Why did the author write the novel LET THEIR EYES BE WATCHING GOD as a story that is told by the protagonist, Janie, to her best friend Phoeby? Why didn't the author just tell the story as it happened?
One reason offered by one of twelve attendees of the Montrose Great Books book club at our discussion last night on Thursday, October 1, 2009 at Houston Freed-Montrose Library was that since the story was about Janie finding her own voice, it was appropriate to have that happen as she told the story. Even in the courtroom scene at the end of the novel, her testimony and voice wasn't recorded in the book. It was pointed out that some of the revelations uncovered as the story unfolded might not have been uncovered during the novel if Janie hadn't of had the benefit of time and more maturity to discover later exactly what self-revelations she really experienced. Her journey in the novel "reframes her whole life" as someone said and this can best be understood with hindsight. This seems to support a very significant theme: that introspection and looking inward is a very good thing in order to find happiness and self-satisfaction and even more importantly to find yourself and your identity.
Some pointed out that there was more than one narrator or that Janie wasn't really the narrator. That there was an omniscient narrator even though at the beginning it is explained that Janie is telling the story to Phoeby. For example in Palm Beach after the storm when Tea Cake was "kidnapped" by two men with rifles and ordered to help dig graves for dead bodies. Janie wasn't there but the reader hears the details about the events along with Tea Cake's frustration about not being able to get back to Janie. No one felt this was confusing, just "poetic license" more or less.
One of the first topics to surface as a result of a contribution from an attendee and not as the answer to a question was the opinion voiced by one person that the book was an extremely derogatory portrayal of black culture. The discussion got very animated with nearly everyone in the room disagreeing except the person who voiced the opinion originally. What is rather amusing is that initially, I also disagreed and didn't think the portrayal was so negative but as we ended the discussion, I remembered my opinion that the portrayal of the black people at least at the end of the book during the trial WAS very negative. Funny how opinions and comments can come full circle with disagreement at first and then sometimes followed by agreement later. Discussions are always very dynamic and can be quite a learning experience, they are for me anyway. And as I've said numerous times here and at our meetings, there is no requirement that we all agree.
We talked about the symbol of the Pear Tree. On page 11, Janie remarks as she sits under a pear tree: "Oh to be a pear tree, any tree in bloom!" This would be much more desirable to her than as she goes on to say later, the "things" that her grandmother wants to offer her via a marriage to Logan Killicks, a very old and relatively prosperous landowner and widower.
Why was Janie so hostile to her grandmother about the marital arrangement? Couldn't she see that her grandmother loved her and wanted what was best for her? Some thought maybe it was because she felt like she was "sold to the highest bidder". Others thought she basically was in a loveless marriage and once she realized this, her desperation was understandable, especially given her young age.
The book, as everyone agreed, is a "coming of age" story and Janie's drive away from the "things" her grandmother wanted for her becomes stronger and stronger as time passes as reflected in passages such as on page 89 where she explains that she is "getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people".
Some thought her statement on page 89, where she says "she hated her grandmother" (after she had time to think after her second marriage) was too strong, and not understandable. Others in our discussion reminded us of Janie's words: that her grandmother, Nanny, had taken the horizon and tied "it about her granddaughter's neck tight enough to choke her." "Horizon" is a strong theme and is brought up again in the end symbolizing freedom and independence and the search for ones identity plus the satisfaction of having found and strengthened ones identity with more opportunity always being just out of reach. Her grandmother had been an obstacle and almost prevented Janie from her self-discovery, something she valued more highly than anything. even her blood-relationship to her grandmother who had raised her because her own mother disappeared.
It was noted in our discussion that the fact that Janie didn't have children allowed her freedom that she otherwise wouldn't have had. Some thought no matter how much she loved Teacake, (the love of her life) she wouldn't have gone off with him had she had children to take care of. Also, if she had had children, she probably would have understood her grandmother better.
We moved on in the discussion to the subject of Jodie her second husband who everyone thought was very domineering. Despite this negative trait, most in our group didn't think of him as a bad guy. He was an exceptional leader for the town, though his pinnacle of success seemed to be when he had unequivocal power with no threat from anyone else. As someone in our discussion described him, he was a "big fish in a little pond" and seemed just fine with that and didn't seek other channels to try to improve himself or his town. In other words, his horizons were basically limited despite his initial ambitions when he first met Janie. He was of course flawed and for cultural reasons, perhaps reasons embedded in the black culture during this time (1937), his attitude toward women and how a marital relationship should be was seriously flawed also. It was commented that Janie might as well have been a slave. She was in yet another loveless marriage that as passages in the book explain, she didn't feel she had any other options. This low point basically showed that she still had a long way to go on her journey in finding herself.
I reported some biographical information at the beginning of the discussion regarding the fact that this book by Zora Neal Hurston was vilified by many in the black community including most famously by Richard Wright, author of NATIVE SON because there was no focus on rascism and on the anger of the black community. When we next talked about the theme of sexism in the book, most if not all thought that any anger in the tone of the book was focused more on the sexism as demonstrated by the black men in the little community of Eatonville, Florida where Jodie was mayor and where Janie was expected to be on a pedestal above the common black folk rather than on racism by whites.
We noted there were a few negative descriptions of white people, especially right after the storm but for the most part, most negativity was aimed at men. Even at the trial at the end of the book, the author is very generous with the white folks who side with Janie and not very generous with the black folks who unfairly turn out against Janie until all is finally forgiven. For me anyway, it became clear that the author was ahead of her time regarding the issue of sexism and that spokesmen for the black culture who were all male at the time held her accusations of sexism against her preventing them from being able to appreciate the quality of her writing.
Included at the beginning of the story were details about Janie's growing-up and about the fact that Janie's mother was half white. Janie's light and somewhat Caucasian features with straight hair contributed to Janie's isolation. As a result, she wasn't accepted so easily by blacks and of course not whites. She was accepted however by Mrs Turner, a black woman Janie met while traveling in Florida to the "muck" with her third husband, Teacake. Janie didn't welcome the friendship. Mrs. Turner was another example of the author being critical of her own race. Mrs. Turner felt herself better than most of the other blacks who unlike herself did not have Caucasian facial features and hence Mrs. Turner was a clear example of internalized racism.
This character was part of the broader picture that the author paints regarding the black community. That there are parts of this community that are dysfunctional, including sexism and their own brand of racism that contributes to the reader having a sense as described by one person in our group that we are getting a view of an anthropological study and I couldn't agree with him more. This best described what I liked best about the book, a view of the black community that I have never been shown before so eloquently. Many in our group found the story very upbeat and for some even "joyous". Just as there was negativity in this "anthropological study", there was also a lot of positive community connections in Eatonville as well as in the last part of the book that covers the time Janie spends in "the muck" with the "real love of her life" named Teacake whom she met after her second husband died.
We also talked about
- the major theme about loneliness by women who are isolated in loveless marriages including talk about the other women in Eatonville and their lives
- the style of the writing and whether it was similar to a Harlequin romance novel (most didn't think so but not all)
- the use of colloquialisms and Black dialect
- whether Janie was a risk-taker or more of an adventurer (the latter most agreed)
- the physical violence Janie experienced at the hands of both Jodie and Teacake
- the hurricane as a metaphor for what (some thought love as powerful as that between Teacake and Janie, others thought a God similar to that worshipped by native American Indians, i.e. nature)
- what kind of religion did Janie follow? (several mentions of God in the book)
- why the book was called THEIR EYES WERE WATCHING GOD (one interesting comment, that titles sometimes are more for selling a book than for having meaning)
We ran out of time and didn't talk as much as we should have on the topics of:
- the death of Janie's second husband, Jodie
- Teacake and Janie's marriage, and
- what kind of person Teacake was,
- their experience working as field hands in the "muck" along with
- the topic of the trial at the end of the book.
We continued discussion to some extent afterwards at The Black Labrador restaurant which is adjacent to the library where we meet but were unable to come to any conclusion about the significance of the author being so positive about the white people supporting Janie's position at the trial and negative about the black people who did not.
As we went around the circle as we usually do at the end of every discussion, inviting final comments and judgments, most of the attendees enjoyed the book. Not all of them "loved" the book, some liked it better after the discussion, some liked it better before the discussion and others found the book to be one of the best selections made by the Houston Books On the Bayou
city wide reading initiative in recent history. Thanks to the Houston Public Library.
Looking forward to our discussion next month, Thursday, November 5th at 6pm at Houston Freed Montrose Library. The book we will discuss is HARDTIMES
by Charles Dickens. See www.houstonbookclubs.org/Montrose/
for more info.