If you put Mark Twain, Virginia Woolfe, and the American South of the 1930s in a blender with too much dialogue, you get the idea of the female-driven, romantic folktale that is “Their Eyes Are Watching God” by Zora Neale Hurston.
While a good book, it is generally over-rated by readers and critics alike; constantly showered with praise everywhere I looked online (often near-perfect or perfect scores, put up there with Fitzgerald and Langston Hughes. Frankly, there’s no comparison). The dialogue can be challenging for your average reader because it is written with full African-American slang, and boy, there’s a lot of it (!), but you’ll catch on quick… or you’ll drop it fast.
Now the good. What it has going for it: it’s a short little novel (193 pages, Harper Perennial P.S. Edition). It’s a quick read, parts feel like a fable, and the emotions feel real. It’s understated in some places, and if you’re reading too fast, you’ll miss some metaphors and some “under the surface” subtext. It’s satisfying to experience with Janie Crawford overcoming personal doubt, seeking real happiness, and facing sorrow and fear. Zora Hurston’s truest strength is that she has made this novel about people and their intimate connections, NOT just “black” people and “black” people’s connection. Any race can read this and find the love and humanity in it. It focuses minimally on the white/black dynamic. Preferring the universal issues, it only barely touches on the white’s influence at the time. In fact: it shows how some black people put themselves down, which was refreshing for the genre of literature which tackles the subject.
There are beautiful things in here, and my favorite part was the second husband who becomes the mayor of an all black town. That could have been the entire book, in my opinion. There was a lot of potential there to form a full novel and have it end similarly, where Janie, of course, returns to where she came from with a deeper understanding of marriage, men, and what she wants from love.
The ending was rushed (Chapters 18-20) and I’m not sure why a dog was on a cow’s back during a hurricane. Oh, and had rabies, and is ultimately responsible for taking away Janie happiness. Weird, right? I thought so too.
End of Spoiler Warning!
I also feel this story did not have to be framed as a flashback, where this entire story is being told to one of Janie’s friends. The beginning of the book and the end of the book are scenes of Janie telling Pheoby this long story. “That’s all folks” is kind of like what it felt like to me. Yes, it would make sense for a film, but to frame your novel as a story being told to someone after the fact is a risky thing if it doesn’t carry enough PURPOSE. This requires some artful choices of when to pop in and out of the story and asking “what the ultimate necessity is for having this story being told to someone as a fireside tale?” What was the point here? Did it add to anything? In the end, I just didn’t feel that necessity here. It felt like a hokey framing device you’d get from the Hallmark version of this movie.
While a sold read, a 3.5 out of 5 is all I can give it. I feel it was trapped between novella and a fully realized novel. If you want something to really make you think about white whites, black blacks, and the fair-skinned black people who could be either, one of the most controversial, thought-provoking, and morally questionable books I can recommend is Nella Larsen’s underappreciated “Passing” (4/5). There is an ambiguity here that will make you beg other to read it so you have someone to talk to and can compare reactions. People who read “Their Eyes Were Watching God” will have little to discuss and much to simply agree upon, and that’s nice, but a little boring to me.
Final verdict: 3.5/5