Zora Neale Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

I picked this book as a to-read for my travel to Florida. Zora Neale Hurston (1891 – 1960) was brought up in Eatonville, Florida (near Orlando), the first incorporated black town in America.

Their Eyes Were Watching God seemed like a particularly well-suited read, as it is mostly set in Eatonville. It is a story of one woman’s search for happiness. Janie is sixteen when her grandmother has her marry a man she doesn’t love. Through three consecutive marriages, Janie pursues a chance to be accepted for what she is.

This is very much a story of an individual’s encounter with the world: it does not attempt to generalize for the whole of a race’s experience. It is a novel in the traditional 19th-century style – a  woman’s bildungsroman, if you like, positioning the heroine against the conventions of her local society.

“What she doin’ coming back here in dem overrhalls? Can’t she find no dress to put on? – Where’s dat blue satin dress she left here in? – Where all dat money her husband took and died and left her? (…) Where she left dat young lad of a boy she went off here wid?—Thought she was going to marry?”

As such, it is exquisite. Thanks to its focus on the individual experience, it is also much less depressing than the other black American literature than I’ve recently been reading.  (Note: I am not saying it is not depressing. Just that it’s less depressing)

Janie’s story is narrated through incredibly lyrical prose shaped by the reality of Florida’s landscape and nature. Take, for example, this description of Janie’s loneliness:

“The room inside looked like the mouth of an alligator – gaped wide open to swallow something down.”

The description of the storm in the Everglades is one of the most terrifying and realistic, I’ve ever read. The narration overall is gripping, and I got through the entire book in a few hours. Highly, highly recommended.

I’ll leave you with a quote from Janie.

“If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened the door.”

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