Few would connect author Zora Neale Hurston with movie director Spike Lee. But, if you know Lee’s She’s Gotta Have It (1987), you’re familiar with Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937).
Both stories chronicle the three relationships of female characters and men who struggle to suppress the female protagonist. In She’s Gotta Have It, Nola Darling is always in control of the men she laid with, while in Their Eyes Were Watching God no matter what physical abuse Janie suffered, she kept her independent thought.
Hurston through Janie’s character paved the way for powerful and independent storytelling about Black women.
The story begins with Janie leaving home after getting married to begin a long journey into the world. After making it back home almost three decades later, she was “…full of that oldest human longing — self-revelation.”
Self-determination, the novel’s central point, is realized through Janie’s second marriage to Joe. Joe’s expectations are that Janie would be subservient to him. As time goes on, Janie’s disappointment in marriage grows.
“It must have been the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another that took the bloom off things.”
The novel’s plot is thought-provoking but it’s Hurston’s use of language that makes the book a compelling read.
In the preceding passage about Joe, for example, Hurston reveals Janie’s inner beauty by simply using the word “bloom.” Hurston exposes aspects of Janie’s good heart by quoting her lamenting the fate of a poor old mule that local men have teased:
“People ought to have some regard for helpless things.”
Hurston’s narration not only conveys a sense of the characters, her use of authentic dialect and the way it captures southern attitude add dimensions to the story:
“Dat’s how come us don’t git no further than us do. Us talk about de white man keepin’ us down! Shucks! He don’t have tuh. Us keep our own selves down.”
With her use of unique imagery, Hurston builds tension by creating sympathy for Janie and dislike for Joe.
“She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered.”
The following passage contributes to our understanding of Janie’s perspective while married to Joe.
“… mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods—come and gone with the sun.”
It wasn’t until she meets Tea Cake, her third relationship, that Janie’s life improves. When Hurston describes their lives together, Hurston weaves sparkling and energetic prose into the story that gives the reader a sense of happiness:
“the train beat itself and danced on the shiny steel rails mile after mile.”
However, a sudden hurricane foreshadows what’s to come – symbolizing events out of control.
Hurston’s vivid description of the powerful way the hurricane affected the characters places the reader in the scene:
“Through the screaming wind, they heard things crashing and things hurling and dashing with unbearable velocity.”
As I was reading the book, I was curious about the title and was pleasantly surprised when I came upon this passage in the middle of the hurricane:
“They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching god … the mother of malice that trifled men … death found them watching, trying to see beyond seeing.”
The publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God in 1937 demonstrates that powerful and independent Black women have existed in the U.S. for quite some time.
Juan’s Book Review