Thursday, July 31, 2014

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

(Note: My review of this book was first published on Goodreads on October 12, 2009, but had never been posted here.)

Their Eyes Were Watching GodTheir Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

"...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 explored 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.    


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