08 May 2012

Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston

When I started my project of reading all of Zora Neale Hurston's books, I was looking forward to this one. And indeed. It is so, so beautiful. Her prose reaches its greatest heights in this novel. If you've read her other stuff, actually, you'll notice that some scenes from her other works reappear in this book. I don't mind - it's as though she put her absolute best into this one novel. It's a fabulous combination of her ethnography and her literary practice. Yes, there are segments that are basically set-pieces dropped in because she just loves the culture and wants to put some in there. But those parts are pretty great, so while they aren't as neatly integrated as they could be, they are still wonderful.

Once again, the feminist angle: while the novel gets read as one woman's odyssey of self-discovery - which it is - there are also some fairly troubling scenes, as when, for instance, there is this loving reflection on domestic abuse: Being able to whip her reassured him in possession. No brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss. (...) "Tea Cake, you sho is a lucky man," Sop-de-Bottom told him. "Uh person can see every place you hit her. Ah bet she never raised her hand tuh hit you back, neither. Take some uh dese ol' rusty black women and dey would fight yuh all night long and next day nobody couldn't tell you ever hit 'em. Dat's de reason Ah done quit beatin' mah woman. You can't make no mark on 'em at all. Lawd! wouldn't Ah love tuh whip uh tender woman lak Janie! Ah bet she doesn't even holler. She jus' cries, eh Tea Cake?" (140-141)  And the novel's portrayal of the black community is decidedly ambivalent as well, highlighting petty jealousies and tensions.

But while this book evinces some of the same interest in modernization and reform that her other books do, it also has certain reservations about class mobility and its effects on people. One of Janie's big complaints is that Jodie won't let her have any fun, insisting that she play the role of the proper wealthy wife (well, and work hard). She resents being so cut off from people. Tea Cake initially has the same impulse, but she makes it clear that she wants to share his life in every way. Of course, their way of life is at least partly enabled by the money she's got saved up, but the point holds, I think.

Overall though, the real joy of this book is its absolutely gorgeous language, and its wonderful, moving depiction of love.

Then you must tell 'em dat 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. (182)

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