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Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston

Their Eyes Were Watching God is a story to be heard, first and foremost. It’s an audiobook or perhaps a back porch epic.

Black eyeglasses rest upon an open book.
Photo by Sincerely Media on Unsplash

New York: Harper Perennial, 2006. Originally published in 1937.

The sophomores have been reading Their Eyes Were Watching God for class, and by “reading,” I really mean “listening.” Someone uploaded a fantastic audiobook version of this text to Youtube, and the sophomores have been listening to it and reading along.

I understand why: the language in this book is beautiful and gorgeous, but it’s also weighty and demanding. Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the journey of Janie, a black girl/woman living in Florida during the early 20th century. The book alternates between prose — beautiful, formal, literary prose — and dialogue — strong dialect flowing with the rhythms of black vernacular. The novel switches between the two, but rarely mixes; there are very few he said‘s and she said‘s surrounding much of the dialogue. Reading the dialect on the page can be extremely tough, but the audiobook really brings it alive.

Some stories are best told as novels, others as movies, others as graphic novels. Their Eyes Were Watching God isn’t a novel, not really. It’s a story to be heard, first and foremost. It’s an audiobook or perhaps a back porch epic. If you want to read this book, do yourself a favor and pick up the audiobook. The language is gorgeous — both the prose and the dialogue. You’ll want to bask in it and admire it, and it’s hard to do this without listening to it.

I must say, though, that like much “literary fiction” I found this book rather boring. “Fun” is not a word I would use to describe Their Eyes Were Watching God. Of course, the core of the story doesn’t really relate to me. The book is about Janie’s relationships and her process of discovering herself, and I expect that women and persons of color would relate to Janie’s story more than I — and, subsequently, enjoy it more and take away more from it than I did. The language is beautiful, and the book as a whole is assuredly well-written, but reading it felt a bit too much like work for my tastes. (This is why I tend to prefer genre fiction: there’s a much higher likelihood of getting a fun and gripping plot while still leaving room to accomplish anything that “literary fiction” accomplishes.)