Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

It’s always refreshing to read a classic. While I appreciate plot-driven works, there’s just something about a book like Hurston’s, one full of figurative language and imagery, that quenches my intellectual thirst as a reader.

Hurston’s novel follows the life of Janie, a woman on a quest to find herself, love, and meaning in life. As a young child, Janie was raised by her grandmother, a woman who knew slavery. Nanny uses her own life experiences to shape her goals for Janie: Nanny was raped by her master and almost killed by the master’s jealous wife after the birth of her daughter. Janie’s mother was raped by a white schoolteacher and then ran off from responsibility. Nanny did not want to see the same thing happen to Janie.

As a result, Janie is married off at age 17 to a much older man simply because he can provide for her. The problem is, Janie has never been satisfied with simply filling her basic human needs. She experiences an epiphany under a pear tree. The “blossoming pear tree in the back-yard….called her to come and gaze on a mystery.” The tree is described in a beautiful and suggestive passage comparing the tree to “a flute song long forgotten in another existence and remembered again,” a song “that had nothing to do with her ears.” She watches the bees among the blossoms and experiences a vision of perfection in marriage, “the thousand sister-calyxes arch[ing] to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming n every blossom and frothing with delight.” It was a revelation that “left her limp and languid.” This epiphany is what Janie uses to compare all future relationships.

Needless to say, Logan, her first husband, cannot compare. He is older, he’s focused on working his farm, he doesn’t wash his feet before bed, and she hates “de way his head is so long one way and so flat on de sides and dat pone uh fat back uh his neck.” In short, “the vision of Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree.”

Janie runs away with a man younger than Logan (but at least ten years older than her). Jody starts the town of Eatonville in Flordia, an all-black incorporated town. At first Janie is flattered to be the mayor’s wife, but as time goes on, she realizes that Jody has stifled her freedom. The men in the town are infatuated by Janie’s beauty, specifically her hair. Being three-quarters Caucasian (from her family’s history of rape), her hair is much softer than the other women’s, and it makes her stand out. Jody catches someone stroking Janie’s long braid (without Janie’s knowledge) and forces her to keep her hair tied up for the next twenty-odd years.

At nearly age 40, Janie becomes free of her marriage to Jody, and she meets a younger man named Tea Cake. At age 25, he can’t ignore his love for her despite the age difference. I won’t spoil the ending, but Tea Cake definitely fits Janie’s pear tree vision.  Through the story, Janie does find what she was looking for. The horizon is used as a symbol throughout, and at the story’s end, despite its bittersweet qualities, Janie “pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net,” with “so much of life in its meshes!” She learns what life and love truly is through the novel, and it’s an experience you’ll enjoy discovering along with her.

The challenge of this book is its use of dialect. Hurston has become famous for her anthropological use of diction. Words are spelled the way they were spoken among southern towns in the 1920s and ‘30s. “Ah” is used instead of the pronoun “I,” for example. While it presents an initial slowing of reading, it adds lots of flavor, and by the third chapter, you’ll barely notice it. The rich use of figurative language and interwoven symbols makes this a rewarding reading experience.

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