Over ten years ago, when I was an unassuming college literature major in her junior year, I took a modernist literature course. It was a fantastic course in which we read a smattering of wonderful stories and poetry, including stuff by Jean Toomer, T.S. Eliot, Richard Wright, and William Faulkner. Modernist literature sits contentedly in a section of my heart, along with the beautiful local peninsula on a warm summer day and the people who mean the most to me in my life. But there was one work I read that semester that was particularly special to me, a work grappling with complex issues while remaining accessible, a work with a strong heroine who faces tremendous adversity and surmounts it, a work that celebrates the simultaneous wonder and pain, the joy and suffering, inherent in the human condition and living life – both on this earth, and as an African American woman in early 20th century America. It happens to do a fine job examining race relations and difficult issues related to race in America in the 1930’s, too. And, as my blog post title might suggest, that work is Their Eyes Were Watching God, written by writer and anthropologist Zora Neal Hurston. I have loved this book for a very, very long time now, and will continue to love it for a long time to come. In discussing the novel, I will detail the plot (starting in the next paragraph), and I’ll ultimately have to reveal the ending to make the points I want to make, (but I’ll indicate when I’m about to do that).
The novel centers around protagonist Janie, a particularly beautiful woman living in Florida early in the 20th century who is raised by her grandmother and the white family for whom her grandmother works. Her grandmother is a product of the bygone slavery and civil-war era who adheres to the notion that an African American woman has bleak life prospects, and, as such, should marry a stable man who owns land and can put food on the table. Grandma doesn’t subscribe to notions of marrying for love, probably because she never had the leisure to do so. So when Janie gets old enough, her grandmother marries her off to one of the first “good” men she finds, Logan Killicks, despite the fact that Janie sees him as a near-ancient and notably unattractive specimen. Janie cannot bring herself to love Logan, so, initially, her dreams of romance and love die.
But Janie runs away, and undertakes another adventure with the confident, enterprising Joe Starks, who endeavors to help advance the African American community, Etonville, that has recently been established in a section of Florida. Joe makes himself a mayor of the community (or tricks others into appointing him mayor), buys land to expand the community, and opens a store and a post office. The town occupants sit on the store porch come nightfall and gossip, but Joe doesn’t want Janie mingling with such “commoners.” She’s a trophy who’s forced to work at the store and keep to herself, until an argument ensues, at which point Janie and Joe’s relationship becomes frosty and silent. Soon, sickness overcomes Joe, and he dies. But these events come to pass over a span of years. Indeed, Janie’s time in Etonville consumes a large portion of the book.
Joe’s death is the impetus of Janie’s true romantic adventure. She meets a man named Virgible Woods, or Tea Cake, who’s poor but happy and opens her eyes to a new way of existence with new experiences. Here, the values that her grandmother espoused face the greatest challenge. Janie and Tea Cake move to the Florida Everglades, where they work on “the muck,” picking plants, and laughing and dancing with friends at night. Life is not seamless and simple with Tea Cake and Janie, but for the first time, Janie is treated like an equal and experiences true love. Despite Janie’s joy, the novel comes to an unsurprisingly jarring conclusion. You’ll want to stop reading here if you don’t want to know the ending.
Words spreads that a hurricane is going to overtake the Everglades, and friends try to convince Janie and Tea Cake to leave with them. But Tea Cake decides that the prospect of danger is minute; he’d rather stay and continue to make money working. Indeed, he reasons, the white people who run the Everglades aren’t leaving, and the white people know everything, so it must be safe to stay. Unfortunately, Tea Cake’s assessment is wrong, and the hurricane sweeps up Janie and Tea Cake in its unrelenting wrath. When a mad dog tries to attack Janie while chaotic weather spins around the couple, Tea Cake pries the dog away, only to receive a bite on his cheek. Though Janie and Tea Cake survive the hurricane, Tea Cake falls ill after the hurricane, because of the dog bite, and develops the malice, distrust, and inability to drink water that accompany rabies. One night, Tea Cake tries to shoot Janie, so Janie is forced to shoot him in self-defense. While the African American community loathes and condemns her (because they don’t know the truth and loved Tea Cake), she’s tried in a white courtroom by a white jury who deems her innocent. She returns to Eatonville, and tells her story to her best friend, Phoebe, after burying Tea Cake.
Not surprisingly, Janie’s race factors into most decisions she makes, and every decision that’s made for her. The significance of race – especially as it was regarded in the early 20th century – is prominent in the text. But what I never realized when I read the text before was the fact that Tea Cake’s death is a result of race relations. Tea Cake’s decision to stay on the muck despite the fact that others, including Native Americans in the area, were leaving, is a direct result of the racial power structure in the South at the time. The aftermath of years of slavery and the concomitant post-slavery inequality lead Tea Cake to regard white people as omnipotent and completely competent – completely correct – in every situation. What is actually insinuated in the text is that the whites are the furthest from nature, in that they have the least ability to foresee the storm. And, indeed, as the overseers and the former “masters,” they’ve situated themselves to be the furthest from nature. But Tea Cake is essentially raised and engineered – despite his free-spirit and open-thinking in other areas – to believe that the white man knows more, the white man is correct, and that if whites make a decision on a pivotal matter, he should probably follow suit. This line of reasoning lands him in the storm’s midst with Janie, which ultimately leads to the dog bite and his untimely death.
The book is also less a subtle indication and more an overt manifesto of Hurston’s values, which is fitting, because I’ve read that she was a free-spirit in life. Janie’s first marriage is a marriage of stability and convenience that leaves Janie miserable and desperate to break free from her encumbering life. Janie’s second marriage is to someone of prominence, power, and importance in the African American community. Once again, she’s financially well off, but at the expense of her freedom and happiness. Janie doesn’t realize what she’s marrying into when she marries Joe, and she lives a reclusive, restrictive life in Etonville. Tea Cake, Janie’s last lover, embodies sweetness, sunshine, and freedom. He’s a veritable nomad, drifting from place to place, making money where he can working on odd jobs. He’s also 15 years younger than Janie (25 to Janie’s 40). He drinks and gambles – though he doesn’t drink too much or gamble too much. Not surprisingly – since music usually has a pleasant association – he also plays the guitar. He is, in essence, the exact opposite of what Janie’s grandmother wanted for her, but he brings Janie great joy. There is a sense of equality in their relationship that was lacking from Janie’s relationship with Logan and with Joe.
Despite Janie’s liberation alongside Tea Cake, Their Eyes Were Watching God faces criticism by a lot of feminists. Their critique is that Janie’s self is perpetually defined by the man she’s with. Though I consider myself a feminist, I have a couple responses to refute this proposition. First, that’s not true. The opening of the story depicts Janie as a young girl who lays, daydreaming, under a pear tree. She is characterized as a thinking, hopeful, romantic individual, both at the beginning of the text and through her responses to situations later in the text. Second, to the extent that such a claim may be true, we need to contextualize the story; in a text that takes place in the early 20th century, women in general, let alone African American women, likely faced difficulties in completely defining the self, because their attachment to a man was expected. Zora Neal Hurston said, in another piece of writing, that African American women are the mules of the world (meaning they’re treated like work mules and de-humanized). If Janie’s self-hood is closely tied to the man she’s with, this is probably an accurate depiction of the African American woman’s post-Civil War situation. Finally, Janie’s selfhood is revealed most noticeably with Tea Cake, who gives her autonomy and lets her voice her preferences. Tea Cake also introduces her to a way of living that she was blind to before. As such, love helps Janie find herself more deeply, which is what true love should do.
In summary, this work is a classic, and I have trouble critiquing it. Frequently, my perspective on a text changes over time. The only way my perspective of Hurston’s text has changed is that I feel I have a deeper understanding of, and appreciation, for it. I have a pointed interest in feminism and race relations, both of which I get to explore in this text. It’s also just a really amazing story. Admittedly, I will probably wait a few years to read it again – there is, after all, so much in this world to read – but I hope for some new revelations when I do.