When she was young, Janie Crawford’s grandmother was afraid for her. Janie was so beautiful and so unworldly that Nanny was worried she would be ruined just like her mother was. At sixteen, Janie marries a local farmer—the first of her three marriages. Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, is the story of Janie’s next twenty-odd years and her quest for true love. Their Eyes Were Watching God is also the story of how Janie’s husbands try to reshape her.
Janie’s first husband, Logan, wants a woman who will work. But Janie wants a man who will be the bee to her pear blossom (10-11*). She wants someone who will be her other half and Logan is not that man. A year later, Janie meets Joe Starks, a sweet-talking man who wants to carry her off to a town he will help build.
Janie spends twenty years with Joe, called Jody, in Eatonville, Florida. It’s not long into their marriage, however, that Janie learned that Joe wanted a different kind of woman entirely to be Mrs. Mayor of Eatonville. He wants a woman who will cover her hair and help run his store. He wants a woman that will sit quietly and not make a fuss. He wants a woman who won’t pass the time of day with the lower class inhabitants of the town. After a while, Janie allows herself to be transformed into what Joe seems to want:
But mostly [Janie] lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods—come and gone with the sun…She got so she received all things with the stolidness of the earth which soaks up urine and perfume with the same indifference. (72-73)
What else is there for Janie to do but knuckle under to Joe? Her family is gone. Logan is gone. Janie doesn’t have any money or wherewithal of her own. Joe never entirely erases Janie’s will and personality, however. A few months before Joe’s death from kidney failure, Janie stands up to his humiliations and publicly shames him with a cutting remark about his aging body.
As Joe slowly dies, Janie returns to life. She pays some lip service and wears the proper mourning clothes, but she isn’t the kind of widow the town expects. During these months of widowhood, without a man pressuring her to change or adapt or suppress herself, Janie gets a chance to do something she never got when she was a teenager: a chance to grow into herself. There’s a wonderful passage where Janie likens this part of her journey to finding a bit of the divine in herself:
When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. The after some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks make them hunt for one another, but mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine. (86)
I love this passage. It jibed with a bit of Jewish mysticism I read years ago about divine sparks and a story Plato told in The Symposium about how people are seeking to lost parts of their soul. Everyone around Janie is either content with their lot or striving for their idea of a better life. No one is questing after love and individuality the way Janie is.
The whispers and gossip start up as soon as a man named Tea Cake gets Janie to laugh again. The two years Janie spends married to Tea Cake are full of the love that Janie has been looking for her whole life—but also some of the deepest grief and jealousy. It seems that all the emotions Janie has been stifling for two decades are finally allowed out. She found the bee to her blossom. Their relationship isn’t perfect, but they belong to each other.
I read Their Eyes Were Watching God as a love story, but it can easily be read as commentary on race. (There’s no rule that a story can’t be about more than one thing.) Much of the book is written in African American Vernacular, which takes some getting used to. There is liberal use of racial epithets. Some characters try to pass for white and utterly hate darker African Americans. There are passages in this book that highlight the strife among African Americans in the 1920s. Hurston also took time to include scenes that capture African American life at the time, writing about the dozens and tale-telling and dancing and music. Though the edition I read was less than 200 pages, Their Eyes Were Watching God is full of themes to unpack—as the academics would describe it.
* Paraphrases and quotes come from the 1990 HarperCollins trade paperback edition. The cover image in this post is from the 2006 Harper Perennial Modern Classics edition, which I think is prettier.