I did it, I did it! I actually started this book way back in APRIL (I know) when The Classics Club was hosting a sync read of it, but somehow I kept getting distracted from finishing it. And here’s the thing–it’s a very readable classic. It’s short with a fairly fast-paced plot, it has interesting characters and it is so beautifully written.
I’d been carrying this book around for a lot longer than I care to admit without ever having read it. It’s one of those that has been on my bookshelf for years and that I always meant to read but for some reason never did. It’s a book that I would recommend reading a bit about before starting it, however, because I think having some background information on Hurston’s life and work and where she fits in the canon of African-American literature made the story resonate for me in a way that it might not have otherwise.
On the surface, the story is a fairly simple one. The main character is Janie Crawford, a woman of mixed-race descent living in Florida in the early 20th century. The story is told in retrospective, as Janie looks back over her life which has been defined in many ways by her relationships with three different men. Through these relationships Janie has come to understand more about herself and the life that she wants to live. As she tells her story to her best friend, Pheoby, the reader gets a glimpse into a time, place and culture as seen through the eyes of a woman who is both part of it and outside of it.
I enjoyed reading the book, but the afterward that was included in my edition made me appreciate it even more because it helped me to understand how Hurston’s background as an anthropologist influenced the way she wrote the book. One thing that made it somewhat difficult to read is that the book alternates between the ‘voice’ of a very articulate, lyrical narrator and the characters’ speech, which is written in dialect. However, I realized that as an anthropologist, Hurston would have been very concerned with accurately representing the language of the culture she is writing about, and I did appreciate the authentic touch it adds to the story even as I had to read parts aloud to be sure I had understood everything.
The afterward also makes reference to the fact that Hurston’s work was not appreciated for many years, as it didn’t fit with the goals and themes of the Harlem Renaissance writers and was generally not appreciated by black critics. However, it was rediscovered by later writers who saw the value in Hurston’s depictions of rural, southern African-American culture. As an anthropologist and a writer, Hurston portrays that culture without passing judgement on it, but she doesn’t glorify it, either.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is about a heroine who finds happiness in living the life that she chooses for herself rather than the one that others would choose for her. Ultimately, for me it was about not letting others dictate your place in the world, but in the validity of making your own place among people who feel like home. This is a book I will probably re-read at some point or possibly listen to on audio to get the full effect of the dialect. Recommended.