16 March 2010

Their Eyes Were Watching God

I recently finished Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, a book I never read in school despite growing up in Florida, and which I’d always felt I should read. Also, it has a hurricane in it, and I’m a sucker for hurricanes.

The book has long been considered a great empowering piece of literature for women, though I don’t like to think of it as proto-chick-lit. Hurston paints a picture of turn-of-the-century Florida that is lacking from much of the rest of literature; that’s largely why I wanted to read it, and why I enjoyed it. Yes, Hurston’s use of dialect can be distracting at times, but I’ve never really been bothered by the use of dialect in fiction and don’t really understand why some people hate it so much. Not being an author from the Harlem Renaissance myself, I don’t really sympathize with the contemporary criticism of the book. If anything, since most of the critical Harlem Renaissance writers were men, perhaps they were concerned about Hurston’s critical depiction of the divisions between men and women in black society at the time, and just needed an excuse to complain.

If, instead of trying to be a sensitive critic, one reads the book for its narrative and historical interest, it’s a very good read. Janie’s struggles to find love are convincingly depicted, and the men she meets are all real enough. The way Janie is criticized for settling down with Tea Cake, a no-account drifter, seems very true—she finally found love, and it may not have been in the life people expected her to live, but a mature person (actual maturity being something everyone really wants and hardly anyone actually has) knows other peoples’ expectations are useless if one’s heart is happy and mind is free. We all really want to be Janie, in a way.

Right up until the hurricane.

Unlike most books I’ve read because I felt I should read them, I actually enjoyed this one.

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