History: Written in 1937. Hurston's work slid into obscurity for decades, for a number of cultural and political reasons. While today Hurston's book is present on many reading lists for African American literature programs in the United States, the book was not universally praised by Hurston's peers, with particular criticism leveled at her use of phonetic spellings of the dialect spoken by blacks of African and Caribbean descent in the South of the early 20th century (for example, "tuh" instead of "to" and "Ah" instead of "I"). Richard Wright called Their Eyes Were Watching God a "minstrel-show turn that makes the white folks laugh" and said it showed "no desire whatever to move in the direction of serious fiction.” Ralph Ellison said the book contained a "blight of calculated burlesque." Many other prominent authors that were a part of the Harlem Renaissance were upset that Hurston exposed divisions between light skinned African Americans and those that had darker skin. Hurston died in a nursing home in Florida and was buried in an unmarked grave. Her work did not receive true notoriety until Alice Walker rediscovered it in the 1975.
Plot: The main character, an African American woman in her early forties named Janie Crawford, tells the story of her life and journey via an extended flashback to her best friend, Pheoby, so that Pheoby can tell Janie's story to the nosy community on her behalf. Her life has three major periods corresponding to her marriages to three very different men.
Nanny, Janie's grandmother, was a slave who became pregnant by her master and gave birth to a daughter, Leafy. Though Nanny tries to create a good life for her daughter, Leafy is raped by her school teacher and she becomes pregnant with Janie. Shortly after Janie's birth, Leafy begins to drink and stay out at night. Eventually, she runs away leaving Janie with Nanny. Nanny transfers all the hopes she had for Leafy to Janie. When Janie is sixteen, Nanny sees her kissing a neighborhood boy, Johnny Taylor, and fears that Janie will become a "mule" to some man. Nanny arranges for Janie to marry Logan Killicks, an older man and farmer who is looking for a wife to keep his home and help on the farm, even though Janie does not want to marry at that time. Janie has the idea that marriage must involve love, forged in a pivotal early scene where she sees bees pollinating a pear tree, and believes that marriage is the human equivalent to this natural process. Logan Killicks, however, wants a domestic helper rather than a lover or partner, and after he tries to force her to help him with the hard labor of the farm, Janie runs off with the glib Jody (Joe) Starks, who takes her to Eatonville.
Starks arrives in Eatonville (the United States's first all-black community) to find the residents devoid of ambition, so he arranges to buy more land from the neighboring landowner, hires some local residents to build a general store for him to own and run, and has himself appointed mayor. Janie soon realizes that Joe wants her as a trophy wife. He wants the image of his perfect wife to reinforce his powerful position in town, as he asks her to run the store but forbids her from participating in the substantial social life that occurs on the store's front porch.
After Starks passes away, Janie finds herself financially independent and beset with suitors, some of whom are men of some means or have prestigious occupations, but she falls in love with a drifter and gambler named Vergible Woods who goes by the name of Tea Cake throughout the story. She falls in love with Tea Cake after he plays the harmonica for her. She sells the store and the two head to Jacksonville and get married, only to move to the Everglades region soon after for Tea Cake to find work planting and harvesting beans. While their relationship has its ups and downs, including mutual bouts of jealousy, Janie now has the marriage with love that she had wanted.
The area is hit by the great Okeechobee hurricane, and while Tea Cake and Janie survive it, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog while saving Janie from drowning. He contracts the disease himself. He ultimately tries to shoot Janie with his pistol, but she shoots him with a rifle in self-defense. She is charged with murder. At the trial, Tea Cake's black, male friends show up to oppose her, while a group of local white women arrive to support her. The all-white jury acquits Janie, and she gives Tea Cake a lavish funeral. Tea Cake's friends forgive her, and they want her to remain in the Everglades. However, she decides to return to Eatonville, only to find the residents gossiping about her.
Review: I listened to this book. The book is written in strong dialect, and was difficult to understand. The real issue isn't white abuse of blacks, at least for Janie. Raised with white children, such that she didn't even realize initially she was black, and living in an all-black town as she did, for her whites were almost beside the point. The true point of contention is the painful lack of agency black women have, when both white men and black consider black women their property, and where even white women can, in jealous fits of rage, turn against their black sisters to blame the victim.
Opening Line: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.”
Closing Line: “She called in her soul to come and see.”
Quotes: "Maybe there's a trapdoor under my chair, and I'll just disappear."
Rating: Dull and Tedious.