50 books by Authors of Color: Book 25
Title: Their Eyes Were Watching God
Author: Zora Neale Hurston
This was one of those books that I had always meant to read but never got around to doing so. For some reason, the other writers in the Harlem Renaissance felt that Hurston’s work wasn’t bitter enough. I’m not sure we read the same book because I felt Their Eyes Were Watching God was bitter, but not in an Invisible Man sort of way.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is told as a reflection, as Janie Crawford has returned to the town of Eaton and tells her friend Pheoby what has occurred. Pheoby and the rest of the town believe that Tea-Cake has run off with Janie’s money but Janie insists this is not true and tells Pheoby what really happened. Janie starts at the beginning, talking about her childhood and her three turbulent relationships. The first occurs when she is only seventeen. Her grandmother marries her off to an older man named Jackson Killicks because she knows that she will likely die soon and believes that Jackson will take care of Janie because he own sixty acres of land. Janie naively goes along with it, believing that she will fall in love with Jackson Killicks after they are married. When this fails to happen Janie finds her discontent with her life and her marriage strangling and so she runs off with a man named Joe “Jody” Starks.
Janie and Jody set off for Eaton, one of the first all African American towns. Jody has high hopes for Eaton, but when they arrive they find it to be little more than a few ramshackle houses. Jody takes it upon himself to build the town’s general store as well as to buy more land and build houses to rent to people he hopes will move the town. Jody’s actions get him elected mayor, but it also causes growing resentment among the townspeople. Jody tried to aid this resentment by placing Janie up on a pedestal. Janie remains married to Jody but their marriage grows cold very soon. They remain in Eaton for many years with Janie acting subjugated to Jody, until one day in the store Jody insults her intelligence and her looks. Fed up, Janie fires back insulting Jody’s physical appearance in front of nearly the whole town. Jody grows sick soon after and has the whole town convinced that Janie put a curse on him that day.
Jody eventually dies of kidney failure and the real part of the story finally begins. Many of the men in Eaton begin trying to court Janie, but she is not interested in any of them. She knows that the town will be hypocritical and even though many of the residents are telling her she should get remarried that they’ll shame her the moment she does. After some time passes she becomes friends with a young man named Tea-Cake, who teaches her to do many of the things that Jody forbid, such as playing checkers and driving a car. Everyone in town believes that Tea-Cake is only after Janie’s money but Janie believes he loves her.
And Tea-Cake does love Janie, the two run off together and get work picking beans in an area known as “The Muck”. Unfortunately, because they want the money they ignore some blatant signs of a hurricane and find them selves stuck when it is too late to get out. When Janie is attacked by a dog Tea-Cake valiantly saves her, but finds himself bitten, and as we find out later gets infected with rabies.
I don’t understand the idea behind this story not being bitter enough. The thought of waiting so long for honest true love, only to be forced to watch him wither away from rabies and then being forced to shoot him because in his rabies induced insanity he’s going to kill you? And then on top of that having everyone you knew on The Muck turn against you because you killed their beloved Tea-Cake? Oh, and having to stand trial for the murder of your lover? Yeah, if that’s not bitter I have no idea what is.
I don’t normally divulge the ending of books but I felt it was necessary for this one because not only is it a classic that everyone should read, I couldn’t believe a book with such a tragic ending wasn’t bitter enough. I understand that it wasn’t a work where the system caused the downfall of Janie and Tea-Cake but to me it was a bittersweet love story.
Overall Rating: 5 out of 5, I cried like a baby when Janie was holding Tea-Cake in her arms as he died.