Their Eyes Were Watching God By Zora Neale Hurston
Book/Novel Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Book/Novel Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Summary & Review
One of the most important and enduring books of the twentieth century, Their Eyes Were Watching God brings to life a Southern love story with the wit and pathos found only in the writing of Zora Neale Hurston. Out of print for almost thirty years-due largely to initial audiences’ rejection of its strong black female protagonist-Hurston’s classic has since its 1978 reissue become perhaps the most widely read and highly acclaimed novel in the canon of African-American literature.
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” S o begins Zora Neale Hurston’s brilliant novel about a woman’s search for her authentic self and for real love. At first it might seem contradictory that a work whose central character is the remarkably resolute and resilient Janie Crawford should start with a dictum about “the life of men.” However, that is one of the many shrewd manifestations of Zora Neale Hurston’s enormous talents: her ability to render a world complete with its codes and disciplines within a few sentences, and then placing in that world her vision of how her people—the women and men of her own creation, her characters—function, triumph, and survive. So off that metaphorically distant ship comes our heroine Janie Crawford, and suddenly we realize that she had been on her own singular journey all along, her dreams “mocked to death by Time,” but never totally defeated. And since women “remember everything they don’t want to forget,” Janie Crawford recalls all the crucial moments of her life, from the time she first discovers that she is a “colored” little girl by searching for her face in a group photograph, to the moment she returns to Eatonville, Florida, from the Everglades, not swindled and deceived, as had been expected, but heartbroken, yet boldly defiant, after having toiled in the bean fields, survived a hurricane, and lost the man she loved. Janie Crawford is able to retrace her steps, disembark from her own ship, come home, and remember, because she has been close to death but has lived a very full life. So in spite of the judgmental voices that greet her upon her return, in spite of the “mass cruelty” invoked by her prodigal status, Janie has earned the right to be the griot of her own tale, the heroine of her own quest, the “member” of her own remembering. In the loose call-and-response structure that frames the novel—Janie’s friend Pheoby asks her to tell her where she has been, and Janie responds with the story that constitutes the book—Janie’s is an intimate audience of one. She entrusts her adventures to Pheoby to retell to others only if Pheoby chooses. (“You can tell ’em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf.”) Janie is recounting her story as much to Pheoby as to herself. Her response to Pheoby’s call is at the same time an echo, much like the nymph Echo who retains only her voice after having literally been torn apart. Hurston herself also becomes Janie’s echo by picking up the narrative thread in intervals, places where in real life, or in real time, Janie might have simply grown tired of talking. Much like the porch sitters at the beginning of the book who are the first to see Janie arrive, Janie, Pheoby, and Zora Neale Hurston form their own storytelling chain, and it is through their linking of voices that we are taken on this intimate yet communal journey that is Their Eyes Were Watching God.
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