Janie’s Story – “Their Eyes were Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston
Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 novel, “Their Eyes were Watching God” is now regarded as a masterwork, one of Time Magazine’s 100 Best English-Language novels from 1923-2005.
It wasn’t always so admired by the world. Noted African-American writer Richard Wright (among others) slammed the book upon it’s release, and so “Their Eyes..” remained a semi-underground/cult book for a number of years.
In the 70s, Alice Walker (of “The Color Purple” fame) brought it back to the limelight with an article she wrote for Ms. Magazine, and the Zora Neale Hurston renaissance had begun.
“Their Eyes..” is an astonishing book. Following the story of light-skinned African-American woman Janie Crawford, it crosses decades and focuses light not on the plight of the African-American people she encounters as much as just the people. This isn’t an overly political novel, but it’s a really well-crafted one. It’s a story of a woman who knows marriage is supposed to involve love, and refusing to fit in the loveless boxes the world seems to demand she squeeze into.
Jane, in her forties, looks back on her life so far. Originally married to an older man she didn’t care for – Logan Killicks – she leaves him after beginning a relationship with another man, Jody Starks. Together, Janie and Jody move to another town and Jody starts a store and becomes mayor. Janie spends years as a trophy wife for Jody, until he dies. Suddenly financially set, Janie begins a relationship with a gambler named Tea Cake, and the two move once again. Finally, Janie is in real love with a man. In a tragic part of the novel, a hurricane hits the town they live in, and Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog. Against a doctors advice, Janie keeps him at home to care for him. One night, Tea Cake goes crazy and tries to bite Janie, and she shoots him in self-defense. Acquited at the murder trial, she returns back to her original hometown – and becomes the subject of gossip.
It’s not a happy ending, but it’s a realistic one.
Everything about this book shines. Janie is understandable and likable, and her husbands are never painted one-dimensionally. The dialogue reads like poetry, and by the tragic end of Tea Cake the reader is so caught up that it feels almost like you’re there at the moment of the shooting.
“Their Eyes..” was made into a film, produced by Oprah and starring Halle Berry as Janie. I haven’t seen it, but I’m curious now, and will have to check it out.