“Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.
“Now, women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.”
—Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
Hurston’s beautiful book, set in a Southern American black community in the early decades of the twentieth century, weaves a culturally specific story into the realm of the universal experience with astonishing naturalism. The cultural specificity of an African American woman’s story draws on an incredibly rich and poignant history; but often superficially limits the readership. Yes, you must push through the Southern African American dialect—but in so doing you discover the lyricism of that dialect. Yes, the reader is taken into the world of a young girl discovering her awakening sexuality—but the reader does not need to be young nor female to hear the tension and wonder in this awakening. Yes, you will recognize images and language from the Old Testament, but you will be illuminated as to how a culture struggling for its identity weaves these fundamental stories into its own history and imagery, revitalizing the stories of the flood and the trials of Jonah.
This review echoes my thoughts about this book:
“To call Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God an “African American feminist classic” may be an accurate statement – it is certainly a frequent statement – but it is a misleadingly narrow and rather dull way to introduce a vibrant and achingly human novel. The syncopated beauty of Hurston’s prose, her remarkable gift for comedy, the sheer visceral terror of the book’s climax, all transcend any label that critics have tried to put on this remarkable work. First published amid controversy in 1937, then rescued from obscurity four decades later, the novel narrates Janie Crawford’s ripening from a vibrant, but voiceless, teenage girl into a woman with her finger on the trigger of her own destiny. Although Hurston wrote the novel in only seven weeks, Their Eyes Were Watching God breathes and bleeds a whole life’s worth of urgent experience.”
- Recommended edition: Their Eyes Were Watching God, by Zora Neale Hurston, with introduction by Zadie Smith; Virago Books (2012); ISBN-13: 978-0860685241
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