Friday, 10 April 2015

The Reading Nook: Their Eyes Were Watching God

"Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.  Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly".

One of the original purposes of establishing The Reading Nook was to get myself to read books that have been sat in my collection for year, including (ahem) a number of books I was supposed to have read for my degree and, well, didn't.  Mainly because at the time I was far too interested in all the other things going on around me that involved interacting with other people, such as my show on the radio station or playing hockey, or producing the pantomime, or working at my part time job in a student bar or running for election, or..ok fine I admit it...drinking.

So it has finally happened, 13 years after making the purchase and 13 years after I was supposed to have read it, I have finally read one of my course books.
I really wish I hadn't waited so long to be honest!  Their Eyes Were Watching God is an American classic.  Written in 1937 in colloquial folk language by Zora Neale Hurston, to say that the book bombed when it was first released would be an understatement.  It was slated by a number of prominent African-American authors involved in the Harlem Renaissance movement who accused Hurston of pandering to stereotypes of language, behaviour and culture.  It was not until the 1970's and 1980's that the book became valued as a work of literary art in its own right as Universities across America started to develop Black Studies programmes which included a focus on art and literature, whilst simultaneously women such as Alice Walker (author of another of my favourites, The Color Purple) and Mary Helen Washington were leading the Black Feminism movement in America, all of which created a culture which allowed for a rediscovery, and a new appreciation for Their Eyes Were Watching God and other forgotten novels of the era. 
Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of those rare stories, a book written in the 1930's that describes a woman who, after suffering two marriages that have stifled her, will not be subjugated any longer, who will not behave in a way expected of her station or gender, and who will follow her own heart, wherever it may lead her.

Warning:  Spoilers ahead - if you don't wish to know the plot, jump ahead to after the next picture!

Janie Crawford sits on her porch with her best friend, Phoeby Watson.  Now in her mid-late forties, Janie tells the story of her life through a series of flashbacks to Phoeby, who, in turn, relates the story to the rest of the nosey residents of the town of Eatonville in Florida.

Janie's story is framed by three distinct chapters and marriages to three very different men, only one of whom has allowed her to be herself. Her first marriage is arranged by her grandmother at the age of 16 to an older man and a farmer.  Janie finds this marriage suffocating as her husband requires a domestic help rather than an equal partner whilst Janie desires love and romance in her life after seeing a bee pollinating a flower in her back garden as a young girl.  One day, whilst working outside the house, she meets the smooth talking and confident Jody Starks who woos her with his dreams of being a 'big man'.  Janie elopes with Jody to Eatonville where the two gradually become prominent figures in the society there; Jody becomes mayor and owner of the village shop and Janie is expected to behave in a way expected of the wife of the mayor.  Throughout the novel Janie's exceptional beauty is emphasised, as is her hair, her crowning glory that attracts admiration and envy from all who see it.  Janie soon realises that Jody is after a trophy wife, he forces her to keep her hair bound and beats Janie when she tries to engage in the social activities and life that Jody enjoys.  Jody eventually sickens and passes away, but not before Janie tries to heal the growing rift between them.

Shortly later, Janie, now a wealthy widow in her mid-thirties with hordes of suitors, meets a young vagabond and gambler called Tea Cake.  Tea Cake is the complete antithesis of Jodie; young, vibrant, free from restraints and restrictions and he draws the initially reluctant Janie out of her shell and the two fall deeply in love.  They move to Jacksonville where they marry and work side by side in the Everglades with the other itinerant workers.  The life Janie has now is one of friendship and laughter; night after night the workers gather at Tea Cake and Janie's house where Janie cooks for them and Tea Cake plays the guitar or they gamble.  This period of bliss cannot last though, and the entire area is hit by the Okeechobee hurricane.  As the workers try to flee and gain higher ground, Tea Cake, unbeknownst to Janie, is bitten by a rabid dog whilst saving her.  Within a few days Tea Cake has contracted the disease and by the time he is able to see a doctor, it is too late.  He gradually starts raving, becoming increasingly jealous and eventually pulls a gun on Janie.  She grabs a rifle to defend herself and as both guns go off, hers kills Tea Cake.

Janie finds herself in front of the magistrate for the murder of her husband; the all-white court rule in her favour though, recognising the desperate nature of her situation and, as everyone comments, the fact that Janie's love for Tea Cake was legendary in the neighbourhood.  Despite the requests of the people of Jacksonville, Janie decides to return to Eatonville and live alone, content and at peace with herself, and the story finishes where it started.
The book covers themes of gender, religion, fate and free will, romance vs reality, society and class, race, jealously, appearance and, above all, the importance of dreams.  Modern day readers may well find some of the attitudes hard to stomach; wife beating is prevalent, women are seen, particularly by some of the more traditional individuals, as second class citizens who are unable to think for themselves (Jody, at one particularly memorable moment, comments that 'somebody got to think for women and chillun and chickens and cows. I god, they sho don’t think none theirselves.") and the book was written at a time when class and race divides were still deeply entrenched in society.

There are two references to watching God in the book; the first is from Janie as she stares peacefully up at the sky.  Tea Cake approaches her and asks 'Watcha doin' Janie?'.  'I'm watching God' she replies.  The second comes where the refugees are huddled in shanties, waiting for the hurricane to subside.  "The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God."  This final reference is commonly though to summarise the central conflict of the novel; humans against God, humans against nature, fate against free will.  The bonds of human interaction and intimacy provide refuge against the forces of nature. Tea Cake and Janie share an intimacy that allows them to struggle and survive these forces, and even when she is left alone, Janie continues to survive everything that is thrown against her.
I struggled with this book when I first sat down with it, and I have tried to read it on numerous occasions since.  I don't think that this should be a required curriculum reading; it is one that younger people are likely to struggle with as the language can be quite challenging, and the story line probably isn't all that exciting for people looking for adventure and drama.  It is only with age that I think I can appreciate the novel as a work of art in its own right, and as story of a women finding out about life, love and who she is though, it is beautiful.
If you like (or hate!) what you have read, please do let me know in the comments below or slap me with a cheeky follow, or say Hi to me on my Facebook group or Twitter or Instagram!

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