Oct 6, 2009

Their Eyes Were Watching God

by Zora Neale Hurston

My week of reading banned books has kind of fizzled. I could not get into To the Lighthouse, and every time I picked up Schindler's List I kept remembering how much I cried at seeing the movie, and couldn't bring myself to read it yet. But I did finish Their Eyes Were Watching God. It was really interesting to read it in context with the two southern memoirs I've read recently- one about a poor white man growing up to prosperity, the second about a poor black man who was pretty much content his whole life, and now this one about a black woman moving through different social circles in each stage of her life, seeking for love.

This is actually the third time I've tried to read Their Eyes Were Watching God. The first two times I got bogged down on the use of language- the dialect all being written in vernacular, which can be a bit difficult to understand at first. This time I couldn't put the book down! It's a story of community and relationships, a story of one young woman's growth to adulthood and her dawning awareness of self and independence.

When Janie is sixteen, her grandmother wants to see her safely married, and Janie soon finds herself on sixty acres with a man who expects her to work just as much in the field as in the kitchen. Her amorous feelings for marriage cool pretty soon, and before long she runs off with another man who catches her fancy. Her second marriage isn't what she expected either; as her husband becomes more prosperous the distance between them grows. In her third marriage, Janie finally finds happiness and together they move to the Florida Everglades. Things there aren't quite what she expected either, but she is now more accepting of her husband's faults as well as outspoken for her own needs and desires. Janie goes from being a quiet figure in the background subservient to her husband's demands, to a strong woman who speaks up for herself.

I am not sure why this book was on the banned list. The ALA site says it was for "language and sexual explicitness". I'm guessing by language they meant the use of vernacular. And although some passages had sensual writing (describing nature or inner feelings) the actual lovemaking scenes were short and only hinted at. I wonder if it's partly because Janie was such an unconventional figure- a woman who went her own way against society's mores. A lot of the story has to do with how people were judging each other within the black community- and it surprised me to learn they often did so according to how dark or light a person's skin was. I didn't expect that. In all, it's a great story, one that give me another look at life in the South, and inside one woman's heart. I don't want to give anything away to those of you who haven't read it yet, but I just have to say the last few pages took me completely by surprise, and I almost cried.

Rating: 4/5 ....... 219 pages, 1937

More opinions at:
Things Mean a Lot
Vulpes Libres
Passion for the Page
A Striped Armchair
Trish's Reading Nook
Across the Page
Naked Without Books 
You've GOTTA Read This!


  1. Zora Neale Hurston actually lived in a 'burb of Orlando so she is a bit of a local celebrity here. They even have "Zora Days" up there. So isn't it a shame I've never read one of her books? They made this into a TV movie a number of years back, and did some filming in the area, so it was a HUGE deal when it aired. I'm going to have to read this. I've heard it is wonderful.

  2. I've never read this one, though the title is familiar. You've got me intrigued, and I'm desperately in need of an absorbing book right now. Maybe it's time for a trip to the library.

  3. This has been on my "must read" list for years, but I haven't gotten to it yet.

  4. I'm so glad you loved it this time around! I think you're probably right - Janie's determination and defiance must have had to do with why people felt the need to ban this.

  5. Banned though it may have been, I can tell you with all certainty that it now appears on the reading list for English 12: African Heritage at the local High School.

  6. I can see how reading this one again and again could only enhance the experience. I was really bogged down by vernacular as well but I love the writing--and sensual it is. You make me want to pick it up again and I just read it a few months ago!

  7. I really liked this book when I read it a couple years ago (pre-blogging). The vernacular didn't bother me (maybe because I was raised in the southeast), but I know it bothered other people in the book group I was part of.

    As for To the Lighthouse, I wouldn't worry. I like Woolf, and I don't remember a word from that book. It was one of the most difficult books I've ever read.

  8. Sandy- I didn't know she lived in New Orleans! What do they do on Zora days?

    Janet- It is one I felt I had heard of all my life, and never really knew what it was about until I picked it up. Well worth the read.

    Bermudaonion- I think you should soon!

    Nymeth- She just wasn't a very conventional woman, was she? And no shame of it, either!

    Wanda- I wish I had read this one in high school.

    Trish- I think if it had not been for the beautiful descriptive prose between the dialog, it would have been far more difficult for me!

    Amanda- It was just hard for me to understand at first. Glad to know no worries of The Lighthouse! I always feel a bit troubled when a famous or classic author is nigh incomprehensible to me.


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