Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston
Published by Harper Perennial Modern Classics
5 Out of 5 Stars
*The title of this review comes from my favorite quote in the novel: “She didn't read books so she didn't know that she was the world and the heavens boiled down to a drop.”
This is another book I recently re-read that stands up well to a second reading. Hurston's novel, unlike many classics, is as impressive and as relevant today as it was when written.
Hurston's story of Janie, a fair-skinned black woman caught in the time period between the end of slavery and the Civil Rights movement, is the first woman in her family who has the opportunity to be defined as something other than property. Despite this, Janie is unable to achieve self-actualization or seek out the independence for which she longs; however, this is not due to the racism or prejudices of white society (in fact, there isn't a prominent white character in the book). Instead, Hurston takes a fascinating look at intraracial racism. Janie's obvious "whiteness" sets her apart from the black community. At first, she's envied for her pretty hand-me-down dresses and hair ribbons that she obtains from the kind white family for which her grandmother works. When combined with her straight hair (which hangs down to her waist), her exquisite beauty, and her light skin, she defies color categorization and leaves the question of "what is black?" lacking a definite answer. Later, she's an outcast because her second husband's "big voice" and quest for power in the all black community of Eatonville comes to be identified with the white masters of days gone by, and Janie comes to be seen in the role of the Southern plantation "mistress."
In addition, Hurston explores the repression of women in a patriarchal society. Janie's grandmother tells her that the black woman is the "mule of the world," the lowest of the low. Janie finds this to be true in her first two marriages, as she is treated like property by Logan Killicks and is later objectified by Jody Starks. It isn't until she meets Tea Cake, a man half her age, that Janie begins to live life on her own terms and not by the definition her man has set forth for her.
Whether you like the novel or not, it's importance to African-American and feminist literature is undeniable.