“She had an inside and an outside now
and suddenly she knew how not to mix them.”
― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God
There's a reason this is on virtually every "classic" list you can find. I could fill a hundred pages with nothing but gloriously human quotes and still not convey the beauty or truth found between the covers of this book.
I've set a goal to both read more "classics" and reread the classics I encountered when I was far too young to appreciate them as I enter my older years. I first read Their Eyes Were Watching God when I was ten (I think. I didn't keep a reading journal in those days, but my old copy seems to indicate something like ten.) I read it then because my neighborhood friend, Becky, who was a few years older than me, told me it was "great." I don't know if she really thought that or just was parroting someone older than her, but I wanted to be Becky, so I read it and readily agreed. I didn't let on, but I didn't really get why it was so great.
Luckily my own plan to reread classics coincided nicely with one of my book clubs. So I reread this in January. Coming back forty years later, I can now agree wholeheartedly with Becky. But it's so much more than great.
The most special part of Zora Neale Hurston's writing is that she takes subjects our society wants to segment into "good" or "bad" and shows us how they are simply human ― thereby complicated. Subjects like infidelity, domestic abuse, killing for self-protection, killing as an act of mercy, colorism, white savior complex, poverty, female pride, female submission, moral relativism... You name a tough topic, and Hurston handles it in this book with a deft touch rarely found in today's world. Luckily we find it in more literature than regular life.
She handles all of these topics and more with a grace and kindness in her writing that comes off the page. Reading this book has, I think, made me a more generous person. (Perhaps I should schedule it in regularly.)
I can't go through all of the situations portrayed in the book. I'm not as good a writer as Zora Neale Hurston, so it would just be ugly. All I can do is implore everyone to read this book, probably more than once. You may find it hard to get past the phonetic dialect. I got past it quickly by reading aloud to start. Within a few passages, I could hear the words without needing to read aloud, and I had no problem with the phonetic spellings. (This is a trick I learned years ago when I read Trainspotting.)
One sad note about this novel and all of Ms. Hurston's writing is because it didn't fall within the political standards of the time, her works all went quickly out of print and stayed that way until the 1970s when thanks to the concerted efforts of Alice Walker and others, including her biographer Robert Hemenway, her books came back into circulation. Zora Neale Hurston died in poverty and was buried in an unmarked grave, despite two Guggenheim awards and a prize-winning autobiography among her many other literary and artistic feats. Alice Walker found her grave and marked it.
Recently, upon another reread of another classic, Wuthering Heights, I commented to someone one a GR group that while I don't have to like every character to enjoy a book, I do reserve the right to judge them. What's so amazing about this story and nearly every character in it is no matter what they do, they are so fully realized that I could empathize with and understand nearly everything they did and said. So while I may not respect the choices of every woman who walks away from marriage into another, I felt no animosity or judgement when Janie walked out on one man to marry another. I felt no moral outrage at anything anyone did, and this includes some very touchy subjects.
I hurt for the characters and felt the angst that must have accompanied their actions or choices, but I never found myself truly upset with any of them for long. Zora Neale Hurston must have been a remarkable woman to be able to write these very real, very strong, very fallible and very sympathetic characters.
This one is definitely worth a read or ten.