Originally published 7/2/16. No edits have been made. Lead image credit: Goodreads.
This book was previously on my Favorites Shelf (both the electronic one and the physical one) with a rating of 5 stars. Though I haven’t re-read the book since first giving it that rating, I’ve simply taken more time to observe and consider the book’s later effects on me and my world views. Since this is, to some extent, a “didactic book” (my name for books that teach), its effect on my mind and not my emotion or imagination are what I’m consider.
That being said, I have surprisingly little to say about the book itself (I have very definite and uncomplicated opinions of it) yet surprisingly much to say about the didactic part of the book.
Even though it was never meant to be didactic.
The Book Itself
Their Eyes Were Watching God contains some of the most beautiful writing I’ve ever seen. It rivals even that of The Great Gatsby in its romantic style.
Those of you who have read this book probably want me to mention the use of dialect. In all honestly, I didn’t mind it, and I didn’t care either way. I’ve read plenty of books written partially or even entirely in dialect, and having never lived in 1930’s Florida I can’t say whether or not it’s portrayed accurate. Does it change my opinion of the characters? No. I’ve come to the point in my life where I forget when one of my friends has an accent; I became so used to the way people speak in the novel to even notice the dialect dialogue at all.
I rarely see characters portrayed as realistically as they are in Hurston’s novel. Specifically, my mind wanders to the point of the portrayal of their insecurities. The novel tells the audience that all these characters have insecurities, all of them are weak at times, and I cannot remember reading that anywhere else. Sure, occasionally a fiction novel talks about the protagonist’s insecurities, or maybe the hesitations of an anti-hero, but hardly ever does a novel reveal through its story that everyone doubts themselves.
Jody, Janie’s second husband, feels threatened by other men gawking at Janie. Though Janie comes to view Jody as controlling and irrational when he forces her to wear the headband, we get to see what’s really going on: Jody feels afraid, but never tells Janie out of masculine pride. The same thing happens when Jody ages and begins to make fun of Janie to hide his insecurities. Growing up, parents and teachers always told me that “bullies” are really far more insecure than anyone they bullied. I never believed it until it happened to me.
But I might have believed it if I had been exposed to novels like this growing up.
The only works that come close to this kind of honesty (and don’t call me a hypocrite) are Shakespeare’s. But Shakespeare has the disadvantage of speaking from another time period. Unless a work speaks modern language, like Hamilton, people have trouble relating to the characters. Society has evolved over time, so it’s reasonable that people don’t automatically assume that what happened 400 years ago still applies today. Hurston’s novel is still modern enough that everyone in my English class understood what the characters were going through. Shakespeare appears…melodramatic. His characters are like monologuing Disney villains. Hurston’s characters feel rough and real in comparison.
I love plots of ambition–I don’t say “ambitious plot” because an ambitious plot is a plot that’s unusual or scandalous enough that a publisher may not think the world is ready for it. This book may have actually fit that description back in 1937, but ignore that for our purposes.
I love plots of ambition, where the story is driven by the protagonist’s ambition (kind of like Hamilton). Why do I love them? They’re relatable, I suppose. Certainly more relatable than a farm boy who just wants to return home after a long quest.
Janie’s ambition, of course, is the “far horizon”. She wants to see what’s beyond her home, and the thing that continually holds her back is marriage and sexism. Only when she meets Tea Cake does she finally get the opportunity to go “to the horizon and back again”.
This, I suppose, brings me to….
The Didactic Part
Here’s the irony: this book wasn’t meant to be a lesson. In fact, Hurston was criticized by Harlem Renaissance writers fr not being plitical enough. Yet I still consider it a didactic book.
According to English professors, Hurston was part of the “aesthetic movement”, whose authors wrote in order to perfect the beauty of the language, and not for any political goal. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with writing aesthetic or writing political, and I enjoy and value books of both kinds.
But here’s where my confusion begins. To me, this book screams didactic and political. But…why? It’s not like To Kill a Mockingbird or Go Set a Watchman, where the protagonist states what she’s learned at the end. In fact, if you were to ask me exactly what I think the lesson of Hurston’s novel is, I’d be stumped. What did I learn to make me assume that Hurston was trying to tell me something?
And then it hit me: I felt that I’d learned something because the book addresses racism and sexism. Because I have never read a book that was so honest, bipartisan, and unusual towards those subjects. As a female, I felt I’d won a victory every time that Janie stood up for herself, and every time she showed her ambition or independence. I felt like I learned something when I read Janie’s grandmother’s view on the subject of marriage, and when Janie first discovered she was “colored”.
But that was just Hurston’s life. She grew up with those attitudes and had to overcome them herself. I even had the (ahem) pleasure of sitting through a lecture about the similarities between Hurston and her protagonist, Janie. Writers write about what they know. Hurston’s characters are honest because she wrote about what she observed with no particular message in mind.
I felt that the book was didactic because of its portrayal of the characters. I love it when a show, book, or movie has female characters that aren’t love interests (not that that applies to this book), or when the protagonist is a woman, minority, LGBT, handicapped–or just not the typical media protagonist–and they don’t even mention it! That may sound weird, but I hate it when every female superhero just has to be battling sexism and all the black protagonists just have to be battling racism. Why can’t they just be the “dreamers”, or have their fatal flaws be something like “loving too much”? Because in our society, prejudice is the only thing we associate with non-conventional protagonists. In our society, a protagonist is never of a marginalized group unless there’s a reason for it. Growing up, I never saw a female superhero that was just considered normal! They had to be the “feminist” one, the oddball. Their Eyes Were Watching God came across as wise and thoughtful because it assumed nothing of its characters. The female protagonist could be ambitious and feminist, the men could be insecure and intelligent, and even though a fuss was made about it, the book addressed the issue in a way I rarely get to see.
While that was one of my favorite parts of the book, that’s also what caused me to drop it down to a 4 star rating. I initially valued the book because it taught me how to teach a lesson via story, but eventually I realized that it wasn’t intended to teach a lesson at all. Most books that I classify as “didactic” teach in various ways–through a moral standpoint, through unusual characters, or even through plots that are just too clever for me to feel like I haven’t learned anything. But not only did Hurston not intend to make a statement with her characters, but that part I thought I’d learned was something I knew beforehand. Which means, in the end, I took almost nothing away from this book. I didn’t learn how to defeat Goliath, I didn’t learn a new argument against prejudice, I didn’t see a new character personality. I learned nothing, my imagination was unaffected, and my emotions will go on just as they always have, unchanged.
But it’s still a really good book, and 100% worth the read!