Author: Zora Neale Hurston
Reader: Ruby Dee
Length: 8 hours
Final Verdict: 4 out of 5. Janie is my favourite part of this novel: she is an engaging protagonist and heroine, and I love how her story is not simply one of romance, but of a woman learning through experience to embrace her selfhood. But it was the pieces of this story that made it work so well for me—Janie, her lover Tea Cake, the “sitters-and-talkers” who sit gossiping under the shade of a storefront porch, the misguided love of Nanny and the hatreds of Janie’s first two husbands.
Summary contains details of the novel’s progression that could be construed as spoilers.
Janie Crawford is in love: in love with the idea of love, and thirsty to experience it. Her grandmother catches her kissing a boy across a gatepost; she is terrified by Janie’s budding maturity, and the inescapable loss of her innocence. She marries Janie off to a farmer named Logan Killicks, satisfied that his wealth and status—his land—will provide Janie with security against a world that does not love her.
But Janie is frustrated—she does not love her husband and he does not appreciate her as anything other than a wife, to be commanded (never asked) and scorned. She escapes him by eloping with Joe Starks, a charismatic man whose ambition elevates him to the seat of mayor of the budding town of Eatonville. But Janie soon learns that Joe loves her only as a possession and symbol of his status. She grows to hate him as her silencer.
It is not until Joe dies and Janie is left a widow that she meets Tea Cake, a man at least ten years her junior. She is charmed by his attentions. But as their relationship develops, Janie slowly begins to realize that the disillusionments of her youth are not all that life has to offer.
Tea Cake offers her not simply romance, but liberation.
“Bittersweet” is one word that suggests itself whenever I consider this novel, and just how to describe it. Their Eyes Were Watching God has its sweetness: Janie’s emerging sense of selfhood, Janie and Tea Cake’s romance, Janie telling off people who have nothing better to do than make things that were never their business their business, Janie—
It might be easier to sum up the parts I enjoyed in one word: Janie, OMG! Which is, admittedly, two words. Or four, if dissecting acronyms is your thing.
But this is also a heavy and sometimes disturbing novel, with a well-developed bitterness: men pondering the many and manifold ways of killing a wife they feel disgraces them; Mrs. Turner, who “[takes] black folk as a personal affront to herself” and is stomach-churningly vicious in her hatred; Jim Crow laws; wife-beating as an accepted practice. The casual manner in which Hurston describes these things makes listening to (or reading) the novel hard. But however difficult these passages may be, the fact that Hurston neither censors nor idealizes her story, its setting, and the time in which it takes place, gives the novel its power, in part.
But the other part of its power? That would be Janie, hands down. Sherley Anne Williams, in her foreword of the 1978 Illini Books edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God, compares Janie’s journey to self-fulfillment to that of her author’s, and concludes that, “… such definition [i.e. ‘a continuing relationship with a man’] is the essence of Janie’s romantic vision and its ultimate fulfillment provides the plot of the novel.” (pg. x) Janie comes into a sense of herself through romance. Love liberates her. But Hurston manages this very well.
Being a somewhat jaded and embittered reader (… I’m trying to change that, but bad habits die hard), “good old romance” tends to make me froth a bit at the mouth with RAGE. (The side effect of reading too many badly done romances. Alas, my squandered childhood.) But Janie and Tea Cake’s romance was one that I could really get behind. Their relationship develops naturally. They respect one another. They yearn to be near one another, but are not so wound up in each other that a moment’s separation results in pages of weeping and whining and gnashing of teeth. New Moon, I am sending horrible looks in your direction.
But I suspect that the biggest reason I enjoyed the romance of Their Eyes was because the novel is not simply about romance. It is about womanhood and it is about race, but it is not just about those things; it is also about an individual woman—Janie learning about herself and growing into personhood. [NOT REALLY A SPOILER BUT STILL] She is able to live even after Tea Cake’s death (which really isn’t a spoiler, because chapter one shouts this from the rooftops) [/END NOT REALLY A SPOILER BUT STILL]. Janie’s journey is one of self-fulfillment through love, rather than self- fulfillment equals love. She is more of a person because she loved—but she is very much a person, rather than an object of romance.
I enjoyed Ruby Dee’s narration, and was captured by the first track—Dee voices the women who gossip behind Janie’s back upon her return to Eatonville so very well. Dee tends to repeat character voices after a while; Janie and Tea Cake were the most distinct characters throughout. And Dee can be somewhat enthusiastic; I was always fiddling with the volume, either to keep from having my ears blown out or in an attempt to hear what was being said. But then again, this could be due to the (decrepit) condition of my earbuds.
MUST BUY NEW ONES STAT.