Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale HurstonSummary: A classic story of a Black woman’s life in Jim Crow era.

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a classic African American novel. Like many other books, I think I need to read it again to fully appreciate the skill of the novel now that I have the initial overview. I listened to the novel  and I think that was a good idea because of the use of dialect. But I think I probably missed some of the skill of the novel because I listened and did not read it.

I watched the Crash Course Literature episode on Their Eyes Were Watching God and John Green detailed several aspects of the book and Hurston’s biography that I did not know (for instance that she grew up in a town that the town in the book is based on.) But he also highlighted the difference between the authorial voice and Janie’s voice (the protagonist) and I think I probably missed parts of that because I was listening.

(Spoiler Alert) Because this book is now over 75 years old, I am going to discuss content. Janie has been raised by her grandmother, a former slave. Both Janie’s grandmother and mother were raped and conceived children. So when Janie’s grandmother catches Janie kissing a local boy, the grandmother in an effort to protect Janie in the only way she can, marries Janie off to a much older man, a well off farmer, Logan. (The wikipedia summary is pretty good.)

Janie does not love Logan and does not really want to be married. She tries, but her love for Logan does not grow with time as her grandmother promised. She eventually runs away with a sweet talking man with ambition, Joe Starks. Joe does not really want Janie for a wife either, he wants a trophy that can make him look good and to help him become powerful. Joe is soon the mayor of a town and the owner of a store and the richest person in the town. But Janie is unhappy because Joe degrades her, abuses her, and controls everything about her life. Eventually after nearly 20 years of marriage, Joe dies.

It is then that Janie finds Tea Cake, a gambler, but also hard worker. They run away to get married and while the marriage is not perfect and Tea Cake is certainly not perfect, they are reasonably happy. And Janie does grow as a person in ways that her previous two marriages did not allow her to grow.

Eventually there is a hurricane (based on the real 1928 Okeechobee Hurricane where at least 2,500 people died in Florida and about 1500 additional people died in Caribbean islands). The description of the hurricane is truly great writing and gives the opening for the conclusion of the book.

What made me look for John Green’s exploration of the book was because I wanted to know if Janie dies of rabies as her husband Tea Cake does. Green suggests that most people do not believe that she does. But it seems to me that the death by rabies makes the most sense of the final section.

Rabies as metaphor for the disdain of racism, a disease that literally makes a person lose control and become animal like and violent as many in the Jim Crow era thought was an accurate description of Black people, seems like the most natural reading here. John Green says that Richard Wright complained that Their Eyes Were Watching God was not political enough when the book originally came out. That makes sense if Wright was not considering issues around feminism as political and did not see the rabies at the end as a metaphor for the violence of racism. But in my reading this is a very political book if you read it as a proto-feminist (or womanist) book.

I will acknowledge that the rabies explanation does not work perfectly. In large part because the narrative of the book is a flashback, which would be told when she was in early/mid stages of rabies herself.

As with many books, I always wonder if my reading of metaphors and subtext is reading too much into the book.

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston Purchase Links: Paperback, AudiobookKindle Edition (edition not linked to Audiobook, but right now $0.99), Kindle Edition (edition linked to the audiobook, but right now $10,99)

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