#233 Their Eyes were Watching God

I’ve been wanting to read this book for a very long time and when I first began it (a few weeks ago) I was quite disappointed. I’ve had some stupid daily commutes recently which have been very good for reading but not much else: I’ve managed to get through a lot of books but when I started this one I think I ended up staring out of the window most of the way. This might have been because I wasn’t feeling very well at the time, perhaps because it was too early in the morning to get my head around it, or maybe something in Zadie Smith’s introduction about how she avoided reading it for a long time somehow subliminally deterred me. Either way, I returned to it this week and am very glad that I did.
I don’t know if I didn’t confuse Their Eyes were Watching God with something by James Baldwin (maybe because I knew his step father was a preacher), either way I think I was a little relieved when I realised it wasn’t (not that I dislike James Baldwin). The story follows Janie as she tells the story of her life. It’s narrated colloquially (which might be the reason I put it down initially, because I wasn’t ready to adjust to it early in the morning) which I enjoyed, although as with other books written I such a way it took me a while to get used to it. At the beginning of the story Janie is fascinated by a tree in bloom in the spring and feels full of love: it inspires her to let a boy kiss her and when her grandma sees she insists Janie get married. Nanny was a slave impregnated by her white owner, Janie’s mother was raped by a schoolteacher and Nanny seems to want her locked away in marriage as soon as she realises she is a woman to avoid a similar fate of mistreatment. Janie’s first marriage is fairly uneventful: she returns to Nanny one day dissatisfied that despite waiting some months she still does not feel love for her husband – love she’s been hoping to recapture since seeing the pear tree in bloom. Nanny speculates that if the lack of love is the only thing wrong with her marriage she has been spoilt, but happily Janie does not stop searching for the love she knows she deserves throughout the novel.
Janie’s second marriage to up and coming Joe Starks begins optimistically but descends into animosity and as Joe establishes himself as the mayor of Eatonville he wants Janie to act the perfect mayor’s wife: they live in the largest house in the town and have fine things, but he does not allow her to laugh and interact with the other townspeople as he can, and she is (rightfully) dissatisfied. At the beginning of the novel we learn Janie’s returning to Eatonville after a failed affair with Tea Cake, which made me fearful when after Joe’s death the younger Tea Cake is introduced, and I spent a long time worrying that he was looking to take advantage of her (new) status as a wealthy widow, but thankfully this never comes to pass. Tea Cake is not perfect and he becomes jealous of Janie and at one point beats her just to demonstrate that she is his to beat, but ultimately (not that that’s alright) he does love her as an equal and a person (he asks her to join him harvesting – a request, not a command as her first husband did, and doesn’t keep her shut up keeping house like Joe did) but because of the way the story starts I knew something was going to go wrong. I suppose Tea Cake’s death was not as cruel a way for this to come about than a lot of the scenarios I’d imagined but I was still upset when it happened: I did forget about the beginning of the novel for a while, and when Janie’s on trial worried about the outcome. The book left me feeling sad but hopeful, and a little ashamed that it had taken me so long to get into the story initially.


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