By Joanne Norris
Their Eyes Were Watching God could so easily have never reached us. Falling into obscurity, forgotten a little more each day as its original readership drops off and its pages are left unturned.
But what would we do without stories like this? How would our lives be different by not having access to this work?
Each time I read this book, something different touches me. The first time, while at university, much of the joy came from the fact that it was so unlike anything I had ever read, and the sheer forcefulness of the characters as you learn more about them and their motives. The second time, it was her writing that made me fall in love, and the way that observations taken from the minutiae of life explode with meaning in her words. Third time around, it’s the moments where we see Janie simply living and existing that strike me so deeply. Janie’s unwavering belief that she deserves better, and that there is hope; her willingness to let love and light colour her world; her lack of pride. She isn’t afraid to feel, and she pays no heed to anyone who might look down on her choices.
At its most basic premise, Their Eyes Were Watching God is a woman’s love story as she navigates through three defining marriages. I’m always reluctant to explain it away as nothing more than a love story, because for a novel so rich with life, culture and philosophy it seems too simplistic. However, I do also think it’s interesting that there is any reluctance at all, as if there is something fundamentally un-literary about a love story.
It’s perhaps not that surprising that there’s a layer of embarrassment surrounding the subject of love stories. These kinds of stories are often filed away as ‘chick lit’ and held in lower esteem than more ‘serious’ literature. Happily, there are examples of the chick lit genre being reclaimed, such as the podcast Sentimental Garbage. It’s hosted by the writer Caroline O’Donoghue, whose theory is that “because of sexism and marketing, the stories women write that are branded under chick-lit are lost to mainstream readers and undervalued critically because of their focus on female experience.” What I love about Their Eyes Were Watching God is that it is unapologetically about the female experience. The novel looks at love, expectations and disappointment, devoting its pages to some of the most common and complex human emotions. Zora’s main character, Janie, is undeniably feminine in a world that sees her femininity as proof of her weakness, and yet none of this femininity is a burden or a hindrance. Janie is aware of her lack of privilege in society, but is not held back for it. She knows she is worth more than the space that she occupies, and that she is deserving of real love. She is not afraid to make decisions that feel true to her. Janie’s individualism could be a mirror of Zora Neale Hurston’s own charm. In Sherley Anne Williams’ Afterword in the Virago Modern Classics edition of the novel, she says:
‘She was a notable tale-teller, mimic, and wit, confident to the point of brashness (some might even say beyond), who refused to conform to conventional notions of ladylike behaviour and middle-class decorum. […] To Alice Walker and others of our generation, Zora was a woman bent on discovering and defining herself, a woman who spoke and wrote her own mind.’
We can view Janie in these terms too. A fiercely strong yet feeling woman, unafraid of looking inwards and understanding herself, committed to living a life that serves her.
One of the things that makes Zora Neale Hurston’s work such a unique and thought-provoking experience is that she often does the things that would be advised against in the name of good writing: don’t use more words than necessary; don’t use flowery, complicated language where simplicity would do the job. Somehow, she manages to do all of this in a way that is so carefree that she manages to eschew any possibility of being sniffed at by the Good Writing Police ©. Every sentence is a complete snapshot of her vision, perfectly formed and engaging. She captures the ideas that defy explanation. One of the challenges of writing about a book like Their Eyes Were Watching God is that it could easily become nothing more than a long list of all the sentences that I loved. The kinds of sentences that stick with you; that you underline and fold the pages over so that you can come back to them when you need to feel whole. Zora Neale Hurston creates moments of absolute clarity that encapsulate an idea or a fleeting thought so wholly that you can never see them in another way ever again. Take something simple, like ‘Her voice began snagging on the prongs of her feelings.’ In those short words we experience a physical reaction. You know exactly how that snagging would sound and feel. You experience it in your chest and in your throat as you remember the times where your own words have been caught upon these prongs. Or there is Zora’s uniquely visual depiction of the claustrophobia of sleep and the thoughts that plague us: ‘The thing made itself into pictures and hung around Janie’s bedside all night long.’ The sentence that always stands out to me the most is:
‘But mostly she lived between her hat and her heels, with her emotional disturbances like shade patterns in the woods – come and gone with the sun.’
Every time I read this line I think it might just be one of the most flawless sentences ever written. There is something about the strength and simplicity of the image that is truly breathtaking. It is artistic and insightful and gives a new life to a feeling that will be familiar to many, maybe even all. You begin to understand the world exactly as Zora sees it, and that is a beautiful thing. Once you have read Their Eyes Were Watching God, no pear tree will ever be the same again.
Zora Neale Hurston writes about nature like no other, and it is something that underlies the whole of Their Eyes Were Watching God. Janie’s relationship with nature isn’t just about appreciating its existence from the outside. She becomes nature. What she sees in the world around her, she wants and expects for her life. Early on in the novel, we understand that “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.” From the outset, we know two things: 1) Janie is already different to the description of women that we get in the very first sentences in the book; that women:
‘Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget.’
Janie doesn’t forget – she holds all her conflicting thoughts and experience in her self. The second half of that sentence does ring true, however:
‘The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.’
Janie’s dream is her truth – but it’s the dream not often granted women. Throughout the novel, Janie is chastised for doing things according to her dream. Part of what makes Janie such a compelling character is that her expectations are not based simply on reason or what is deemed appropriate for her sex, ethnicity or class – she sees that beauty is in nature and is moved by it, and in understanding her connection with nature she desires that beauty in her own life. The beauty that she witnesses helps her create her own standards and what she wants from those she gives her love to. In one of the most memorable moments of writing in the novel, Janie’s sexual awakening takes place not in response to the stirring of another person, but the ‘marriage’ of pollination she observes under the pear trees in her grandmother, Nanny Crawford’s garden:
‘She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation.’
This view of what marriage should be – life-giving, revelatory, euphoric – fights against everything Janie has been told by her Nanny, who has never known a life where Janie’s vision could be possible. Nanny sees Janie’s marriage to Logan Killicks as the best way for Janie to lead a comfortable life, but the gulf in outlook between Nanny and Janie draws them away from each other:
‘The vision of Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree, but Janie didn’t know how to tell Nanny that.’
Janie’s marriage to Logan brings happiness to neither of them, both having vastly different views of what marriage and gender roles should be. This initial disappointment does not put her off – it serves as a learning experience, with each marriage representing a new stage in Janie’s life. At no point does she succumb to whatever box the world wants to put her in – she simply adapts and learns what she wants. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a coming of age story that doesn’t stop at the first numerical distinction of ‘adulthood.’ Janie comes of age throughout her whole life, whilst never losing the childlike joy and playfulness that allowed her to first see the romance of nature in the first place.
Since girlhood, Janie has been tantalised by the idea that there is something more out there for her, but it seems impossibly far away. All the promise and possibility of the horizon becomes another way to limit her – representing not potential, but a reminder of where she cannot go in life:
‘Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon – for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way behind you – and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her.’
Despite this choking, from her upbringing and in her first two marriages, Janie is not held back. These moments of learning and growth are represented during the novel’s repetition of certain phrases and ideas. Her revelations are like the seasons – ‘a feeling of sudden newness and change came over her’ – and the repetitions emulate this feeling of growth:
‘Her old thoughts were going to come in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them.’
‘So in the beginnin’ new thoughts had tuh be thought and new words said. […] He done taught me de maiden language all over.’
Here we see Janie relearning and readjusting her own thoughts. Upon the first reading, these statements could be interpreted as an unseen example of Janie succumbing to the pressure of patriarchal and societal influences, changing herself in order to be more palatable to the men in her life. However, I see these moments as markers of Janie’s development. She is touched by all the events that she experiences, good and bad, and she adapts to them. The changes that she makes aren’t because she is trying to fit in – at numerous times we see her pushing back against the expectations of others. With each new relationship, she grows and learns something different and this change within herself is welcome:
‘Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.’
The lyricism in this line is undeniably beautiful, and what Janie says so simply speaks for so much more than just a work of fiction. This is something that anyone can take away from the story – the understanding that change is inevitable and is part of your power.
One of the things that makes Janie so irresistible to me is that Zora Neale Hurston is not afraid to have her feel. Janie ‘just acted on feelings.’ She embraces her emotions and uses them to feel her way to happiness. She forgoes the advice of her Nanny to marry for security, and she is untouched by the judgement of others when she falls for a younger man. The barriers that society attempts to place upon Janie have no standing against her belief in the truth of her feelings. There is something truly magnificent about being with Janie as she uses her intuition and sensitivity to navigate the world, as it is a female characteristic that is so often derided. This is a rhetoric that many women will have encountered – that they are too emotional and too sensitive, they feel too much and as a result of that are weaker. What we see in Janie is that her feelings give her power. They bring her happiness, and they keep that happiness and fulfilment alive:
‘He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking.’
There is nothing weak or shameful about Janie’s feeling here. It keeps the memory of Tea Cake alive. Her willingness to feel is an indicator of strength and resilience, not weakness.
Earlier in this piece, I mentioned repetition and change as part of Janie’s journey, and the way that she moves and grows with the story. The most poignant change that occurs comes in the final lines of the novel, as Janie’s previously suffocating horizon takes on a new form:
‘She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.’
The horizon has become ‘her’ horizon. No longer is it choking or untouchable – it holds all of the chances and choices of her life. For all the moments and relationships that made Janie feel soulless before, even with her grief for Tea Cake and the life she shared with him she still ushers in her soul to see. I’m reminded of the beginning of the novel, where ‘dawn and doom is in the branches.’ She isn’t afraid of being alone, and the pain she feels does not negate the happiness that she felt with him. She is complete, with and without Tea Cake – all for taking a chance on her own happiness. Janie understands that her feelings have power, no matter what anyone else may say, and for that she is an undeniable heroine.