Jul 25, 2011

On Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

(This is not a real review, just a bunch of random thoughts on a novel I really liked.)
Source: zoranealehurston.com

You know that amazing feeling when you read the first passage of a novel and you're instantly in love with it? That feeling, almost like "I'm home". How do you NOT love an opening like this:

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. 

..so wonderfully poetic, soul-filling, magical, so oh, I cannot believe how good it is.

This is the story of self discovery of a woman who throughout her life was defined only in relation to her husbands, partially by her skin color (being a descendant of a family where there is much "white blood" --both her mother and grandmother were raped by white men; her skin is fair, and her hair silky smooth). Only in her third marriage did she find what she was looking for (but did she really? The question kept cropping up for me; she is madly in love with him, he treats her as a princess, but somethings wrong there... Tea Cake is not perfect, God knows, but is she purposely closing her eyes before his faults?) 

Source: stateofhbcus.wordpress.com
Probably the most striking feature of this book is language. Beautifully poetic, vernacular language of South American black people. Imagine me being baffled and barely making it through the first dialogue. But soon the music and rhythm of it grew on me, and then I started reading it out loud. (Note: Please, if you can, listen to the audiobook.)  Language is not a tool, but a character in this novel. There's the time when women were hushed to silence, and a woman who has so much to say... There's the group of porch-sitters whose only purpose is to wear out your chairs gossiping, and there's the woman who keeps silent when she is most expected to talk. (The courtroom scene, when she is supposed to defend herself after Tea Cakes death? Defend herself from nasty rumors? I found it interesting that in the former, we don't hear her directly, but only  Hurston's retelling; in the second case it is her best friend who serves as an emissary to get the truth out there. Why? Is it, as they said, a failure to speak up, even though "she found her voice"? I don't believe that. Is it some silent rebel? You didn't want to hear me, now you're not worth to hear the truth from my mouth? "She didn't fear dead; she feared being misunderstood." Is it the reason why the novel was ignored for thirty years? As Mary Helen Washington points out in the foreword, it was dismissed because she didn't write about segregation in the manner of the social realism, it was not bitter enough, not showing the pains of being black in a white world. Then again, I keep going back to Annette Kolodny's essay on rereading women's literature that opened a whole new perspective for me. Was she misunderstood by the prevailing male criticism? It was said that its sole purpose is "to make white folks laugh. The novel, he said, “carries no theme, no message, no thought,” but exploited those “quaint” aspects of Negro life that satisfied the tastes of a white audience..." 

  Did the misunderstand you, Zora?
"...the quieter voice of a woman searching for self-realization could not, or would not, be heard."

It's not easy for me to write about this novel without turning it into an essay...again. These are the major points I take from this novel. I'm sure I've forgotten something, it's been three months since I read it. We had a Fullbright scholarship professor from Radford who made this class such an enjoyable and inspiring experience, more than literature class I ever took. Thank you for that :)

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