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Their Eyes Were Watching God (thoughts)

February 26, 2009

1% Well-Read ChallengeI read Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching Godas part of my Black History month extravaganza (ok-I’m slightly exaggerating-I read 6 books this month on the topic). Fortunately for me, it also counts as my last 1% Well Read Challenge book (we’ll talk about that later this week!).

I was very nervous about starting this one, because I knew it was written in dialect. And I don’t have a very good track record with dialect books…I gave up on The Color Purple and the two Faulkner novels I picked up within the first five pages. I managed to drag myself through Rob Roy, but I didn’t enjoy it all that much. I’m sure there are other examples, but I’ll leave it at that. If you too, are one of the afflicted, know this: I not only completed Their Eyes Were Watching God, I loved reading it. First of all, the dialect is written in a way that’s pretty easy to understand-I read a little bit of it out loud to get my mind in pattern and then it just flowed. Also, while the dialogue is all in dialect, the narrative portions are written in standard English. So you get little breaks.

Now that we’ve got that out of the way, I can talk about why I loved it so much. Except for the first and last chapters, which frame the story, the book is a first person narrative. Janie Crawford, a southern black woman born during Reconstruction, tells the story of her life to her neighbour and thus the reader. It’s her story of growing from a girl into a woman, of coming to terms with life and who she is, and a story of love and marriage. I loved its universality: reading this book made me feel like I was sitting on the porch with Janie, getting life advice from a mentor. I’d love to have Janie as a mentor: she’s beautiful, strong, and intelligent. Most of all, she’s true to herself.

The other thing I really liked about the story is that Janie’s life is a pretty ordinary one. She’s not beaten by any of her husbands, there are no Klu Klux Klan raids…Hurston doesn’t depend on flashy drama. Instead, the racism is more of a backdrop-at least by whites. Much more front-and-center is the racism within the black community between those with lighter skin and those with darker skin. Anyway, I think there’s something very powerful about showing what ordinary life could have been like. All of the characters are black, and except for a little towards end, there isn’t really much acknowledgement of whites at all. I think that’s one of the book’s strengths.

That being said, while most of the book focuses on everyday life, there is a hurricane. I won’t say a lot about it, but reading those passages inevitably made me think of Hurricane Katrina. And it made me cry a little. Just thought I’d warn people, although I definitely wouldn’t avoid the book over it. (And I’m a notorious crybaby when it comes to books and movies.)

Also, I’d like to point out that the book deals with Big Things. The way that all of our lives deal with Big Things-they come up in the course of Janie’s story, and both she and the omniscient narrator discuss them. It’s interesting to compare the two actually.

The final thing that made me love the book was Hurston’s writing. The narrative voice is beautiful-lyrical, profound, just wonderful. And the dialect’s internal rhythm obviously took a great writer. (Just check out the ridiculous amount of ‘notable passages’ I’ve typed out!)

I’ve found it oddly difficult to write this post-I loved the book, but trying to put the reasons why into words is another matter altogether. Let’s just say, you should read it. And I wish I’d have read it earlier! I plan on buying my own copy, so I can visit with Janie whenever I want.

Notable Passages
Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.

“He can’t help bein’ sorta bossy. Some folks needs thrones, and ruling-chairs and crowns tuh make they influence felt. He don’t. He’s got uh throne in de seat of his pants.”

But here come Bootsie, and Teadi and Big ‘oman down the street makign out they are pretty by the way they walk. They have got that fresh, new taste about them like young mustard greens in the spring, and the young men on the porch are just bound to tell them about it and buy them some treats.

All next day in the house and store she thought resisting thoughts about Tea Cake. She even ridiculed him in her mind and was a little ashamed of the association. But every hour or two the battle had to be fought all over again. She couldn’t make him look just like any other man to her. He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom-a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glace from God.

“Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine.”
“What you mean by dat, Janie?”
“She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dat’s whut she wanted for me-don’t keer whut it cost. Git up on uh high chair and sit dere. She didn’t have time tuh think whut tuh do after you got up on de stool uh do nothin’. De object wuz tuh git dere. So Ah got up on de high stool lak she told me, but Pheoby, Ah done nearly languished tuh death up dere. Ah felt like de world wuz cryin’ extry and Ah ain’t read de common news yet.”

Anyone who looked more white folkish than herself was better than she was in her criteria, therefore it was right that they should be cruel to her at times, just as she was cruel to those more negroid than herself in direct ratio to their negroness. Like the pecking-order in the chicken yard. Insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can’t. One having set up her idols and built altars to them it was inevitable that she would worship there. It was inevitable that she should accept any inconsistency and cruelty from her deity as all good worshippers do from theirs. All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they could not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.

The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They say in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes trainging 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.

“Dey gointuh make ‘miration ’cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell ’em day love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes it shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”

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30 Comments leave one →
  1. February 26, 2009 12:50 pm

    I was assigned this book in high school and absolutely hated it, mostly because the dialect made the bok so hard to read. But a couple of years later I picked it up again and my feelings completely changed. Hurston has an amazing talent with extended metaphors, and she is also able to explore racism and sexism without a heavy hand. This is definitely a book that deserved a second chance – though I’m glad you liked it on your first go!

  2. February 26, 2009 12:53 pm

    I’m so glad you said that about the dialect, because honestly that is the thing that has really been holding me back. So many people have written such beautiful reviews, and I fully believed them that it was a wonderful book. But I was still afraid to read it for fear of feeling like a failure as a reader, because I thought the dialect might trip me up.

  3. February 26, 2009 1:20 pm

    I’ve been wanting to read this one for awhile now but just haven’t picked it up yet. I need to though especially after reading your review!

  4. February 26, 2009 1:28 pm

    I thought this was a really thoughtful review, even if you had a hard time expressing your thoughts about the book. You review has convinced me that I should give this one a shot!

  5. February 26, 2009 2:38 pm

    I couldn’t read it the first time I tried. But you’ve convinced me to try again!

  6. February 26, 2009 3:09 pm

    I’m so glad you stuck with it, it really is a very good story. I read only a couple of Black lit books this month, didn’t plan well enough ahead I think. What We All Long For**** by Dionne Brand, A Mercy****+ by Toni Morrison ,and Mudbound****+ by Hillary Jordan. The Book of Negroes by Lawrence Hill has just arrived from the library so I’ll be into that before the month ends. I do hope you will try again with The Color Purple some day. It does get easier as you go along and the story is worth the effort. I have to be in the right mood to read Faulkner so I can understand that. And I thought you expressed your thoughts on this book very well. I really enjoyed your review.

  7. February 26, 2009 3:31 pm

    Wow! This is a most excellent review (one of your better ones). I think I’ll have to give this a try!

  8. February 26, 2009 4:59 pm

    Between your review and Matt’s I’m definitely going to have to read this book sometime this year!! Great review!

  9. February 26, 2009 5:19 pm

    Yay! Glad you enjoyed it. In the near future, I’d like permission to republished your review.

    I felt the same way about the dialect and breaks. Loved your review. One reader shared with me that the book is available in audio. She said hearing the story was a wonderful.

  10. February 26, 2009 8:40 pm

    I’ve been meaning to read this for Black History Month, too, but ended up having just arrived today, and I don’t want to rush it (I’m not as fast a reader as you :D) so it’ll probably be next month when I get to it. Anyway, I loved your review (and Matt’s, too), so I’m hoping to enjoy it. I do believe The Color Purple has less dialect than this (I think). I liked that one, but wasn’t too keen on the writing. I have a feeling I’ll like the writing style of this one more than that.

    As for Faulkner, I started reading The Sound and the Fury and was just lost. I feel like an idiot not understanding anything about it, so I’m happy to see you didn’t get through it either. Lol. :)

  11. February 26, 2009 9:00 pm

    I think I listened to the audiobook for this one. I seem to remember driving to and from work listening to it. And I don’t remember it being dialect, so that shows how listening to it right is completely natural. I think it was before Hurricane Katrina, so I didn’t make any connections like that.

    It’s sure weird how my pre-blogging books read are all jumbled together in my mind. Maybe my blogged about books will end up that way too, but I like to hope not!

  12. February 26, 2009 9:26 pm

    I read this in high school, but didn’t enjoy it. I’m sure if I revisit it at some point in the future.

    I just wanted to stop by and invite you over to Literary Menagerie. A friend of mine just gave her first stab at a book review, so if you could charm her into sticking around, I’d owe you a huge favor!

    Happy reading!

  13. stacybuckeye permalink
    February 27, 2009 7:27 am

    I read this on college, but that’s been awhile!

  14. February 27, 2009 8:00 am

    Great review! This is on my list for 2009.
    And I think 6 books in a month all on one topic could easily be called an extravaganza. :)

  15. tuulenhaiven permalink
    February 27, 2009 8:29 am

    I definitely can relate to finding it hard to write about a book that you liked a lot. Once it’s done, though, it’s a wonderful review. Thanks for sharing.

  16. February 27, 2009 8:42 am

    I actually read this book for pleasure a few years ago. Like you I was worried about the dialect, but, I don’t know if it’s because I’m Southern or what, I didn’t have any trouble with it. And like you, I loved it. I would have a hard time putting into words why I loved it so much too. I can try though :)

    I thought Janie had a unique and powerful voice. Like you said, she’s beautiful and strong. Very brave and no nonsense about things. You just have to do what you have to do to live. I really liked her voice.

    • Mr. FAMU permalink
      September 9, 2009 12:12 pm

      You had no trouble with the dialect because Zora Neale Hurston is one of the greatest dialect writers in history. She was an anthropologist and a GIFTED woman so what you read is what it actually would have sounded like.

  17. February 27, 2009 12:18 pm

    Another book to add to my list! Your review makes me want to read it right now. I read The Color Purple several years ago. While I don’t remember too many of the details, I remember that it was hard for me to get through.

    –Anna

  18. February 27, 2009 11:30 pm

    Lily, I don’t think I would have loved this one in high school like I do now. :)

    Debi, dude-if I could get through the dialect, I think you can too! I’m the worst dialect reader ever-I even boycott Mark Twain over it!!

    Samantha, I’m glad you enjoyed the review!

    Steph, thanks so much. :)

    Jeane, you know-sometimes I think books take several tries. I’m hoping to get through The Color Purple on my next try. It took me three tries to read Lord of the Rings!

    Sandra, that’s still quite a few books! I definitely plan on picking up The Color Purple again. :) And I much prefer Faulkner’s short stories to his novels.

    Chartroose, thanks so much!!

    Staci, thanks!

    Cora, I’d love to listen to this one on audio. :) And you can definitely republish the review-thanks for asking!

    Claire, by ‘not as fast a reader,’ you mean ‘I have a life and mobility,’ lol. ;) I only got two pages into The Color Purple, so I can’t compare amounts of dialect. But this dialect was definitely easier for me to read. Faulkner made me feel stupid too, which is why I try to admit I haven’t gotten several pages into a novel of his yet whenever I get the chance. ;) Joyce terrifies me as well!

    Rebecca, I think this would be a great audiobook! A lot of my pre=blogging books are jumbled up too; I’m just glad I blog now. :D

    Meg89, thanks for the invitation-I’ve commented!

    Stacy, I don’t think I’d have liked reading this for class-I reacted so personally, I’d hate to dissect it.

    Care, thank you!

    Tuulenhaiven, that’s so sweet!

    Heather, I spent a lot of my formative years in Texas, so I can listen to Southern accents without a problem (I love a lot of them too!). But for some reason, any kind of written dialect tends to trip me up. I loved Janie’s voice too.

    Anna, I’m glad I’m not the only one challenged by The Color Purple!

  19. February 28, 2009 3:08 am

    I don’t know why I haven’t read this yet. You would’ve thought I’d have read it back when I was reading all the Alice Walker I could get my hands on.

  20. February 28, 2009 6:32 pm

    Loved this. Your post is featured at Little Lov’n Monday. This week I’m giving away a free book, too.

  21. February 28, 2009 7:45 pm

    This is one of my all time favorite books. I picked it up in a friends room at college and read it from cover to cover that night. The next day it was all that I could talk about. I then went to the school library to find other books by her. To this date, There Eyes were Watching God is still my favorite!

  22. March 10, 2009 6:13 pm

    Love this boook! And I love your review. Wonderful-fantastic!

  23. August 6, 2009 10:59 pm

    Hi again, Eva. I just finished this and was stunned by its beauty.

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