What We Quote, But Never Read: February 2013
A monthly column that reviews the classics, the novels we scholars love to reference and quote, but never bother to read. Yes, those novels like Moby Dick, Les Miserables, and anything by Tolstoy. Yet, this column is not just about reviewing the classics, but relating them to our modern, youth culture, and proving how an old favorite is just as influential and relevant as anything fresh from the New York Times Bestseller’s list. With a new review per month, be reintroduced to the old school side of the literary spectrum and discover why it truly was the “best of times and the worst of times.”
THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD by ZORA NEALE HURSTON
In celebration of Black History month, this column will focus on Zora Neale Hurston, one of the 20th century’s most influential authors–who paved the way for both female and African-American writers, her ground-breaking novel, and the unforgettable heroine who became the representation of perseverance in the face of prejudice.
Once upon a time (in the Jim Crow South) was a young girl named Janie Crawford, the granddaughter of a former slave, who from when she was very young understood that she thought differently from others when it came to who and what she was. Janie spends her childhood surrounded by all of the shadows and echoes of racism, yet she does not see it, and even when she does, she does not dwell on it. Hurston describes a scene where a young Janie sees herself photographed with the white children of the women her grandmother worked for: this is the first time she ever sees the physical difference between them. Her entire life before that moment, she believed that she was the same as the other children; consequently, her mindset never truly changes.
As well as being non-biased in the throes of a divided world, Janie is a dreamer. She spent most of her adolescence imagining she is under a tree or walking through a field, bathed entirely in the light of the sun. As a woman, especially a black woman, it was commonly thought that women did not have time for dreams and barely even had the mental capacity. This alone is a reason why Janie is such an interesting heroine: because she stands out by just being herself.
Janie’s real story begins when she leaves the constricting protection of her grandmother and becomes wife to her first husband, who is a simple farmer. Janie tries to blend into this role, tries to find the peace in the security of a simple marriage that her grandmother wanted so much for her, yet that wandering spirit that she had always known — and continues to lean on throughout the novel — leads her to the next chapter in her life in the form of Joe Starks.
He is enchanting in all of the typical ways: he’s charming, handsome, confidant. The particular thing about Joe Starks that attracts Janie is that he is moving places by his own will and charisma. Janie desperately wants to be on that fast-moving train, and he is more than eager to take her with him. She feels that with Joe she could have “flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything.”
And that is exactly what she gets. Joe makes himself into an established man by investing time, money, and energy into an up-and-coming backroads town, and in turn makes Janie into the wife of an established man. Where Joe is becoming a prominent mayor of this otherwise overlooked town, Janie finds her ivory tower to be beautiful yet still a prison.
Hurston describes Janie during this time in her journey as, “a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels.” The many years she spends with Joe, the leader of a little town full of little people, she spends them like a guitar sitting on a shelf collecting dust, waiting to be played.
It is not until after Joe’s death that a rather skilled guitar picker called, “Tea Cake” shows up on Janie’s porch. Like Joe, Tea Cake is a hard worker and a charmer, light on his feet and quick with his wit. Unlike Joe, he does not want to make Janie into something she isn’t. He wants her, with all of her intuition, imagination, and tiresome habit of speaking her mind. He isn’t rich and many of his plans to become wealthy rest on quick jobs and high-risk gambling, but he always smiles when he looks at Janie and treats her with the utmost love.
It is then that Janie realizes that this was what her restless heart had always wanted that her grandmother could not see and she could not explain. A life where she would not have to fit into anyone’s perimeters, and still be happy and in love. Yet, by this point, Janie has become well accustomed to shifting roads and sporadic winds; therefore, when tragedy upsets her peace, she is not afraid to keep walking, grateful for the love she had known, and letting it guide her through to the next chapter.
Even with timeless characters and an eloquent, soulful writing style, what makes Hurston’s work an American classic is how she captures the entirety of the African-American experience, most notably by writing all of the dialogue in dialect. At first it’s frustrating, and unexpected, but the reader can eventually become truly immersed in these characters. This world that many remember yet are hesitant to speak of breathes through this choice in writing style, and she honors the history by writing it authentically. By not attempting to mask or distort anything, she allows the characters to have a complete voice.
Hurston addresses other major issues that revolve around the African-American journey in America as a race, not just from an individual’s perspective. The lasting controversy over skin color and hair — how dark is too dark, is long and curly hair more desired and why — things that are still discussed today are continuous themes in the novel. Hurston does not preach, instead lets these realistic issues be expressed through the characters’ perspectives without an author’s bias.
Their Eyes Were Watching God, even though it was written in the era of civil rights, is not a story entirely about civil rights. It is about the true African-American experience told through a character who saw things in her own way, who continues to be an emblem of independence and the never-ending trek towards happiness that we all struggle to make in our own lives.
About the Writer:
Avery Cunningham is from Jackson, Tennessee, and a sophomore at DePaul majoring in English with a Literary Concentration.