When Janie, at sixteen, is caught kissing shiftless Johnny Taylor, her grandmother swiftly marries her off to an old man with sixty acres. Janie endures two stifling marriages before meeting the man of her dreams, who offers not diamonds, but a packet of flowering seeds…
The morning air was like a new dress. That made her feel the apron tied around her waist. She untied it and flung it on a low bush beside the road and walked on, picking flowers and making a bouquet… From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything.
I read Their Eyes Were Watching God for the first time when I was in the seventh grade. At the time, I thought it was a good story and I liked the way the characters talked. From the way Zora wrote the dialogue, it was easy to “hear” the deep southern accents in my head. It wasn’t until I read the book again later in high school that I realized how poignant this book is. The language of the book elevated my experience reading it to a whole new level. I’m not talking about dialogue, I’m talking about the love language it’s written in. Before I get into that, let’s backtrack for a minute.
If you’ve never read this book, here’s a little background that is better than the summary found on Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Janie is a young, free-thinking, beautiful girl living in the south, post slavery but way before the civil rights movement. Think more The Color Purple, less The Help. She is a girl being raised by an already old and withering woman who desperately needs her granddaughter to get married and get out. She needed someone else to take care of wild child Janie. The thing about Janie is that she didn’t want to be taken care of by just anybody. She lived for love and that was all that mattered. Janie knew the power of real love could overcome anything and that was what she wished for.
Unfortunately, this was an era when idealistic free thinking women could still be handed over to a man with a farm and a way of making money by that woman’s parents or guardian without any input from the woman. That is what happened to Janie. Her first husband, Logan Killicks, a wealthy middle-aged farmer who Nanny believes is perfect for Janie because she’d be in a situation where she’ll have a better life and won’t have to look after white people’s children or clean their homes like Nanny had to. Right off the bat, Janie knows that Logan isn’t the one for her. She detests living in his home and working his fields. She doesn’t care about his farm or the life he is providing for her because Janie does not love Logan. She tries to convince herself that she could possibly love him one day but she is wrong. When she realizes this is almost at the exact time that she meets Joe Starks, a good-looking, sharply dressed stranger who convinces her that he is going to be a big man in the newly developed city of Eatonville, FL. After a fight with Logan, Janie runs off with Logan and the dream he sold her of being rich and well-to-do.
It’s the meeting of Joe Starks that was the turning point of this book for me. Janie’s life really began when she met him. Like so many of us women, we fall for the dreams of a man and we stick by his side and help him on his rise to glory while neglecting and forgetting about what we really need and want. Janie did everything for Joe, who she affectionately called Jody. She loved that man with all her heart but the love Joe had for Janie wasn’t more than the love he had with status and power. When aspects of Janie’s personality began to change…when she became submissive and quiet like the rest of the wives in Eatonville, she was accepted more. She was miserable. Her reaction when Joe died was expected, at least to me. She had her freedom back and she didn’t care about her age or anything. She had money and she had freedom.
Enter Teacake and the greatest love story every told.
Teacake was everything that Logan and Joe were not and he was everything that Janie needed. It is in their love story that you can see the brillance of Zora Neale Hurston.
Janie looked down on him and felt a self-crushing love. So her soul crawled out from its hiding place.
“You’se something tuh make uh man forgit to git old and forgit tuh die.”
Of course he wasn’t dead. He could never be dead until she herself had finished feeling and thinking. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.
When I read this book in high school and realized how brilliant the language of this book is, I felt like I’d grown as a reader, as a person, and as a woman. I became emotionally attached to Janie and Teacake. I fell head first deeply in love with them. From the way that they talked to each to their intimate gazes to the way they cared for one another. Their love was the most real thing I’ve ever read in a book. It wasn’t storybook romance perfect. It was the perfect kind of love that has great highs and low lows. It was in loving Teacake that Janie, even in her late thirties, found herself. She wasn’t silly or flighty. She was strong and passionate and smart and loving. She was a woman in love and not afraid to be in love or let the world know that she was in love.
Their Eyes Were Watching God changed me as a person. It opened my heart and mind as writer. I never had trouble following the dialect. The prose is absolutely beautiful. I read this book at least once a year. I have it on my Kindle, in paperback, and hardcover just in case.