When I first began writing this review of Zora Neale Hurston’s 1937 masterpiece, Their Eyes Were Watching God, it was an understatement to say that I felt daunted. Many have said that the novel defined the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, and prolific writers such as Alice Walker (author of The Colour Purple) have said that, “There is no book more important […] than this one”. Nevertheless, the reason why I jumped at the opportunity to write about it, is that when I read the book on a rainy-day during quarantine, the sense of wonder I felt for the novel’s protagonist made me want to share it with everyone.
The novel follows Janie Crawford, an African-American woman who recounts her journey from her Grandmother’s plantation shack to all-black Eatonville. Forced into a loveless marriage at the age of 16, Janie’s story is one of a black woman, who in the course of three marriages and a natural disaster, finds her independent voice and sense of self.
The Southern dialect throughout the book is powerful, allowing Hurston to blend folklore with black idiom. This is why the novel transcends labels. It focuses at its rawest level, on telling a personal love story, which prevents the novel from being solely about racism and white supremacy. Janie does face discrimination, but Hurston chooses to focus deeply on her nuanced life experiences as an individual. This adds complexity to the novel’s presentation of race which is one of the reasons people read it over and over again.
One of the most powerful scenes is when Janie is forced to shoot her husband and true love, Tea Cake, who has gone mad after being bitten by a rabid dog during a hurricane. This climax triggers enormous shock. However, the fact that she continually takes her destiny into her own hands, whether when shooting her husband or at other twists and turns in the plot, gives the novel a sense of developing agency.
Originally, the book was dismissed when it was published because of the presentation of Janie as an independent black woman. However, the growing feminist movement of the 70s and 80s, and the introduction of several Black Studies programmes in American universities helped to establish its rightful place in the canon. Overall, it is Janie’s strength and Hurston’s choice to focus on sensuality as well as social commentary which makes Their Eyes Were Watching God one of the greatest novels of the 20th century.
– Hannah Judge
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