Their Eyes Were Watching God: Chapters 1-6
Most "classic" novels are written by white European males, or white males who have just come from Europe to settle in New England. At least, that's the presentation we get in high school, reading Great Expectations or Les Miserables or Lord of the Flies or The Scarlet Letter or, God forbid, The Portrait of an Artist as a Young Man.
The commonness of the prose, the setting, even the stories themselves tends to turn us off to literature, and so we abandon it in college, never reading anything more challenging or cerebral than the Cosmopolitan article promising eight new positions that will drive your man crazy. And therefore, a lot of us never encounter the modern classics -- books that tell a story; books that use recent, local language; books we can understand.
It's especially frustrating for those of us who, shall we say, have a less-than-bleached heritage. Where are our great books? Who is writing the trials and travails of our fellows? Is anyone stepping up to provide our voice?
Once you start looking, you'll probably find it. For black women at the turn of the century, that voice was Zora Neale Hurston.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston tells the story of Janie, an abandoned rape-child whose mother was also a less-than-consentual conception. Janie grows up with her grandmother, a former slave who is determined that this girl with no parents to speak of have a better life than Nanny or her own daughter did. For Nanny, this means settling down young with a well-off older gentleman and living high on the hog. But Janie has other ideas.
The blossoms of Nanny's pear tree carry visions of rapturous love to Janie's sixteen-year-old eyes, visions of being swept away on a current of romance and mutual adoration. This is what she wants, what she feels she deserves. Settling down for financial gain has no glory to her. What matters is love, affection, a partner who cherishes her the way she feels she should be cherished.
Up to where I've read so far, though, Janie's not getting it. The first guy she marries is Nanny's choice, the elder Logan Killicks who owns land and has money. Before long, Joe Starks shows up and sweeps her off her feet with promises, but then gets caught up in his own quest for power and glory as mayor of a new all-black town in Florida. Both of these men want Janie to sit back and look pretty, which is what a woman is good for, right?
At the time Hurston wrote this novel, a female character with as much independence and mental capacity as Janie has was unprecedented, especially for a black woman not long after Emancipation. The portrayal came off as unbelievable to critics at the time, but today Janie's sass and swagger is completely in keeping with the sisters who are doing it for themselves.
A side note: Hurston writes her character's speech phonetically, carrying the sound of the Southern black in her text. As the entire story is essentially a flashback, told by Janie to her best friend after the fact, I almost put the book down, thinking I was going to have to fight dialect for 180 pages. Fortunately, about two pages into Chapter 2, Hurston goes back to the narrative voice and tells Janie's story herself.
What happens next? Does Janie find love? Will Joe realize he's treating her poorly? What's with the dead mule? Hey, how do I know? I haven't read any further myself.
Posted by Endymion at January 18, 2008 09:06 AM