Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is one woman’s story of love. Yes, it’s love between a woman and a man (or three). But, it’s also about a woman finding herself, her voice, and the life she chooses. Their Eyes is unflinchingly about being Black in the early twentieth century. Unlike so many other books, the experience is seen entirely through the eyes of Black characters.
Early in the story, Janie Crawford makes life choices based on what others—her grandmother, her husbands—expect. She squelches her voice, but not her thoughts. And when she meets the true love of her life, Janie has a chance at true happiness and self awareness. Since nothing in life is quite that simple, author Hurston presents Janie with heartbreaking choices.
I picked this book up for two reasons. It fit a prompt for Book Riot’s 2017 Read Harder challenge, since it was published between 1900 and 1950. But more importantly, it’s part of my project to fill in the blanks of my literature education. My high school and college English professors drew entirely from the standard canon of White voices, primarily men. I missed the whole group of Black and African American classic authors.
It’s an understatement to say Zora Neale Hurston has a unique voice. Writing when she did, Hurston faced intense criticism and hardship. Undeterred, she persisted and wrote Their Eyes along with other novels, short stories, plays, and anthropological studies. Moving effortlessly between a Southern dialect and the narrator voice, Hurston lays out her story. I found that the dialect worked best for me when I listened to Ruby Dee’s audiobook narration. It’s a fitting tour-de-force performance.
I saw another reviewer say, “What’s the big deal? It’s just another love story!” I respectfully disagree. Of course, it is a love story. But it’s as much Janie learning to love herself and her life, as it is the story of her relationships with men. There are many feminist themes, woven amidst the realities of the first post-slavery generations.
I highly recommend this exploration of life, love, and one black woman’s experience.