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Their Eyes Were Watching God
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Group Reads Archive > February 2017 - Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
Welcome to the February group read of...

Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Bronwyn (nzfriend) | 651 comments I read this last September so I won't be rereading, but hopefully I remember enough that I'll still be able to participate a bit! :)

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
I've read the first two chapters but, I confess, I'm finding the style of writing - with lots of dialect speech - very slow going...does it get easier?

Bronwyn (nzfriend) | 651 comments I listened to it, but did have problems with dialect still, so I could see reading it might be difficult. I'll say I understood the story more as I went on though, so by default I guess it got easier, but I still wasn't always completely sure what was happening or who was who.

Roisin | 729 comments I have not read, so might give it a go. Just finished reading Ralph Ellison's stories. Some of those had characters speaking a local dialect. Ok though...

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Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments So far, have just read the foreword and introduction from two people who just loved the book but I was afraid they were going to tell me everything that was in it. I know that the author had been involved in the WPA America Eats project in the '30s.

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
Jan, what was the WPA America Eats Project?

Heather | 16 comments Started this yesterday, two chapters in. I was finding the dialect a bit tough until I started reading those sections out loud. I might try listening to the audiobook in conjunction (that way I can knit at the same time!)

message 9: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 1002 comments Mod
January went by so fast! I'm going to run to the library after work and check this out, but I may not get to it until this weekend.

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Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Ally wrote: "Jan, what was the WPA America Eats Project?"

During the Depression the Works Progress Administration ( put writers and artists (among other people) to work public works. The murals we see in most older post offices were done by the artists. The writers project sent writers to cover the country. I recently read one book, The Food of a Younger Land: The WPA's Portrait of Food in Pre-World War II America, which reminded me that I was reading another book, America Eats!: On the Road with the WPA - the Fish Fries, Box Supper Socials, and Chitlin Feasts That Define Real American Food. They discuss a lot of foods, most of which are, I think, out of fashion now. I remember that it talks a lot about Brunswick Stew, a dish I don't think I have ever had. A lot of these foods are/were done at fundraisers, events at the VFW or what have you. Things that are done for large groups. But it is very entertaining.

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
Thanks Jan.

I've had another go this morning and I think I'm getting the hang of the language and I'm starting to enjoy the story.

...if you don't want to know hat happens in chapters 1 to 4 stop reading now and come back later!

That first chapter seems to be the present day and from chapter 2 its a flashback following the story that Janie tells about her life.

I've just finished chapter 4 and so far Janie has married Logan Killicks because her grandma thinks it will bring her security but Janie doesn't love him and has romantic ideas about what it is that she really wants. When Jody comes along she seems to think he offers something a little closer to what she's been dreaming of and is willing to take a punt on leaving Logan and going off with Jody on a new adventure.

I felt a little sorry for Logan - he seems to know that he won't hold onto Janie for very long but is upset when she voices his fears so he clearly thinks something of her...perhaps it was a mistake to ask her to plough fields and shovel manure!

I'm beginning to really love the narrated portions of the story - the language and imagery is just beautiful. Things like...

"She knew things that nobody had ever told her. For instance, the words of the trees and the wind. She often spoke to falling seeds and said, 'Ah hope you fall on soft ground', because she had heard seeds saying that to each other as they passed."


"From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom."

I love language that draws from nature, it feels very hopeful ( far!)

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod the way...Janie was already married to Logan and then was married to Jody seemingly without any concept of a divorce being needed. Do the usual societal conventions not apply?

Bronwyn (nzfriend) | 651 comments I think it's like how easy it used to be to just change identities. If no one knows you and so no one says anything, you could probably change your name, marry, whatever. Though I don't know the actual logistics of it all. And I'm sure it wouldn't be legal if it ever did come up.

Bronwyn (nzfriend) | 651 comments And I do agree with how the imagery is. I didn't really remember, but the quotes you pulled reminded me. :)

message 15: by Jennifer W (new)

Jennifer W | 1002 comments Mod
I read chapters 1 and 2 over the weekend. I was struck by how worldly Janie seemed in chapter 1 and then how naïve she had been as a girl in chapter 2. I'm loving the writing. The dialect puts me immediately in the south in the characters lives, and then the expositions by the author are beautifully worded.

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
I've just read chapter 5...what a great chapter. At first I was really rooting for Jody in his attempts to improve the town by investing in more land, building roads, a store and putting up a streetlight and talking about setting up a post office.

I like that this is told from the point of view of the characters with no concept of what 'the white men' might make of such an undertaking - there was no mention of Jody encountering any difficulty in buying more land from Eaton for example and it made me wonder how such a negotiation might have gone.

I was interested in this extract...

"Us colored folks is too envious of one 'nother. Dat's how come us don't git no further than us do. Us talks about de white man keepin' us down! Shucks! He don't have tuh. Us keeps our own selves down."

Is that true? surely there is a big element of a culture, politics, government etc. dominated by wealthy white men that makes it more difficult than is needed. Whether the oppression is race related (as it is here), or gender related, Disability or LGBT related etc. That legacy surely continues even now and we do get caught up in its limitations despite our best efforts.

As the chapter progressed Jody lost me when he stopped Janie making a speech and then forced her to put her hair in rags...I'm getting the feeling that Janie's hair is important in this story as it's being mentioned a few times.

Roisin | 729 comments What an interesting discussion.

I have copy a copy but won't start until next week.

Roisin | 729 comments Some interesting thoughts and questions have been posed.

While looking for reviews on this book, I came across this:

message 19: by Ally (last edited Feb 10, 2017 09:57AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
Thanks for that Roisin its a good review.

Chapter 6 is long! - it took some reading but was good and funny too.

My thoughts about Jody are being complicated - he continues to exert coercive control over Janie which angers and disgusts me but at the same time he does show love in his own way. Buying the mule after he overhears Janie muttering that the animal was overworked just so that he could let it enjoy a retirement of sorts was a very touching gesture. I suppose that this is a very 'real' approach as we are not either wholly bad or wholly good.

I like the way that town life plays out on the porch of the store and how the great oral tradition plays out in Janie's love of the stories. The debate of nurture over nature is surely one that we've all had at one time or another!

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
I've just finished chapter 8 and things have taken a sad turn.

Janie seems to understand that when Jody insults her it is a deflection due to his own insecurities. How many of us recognise that!

Riley Gardner (rileygardner) | 13 comments Oh, how I adore this book. I read it in a literature course in college and think about it often - for the sake of this group I'll pick it up again!

Two wonderful things about this novel: the dialogue. Hurston was an early linguist who helped document black dialects in the American south so the government could preserve them culturally. She loved the way people talked.

It's also worth paying attention to how she treats her male characters. It's some fantastic writing on examining how the male psyche can work.

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
I agree with you so far Riley, I'm only half-way through but I'm thoroughly enjoying it. I was almost determined NOT to like it after those first two chapters but once I got into the colloquial dialogue I was hooked.

I'd be interested in more of your thoughts on her treatment of male characters? can you share some of your favourite examples? So far, I've been struck by the thoughts of Janie's first husband Logan Killicks, he dismisses Janie when she tries to talk to him in bed but it's almost as if he's protecting himself from his thoughts that he'll lose her. I've also been struck by Jody and his constant 'coercive control' and put downs which also seem to be borne of his own weaknesses.

Roisin | 729 comments I'm not too sure that I'm far enough to comment on the men in the book. Though the women have had to be strong and survive regardless of what happens to them , violence etc.

I don't know

Roisin | 729 comments The women have had some terrible experiences but still survive. Yes some positivity does shine through in terms of characters wanting to improve the town, but even her new marriage to Jody is stifling and making Janie unhappy. I get a sense that the men want her to be something that she does not want to be. Placed on a plinth to help make the men look better.

Janie is mixed-race and I wondered whether this and the way the men see her in the story were linked. Mixed-race people were sometimes treated differently in some places in America.

How black people saw themselves was changing despite the Jim Crow laws. Black consciousness and the writings of W.E.Dubois helped to shape black thought, but some writers didn't to focus just on race but the fact that people are people and often want the same things as anyone else and the opportunity to be treated as a human being. Hurston clearly is trying to portray black lives, the good besides the bad.

Roisin | 729 comments Thanks Reily for your info on Hurston. I don't know that much about her.

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
Yes Roison, I do like that about this book. There is no reference back or framing of this community through the eyes of other neighbouring communities. The community is rounded and complete in and of itself...although I'm still only half way through.

Roisin | 729 comments I'm about half way through too. I think there was a brief mention about elsewhere but relation to how black people had more freedom to do things where they were. Yes, you are correct it is very self contained.

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
I'm now up to the chapter where Janie starts to pick beans in the fields with Tea Cake...a very odd position for her given that she refused to do any work on the farm for her first husband Logan and wasn't that keen to work in the store at first for Jody.

Tea Cake seems a little too good to be true at this stage but Janie seems to be truly happy. I'm not sure that I'd be quite so happy with someone who gets by because they are good at gambling!

message 29: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments I borrowed a copy of this but haven't started it yet and now the month is almost over! Looks as if I will be a bit late to jump in on this thread. I'll be reading it in a Virago edition with an Edward Hopper painting on the cover.

Roisin | 729 comments Definitely worth reading Judy.

message 31: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val I have found it difficult to get hold of a copy of this one too. The second-hand copy I ordered turned out to be a catalogue error and inter-library loan haven't managed to produce one either.
We UK members will just have to add our comments later, if or when we eventually manage to get hold of a copy and read the book.

Roisin | 729 comments This UK member has an ebook edition. : )

Heather | 16 comments I really recommend listening to the audiobook read by Ruby Dee if you can. It is wonderful and greatly enhanced the experience for me.

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
The discussion Janie has with Mrs Turner about race is interesting. A pecking order that she has put people in according to her view of race. In her view, Tea Cake is no good for Janie because he is too black and Janie is held up by Mrs Turner as better than herself because of Janie's lighter skin and straight's almost like the class system. Must we human beings always 'stack-rank' each other? Reminds me of the sketch from 'The Two Ronnies' comedy show with John Cleese (I'm sure It's on YouTube). I did feel for Tea Cake in this scene from the novel but I was proud of Janie for spelling out exactly what she loves about Tea Cake and his ability to make her happy.

...and then, oh dear, there was the 'beating'. It was explained in a way that, as a modern reader, I find totally unacceptable - that he hadn't beaten Janie for anything she had done but to show others outside of the marriage who was boss...and the fact that other men in the story slapped him on the back was abhorrent - I don't care what attitudes were like at the time. I've read some analysis on this scene that suggested Janie 'accepts' the beating and is silent as a sign of her growing strength - again, hard for me to accept. Indeed, it throws new light on the previous chapter for me when Janie and Tea Cake make up passionately after a fight over Nunkie...was that scene tantamount to rape?

Lots to ponder in these few chapters.

message 35: by Ally (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
I've finished. I'm really grateful to whoever nominated this one as I'm not sure that I'd have picked it up otherwise but it's a very good book and I've really enjoyed it.

I now appreciate why Jan recommended Black Cloud: The Great Florida Hurricane of awful that must have been. I've been upset by the thought that white victims were given coffins but black victims were buried in pits and covered in quicklime.

The ending was difficult to read too. Turns out that Tea Cake wasn't so bad really but why was the black community so quick to turn against Janie at the trial?

I've been reading (...or really listening to...) Out of Africa. In that book Karen Blixen talks about the Kikuyu and their approach to names by associating the person with a feature or object. This explains why the names of the characters were 'Motor Boat', 'Tea Cake' etc. and I wouldn't have understood that without reading other things.

Overall a really great read once I got used to the dialect speech.

message 36: by Judy (new) - rated it 4 stars

Judy (wwwgoodreadscomprofilejudyg) | 931 comments Ally wrote: "Overall a really great read once I got used to the dialect speech. "

I've started this now and find the dialect speech a bit of a struggle but it seems to be easier if I read quickly without worrying about it too much.

message 37: by Ally (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
That's pretty much how I read it Judy, quickly. It makes it more immediate and you really 'experience' it rather than simply reading it.

Roisin | 729 comments I didn't find the language a struggle personally. Though, I read a story recently with a similar dialect.

I tried to read it in terms of how such dialects tend to sound to me. Americans tend to talk quite fast, I think. So reading it quicker so that it flows makes sense. As humans, we can see and identify words even when the middle bit is jumbled, apparently, which I suspect helps too. : )

Fabulous book! I've finished it and just thought what a moving story. A wonderful writer putting across some women's experiences. Fantastic!

Roisin | 729 comments I liked the way that it showed black people's lives and not just what they thought of white people but also how black people treated each other.

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Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Maybe it takes a black woman to tell about a black woman's life experiences.

message 41: by Ally (new) - rated it 4 stars

Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
I loved that aspect of the book too but as a white reader I did have reservations about commenting as my frame of reference is so small. It almost felt like I had no right. The book opened up my understanding to the lives of people different to myself which can only be a good thing.

Roisin | 729 comments Jan C - You are possibly correct on that.

Ally - Yes it is a good thing.

: )

message 43: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val I finally managed to get hold of a copy of this and read it.
At the time this is set some African-Americans are becoming established as landowners (Logan) or businessmen (Joe), but a lot of them are still poor and working as casual labourers (Tea Cake and others). It is only a generation or two away from slavery in the South and some characters are still stuck in subservient attitudes. The only overt racist we meet is a mixed-race woman who hates dark negroes, but I am not sure what the author is suggesting by that.
I could not understand all the dialect, but got the general sense and could imagine how it sounded, so it was not a problem.

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Ally (goodreadscomuser_allhug) | 1653 comments Mod
I'm glad you picked this one up...I did love it in the end. I wonder if the character who 'stack ranked' people by light or dark skin tones was a comment on the fact that no one corners the market on racism, that it's a universal trait seen in most societies.

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Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments It still goes on here, although possibly not as much.

Roisin | 729 comments Val- See my post (going backwards 21 posts approx from this : )

To add to this the main character who is mixed-raced and looks a little bit different from most Black people that she mixes with, is at one stage, described as 'looking like a queen' , I think?? Mixed-race (or biracial people as we as we are known in the US these days) were sometimes treated differently and viewed very differently from dark skinned people. I was reading (somewhere ?) that in Virginia 1/8 cast people were classed as white and could therefore do things, go to places that dark skinned people couldn't.

We are known as 'Reds' in the West Indies.

I'm sure that there were mixed-race people who viewed themselves as being more important than those that were dark skinned. However, people should not be surprised since America and this type of racism was embedded in society and detriment do sometimes whether you lived or died.

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Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Lighter skinned people were often able to "pass". I had listened to the song "The Sunny Side of the Street" without any knowledge that was what the song was about. The movie Pinky showed a woman able to pass and work in the white world until she runs into someone from her other world.

message 48: by Val (new) - rated it 4 stars

Val I was more surprised that the white characters were not racist than that one of the biracial characters was (and that almost everyone thought Janie would be). The book was set in the US Southern States under the 'Jim Crow' Laws and most books with that setting seem to have racism as pretty much universal.
Neither of the biracial characters try to 'pass', but Mrs. Turner plays up her Caucasian features, while Janie is not at all happy at being placed on a pedestal.

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Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Kindle (US) today has a deal on Zora Neale Hurston's autobiography, Dust Tracks On A Road. Believe this was originally published in 1942.

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