First published in 1937, Their Eyes Were Watching God was a financial success, but it was extremely unpopular among many of HurstonÃ¢Â€Â™s African-American peers. Hurston wrote the novel in what today is knows as Ebonics, and authors such as Richard Wright and Ralph Ellison lambasted it as backwards and Uncle-Tommish, a work that they felt didnÃ¢Â€Â™t help African-American writers gain any kind of serious literary voice or stature.
Compounding the issue was the fact that Hurston was an anti-integrationist Republican and was lauded by whites who shared her beliefs (much in the way that Malcolm XÃ¢Â€Â™s views would later be embraced by White Supremacists). ItÃ¢Â€Â™s possible that today Hurston would simply be considered Afro-centrist, but in her time her keen focus on African-American culture and dialect (she was a highly educated anthropologist and folklorist) caused her to be criticized of Ã¢Â€ÂœghettoizingÃ¢Â€Â the literature of a people that was desperately trying to escape marginalization.
Her work had been long out of print by the time of her death, but thanks to the efforts of Alice Walker and others in the 1970s, Hurston's books received a second chance at life, and since then Their Eyes Were Watching God has been singled out as a particularly astonishing work of art and has finally ascended to its deserved status as one of America's true literary masterpieces.
The Origins of Their Eyes Were Watching GodWritten while Hurston was doing field research in Haiti, Their Eyes Were Watching God takes place in Florida and tells the story of Janie Crawford, in Janie's voice, and follows the main character through three marriages, from the vantage-point of a 40-something Janie who's telling her friend Phoeby about her life so that Phoeby can tell the gossiping community the truth about her. Janie's voice is a startlingly distinct one, comparable to that of Huckleberry Finn or Holden Caulfield. Her story is as equally penetrating as her narrative voice and as the artistry with which Hurston crafts her narrative.
Nature in Their Eyes Were Watching GodAs when Huck and Jim's boat-trip down the Mississippi takes The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn into the most strange and relative territory, the overwhelming reality and surreality of nature suddenly heightens Their Eyes Were Watching God to a near-dreamlike state when the 1928 Okeechobee hurricane hits Florida and subjects all living beings to its mindless and merciless power. Janie and Tea Cake survive, but Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog during the hurricane's hallucinatory aftermath. Janie is forced to shoot him in self-defense when he goes mad and tries to kill her. A subsequent trial acquits her of murder, but afterwards Janie is tired of life and wants to recede from it. She returns to Eatonville and tells Phoeby her story.
Janie's Life And/Or Fatalistic EndingOne of the rarely discussed enigmas of Their Eyes Were Watching God is that after Janie shoots Tea Cake, she holds him in her arms while he madly sinks his teeth into her as he dies. The novel never again discusses this bite, which may or may not have transmitted the disease to Janie. Enough time for the murder trial passes between the bite and Janie's retirement, but the fact that her wound is never addressed anywhere in the novel leaves ambiguity. Does Janie choose to follow Tea Cake in death? Perhaps this novel, a story told to Phoeby (whose name suggests the shedding of light), is Janie's final testament? Or perhaps she is telling her tale without knowing for sure what kind of life or death awaits her.
While this beautifully strange resignation leaves the novel somewhat open-ended, it also encloses Janie's active life in a diamond-like encapsulation: a novel-story whose living facets shine on beyond whatever happens to Janie afterward. And likewise, Their Eyes Were Watching God lives on past Hurston's decline and death to illuminate the generations of readers who will keep this radiant novel alive.