By Alexa Dumas
“There are years that ask questions and years that answer.”
Out of the blue, Janie Crawford made an unexpected return to Eatonville, Florida. Janie was seen as a respected person within the town, as her second husband was the mayor, but when she moved away to follow her younger third husband, the people of Eatonville thought she’d never return.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” depicts a woman’s journey of self-discovery as she navigates her feelings of love and desire.
The novel starts with Janie’s return, which leads her to Janie’s close friend Pheoby. Janie begins to tell Pheoby her life’s story, which starts on a plantation in Georgia where Janie lived with her grandmother, Nanny.
Janie reflects on her life being filled with trauma, as her mother was the product of rape, and Janie learns that she was as well. Janie’s mother, Leafy, left to chase addiction, which left Janie in the care of Nanny.
As Nanny starts to get older, she marries Janie off to her first husband, Logan Killicks. His financial stability impresses Nanny, however, Janie feels unloved by the older man.
Janie leaves Logan for Jody Starks, a businessman who shows her love for the first time. After Janie runs off with Jody, they land in Eatonville where Jody becomes mayor. Janie is set up as the clerk of the general store that Jody owns, and their relationship deteriorates as he becomes more controlling of her.
They soon separate, leaving Janie’s last words to Jody on his deathbed 20 years later.
Janie’s third husband, Tea Cake, is 12 years younger than her, so she believes his attraction to her is only due to the property Janie gained after Jody’s death.
This ends up not being the case, as Tea Cake shows Janie more love than her previous husbands.
Although Janie has already established a strong sense of self, Tea Cake shows her nothing but support. They soon run off, this time to Jacksonville, Florida.
Janie and Tea Cake’s lives turn on a head in Jacksonville, as a flood destroys the town and Tea Cake is soon bit by a rabid dog. As the days progress, changes in Tea Cake start to occur, putting Janie’s life at risk.
Janie must debate how to move forward, but she knows a hard decision must be made.
Published in 1937, Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God” places the reader into not only Janie Crawford’s complex life, but into the first self-governing all-Black town of Eatonville, Florida.
This historical aspect of the novel comes as no surprise, as Hurston was not only a novelist, but a folklorist and anthropologist.
Her studies influenced not only the novel’s setting of Eatonville, but the use of colloquial language as well.
The dialogue within the novel is spelled phonetically, which is the way the speaker would pronounce it. This style of writing makes the novel unique, while some have cited it as a reason why the novel can be difficult to read.
Even though the novel expresses a message of self-love and identity, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” was challenged in 1997.
Parents in Brentsville, Virginia, urged the novel to be banned from their child’s advanced English classes due to sexual explicitness, but this challenge was soon overturned. This was almost sixty years after the novel’s publication.
Racism, being anti-male, depicting abuse and rape, as well as being sexually explicit have all been reasons why “Their Eyes Were Watching God” has been banned or challenged in the United States.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is an American classic. Although censorship lies within its history, Hurston’s novel should be remembered as a true journey of facing adversity, and overcoming it to find oneself. Hurston’s novel is masterfully written, and it is unlike any other story about identity and independence, especially for a Black woman in the early 20th century.
“Their Eyes Were Watching God” should be on everyone’s must-read list.