Their Eyes Were Watching God was my selection for Classics Spin #8 for the Classics Club! Here is my review.
I had a complex reaction to this novel. On the one hand, I liked its protagonist, Janey Crawford, and was interested in her struggle to define her own identity. On the other hand, I didn’t much like any other characters in the novel. On the one hand, Janey’s struggles to define herself make the novel a landmark feminist book; on the other hand, Janey defines herself through her choice of husbands and her relationships to them. On the one hand, I don’t usually like tales in the vernacular; on the other hand, both the educated omniscient narrator and Janey’s vernacular third/first-person narration have moments of entrancing imagery. And speaking of that imagery, for a book written in 1937, the novel is occasionally startling in its sexuality.
A woman in her 40’s, Janey has recently returned home without Tea Cake, the man she left with. Having departed in some scandal, a well-off widow with a much younger, penniless man, she is figuring in a lot of talk. So, when her friend Phoeby comes to see her, Janey decides to tell her the story of her life.
Janey was raised by her grandmother in West Florida after her mother had her as a result of rape and then disappeared. Janey is a light-skinned black woman with long beautiful hair, and her appearance features in much of her story. When she is still an extremely innocent 16-year-old, her grandmother marries her off to a much older man, trying to give her stability. Janey thinks that marrying will make them love each other, but she is soon disillusioned and finds he is inclined to treat her like a work horse.
Then she meets Joe Starks, a flashy well-dressed man who seems to be going somewhere, and is. She leaves with him and they settle in an all-black town in “the new part of Florida,” where Joe soon becomes the mayor and store owner. But he defines his marriage by what he gives her and expects her to maintain a certain decorum as his wife, not allowing her to participate in many of the small town amusements. Also, he treats her with disrespect, publicly ridiculing her.
After Joe dies, under circumstances that have already started talk, Janey meets Tea Cup and eventually leaves with him to work in the Everglades. Although Tea Cup is in some ways an improvement over her other two husbands, there are some events that disturbed me. First, he steals her $200 and comes back with $12, but she is only upset when she thinks he has left her. Next, he earns it back but makes her put it in the bank and promise to live off what he can provide, a classic play for dominance that ignores the fact that she soon has to go to work next to him, manually in the fields. Finally, he beats her up once, not because of anything she does but because he wants to show everyone that she belongs to him.
Hurston was a trained ethnographer, and her fiction details a way of life in small-town Florida of her time. I found many of the details interesting. A fascination with skin color and Caucasian features is one theme that comes up several times. In fact, when Tea Cake beats Janey, instead of provoking a discussion of the fairness of the beating, the people are more fascinated by Janey’s skin being fair enough that they can see the bruises, which makes the other men envious.
Janey is often viewed harshly and unfairly by others. But it is part of her growing self-awareness that she doesn’t care. Although to me she sometimes seems too passive in her relationship to men—her gentle response to Tea Cake’s beating is seen as a good thing—she is otherwise a strong and resourceful heroine.