Book Review: Their Eyes Were Watching God

I just finished reading another book that Kris handed down to me: Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. Different books hit you in different ways, some with their plots, some with their characters, some with their settings. Hurston’s book grabs you with an astonishing use of language itself. Hurston tells the life story of a black woman in the early 20th century in Florida. The narrative changes back and forth between first person and third person as the tale is told by Janie and about Janie as she becomes emancipated from the grandmother that raised her and from the men that enter her life. The book was published in 1937 and is consciously feminist in tone. My favorite quote occurs early as Janie’s grandmother is telling Janie her fears for Janie’s future:

Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able to 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 the 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.

Two other aspects especially resonated with me. Our time in Sri Lanka has reminded us that there are many forms of the English language. This year I had many reminders that I had a heavy American accent that was difficult for Sri Lankans to understand. When Kris volunteered in the English language teaching unit of the Faculty of Science, she got some hints that “real” English was what they spoke in England. She was given a pass, however, because most of her students would be studying in the US, not in England. This caused us to revisit the question of whether or not there was one “correct” English or whether there are multiple “correct” English-es, even if they are sometimes mutually unintelligible.

Hurston lets her characters speak in their own dialect. Is it a “correct” English even if it is not American standard English?  The wonderful, vivid imagery conjured up by her character’s speech makes a case that such expressive language must be, in some sense, legitimate. Here is an example: Janie has returned to town after leaving with the love of her life. She has told her best friend the story of her journey and now tells her friend of her indifference to what the townsfolk think of her.

“Ah know all dem sitters-and-talkers gointuh worry they guts into fiddle strings till dey find out whut we been talkin’ ’bout. Dat’s all right, Pheoby, tell ’em. Dey gointuh make ‘miration ’cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell ’em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”

“Lawd!” Pheoby breathed out heavily, “Ah done growed ten feet higher from jus’ listenin’ tuh you, Janie. Ah ain’t satisfied wid mahself no mo’. Ah means tuh make Sam take me fishin’ wid him after this. Nobody better not criticize you in mah hearin’.”

“Now, Pheoby, don’t feel too mean wid de rest of ’em ’cause dey’s parched up from not knowin’ things. Dem meatskins is got tuh rattle tuh make out they’s alive. Let them consolate theyselves wid talk. ‘Course, talkin’ don’t amount tuh a hill uh beans when yuh can’t do nothin’ else. And listenin’ tuh dat kind uh talk is jus’ lak openin’  yo’ mouth and lettin’ de moon shine down yo’ throat. It’s uh known fact, Pheoby, you got tuh go there tuh know there. Yo’ papa and yo’ mama and nobody else can’t tell yuh and show yuh. Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

The second resonance has to do with my personal history. When I went to the University of Chicago in 1972, they were just opeing up their core curriculum to subjects not found in “the Great Books.” They gave students a choice and I ran from the Great Books with a vengeance. I’m not saying that was the right choice, but it was the choice I made at the time. So my first year Humanities sequence was a quarter of classical philosophy and two quarters of black literature. I enjoyed both very much and learned a great deal from both. Reading Richard Wright, W.E.B. Du Bois, Ralph Ellison, et al., helped me make sense of my encounter with the South Side of Chicago. But there was no mention of Hurston. So now I learn that Hurston’s wonderful stories were a victim of politics and it was not much later than 1972 that Huston was “re-discovered.” So, it was a bit ironic to me that the edition I read of Their Eyes Were Watching God” is obviously one created for use in the college classroom.

Recommended, primarily for the delightful use of the English language.




  1. Kara said,

    July 2, 2009 at 1:34 pm

    Lovely, Tim. It’s been 15 or 20 years since I read “Their Eyes Were Watching God” and I’d forgotten what a good book it is. Will have to pick it up again. Good thing we’re visiting Powell’s Books in Portland next week!

    Your comments on “real” or “legitimate” language are insightful, and can be extrapolated to *many* aspects of culture that we often deem “right” or “wrong” but are really neither — just expressive of a particular mindset and understanding of the world. A friend of mine commented some time ago that we save our worst punishments for heretics — that is to say, those we deem “traitors” in some fashion, to language, to culture, to table manners, and so on. If someone comes in from “outside” and doesn’t behave “properly” we tend to be far more forgiving than if someone “should” know our version of “correct behavior,” although A) in reality, that person may never have come into contact with it, given socio-economic, geographic, and racial/ethnic divisions, and B) the selection of proper behavior, language, and so on within a culture is largely determined fairly arbitrarily by those with power and privilege. Who then use it (mostly unconsciously) to perpetuate the power and privilege of their “group.”

    Who knew insomnia turns me into some kind of lecturing freak?

    • Tim said,

      July 12, 2009 at 9:39 pm

      If insomnia turns you into a lecturing freak, it is time you became a professor!

  2. Anna said,

    July 3, 2009 at 6:36 am

    My years in New Orleans fractured my use of English uniquely. When I then spent some time in Denmark, I was reminded routinely by my Danish host of my variances from the beautiful “Queen’s English” he learned growing up in Vjele after World War II. I finally, in frustration, explained that I wasn’t speaking English, I was speaking American. He stopped after that but I’m sure he continued to disapprove. When we set up artificial expectations we are only setting ourselves up to be disappointed. Hope your travels are interesting and fun.

  3. John Pepple said,

    July 31, 2009 at 6:32 pm

    Well, I’ve been studying Arabic for several years now, and I would hate to see English descend into the depths that Arabic has. Here’s the situation. There is a formal Arabic that is taught in the classroom, and there are dialects used on the street that are rather far from the formal language. What is worse is that these dialects are pretty much mutually incomprehensible. The word for “now,” for example, is “al’an” in the formal language, “dilwa’tee” in Egyptian, “Hella'” in Levantine, etc. I talked to some Palestinians in Israel who said they could not understand people in Sudan, and I’m sure they would have an even worse time with people from Morocco. No one uses the formal language in conversation, and although theoretically it could be used by educated people from different dialects, I think in practice they often resort to English or French.

    There was a website that used to exist that talked about this problem and gave examples. One was of a 10-year-old Tunisian girl who meets some girls her age at a summer camp. When she gets home, she wants to write to them, but finds it hard to do so. Formal Arabic is used for writing, but it sounds too cold for a chatty letter. The local dialect is never written. She can use French with one of the other girls, since both of them have been learning it, but with another girl who doesn’t know French, this won’t work. She tries writing to this girl in the formal language, but the correspondence dies quickly.

    I’ve heard that for Arabic speakers, the language they learn in school is so different from what they learn at home and on the street that they must take Arabic grammar as a subject for all four years that they are in college.

    I’m very thankful that the language my parents spoke at home was not significantly different from the language used in school.

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