The PHS's new monthly column, #OurRomanticHeritage, takes a look at romance novels that have inspired and influenced writers today. Piper Huguley is taking on Zora Neale Hurston's seminal Their Eyes Were Watching God.
From time to time, I get chastised by a student when she asks why we aren’t reading Their Eyes Were Watching God in class instead of that other Hurston book I forced them to read. I’ll bite back any judgements I may have about their choice of independent reading material and instead I’ll respond: “Because, that is a book that any young woman, let alone a Black young woman, should read on her own. And I’m not talking about watching the movie of it, either.” For, Their Eyes Were Watching God is about how a young Black woman discovers herself. Therefore, to my mind, the book should be one a young woman discovers for herself.
Besides, I would be extremely embarrassed to read the infamous paragraph about the fertilization of the pear tree aloud. My goodness, it’s basically pornographic, and from the start it’s where Zora Neale Hurston lets her readers know just what kind of story they are in for.
Their Eyes Were Watching God is all about affirming the feelings of a young woman who is not at all confirmed or affirmed in her local society. Witness how everyone has something to say about Janie, her enticing rope of hair, the way her firm backside moves, those rounded, perky breasts she’s been blessed with, not to mention the way she doesn’t bother to care about what people say about her. No one, male or female, can keep their eyes from Janie, nor can they stop gossiping about her lack of concern for the social graces or the clothing she is supposed to wear to be acceptable. No, this book is all about a woman who has a story to tell about what she has been thorough, but the story isn’t for just anyone in the town.
The theme of the book is inherent in the way Hurston tells Janie’s story. Hurston could care less about writing rules and how you aren’t supposed to write a whole lot of backstory. This story is all backstory and you all are gone deal. Janie is here to tell her story to her friend. How can anyone forget the multilayered meaning of “My tongue is in mah friend’s mouth” as both double entendre and as Janie’s belief in the importance of her own life story as rich enough, and meaningful enough to be relieved of it one more time by telling Phoebe all it so that Janie might be relieved of her pain.
Her pain includes retelling how she was forced to marry some old loser dude because her grandmother wants her to be safe and of how she supposedly improves her lot by going on to be the wife of Mayor Jody Starks. The pressures of having to be Mrs. Mayor chafe rebel Janie. Her headwrap is only one symbol of how her spirit is held captive by her unfortunate marriage.
Through defiance and self-revelation, Janie seeks to throw off caring and that headwrap, to live her life in her way. When she is left a widow in the most horrid (and questionable) way by Jody Starks, Mrs. Mayor gets herself entangled in a love affair with the languidly handsome, much younger Teacake. Janie abandons her house and her money to follow him—because it is what pleases her. Pleasing herself is what matters the most.
Whenever I read the Teacake part, I grab myself a plate of teacakes and remind myself that Hurston wrote this novel in seven weeks in the wake of the end of her most torrid love affair with Percival Punter. She wrote her most seminal work when someone offered her a place to stay in Haiti for seven weeks. So she said goodbye to New York City and to her handsome young thing, who just wanted his Snookums to stay shacked up with him in Harlem and cook him his collard greens.
Now, any self-respecting Black woman knows that cooking collard greens is labor intensive. What Hurston’s sweet young thing really was asking for was for her to put her anthropology degree away and put her writing ambitions on the back burner along with the greens pot and center him and his needs in her life. So, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, we get the slow, anguished death of Janie’s beloved Teacake.
What better way to grieve the death of her relationship with Percival (who had some skills, obvs), than to kill Teacake off, in a slow and torturous way. If you haven’t read the book (or heard Ruby Dee read it), I’ll spare you the gory details, but if you think revelation is a spoiler, you should have known this was coming. The love pairing of Janie and Teacake is no romance. Their Eyes Were Watching God is a guidebook of how a woman comes to love and accept herself.
Janie’s journey is a textbook of what can happen when a woman puts herself last on the list. Janie must embrace the astonishing notion that she can be anything, do anything, love anyone she might choose, as long as she loves herself first. Janie reminds me that in my romances, all of my heroines should be finished Janies. Her story provides the crucial evidence that learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all is the biggest reason why this book is a crucial read in Our Romantic Heritage.
Have you read Their Eyes Were Watching God? Tell us what you think of Zora Neale Hurston's classic, and share other books that you think form #OurRomanticHeritage with us on Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook.
Piper's latest release, A Champion's Heart, is out now. For more information about her and her writing, check out her website and follow her on Facebook and Twitter.