Zora Neale Hurston
De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.
Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece broke many rules of black American fiction when it came out in 1937. It depicted black communities in the South without any pretense of raising their status in the eyes of “cultured” white, Northern readers. In Their Eyes Were Watching God the characters speak their own language, tell their own stories, and move in their own world. They work on farms and manage stores; they drink at dance halls where men fight over women and guitar music plays until dawn. Hurston’s contemporaries, whose reviews of Their Eyes seem self-serving and incongruous when read today, lamented that such a novel could only fuel white stereotypes of black people as uneducated farmhands and Sambo clowns. To Richard Wright, as he wrote in his infamous review, Hurston had done nothing but captured the simplicity of the “Negro folk-mind”—hers, he wrote, was just one more tale in a long and enforced tradition, “the minstrel technique that makes the ‘white folks’ laugh.”
As far as I can see, far from parroting white stereotypes, Hurston’s work arose from a deep confidence in the humanity of the culture it depicted, a self-assurance that must have given Richard Wright a bit of a scare. It almost goes without saying that Hurston’s harshest critics were the men of her own movement, and it’s no coincidence that Their Eyes was rediscovered and reclaimed by feminist writers in the 1970s after being more or less forgotten by the male-dominated establishment for 40 years (see Alice Walker’s classic Looking for Zora as a catalytic moment in this rebirth). Hurston had the courage to write about poor black women in rural Florida, knowing that their stories, too, had great depth and value without needing to be polished or made more topical to satisfy the politics of her friends.
The story is of Janie, who sets out from her grandmother’s house with the romantic visions of a young girl, even while her grandmother warns of her position as the “mule uh de world” and wants her to simply get married as soon as possible for safety and security. Janie spends her life repudiating her grandmother’s caution and trying to realize the dreams of her youth. This leads her away from her first husband Logan, a dreary farmer whom Janie had only married at her grandmother’s request, to join her second husband: Jody the businessman. Together the two travel to the all-black community of Eatonville, Florida. I wasn’t aware that there had been such towns in the Jim Crow South, towns established, populated and governed entirely by black citizens, and I wonder if I would have ever learned about it if it weren’t for Hurston. Eatonville is a real place where Hurston herself was born and grew up (I think you can still visit Hurston’s old house there), and there were several other towns like it. Here Jody kicks the lifeless locals into action, buys up land, opens a store, and eventually becomes mayor of the town.
Janie, meanwhile, is an ornament to Jody’s public life and is not allowed to speak or participate in anything besides the running of the store. Janie comes to realize that submission is all Jody will ever want from her, and in a fine passage describes how, after one episode with Jody, something “fell off the shelf inside her…”
It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over.
As Jody’s wife Janie is a subject of envy throughout the town, even as she lives a soulless existence married to a pompous and violent man. Always in the back of her thoughts is that persistent girlhood dream of love, of perhaps not being “de mule uh de world;” it’s a hope that she continues to dig up from the ugliness of life that threatens to bury it for good. But she remains with Jody until one day, he dies.
Left with a small fortune and no shortage of bachelors at her door, Janie sticks around Eatonville until a guitar-playing man with charming ways teaches her checkers (Jody, in contrast, did not allow his wife to take part in any games). This fellow is called Tea Cake, and as a most improbable suitor he surprises the town by getting close to Janie soon after Jody is buried. Due to Janie’s misfortune with her last two husbands, we are always expecting Tea Cake to turn mean or abusive. When we learn that Tea Cake’s primary skill is gambling, we worry for Janie. When some of her money goes missing, we say: of course. But Tea Cake always has a decent excuse, and although he strikes Janie once, he is otherwise loving and careful with her. Regardless of their difference in class (a shocking thing which sets the townspeople gossiping), it seems that Janie has found something resembling the pure girlish love dream that she carries around with her. And so before long, rather than sit on her money and lord over the town in the big house as Jody had done, she heads with Tea Cake to “the Muck,” the Florida Everglades, for bean picking season, where they thrive until a single event unravels their life.
The climactic scene dramatizes the 1928 Lake Okeechobee flood, when a lake in the Everglades burst from the storm surge of a hurricane and obliterated huge swaths of lowland populated mainly by black farmers and pickers. In the kind of scene so bizarre and memorable that it could have been from a Greek myth, Janie finds herself holding on for life to a swimming cow, upon whose back is a rabid dog foaming to get its teeth into her (and who, as described, must be something sent by the Devil). Tea Cake jumps in to save her from the cow-dog-flood trifecta, all during the full gale and chaos of the hurricane. It’s a tremendous scene that brings the force of the elements to bear on a helpless community dwarfed by the sound and fury of nature.
There is a frame narrative to all this: the novel opens with Janie, having returned to Eatonville after the fact, walking past a porch full of gossiping ladies, then retiring to her house with her friend Phoeby and recounting her life up to the present, a tale that becomes the meat of the subsequent story. The implication is that she has finally earned the ability to speak without being controlled by the men in her life, and this novel is the culmination: her words, told freely. However, critics have often pointed out that she didn’t have as strong of a voice as she could have (the story is told in the third-person, and Janie’s thoughts are curiously unexamined at some key moments). Having some distance between the narrator and Janie reminds us that we’re reading a story about a story; that we are getting a version of events that is moderated by an unseen storyteller, and although Janie’s freedom to speak has grown, it has still not allowed her full control of the narrative she follows. She still lives at the whims of the outsized forces that govern all of the characters, the arbiters of fate that can kill a woman’s rich husband, or send a deluge over the county.
And yet, Janie walks right past all of the gossiping women, whose rumours about Janie, which we overhear at the opening of the book, are all shown to be misguided as the tale unfolds. The envy and cruelty and judgment of communities are as much the subject here as one woman’s dream of love and happiness. Janie tells her story having faced not only “the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment” (bodies of those killed in the flood), not only the scrutiny of a jury while she is on trial near the end of the book, but now with the haughty judgment of Eatonvillians who envy her status and relish her misfortunes.
In telling her story Janie takes us through the vivid scenes and temperaments of her time and place, which is all one could ask for in a great book. This is a new favourite of mine that I knew I would have to re-read even before I finished it. Hurston’s touch as a folklorist and anthropologist gives this novel a deep-rooted, ancient quality that ranks with the greatest stories ever told. Their Eyes fuses elements of character, history, politics, and folklore with a deftness that you might sooner expect from Dickens or George Eliot. The story certainly does not turn away from the unpleasant realities of American racial politics, but neither does it lose its primary purpose, which is to be a good story. In this way it has aged better than anything written by her loudest, deafest critics (I’m looking at you, Richard Wright).
Five stars, and this one inaugurates a new tag category which I’m going to call “Favourite Books: All-Time Great Stuff.”
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The life of Zora Neale Hurston is itself worth reading about. She was trained as an anthropologist, and wrote this novel while conducting research in Haiti. She died in poverty and obscurity until her reputation was carefully curated out of oblivion by feminist writers, as well as academics in the Black Studies departments that were beginning to be formed in American universities during the 1970s. After being difficult to find for some time, Their Eyes Were Watching God was finally rereleased in 1978 and, as far as I know, it has been in print ever since.
I got this copy at Fair’s Fair Books in Calgary, which is a great local source for used books (besides those book sales, of course).
Now here’s Zora Neale Hurston the academic talking about Haitian zombies:
Other favourite quotes from There Eyes Were Watching God:
She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.
All night now the jooks clanged and clamored. Pianos living three lifetimes in one. Blues made and used right on the spot. Dancing, fighting, singing, crying, laughing, winning and losing love every hour. Work all day for money, fight all night for love. The rich black earth clinging to bodies and biting the skin like ants.
“They’s mighty particular how dese dead folks goes tuh judgment,” Tea Cake observed to the man working next to him. “Look lak dey think God don’t know nothin’ ‘bout de Jim Crow law.”
-Sean “no big kerflommuck” McB