Sunday, July 25, 2010

Their Eyes Were Watching God

I read this book in college and now just finished it for the second time.  I'll be teaching this book in AP Literature this year.

It was beautiful.  That's my first impression.  I remembered bits of the story as I read, but what I felt most when reading this time was how beautiful the language is in this book, especially Hurston's descriptions of nature and our inner selves, our souls, our world that no one can see.  For example:

She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her.  

There are years that ask questions and years that answer.  Janie had had no chance to know things, so she had to ask.  did marriage end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated?  Did marriage compel love like the sun the day?

These bits are beautiful.  Hurston very poetically describes the bad times, too:

So gradually, she pressed her teeth together and learned to hush.  The spirit of the marriage left the bedroom and took to living in the parlor.  It was there to shake hands whenever company came to visit, but it never went back inside the bedroom again.  

Janie stood where he left her...She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her.  Then she went inside there to see what it was.  It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered....she turned her back upon the image where it lay and looked further...

What makes this novel so unique, also, is the juxtaposition of the beautiful narration with the honest, true, voices of the people.  Every bit of dialogue is written as it sounds.  I felt I was right there on the porch, listening to the conversations, yet I also felt a guest inside Janie's heart because I knew all she experienced inside as well.

The main story here is that the book begins with Janie coming home.  She walks by all the towns people who once knew her as Janie Starks.   She's got her hair braid hanging down and she's wearing her overalls.  They whisper and gossip about what happened to her - but none of them really know.  Her showing back up like she just did is mysterious.  So Janie sits down with her old friend Phoeby and tells Phoeby what happened.

From there we go all the way back to Janie's childhood.  She grew up with her grandmother, got married, but not for love, and then ran off with another man, Joe Starks.  From there we watch Janie become a woman.  Sometimes she submits and keeps her thoughts to herself, other times she stands up.  The settings in Florida are vividly described by Hurston and really count as characters to me.

Overall I really enjoyed the book.  I've always been a huge fan of Richard Wright, so it will be interesting to read Native Son with my students and compare the styles and content of these two books by two prominent African-American writers.  It wasn't my favorite novel ever; I didn't hold it to my heart or anything when it was finished, but I was satisfied. 

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