Thursday, 12 November 2009

Their eyes were watching God (Hurston) 199

I first came across Their eyes were watching God earlier in the year, when I was eye-ing up the gorgeous 30-year anniversary hardbacks produced by Virago - they'd been out a little while but had only just caught my attention. This was one of the only ones I hadn't read, but looking at it, I was intimidated by the dialect used by Hurston which I thought would make it difficult to read. I later obtained a copy of the first green edition through a bundle of books bought on ebay, but I put it on one side to read later. The other week I read and greatly enjoyed Daddy was a number runner fitting into a genre of books about the Harlem renaissance about which I knew very little and Claire, from Paperback reader pointed out that the forerunner to these books was the title I had on one side.

Once I started it, I felt sorry that I had been putting it off for so long. Far from making it difficult to read, the use of "Ebonics" (thanks again to Claire for introducing me to this concept, which refers to vernacular language used by African Americans) added an extra dimension to the writing and made the prose look extremely lyrical, as this passage where Janie talks about love demonstrates:

"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 its shape from de shore it meets, and it's different with every shore"

The book tells the story of Janie, raised by her grandmother in Florida just after the end of slavery but before the start of the civil rights movement. Her grandmother marries her off at an early age, believing that this is the only way to avoid trouble with boys and to keep her "chaste". But this first marriage is loveless and soon her husband stops treating her well. So when her grandmother dies, she runs off with another man, Joe Sparks. He takes her away to a new town, inhabited only by blacks, and sets up a store and becomes the town mayor. He gives Janie everything that she wants, but as Joe Sparks becomes more and more involved in the running of the town he has less and less time for Janie. He becomes ill, and whilst Janie at first nurses him, he gradually refuses to allow her into his sickroom, and dies. For a time, Janie runs the store herself, adjusting to life alone, with little interest in meeting another man. But then "Tea cake" comes into her life and she finally has a fulfilling relationship which does not diminish her self-worth.

It is a hugely intriguing read dealing with all sorts of issues; the role and status of women, the issue of race (Janie is a fair-skinned black woman), and the whole culture of the period - so absolutely fascinating as well as a beautifully written and enthralling story.

Anyway, there are three Virago editions, two in green, and one in Anniversary hardback, which I am now coveting... I see that Virago have published Jonah's Gourd Vine by Hurston as well, so I look forward to encountering that.


  1. I didn't know there was another Hurston book on the VMC list; I must hunt for that. There is also another Virago copy of Their Eyes Were Watching God, which I had before I found the green one :) (which I think is stunning).

    I am so glad that you enjoyed this; I think it is a beautiful book and lyrical is the best way to describe the language.

  2. That's my absolute favourite passage from the book.

    My copy isn't a Virago but equally gorgeous. It has a similar feel to the last red one above.

    Like Claire, I will be looking out for the other Neale Hurston title that you mentioned. She writes so beautifully.

  3. I read this for a university course on feminism and postcolonialism (how many isms can you fit in one course?!) and loved it. It was so evocative. I have her autobiography somewhere...I must read it one of these days.

  4. I have this too, I got it from bookmooch. I still haven't read it. You make it sound very interesting and that's a beautiful quote. I really must read a Virago soon! It's been a while.

  5. Their Eyes Were Watching God is required reading for high school (junior year, if I remember correctly) here. It's a beautiful book, and tremendously moving. She also collected African American folk stories, and retold them in their own dialect. I don't know if they're in print - mine came in a university course packet - but if you can find them, they're incredible.

  6. I'm glad this post has enthused so many people - it truly is a wonderful book and I can see why Virago reissued it in a beautiful hardback.

    Claire and Claire - I think it will be interesting to read the other Hurston book. Watch this space.

    Rachel - let me know what you make of the autobiography!

    Mrs B - I do recommend this entirely - bump it up to the top of your reading pile!

    Makedo- How interesting that it is required reading!

  7. I'm glad you enjoyed this book, It has been a while since I read it but I loved it then, Maybe it is time for a re-read. Her folk tales and other stories are still in print as is her autobiography.