Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
If you’ve ever wondered what I would do when faced with an 8-hour train journey in a different country, apparently the answer is read an American Classic which my Dad bought me years ago. I knew very little about Hurston or Their Eyes Were Watching God before starting the novel; I was aware that it had been very influential in the lives of many American women writers, but that was the extent of my knowledge. Despite knowing how influential the novel has been, I have to admit that I didn’t really get into it. Nevertheless, I still think it was an important book to have read, and I can see why it was so influential in so many writers’ lives.
The narrative of Their Eyes Were Watching God is simple: Janie is telling her life-story to her friend Phoeby after her unexpected return to the town in which she had previously lived. As a framing device, the storytelling narrative works really well: the reader is aware from before the tale starts that Tea Cake is dead, but has no idea how or who Tea Cake even is. I actually found that I had forgotten about Tea Cake until he showed up much later in the novel, so that was a nice way of re-engaging the reader in the narrative after Janie’s struggles with Joe and in the town. The framing device also serves the more implicit purpose of underlining the nature of stories and gossip in the society Hurston is portraying; Janie is well aware of the rumours that have been spread about her and Phoeby is under instructions to take the true story to the gossipers.
It’s the story of a woman’s survival in a harsh world where she has no rights and a plethora of expectation on her shoulders. This is the element of the novel where it is really clear why it has had such an influence. Janie is told very early on in her life that she will never have a voice in society. Yet the novel is all about her life, with the men she married coming in and out as side-characters adding layers to her as the protagonist. It’s a bold novel, about a bold woman, with Phoeby exiting the narrative saying how much Janie has inspired her to look outside of the boundaries in her own life.
However, as I mentioned, although there was a lot that I respected and admired in the novel, I didn’t really ever get into the narrative. I always struggle with novels which revolved around one single character, with few side-characters; whilst Janie is an admirable character, she wasn’t a character I felt invested in and there weren’t many others in whom I could truly get invested in the meantime. Finding characters I can invest in emotionally is part of the joy of a narrative for me so, although I thought the writing and plot was good, I just didn’t connect with the novel as a whole.
Overall, I think this is a novel I would recommend, particularly to anyone who is interested in the history of American women writers. I do think this is an important book in that history, and I can see why it has been so influential. It sheds light on an interesting part of American history through the eyes of Janie, and I did enjoy finding out more about that period. Ultimately, I’m glad I read this book, even if I found it hard to connect with the characters.