Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston's protagonist is shockingly progressive, and her men are vessels on a path toward self-realization, rather than the reasons for her existence.
It's hard to imagine a time when Their Eyes Were Watching God wasn't a staple in high school and university literature courses. Yet her black contemporaries, such as overtly political writers Richard Wright and Langston Hughes, deemed Their Eyes frivolous and author Zora Neale Hurston's politics, retrograde. After an auspicious start as the foremost female voice of the Harlem Renaissance, Hurston spent the last decade of her life in obscurity, working as a maid in a Florida Hotel before dying in a welfare home in 1960. If not for Alice Walker, who single-handedly started a Hurston revival with her 1975 story on the deceased writer for Ms. magazine, Hurston's works may well be long forgotten.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is, at its most elemental, a sweeping love story and, at its most complex, a progressive feminist parable and cultural study. Impetuous Janie Crawford is torn between living life as her grandmother -- and society -- instructs her and living life as she desires. Born out of wedlock and abandoned by both her parents, Janie is raised by that grandmother, who harps on the importance of Janie finding a good husband who will support her. Guilt-tripped into marriage to a wealthy landowner, Janie doesn't feel so much bound by marital law or by her husband(s), but by her grandmother's expectations. Later, when Janie meets her true love Tea Cake during her second marriage, she frees herself from societal rules instilled into her by her grandmother: she leaves her established place in society, she lives a self-sufficient, wandering existence with Tea Cake despite the disapproval of her neighbors, she wears overalls.
Janie's motivations center around men; each chapter of her life begins with the exit or entrance of a man -- she follows them and leaves them only when another comes to take her away. But, Hurston's protagonist is shockingly progressive, and her men are vessels on a path toward self-realization, rather than the reasons for her existence. By having the most unconventional relationship as the one representative of true love (Tea Cake being nearly 20 years Janie's junior and reliant on her money), Hurston challenges ideas of gender relations still held today.
If Hurston eschews the political agendas central to her peers' works, she instead pushes the importance of oral traditions and black history. Their Eyes stresses the importance of those oral traditions, as the narrative weaves from Janie's voice detailing her adventures to a friend, to that friend relaying those adventures to the community, to community members' interpretations of events through gossip, to finally Hurston's own voice breaking in. These voices also capture the flavor of this particular community's speech: Hurston spells out their vocalizations phonetically and peppers their language with slang and sounds that do not necessarily represent words.
Thus, Hurston breaks away from the lofty, intellectual narration of Richard Wright or Ralph Ellison and truly speaks to the masses in a way these socialist writers probably never could -- their language alienating the very people whom they fancied representing. Later, contemporary black writers, particularly Alice Walker and Toni Morrison, adapted Hurston's natural dialogue and reliance on oral tradition in their own works.
Harper Perennial's new edition of Their Eyes comes at the heels of the Oprah Winfrey-produced television movie. While it's hard not to squirm at Oprah's self-righteous attitude toward literature -- as if she were solely responsible for the masses' sudden interest in a particular book -- she is certainly right in promoting this novel. The new edition contains two essays by Hurston biographer Valerie Boyd. The first, "She Was the Party," is a bit overweening in its Hurston-worship, but the second, "A Protofeminist Postcard from Haiti," is an enlightening and informative piece drawing parallels between Hurston's tumultuous love life and Janie's relationships explored in the novel. Nearly 70 years after its first publication, Their Eyes Were Watching God still enthralls readers with its swift story telling, explosive language and poignant observations on race and gender.