasters. It all counts, it all tells upon Janie's face and body, and on the heart of the reader. But Janie endures and grows, if not taller, at least tougher, more sure of her own two feet.
"When I set my hat at a certain angle and saunter down Seventh Avenue . . . the cosmic Zora emerges . . . How can any deny themselves the pleasure of my company? It's beyond me." - Zora Neale Hurston
There is a grand, gritty, thoroughly credible strength of spirit here. Janie doesn't end up with a Disney happiness, but with an adult self-fulfillment: mostly happy and calm, with some darkness and turbulence thrown in. For that is life, and how we face it. When I finished this book I felt charmed by Janie and Zora, and a little fonder of myself and this troubled world we're stuck with. Their Eyes Were Watching God stretched me a little, and made a bit more room for life than I knew before.
This book left me hungry for more of it, and wondering about the elements I sensed but could not put into words. One of the surest marks of a Great Book is, there is more there than you can fully grasp in one reading. In time I'll read more of Zora Neale Hurston's work, and eventually I'll come back to this one. To help me dig a little deeper in this very spot, I have two books out of the library, with a dozen essays on Their Eyes Were Watching God. I'll read them before my next Books Go Boom! (Fri. Jan. 31st), which will be a closer look at aspects of this novel.
So if you've read Their Eyes Were Watching God, and have observations on it; or if you haven't read it, and have questions, please put them in a comment below. If I can't satisfy your curiosity now, perhaps I'll be able to in a couple of weeks.