Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God has been on my radar for a long time. In spite of it being on numerous “best” lists and outside of it having an African American female protagonist, I admit I didn’t know much about it. I didn’t know about it’s history, it being banned and even out of publication before being published again in 1978 (per Amazon.com).
As I read it, I slowly realized that Hurston’s elegant narration combined with the “dialect” of the characters’ conversations provided a beautiful friction to the entire story. At the beginning, the difference seems jarring; however, by the end, both styles morph into each other and provide a masterful way in which to tell the story of Janie Crawford.
In a nutshell, Janie works her way through three husbands to find the power she has within herself. All kinds of interesting characters weave themselves in and out of the story and tell stories themselves. While reading the novel, it was easy to think there was no definitive structure to the narrative. But when all was said and done, it took me by surprise that the novel was more or less a five act play. Acts 1 and 5 stood as bookends of Janie returning to Eatonville, Florida after marrying her third husband. Acts 2, 3 and 4 each centered around Janie’s husbands.
The theme of racism is buried in the story though the theme of sexism is much more prevelant. I love the way Hurston simply tells Janie’s story with real people and real situations and lets the effects of these evils play out without preaching or teaching.
In the form of a hurricane, Hurston makes the specific universal. The fact that this “act of God” wreaks havoc on everybody, male or female, black or white – nobody is special, nobody is better – pulls any reader into the human condition:
It is so easy to be hopeful in the day time when you can see the things you wish on. But it was night, it stayed night. Night was striding across nothingness with the whole round world in his hands.