Friday, April 7, 2017

Redux: Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston: A review

The writer Zora Neale Hurston came to mind this week in another context and it reminded me of when I made her acquaintance in 2009. That was when I read and reviewed her book, Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was a memorable introduction to a gifted writer. Here is that review.

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"...tell 'em dat love ain't somethin' lak uh grindstone dat's de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It's uh movin' thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore."

This quote from near the end of the book, when Janie is telling her story to her friend Pheoby, is a summation of the tale for me. Janie's life was like the sea, taking its shape from what it met, the things that contained it. Perhaps that is true of all our lives.

This is, in many ways, quite a remarkable book, and I confess it is my introduction to Zora Neale Hurston. I knew her name, of course, but had never read any of her works. I knew of her as an anthropology student of Franz Boas. I remember hearing of her during my own anthropology student days.

She had a wonderful ear for language and her telling of Janie's story in the vernacular of Southern Black speech seems a stroke of genius to me. It brings Janie's story very close to the bone for me, because the cadences of the speech are so intimate and familiar to me from my own childhood.

Janie lived in a time and place when women of independence were looked at suspiciously. (Well, that could be said of today as well, couldn't it?) She tried living as her grandma who raised her wanted her to live. She married the man of means that Grandma had chosen for her. And she was miserable. When she met another man, who treated her differently and seemed to respect her desire to be her own person, she did not hesitate to run away with him.

She subsequently married Joe Starks and settled down to a life of substance and influence in the community where they lived. But once again, she found that her husband was trying to control her, trying to mold her into his idea of the perfect wife, leaving no room for expansion to other shores.

Though she was unhappy and unfulfilled, she stayed with Starks until his death. Soon after, she was to meet "Tea Cake," the free-spirited man of her dreams and the rest of her story is bound by those shores which she and Tea Cake made together.

I'm very glad to have finally met Zora Neale Hurston. She's an interesting character in her own right and the foreword and afterword, as well as discussions of Janie's feminism that were included in the book added much to my enjoyment of it. It was a very canny decision by Harper Perennial Modern Classics to have included all that, especially for readers like me, who really knew little about Hurston other than her name. In addition to everything else she was, she was a very good writer.


My rating: 5 of 5 stars

6 comments:

  1. I loved this book! I didn't know you had studied anthropology. That was my secret passion when in college, though I was on an Elementary Education track. I too thought the dialect brought the story to life, but I can imagine how much better that would be for you, having grown up with it. The reading group members with which I discussed the book were supremely annoyed by that dialect. Go figure. I also have read her autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road. Have you read that? It is wonderful.

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    1. I have not read it. Something to look forward to.

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  2. I tried to submit a comment this morning but Google reported back an error message.

    I'm glad that you loved this book. There is a movie adaptation starring Halle Berry, and don't quote me on that, but I believe it's produced by Oprah Winfrey.

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    1. Yes, Blogger was messed up this morning for some reason. I'm glad you were finally able to get through. i'm not familiar with the movie but it sure sounds like a project that Oprah would take on.

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  3. I first read this book in the '90's after seeing it on so many recommended reading lists and then added it to the syllabus for my AP Senior English class. I loved the book, and I think most of my students did, too! The dialect is a little hard to get used to at first, but the more you read of the book, the easier it is. One of the interesting background notes on this book is that Richard Wright and other male black authors of the time criticized Hurston for the image she created of Afro-Americans, especially the men. Yet that wasn't what she was all about--it was the women, women like Janie who were the "mules of the world" and who finally found their independence and their voice. I think Hurston was ahead of her time! And yes, there is a movie produced by Oprah starring Halle Berry; I remember it being quite good.

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    1. Thank you for that wonderful perspective. I agree - the story was all about the women and from a woman's perspective and that is a perspective that is often missing, or was at the time the book was written. Now I'm going to look for that movie.

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