You know, even at this late date, I can occasionally be tricked into thinking that the classics are books we read, not for pleasure, but because they are good for us, like medicine, books we “ought” to read. I put Zora Neale Hurston’s best-known novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God, on my list mostly because I thought I “ought” to read the story of Janie, a young African-American girl pushed into a loveless marriage by her grandmother. Janie marries two other men before the end of the story, and the shape of those relationships and Hurston’s eagle-eyed social witness form the content of the novel. Now that I’ve read it, I can say I was right: I ought to have read the book. But I loved it as well. I really should have known.
Janie’s three relationships take place in a context given to her by her grandmother, who was born into slavery.
Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de black man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolk. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see.
This comparison of a black woman to a mule — an animal, the lowest of the low, with no hope of equality or freedom — comes back many times to haunt Janie. In her first marriage, to a much older man, she refuses to do anything around the farm, finding it degrading to work for someone who sees her as a useful asset rather than an equal and a lover.
In her second marriage, to the glib Jody Starks, the mayor of Eatonville, she finds herself on a pedestal among the townspeople, but constantly denigrated by her husband, and still starved of the love she craves. Her husband, wishing to be seen as magnanimous, buys an old overworked mule and sets it free, but is incapable of such a level of generosity with his wife. (The fact that it’s a mule and not another kind of animal didn’t escape me.) She must mind the store, but remain silent.
It’s not until her second husband’s death that Janie meets the drifter Tea Cake, a younger man who not only gives her the love she’s been waiting for, but the equality and confidence she’s wanted as well. When she protests at their first meeting that she couldn’t walk seven miles, he says, “Ah’m seen women walk further’n dat. You could, too, if yuh had it tuh do.” At this treatment, Janie’s pleasure, joy, and sexuality blossom. For Tea Cake, she’s willing to work at menial tasks, just to be near him. Working like a mule is irrelevant if you’re not treated like one. It is also at this time that Janie becomes a storyteller. Instead of having to stand on the store porch and listen, as she did in Eatonville, with Tea Cake she can participate and create her own stories. He welcomes her voice.
All this takes place in the near-total absence of white people. Eatonville, where Janie and her second husband live, is a black town with a black mayor. Janie and Tea Cake live in an all-black community in the Everglades. White people enter the picture only twice: when they dragoon Tea Cake into service burying the dead after a terrible hurricane, and as a jury at the very end of the novel. This was very interesting to me, because it gave the book a very different tone than other African-American novels I’ve read (most of Toni Morrison’s novels, Ralph Ellison, Richard Wright…) that take place in the context of a white-dominated world.
You can see from the quotations I’ve chosen that the dialogue is written in phonetic transcription of heavy dialect. (The narration is in a very different voice, poetic and fluid.) I know that at the time the novel was written (1937) Hurston received strong criticism for this choice from authors like Wright and Ellison, who thought she sounded like a minstrel show. I admit that at first, it’s hard to read, like reading a language you’re a bit rusty in. You can’t disappear invisibly into the novel in the same way you usually can. I happen to think that’s a good thing: the preservation of a world and a culture the way it was. Both the dialogue and the narration are full of wisdom, humor, and insight. This was a terrific book. I’m so glad I thought I ought to read it.