Their Eyes Were Watching God
by Zora Neale Hurston
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Their Eyes Were Watching God is a 1937 novel and the best-known work by African American writer Zora Neale Hurston. Hurston wrote the novel in a reported seven weeks while visited Haiti. Set in central and southern Florida in the early 20th century, the novel garnered attention and controversy at the time of its publication but fell out of print for a number of years. Its popularity was resurrected in the 1970s by an article in Ms. Magazine by Alice Walker "Looking for Zora." Their Eyes Were Watching God has come to be regarded as a seminal work in both African American literature and women's literature. Time included the novel in its TIME 100 Best English-language Novels from 1923 to 2005.
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Janie Crawford, heroine of THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (1937), had a white grandfather and a black grandmother. The latter was a slave in 1864 when Janie's mother was born; the former was the owner of her plantation. Atlanta fell to Sherman. Ole Massa rode off to drive the Yankees back into Tennessee. Ole Missus came to cuss out Granny for birthing her blond haired baby. There will be a flogging tomorrow. Instead, Granny and baby hide out for weeks in the swamps. Then the Civil War ends and both are free. Around 1882 that baby born in slavery is old enough to be seduced by a (white?) teacher and gives birth to Janie Crawford. Somewhere around 1902 Granny (who has raised Janie) arranges her granddaughter's marriage to a north Florida black man with 60 acres. *** The rest of the story sees Janie running away from this husband. Later she runs away from a second and finds happiness in the arms of husband number three, Vergible Woods, known to one and all as Tea Cake, 11 years her junior. Janie joins him in Jacksonville. Soon enough they decamp for the Everglades to pick beans and are caught up in a great hurricane, during which Tea Cake, while saving Janie's life, is bitten by a rabid dog. By this time Tea Cake has also taught Jamie to use both rifle and pistol as an expert. Tea Cake is a life-loving gambler who adores Janie and makes her very happy. *** The novel is very vague as to time. I don't recall a single date being mentioned. Part of the fun of reading is therefore to construct a timeline. Autos abound by noveI's end and Jamie is around 40. So we are talking in the end of the early 1920s in Florida. * * * * The narrator writes crisp, elegant standard English. The other characters, all Southerners, mainly Negroes, speak a thick dialect of English that is most expressive. Sample: "You was twice noble tuh save me from dat dawg, Tea Cake, Ah don't speck you seen his eyes lak Ah did. He didn't aim tuh jus' bite me, Tea Cake. He aimed to kill me stone dead. Ah'm never to fehgit dem eyes. He wuzn't nothin' all over but pure hate" (Ch. 18). *** The novel is astonishingly good and convincing. A beautiful young, barely black woman finds ways to define herself in a world that wants to define her as a member of an inferior, segregated race, with no identity other than through her husband. Janie is no genius, but she is a canny learner and by tale's end is mistress of her fate. *** In 2005 THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD was made into a film for TV, starring Halle Berry as Janie. Oprah Winfrey was producer. *** -OOO-
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