Their Eyes Were Watching God – Zora Neale Hurston

Book # 609



In the opening scene, Janie has just returned home after running away with Tea Cake, a young man she fell in love with. Arriving at her house, she tells the story of her life to her friend Pheoby; as readers we are listening in to the tale. Beginning in her youth, Janie has several bad relationships. Her first husband is kind, but she doesn’t love him. Her second is successful and charismatic, but she feels as though she has been placed on a pedestal, unable to be part of her community. When Janie finally gains her independence, it is Tea Cake whose style of love allows her to finally do and be what she has always wanted.

This is an action-packed novel and the story held me unceasingly throughout. The climactic scene between Janie and Tea Cake was terrifying, heartbreaking, and exultant all at once. I loved Janie’s tone and powerful belief in herself and her right to reach out and take the life and love she wants. She’s a smart and strong woman who has learned from her difficult life experiences and the life-altering decisions that were made for her by being ready and willing to take risks:

Pheoby: “…But you’re takin’ uh awful chance.”
Janie: “No mo’ than Ah took befo’ and no mo’ than anybody else takes when dey gits married. It always changes folks, and sometimes it brings out dirt and meanness dat even de person didn’t know they had in ’em theyselves.”

The discussion of race from Janie’s (and probably also Hurston’s) perspective was illuminating for me. I was particularly interested in Janie’s response to her grandmother’s hopes for her, which is tied up in both race and gender:

“She was born in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me — don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere.”

It’s clear that Janie understands that her grandmother wanted only the best for her. She wanted Janie to have what she never could. But having experienced it, Janie now knows the truth: that her grandmother’s greatest hope was not what she needs or wants, and that both being black and being female will keep her from ever really having what she wants.

My favorite part of the book is right at the very end, when Janie tells Pheoby that she can tell all the nosy neighbors anything she wants to tell them – she trusts her friend and cares little about what the others think of her. She also shares two lessons (see the quotations below) she has learned through her experiences, one about love and one about life. Both are worth remembering.

“Then you must 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.”

“Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”



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