Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

their-eyes-were-watching-godI 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.

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11 thoughts on “Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

  1. Heather

    Their excuse was that it didn’t “fit” in the Harlem Renaissance, but it was really a case of the good ol’ patriarchy. The MEN didn’t like the WOMAN’S book. She wasn’t worthy. [GASP] When I learned about the background of TEWWG, I was pretty mad–I mean, I also love the work of those men, but now it’s been tainted a bit by their asshattery. Sigh.

    Great review.

    Reply
    1. Too Fond Post author

      Yes, it definitely gave me second thoughts about reading Richard Wright! I can’t help but draw comparisons with the way many women writers are treated today–I’m not sure we’ve come that far, honestly.

      Reply
  2. Brooke

    Zora Neale Hurston is such a fascinating woman with such a complex career. I want to read a really well done biography of her as I’m sure it would be a supreme read. Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of my all-time favorite novels.

    Reply
  3. JaneGS

    I really enjoyed this book, and was amazed to read about the author as well. It’s a compelling story, and the ending really blew me away…I did not see it coming at all!

    Reply
  4. Ti

    It’s on my list to read at some point. It’s great that you can finally mark it off your list. That’s how I felt when I read Uncle Tom’s Cabin. Such a great book. I had no idea and could have kicked myself for waiting so long to read it. This book is like that one for me. I just need to make the time.

    Reply
  5. Trish

    This is such a beautiful novel–I’m glad you were able to finish and love it. I’ll have to revisit my copy to see if I have the afterward you mention. I’d also love to listen to a copy of the book one of these days. Like you, I read much of the book aloud so I could really hear (and get) the dialect.

    Reply
  6. Pingback: The September Wrap-Up | Too Fond

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