Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
One (completely inappropriate) way to read this book is as a zombie book. It’s a book about Patient Zero and the beginning of the zombie apocalypse. In fairness to this theory, it has several of the expected elements: the cataclysmic ending and the struggle for survival, the setting in the hot, thick swamps of south Florida, in the midst of the drama the fateful but at the time apparently minor bite, the strange symptoms, the descent into rage, and the possible spread of the infection. In this (absolutely incorrect) interpretation, Janie does not survive the fate of her husband Tea Cake; she carries the infection back with her to the village they left behind and the true horror begins after the book’s conclusion.
But that’s of course absolutely not what this book is about. I don’t think Zora Neale Hurston had zombies in mind when she wrote in the late 1930s. And even though rabies makes a brief and horrific appearance, Hurston isn’t that interested in exploring the terror of this infection (likely the inspiration for lots of zombie and zombie spin-off stories). Instead it’s simply the melancholy end of what for the novel’s main character has been a life of deferred hopes and frustrated imaginings.
Janie is a black girl living in Florida in the early days of the twentieth century. Her grandmother still remembers when the slaves were freed. But the book isn’t about the relationship between races as much as it is the relationship between blacks. The longest discussion on race that takes place in the book is a dialogue Janie has with a black woman who is prejudice against the more “negroid” members of their own people “holding them back” from integration with white society.
Janie’s world is a world on the periphery though, and that periphery is defined by race. Her childhood begins with being raised with white children and only learning to her surprise that she was black, at which point society dictates separation. Her second husband rises to power as the mayor of an all-black community and spends his life trying to create a society that mirrors white society, a separate community in the Florida wastes on the fringes but with all the trappings of a commercial white city: a thriving store and a large house, street lights, industry. To do so though he must constantly clamp down on the traditional black culture that keeps cropping up like a weed, to his frustration and Janie’s growing alienation.
Finally, Janie finds herself and her third husband on the absolute fringes, working cane fields at the edges of the Everglades, the “Muck,” staying over seasons while migrant workers come and go. It’s in this society though, a melting pot of ethnicities and cultures only an anthropologist could sort out (and this is exactly what Hurston was), that Janie finds the joy and freedom she never had before. Ultimately though, the racial lines are drawn most sharply in the final scenes, when Janie stands trial for her third husband’s fate.
The thread that weaves this all together is Janie herself: a woman who is searching for freedom. She wakes to herself beneath a pear tree (the cover of this edition and perhaps the most iconic scene of the book). She’s married off by her grandmother to a gruff old farmer and then runs away with a man who evolves into a small-town dictator. She finally finds the freedom she’s looking for in Tea Cake, with whom she shares years at the dizzy edge of existence before it’s turned upside down by a hurricane and a bite from a rabid dog.
It was an easy book to read, but it felt dated. I felt that Hurston went a bit too easy on me. That is, I was set up for the difficult twists and turns Janie would experience, and she does, but it’s all told in a sedate, matter-of-fact way. Even the eventual fate of Tea Cake, which in a modern book it seems would be full of riveting, harrowing detail, seems softened, like we’re with Janie remembering back on this years later now that the details have been blurred by time.
The language was stunning throughout. This was especially effective juxtaposed with Hurston’s dialogue. Her characters speak in thick Floridian accents (or what I have to imagine are Floridian accents), and she writes this out phonetically so that it actually takes a bit of getting used to to read what her characters are saying. But it means you know how they’re saying it. And her narration throughout is luminous. There are expressions that catch you with their beauty in the same way that Janie wakened to life beneath the pear tree.