Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

This book is a story of paradise lost and regained. Janie grows up with a mixed set of playmates, innocent of the awareness of race, including her own. At the first sign of sexual consciousness, Janie is banished by her grandmother into the “protection” of an arranged marriage akin to slavery. This first husband intends to employ her like a donkey before the plow; Janie soon escapes into a second marriage, to a man whose prejudice against women – “Somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows,” he says (p. 71) – makes her a mere fixture in his store. Then, she tries her luck with a third man and is finally treated as an equal.

Along the way, Janie experiences, and Hurston delineates, a series of razor-sharp truths, such as:

She had found a jewel down inside herself and she had wanted to walk where people could see her and gleam it around. But she had been set in the market-place to sell. Been set for still-bait. When God had made The Man, he made him out of stuff that sung all the time and glittered all over. Then after that some angels got jealous and chopped him into millions of pieces, but still he glittered and hummed. So they beat him down to nothing but sparks but each little spark had a shine and a song. So they covered each one over with mud. And the lonesomeness in the sparks made them hunt for one another, but the mud is deaf and dumb. Like all the other tumbling mud-balls, Janie had tried to show her shine. (p. 90)

On the subject of God, or at least gods:

All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood. (p. 145)

And whether or not God is love, Hurston includes a few specimens of the latter – “She hated the old woman who had twisted her so in the name of love.” (p. 89) and “Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love” (p. 128) – that put me in mind of the love on display in Magda Szabó’s The Door, which I recently reviewed.

Hurston’s likening of the freedom or slavery of life to a “horizon” (p. 89) is resonating.

My favorite spoken line is “Dis town is full uh trouble and compellment.” (p. 172)

My favorite name is Stew Beef.

“Say, whut y’all doin’ in heah?”

“Eatin’,” Stew Beef told him. “Dey got beef stew, so you know Ah’d be heah.” (p. 149)

Author: Harry Miller

I have traveled and lived in Taiwan, China, and Japan and am now a professor of Asian history and author of Southern Rain, a novel of seventeenth-century China.

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