GUEST POST – Surly Joe
BLURB – When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds …
It’s tempting to review Their Eyes Were Watching God academically, to discuss its feminist voice, its African-American perspective, the poverty of its people only a generation removed from slavery. For a couple decades in the twentieth century, Zora Neale Hurston was one of America’s most distinguished authors, an acclaimed member of the Harlem Renaissance group of writers, until she disappeared from public consciousness and was not rediscovered by a wide audience until the mid-1970s when Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, wrote an essay about her after learning that she was buried in an unmarked grave in a Florida cemetery. Since then, the body of critical assessment has grown dramatically.
Published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s third novel, is the story of Janie Crawford, a young black woman in the Deep South who is torn between following cultural stereotypes and living her own independent life. Raised by her grandmother, Janie marries because it is expected and stays in the background because it is proper. Her marriage is loveless. Her independence screams to escape – “She was a rut in the road. Plenty of life beneath the surface but it was kept beaten down by the wheels”. Slowly she allows her own spirit to emerge despite the ridicule of her peers. Her life is difficult and tragic, but ultimately it becomes her own.
There’s no denying the importance and the seriousness of the themes in Their Eyes Were Watching God. But to stop there would be to miss out on the most magical aspect of the novel – its language. While the narration is formal, the dialogue is written phonetically in rural African-American vernacular, spoken by characters named Tea Cake and Sop-de-Bottom and Bootyny. When Janie finally makes the conscious decision to be true to herself, she tells a friend “Ah done lived Grandma’s way, now Ah means tuh live mine”. She knows it’s going to be a challenge, but she’s ready to face the obstacles with an open mind and without stressing – “Ah don’t aim to worry my gut into a fiddlestring wid no s’posin”. There is a spontaneity and musicality to the dialogue. It’s like the novel is being told instead of being written.
Ultimately by book’s end, despite her hardships, Janie is content with her decisions. Her final two sentences say it all – “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”
Twenty-first century English can’t compete with that.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Zora Neale Hurston was an American folklorist and author. In 1925, shortly before entering Barnard College, Hurston became one of the leaders of the literary renaissance happening in Harlem, producing the short-lived literary magazine Fire!! along with Langston Hughes and Wallace Thurman. This literary movement became the center of the Harlem Renaissance.