Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God was challenged in Brenstville, Virginia’s Stonewall Jackson High School in 1997 for sexual explicitness. The book was retained on the school’s academically advanced reading list.
I’m glad that the novel was retained in the Virginia case. I read this book over the winter for my M.A. exam, and I’m glad it was on the reading list. Their Eyes Were Watching God is (among other things) one of the most important feminist books I have ever read. The main character, Janie, is forced into a marriage she does not want when she is sixteen. Janie was raised by her grandmother, who decides it is time for Janie to get married because she is becoming a sexual being who is not entirely under adult control anymore. Janie’s grandmother sees her kiss one boy, and then all the grandmother’s fears erupt. Because she can no longer control Janie, she finds a man who will. Hurston writes:
Janies first dream was dead, so she became a woman.
This quotation always haunts me, the idea that you become a woman, controlled by a husband and a household, because you don’t have the opportunity to live out your actual dreams in the “masculine” public sphere. I’m not saying it’s true. But it’s haunting, because there was a time in history when this was true, or at least perceived to be true.
After a few months of marriage, when Janie realizes that she cannot love her husband, she leaves him when another man comes along. But don’t think that Janie is someone who just waits around for a man to help her; after her first marriage, she leaves because she wants to, and the temptation of a new lover is the icing on the cake. But this man turns out to be worse. Janie stays with him, though, until he dies. Once she’s single, she resists the proposals of eligible men in town, until she meets Tea Cake.
Janie’s relationship is scandalous for two reasons: first, he’s younger than she is; second, Janie is fair-skinned while Tea Cake is dark. People are scandalized that a woman who is so close to white ideals of beauty would “lower” herself by getting involved with such a dark man. But for the most part, the two are happy together.
When push comes to shove, we find that Janie really is an independent woman; she’s not bound to the men she marries. In the novel’s climax, Tea Cake has become infected with rabies and, as he’s dying of the disease, attacks Janie. Although she hates to do it, Janie shoots and kills Tea Cake, showing that she values her own life above the life of the dying person trying to kill her.
Janie is a true feminist hero, the kind that should be read about by all young women. In Their Eyes Were Watching God, we see a young woman who is comfortable as a single woman and comfortable in romantic relationships. And yes, there are some sexual scenes, but that sexuality is an important part of the book, because Janie values her own sexual identity, and Hurston celebrates female sexuality. You can’t celebrate sexuality without it appearing in the work somewhere.
Their Eyes Were Watching God was out of print for many years, although it has achieved prominence in the latter half of the 20th century. It’s definitely an important feminist read. And I have barely touched upon the racial themes present in the text as well. The novel is full of important ideas, and deserves a thorough read, no matter who you are.
Crossposted at This is What a Feminist Blogs Like.