OK, let’s be real here. Their Eyes Were Watching God is in no way a Geek book. It’s not fantasy or sci-fi or horror or even particularly weird. However, Jenny a while back recommended a poster with 100 “essential” novels on it. I’m a well-read English teacher, so it was mildly surprising to see I had only read 40 of them. I decided I would, eventually, finish all of them. As of Their Eyes Were Watching God, my total is up to 50.
But no, not a Geek book. A Geek just reviewed it. That’s good enough for me.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is the story of Janie Crawford. Janie is a fortysomething African-American woman, described as attractive and light-skinned. The book opens with Janie returning to the all-black town of Eatontown. She’s in a state of disgrace to the mind of everybody but herself. Her best friend Pheoby asks why, so Janie recounts her life. Essentially, Janie from a young age wanted to feel loved and love someone in return. Now she has more or less done so and is ready for the next chapter in her life.
From there, most of the book is long flashback until we return to the time of the first chapter. Janie grew up with her grandmother, her parents long having left her behind. Janie’s grandmother was a former slave. Her only child, Janie’s mother, was a product of rape at the hands of her former slavemaster. That explains a bit of Janie’s light complexion. As for Janie’s mother, we’re told she was a flighty woman who just ran off with a man one day and never came back.
From there, we see Janie have three different husbands. All Janie wants is to be happy. She wants love in her life, and she at first expects that from a good marriage. The problem is that not all of her husbands seem to want that themselves. Her first husband, the one her grandmother approved, is an older farmer who wants someone to do chores and help him run his farm. The second is an ambitious man who wants to be mayor of Eatontown. His interest in Janie is less about love and more about ornamentation to impress potential constituents.
And then there’s the last one, the one who takes up most of the book. The book refers to him mostly by the name of Tea Cake. He’s a bit younger than Janie, but he does love her and she loves him. That said, it’s not exactly an ideal relationship. Both Janie and Tea Cake have bouts of jealousy, and though Janie’s Eatontown friends warn her Tea Cake just wants her money, that doesn’t seem to be true. Instead, Tea Cake steals Janie’s emergency $200 stash that she’d hidden away to gamble and have a big party. Granted, he successfully won back the money and then some while gambling, but he still stole from her. He also tends to make all the decisions for Janie.
Then again, Janie doesn’t seem to mind, and in the plus category, he makes it clear he doesn’t really want Janie’s money and tells her to put it in the bank and forget about it.
Now, this book clocked in at a little under 200 pages, but it did take me a while to read. Part of that is because I usually read multiple books at once. The other part is author Zora Neale Hurston’s writing style. She wrote most of the book in the form of character conversations, but she likewise wrote them in early 20th century Southern African American dialect. That style took a little getting used to.
Hurston’s book tends to meander around. There isn’t much of a plot to this one, and despite being a book by an African American and being about African Americans as well, it maybe didn’t go into race as much as someone might think. True, there are whites who treat the blacks poorly in this book, but they only seem to appear sporadically. The worst character is arguably another mixed race woman, Mrs. Turner, who thinks Janie would be happier married to the Turner’s brother. Janie disagrees.
Tea Cake does too, and somehow manages to stop that thing that wasn’t happening by publicly beating Janie to show she’s loves him or something. I really didn’t get that whole plan or why it worked.
Ultimately, while this may not be the best plotted book, it is an important book. Originally published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God tells a story that probably wasn’t getting much play in the 30s. That would be how women and African Americans also had a right to love and feel loved. Tea Cake was not have been a perfect husband. The two often talked like each would do what the other wanted (and it was usually Tea Cake making the decisions), but he made Janie happy. They lived in relative poverty when, given Janie’s money, they did have to. Tea Cake just made Janie happy. When the book ends, we see it ended in a way that shows both triumph and tragedy for Janie. But in the end, she’ll be all right. 8 out of 10 dogs riding cows in storms.