Zora Neale Hurston: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Hurston’s best-known novel has had a huge influence, particularly on the African-American community, as it speaks not only to that community but also to women, as it is as much about discrimination by whites against blacks as it is about discrimination against women within the African American community. Janie’s grandmother was a slave in Georgia. She was impregnated by the son of the family that owned her. When the mother of the boy realised that the grandmother’s child was part white and who the father was, she planned to have the grandmother whipped. However, the grandmother managed to escape to the swamps in time, where she hid out till General Sherman’s March freed her and other slaves. The child – a girl – was, in her turn, raped by a schoolteacher when she was seventeen and then ran away, leaving Janie to be brought up by her grandmother. When Janie was old enough to get married, her grandmother persuaded her to marry Logan Killicks, a preacher who had some land. As far as the grandmother was concerned, the important thing was land and property. Janie was not happy about the marriage beforehand and certainly not afterwards. Killicks expected her to work on the farm, which she was reluctant to do. So when the smart, fast-talking Joe Starks walked by and offered to take her away, she readily agreed.
Starks took her to the town of Eatonville in Florida, a town set up for recently freed slaves and all of whose inhabitants were African Americans. When they arrived, there was no mayor and not much happening in the town. Starks quickly set about to transform the town, opening a store, becoming mayor and rapidly becoming the most important man in the town, always on the lookout for ways of doing better. In other American novels, this might have been a rags-to-riches story but, as it is told from Janie’s perspective, she feels ignored and neglected and is resentful of the fact that Starks is far more interested in the town than her. He continually puts her down when she makes mistakes in the store and won’t let her participate in any of his interesting activities, even something as simple as playing checkers. She sticks to him, even when he gets ill and, when he dies, she is in no hurry to marry anyone else.
Eventually, another smart-talking man, much younger than her, comes by. He is called Vergible Woods but everyone calls him Tea Cake. Despite advice from friends and neighbours, she sells up the store and goes off with him. They have their ups and downs, particularly when he takes the $200 she has sewn in her dress (though he pays her back from his winnings at gambling) but, on the whole, they are happy. He has a job and she works with him. However, disaster strikes when a hurricane is forecast. First the Native Americans move out, then the snakes but Tea Cake and Janie stay put, till the hurricane strikes and the lake threatens to burst its banks. They do manage to escape but Tea Cake is bitten by a dog and, once the hurricane has passed, falls sick. It is clear that the dog was rabid and there seems little chance of saving him. When he goes mad and attacks Janie with a gun, she shoots him. She is arrested but gets off and return to Eatonville, with happy memories of Tea Cake.
Hurston has no illusions about Janie as she tells the story from Janie’s perspective. What Janie wants is not necessarily riches or comfort or, as her grandmother wanted, the ability just to sit around in the porch and do nothing as the rich whites did. What she wants is love. She thought that she had it with Joe Starks but she didn’t but she did find it with Tea Cake, a much younger man and one who had his ways of doing things but, on the whole, she was happy with him. The entire background to the story is racism and sexism but Janie more or less rises above both and ends up alone but with memories and having achieved something in her life.
First published 1937 by J B Lippincott