One of the most important writers of the Harlem Renaissance, Zora Neale Hurston was born in 1891 in Eatonville, Florida, the first incorporated black town in the US. She is most remembered for Their Eyes Were Watching God, which is set in different areas in Florida and was written in Haiti. When it was first published the novel received some criticism within the black writing community for her interpretation of black speech, even of Uncle Tomism, although there has been much favorable critical revisionism since.
Their Eyes Were Watching God strongly strikes me as a feminist novel in which the main character – Janie Crawford Killick Starks – comes to realise herself, her desires and her integrity as a human being, only with her experiences with her third husband.
The narrative is told by Janie and framed within a modern setting in which she relates her story to her friend Phoeby. Janie was brought up in north Florida by her grandmother Nanny, who was originally a slave made pregnant by her owner, and who escaped with her child Leafy, who is raped by her school teacher and consequently gives birth to Janie. Because of Nanny's experiences, she is determined that Janie should be saved from the problems she and her daughter had, so she marries her grandchild off at the earliest opportunity.
Janie comes to hate her grandmother for the arranged marriage, and her husband is the older Logan Killicks, a farmer who disappoints her greatly because she feels that marriage should be about love, and yet she doesn't feel it. Janie's disillusionment increases, and she readily runs off with the misleadingly enticing Joe Sparks.
The couple marry and move to the embryonic black township of Eatonville, where the entrepreneurial Sparks buys up some land, sets up a general store and soon becomes mayor of the town. Again, Janie is disappointed because she doesn't get the partnership she craves for but just becomes a trophy wife to a jealous man who considers it unbecoming for her to have a joke with her customers. Their relationship becomes aggressive and Sparks hits her, even displaying his anger in public. But Janie is saved by Sparks's untimely death, which leaves her a reasonably well-off widow.
Janie becomes the object of town gossip when after a while she meets Tea Cake Woods, an amusing man twelve years her junior: he doesn't have any money but is keen to work, although inevitably the townsfolk think he's just a gold digger. But Tea Cake makes Janie laugh, he introduces her to games and shows that Sparks would have considered beneath them, and although this was written in 1937 and obviously Janie can't breathe a word of what happens between the sheets, it's pretty obvious that Tea Cake is giving her a good time in bed: in a word, Janie for the first time in her life now feels like a woman, and feels on equal terms with a man. And not once has Tea Cake asked her for money as all their outside amusements are paid for by Tea Cake.
They marry and leave for the Everglades, where they can earn money from the rich soil, planting and harvesting beans around Lake Okeechobee (called 'Lake Okechobee' in the novel). However, they are hit by the 1928 hurricane, and although both survive Tea Cake gets bitten by a rabid dog. It is only discovered some time later that he has contracted the disease: crazed and terminally ill, he tries to shoot Janie, whose only recourse is to kill him. An all-white jury find her innocent, and Janie returns to Eatonville, where the novel began.
Hurston herself returned to Florida and died in 1960 in Fort Pierce, where she is buried.
My other posts on Zora Neale Hurston:
Zora Neale Hurston: Jonah's Gourd Vine