Janie Crawford is a young black woman who wants to march to her own beat. When she grows old enough to start noticing men, her grandmother decides it is time for her to marry. Janie wants to marry for love but her grandmother insists she marry for security. She complies and marries older man Logan Killicks. At first Logan pampers her but soon starts treating her like a servant. Janie meets smartly dressed Jody Starks, a man who dreams big and runs away with him. They marry and settle in the town of Eatonville, an all black community. Jody finds the success he was seeking with a profitable store and by being elected the town Mayor. Jody and Janie spend 20 years in Eatonville but she does not find the love she seeks as Jody treats her like one more tool to further his political ambitions. Their marriage deteriorates and Jody falls ill and dies. Janie finally feels free. One day a penniless man named Tea Cake, ten years Janie’s junior, wanders into town and Janie finally finds real love with him. They marry and decide to start life anew in the Florida Everglades. For the next two years, they experience a natural disaster and a few personal ones. A stronger woman due to all her experiences, Janie returns to Eatonville to live a peaceful existence.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is a simple story of a woman searching for love that is greatly enhanced by the authentic dialect of the time combined with the social tones of the era playing in the background. Hurston paints Janie vividly-as a woman who perseveres despite poverty and trying circumstances with all three of her husbands, but who always maintains her spirit and true self even if she has to bury it for awhile to survive. I was touched by the way in which the book was written- the writing was clean and simple yet poetic. For example, take this passage which discusses the hopes and dreams of men and women:
“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. ... For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
Gems like that (a refreshing break from the sometimes hard to get used to dialogue) made me want to stop reading and let it roll around in my head a little while before continuing on.
Hurston’s contemporaries criticized this novel because it didn’t focus enough on the social climate at the time. I think the book’s greatest strength was letting the characters and the settings speak for themselves instead of focusing on the racial divide of the time. It would have been an entirely different book had the author went that route, and probably not nearly as good. There really was no plot other than the telling of Janie’s life story but I enjoyed it nonetheless. I can see why it is considered a classic and deserving of the praise it finally received after years of being ignored.