Home » General » A Bitter-Sweet, Heart-Warming Tale

African-American author and feminist, Alice Walker, once remarked that there was no book more important to her than Zora Neale Hurston’s novel “Their Eyes Were Watching God”.

Indeed, Alice Walker made it her lifelong endeavour to ensure that Zora Neale Hurston’s legacy and her contribution to African-American literature was put on a higher pedestal than the lowly status previously accorded to her.

It is therefore not a mere coincidence that Alice Walker’s “Colour Purple” bears similarities with “Their Eyes Were Watching God” in the exploration and examination of issues affecting African-American women.

The first sentence of Hurston’s novel “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board,” may to a reader sound very contradictory given the fact that the book is about a woman’s search for her authentic self and for real love.

However, as the novel progresses one realises that the reference to man is one of the many shrewd manifestations of Hurston’s enormous talents in rendering a world complete with its codes and disciplines within a few sentences and then placing in that world her vision of how her people – the women and men of her own creation, her characters – function and triumph, and survive.

Soon the reader realises that the ship is just a metaphor as the heroine Janie Crawford appears seemingly on her singular journey all along with her dreams “mocked to death by Time”,’ but does not relent.

First published in 1937, “Their Eyes Were Watching God” is said to have been written in just seven weeks in Haiti at the time when the author was undertaking some anthropological research.

It is the story of a 40-year-old woman Janie Crawford who returns home to Eatonville after being away for a year.

There is a lot of gossip in the town with people speculating why she has come back without Tea Cake, her much younger husband.

Despite attempts by Janie Crawford to brief her friend Phoeby what she has gone through, her friend does not feel the need to brief the townspeople because even if they hear the true version they will still recreate their own in order to sweeten the gossip.

Janie Crawford’s story mirrors that of the author in that both have parental heritage derived from slavery. Hurston’s parents were former slaves just like Janie’s grandmother was a slave who had been raped by her owner and later gave birth to Janie’s mother.

When Janie’s mother was 17, she was raped by her teacher, which led to the birth of Janie.

Like a generational curse afflicting the whole family, Janie’s mother took to alcohol to ease her worries and stayed out all night and eventually ran off, leaving Janie to be raised by her grandmother.

The psychological trauma of slavery haunts Janie’s grandmother as she remains subservient to white people well after slavery had ended. She works for wealthy white people and is never free to think or act according to her own accord. Her only wish is to see Janie marrying someone financially sound and provide things that Janie never had.

“Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up.

“He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different wid you. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd!”

Contrary to her grandmother’s expectations, Janie has just discovered her sexuality and refuses to be married off to an old man as she has no love for him and she is not ready to get married.

The three marriages that she goes through fails to wither her vivacious spirit but comes out of it much more learned about life, love and in the end finds contentment in who she is as a person.

“Their Eyes Were Watching God” is masterly crafted in that the characters get to converse in their authentic dialect. The story highlights the lives of black women, their happiness, sorrows, love, fears, frustrations and feelings of power. Janie Crawford’s story is bitter-sweet and at the same time heart-warming. This is a story of a woman who takes fate into her own stride and finally finds love.

Source : The Herald

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