I recently finished reading Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston, and I was asked by someone if I thought this was a good book?
The short answer is no. I don’t think it’s a good book.
And here’s why: Hurston sends conflicting messages about the meaning of love, marriage, and sacrifice. She gets it all wrong, and I’ll do my best to briefly explain it below.
It might be helpful to begin with a simple definition of love, for love is not an emotion, as Hurston would have one believe. Emotional “love” is flitting; it is changeable and passing. Oh the agony one will find in marriage if one doesn’t understand this! Rather, to love is to will the good of another. It is to die to oneself. It is selflessness. Likely, most of you readers already know this.
Janie Crawford, the main character in Hurston’s 1937 novel, does not think of love in this way. Rather, she wants to feel love, which is why her first marriage fails. In fact, she simply walks away from that marriage, literally with another man, whom she then marries a day later.
In other words, Janie has become a polygamist, and not a word is said about it. Apparently this doesn’t bother her as she steadily marches onward with this new man. The interesting thing is, however, that she also begins to detest this new husband very quickly. A good portion of the novel details her reluctance to help him and her lamenting the fact that he doesn’t understand her. She doesn’t want to help him; she wants to do her own thing, and fortunately for her, he dies after a few years, leaving her with a lot of money.
What to do then? All the men in the town are eager to marry her, as she’s beautiful and rich, but Janie senses the shallowness of this. Within a year of her husband’s death, however, she runs off with another man, whom she marries. This man, she claims to love deeply, even though he steals money from her, lies to her, beats her, and cheats on her.
Now, I get that Hurston may simply want to paint an accurate picture of this time period–this culture. In fact, that would be the merit of this book. For those who are looking to understand the conflict, thoughts, and feelings of turn-of-the-century black Americans, perhaps this would indeed be a good book.
But I can’t recommend it because there’s a blending of good and bad. Sometimes good things are seen as bad. For example, it would be good to help one’s spouse out regardless of one’s feelings, but Janies does not think so. Furthermore, sometimes bad things are seen as good, such as when Janie breaks her marriage covenant.
Any book that celebrates bad things as good or good things as bad, without any redemption in the end, I can’t recommend.
Language and Beauty
Lastly, I want to address the issue of language. This novel is written almost exclusively in a rough dialect coming from the south, which can be difficult to read. Indeed, writing in such a manner can be a risky thing for an author, as you may limit your audience to only those who are willing to slog through it. (If I hadn’t wanted to read this novel for a local book club, I never would have forced myself to finish it. It wasn’t worth it.)
Then secondly, poor language becomes dangerous to those readers who may be immersed in such a culture. It drags one down, and after hours of reading in such a way, one finds oneself thinking in these words–even speaking aloud in that language, and that language is not beautiful. It is far from uplifting. And there’s something to be said for beautiful, uplifting, and intelligent language. Truly an author who has mastered the English language is a pleasure to read. I’m thinking of Charlotte Bronte. Each time I read something of hers, I can’t help but to marvel at her vocabulary and her ability to express so well the human heart.
Let me illustrate this with an example of a different nature. Many modern churches are built in a “low” way, lacking what St. Thomas Aquinas requires for beauty–namely, clarity, proportion, and integrity. Without getting into details and going directly to my point, there is a difference between worshipping in a pole barn and worshipping in a magnificent gothic cathedral. Any child could tell you so. One is inspiring, and one is not.
Books can be the same way. This is why I would be very wary of a novel done completely in the style of a pole barn–rough, ugly, and utilitarian. What message are you conveying? It had better be clear. Truth had better be Truth. If one wants to show a picture of something ugly, it had better have a clear purpose. There had better be redemption in the end. Indeed, there are authors who have mastered writing in slang or local dialects–I’m thinking of Charles Dickens–so I know it can be done well. But given Hurston’s confused manner of addressing such things as love, marriage, and sacrifice, I think she fails in her endeavor.