The other day, I was teaching a truly inspirational group of public school kids–they were sixth grade students who looked at a building from the Gilded Age, marveled at the materials, and then wondered about the black and Irish workers who must have been responsible for lifting the Italian marble off of the boats. They’d been taught well by some incredible teachers, but were curious, creative thinkers in their own right. One of them was named Zora. Her name, combined with the fact that many of these great kids hailed from Harlem, plus that they all were better versed in history than am I, AND that we were discussing Belle Da Costa Greene–a half African-American woman who passed as white at the turn of the last century and helmed, for forty years, the Morgan Library and Museum–made me feel a sharp pang of embarrassment at not yet having read any Zora Neale Hurston.
I have no idea what they were teaching me in high school but I never read anything I was supposed to have read (and, believe me, I did all my homework and then some). By the time my brother was in the same high school I think they were assigning Their Eyes Were Watching God–I think I remember him complaining about it–but I missed out and never filled in the gap. After teaching that class, though, I picked up a copy and this week finally righted one of my literary wrongs.
There is certainly a lot of scholarship about Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, and of course, because there is so much to say. Reading the book within the context of our national history, Ms. Hurston’s personal history, politics, feminism or with an eye towards race or gender or the literary climate it was published into, the way it was received, forgotten for years, revived by Alice Walker–wow. A good place to start with all of this is the beautiful edition of the book I have, a Harper Perennial Modern Classic, which has a forward by Edwidge Danticat and an afterward by Henry Louis Gates Jr. I think what I’ll write about here, though, is the structure of the book. Not that that hasn’t been analyzed to death, too, but it seems more in line with what I talk about in these pages here to discuss that. Although, boy do I have a lot of thoughts about our protagonist, Janie.
At the start of Their Eyes Were Watching God, beautiful Janie trudges into the town where she once lived as the mayor’s wife, dressed in overalls and ugly shoes, and bypasses all the townspeople dying to know her story without even throwing them a glance. Janie’s friend Pheoby goes after her and asks her what happened–the ensuing book is the story she recounts; we only come back to the present day in the very final pages. There is a mysterious set of circumstances laid out at the beginning of the book that Janie knows Pheoby–and that Ms. Hurston knows the readers–will only understand if she goes back to the very beginning. Her history unspools–we learn about her discovery that she was black when, as a child, she first sees a photograph of herself among her white playmates, of her grandmother marrying her off at the age of sixteen, hoping to spare her the hard life she has led without realizing that robbing her of her free will by forcing her into a loveless marriage is just as bad, of her second marriage to the self-made mayor of an all-black Southern town which made her no happier than her first, of her third marriage to the real love of her life, Tea Cake, a much younger man who treats her, more than she’s ever been treated before, as her own person and with whom she finds happiness despite the terrible hardships they face and finally, of the tragic circumstances that bring her back to town where she once lived. Throughout this narrative, the pull of the past on Janie is evident–the beginning was not her childhood, but her mother’s childhood–it wasn’t there but in slavery–it wasn’t there but in Africa.
One of the historical aspects of the book that I found most fascinating was Janie’s encounter, while living in the Everglades with Tea Cake, with a huge group of Native Americans. The Native Americans, being accustomed and attuned to the area’s natural landscape, have an understanding of the environment that the black settlers do not. As they passed by Janie, possessed of their private knowledge, a parallel, shadow narrative was suggested. If only we were privy to the stories their Zora Neale Hurston could tell… (Are we, readers? Can you recommend me a book?)
While Their Eyes Were Watching God is written in the third person, because of the way the narrative is framed through storytelling and dialogue, there is a curious play of points of view that takes place–a sort of layering of perspectives. There is the third person narration, which is generally grammatically conventional, though lyrical and lovely. The novel begins:
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.
What a strange, moving start–to unpack it is to learn about gender, history, resilience.
The portions of the novel–the bulk of it–that are out of the mouths of its characters are written in vernacular, a phonetic torrent of language that takes a moment to parse but creates setting, time, action, character and music all at once. Here is Janie telling Pheoby about her grandmother, from page 114:
She was borned in slavery time when folks, dat is black folks, didn’t sit down anytime dey felt lak it. So sittin’ on porches lak de white madam looked lak uh mighty fine thing tuh her. Dad’s whut she wanted for me–don’t keer what it cost.
It isn’t just Janie who gets large chunks of dialogue–her grandmother, Pheoby, her husbands and many other characters all lend their voices and perspectives to the book. There are pages and pages at a time of dialogue–rotating first person points of view. Their layering adds to the complexity of the story being told and of its tellers.
Thinking back on the opening passage I reprinted above, now that I’ve finished the book, what stands out to me is how well mapped out this novel was, how carefully considered and constructed. Yet while reading it, its scaffolding faded in service of the language, the story and the emotion.