Their Eyes Were Watching God: Crash Course Literature 301

Their Eyes Were Watching God: Crash Course Literature 301

Hi, I’m John Green, this is Crash Course
Literature and your eyes are watching me,
but Their Eyes Are Watching God. I’d like to apologize to my friends and
family for that joke. Anyway today we’re discussing Zora Neale
Hurston’s brilliant novel of a woman’s self-realization and empowerment. Or, possibly, a cautionary tale about the importance of the rabies vaccine. Your call, really. [Theme Music] Great books can stand up to multiple readings. Anyway, today we’re going to be discussing
a little bit of Thurston’s biography. MFTP: Mr Green, Mr Green, no no no, you said
that authors’ biographies don’t matter, because the author is irrelevant.
Only the text matters. Oh, Me From The Past, how I haven’t missed
you. So, OK. When we’re studying literature,
we’re not just thinking about texts. We’re also thinking about how to think about
texts. Like, should we read a novel in its historical
context, or consider the life of its author? Or only look at the book itself? In considering a book’s meaning should we privilege character, or plot, or symbols, or language? And also how do our own experiences and biases
shape our readings? Now, I often argue against focusing too much
on the life of an author, not least because I am one, and don’t enjoy
people peering too much into my personal history. But in this particular case we are going to
consider the life of Zora Neale Hurston, both because it’s important to take many different perspectives when trying to learn to read critically, and because her life was uncommonly important
to her masterpiece. So, Zora Neale Hurston was born in Alabama in 1891, but her family soon moved to Eatonville, Florida, the first all-black incorporated township
in the United States and the model for the town of the same name
in Their Eyes Were Watching God. You know what? Let’s just go to the Thought
Bubble. Hurston described Eatonville as “the city of five lakes, three croquet courts, 300 brown skins, 300 good swimmers, plenty guavas, two schools,
and no jailhouse.” After her mother died and her father remarried,
she was sent away to school, but her father stopped paying her tuition. As a teenager, Hurston did a bunch of odd
jobs, and then signed on as a maid for the lead
singer for a traveling theatrical troupe. And a decade later, she surfaced in Baltimore, erased 10 years from her age and finished high school. She enrolled in Howard University, then transferred
to Barnard College. And after graduating in 1928, she began coursework
for a PhD in anthropology at Columbia University, while also contributing to the the Harlem
Renaissance with our old friend Langston Hughes. Hurston wrote short stories, plays, a few
novels, two highly regarded works of anthropology, and an award-winning autobiography, Dust Tracks on a Road, some of which she almost certainly made up. But her books never sold that well during
her lifetime, and in later life she returned to Florida
and worked as a substitute teacher and a maid. She died of a heart attack in 1960 and was
buried in an unmarked grave. In 1973 the novelist Alice Walker found that
grave and paid for a headstone inscribed: “Zora Neale Hurston:
A Genius of the South.” Walker then wrote an article about it in Ms. Magazine, which helped spur renewed interest in Hurston’s work. According to her autobiography, Hurston wrote Their Eyes Were Watching God in seven weeks, quote, “under internal pressure” while on a Guggenheim
Fellowship to Haiti to study the local folklore. Oh man, seven weeks! I hope that’s one of
the lies in her autobiography. But actually Hurston didn’t think much of
the novel. She wrote,“I wish that I could write it
again…I regret all of my books.” Thanks, Thought Bubble.
So, one last biographical note: The internal pressure she mentions probably
refers to an unhappy love affair with a much younger Columbia student who wanted her to give up her career to become a pastor’s wife. Which wasn’t going to happen. OK, now to the book. So, Their Eyes Were Watching
God straddles at least a couple of genres. It is part bildungsroman.
But it can also be read as a romance, in which the heroine, Janie Mae Crawford finally finds perfect love with her third husband Tea Cake. Well, it’s perfect love until Tea Cake is
bitten by a rabid dog in the middle of a hurricane, and then Janie has to shoot him.
Classic love story. The book initially received mixed reviews, including a pretty damning one from the great novelist Richard Wright, who wrote that it wasn’t political enough: “The sensory sweep of her novel carries
no theme, no message, no thought… Miss Hurston seems to have no desire whatsoever
to move in the direction of serious fiction… Her characters eat and laugh and cry and work
and kill; they swing like a pendulum eternally on that safe and narrow orbit in which America likes to see the Negro live: between Laughter and tears.”
Wow. So, I think what Wright missed in the novel
is that, as a later generation of feminists would insist,
that the personal is political. Their Eyes Were Watching God has a few moments
of explicit political commentary, like in the aftermath of the hurricane when white men order black workers to bury the white corpses in coffins and throw the black ones in a hole with quicklime. But this book isn’t story about politics or race as much as it is about Janie’s emancipation — or if you read the book skeptically, her inability
to emancipate herself. Which involves politics and race. As Hurston wrote in her autobiography, she didn’t really want to write about what she called the “Race Problem.” Quote: “My interest lies in what makes a man or a woman do such-and-so, regardless of his color,” But, of course, Thurston also understood,
that the in the America she was writing about, race was part of what made a man or a woman
do such and so. The novel was also initially criticized for its use of vernacular speech and nonstandard spelling. As you can see reading it, Hurston uses a very different authorial voice from the voice that she gives to Janie. Like, the narrator’s first words are: “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish
on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the same horizon,
never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. That is the life of men.” Whereas, Janie’s first words are, “Aw, pretty good, Ah’m tryin’ to soak some uh de tiredness and de dirt outa mah feet.” So Hurston isn’t trying to brag about how much smarter and better educated she was than her characters. Don’t forget, her academic background was
in anthropology and a lot of her fieldwork involved going
into communities in the South and in the Caribbean to record local songs and stories. And she placed a value in how people expressed
themselves — the humor, the inventiveness, the liveliness of language — and her work can be read as a tribute to that. But the different kinds of speech are also,
as the scholar Henry Louis Gates points out, a way of acknowledging that there is often a gap between what characters think and how they express themselves. As Gates writes, “[Hurston’s] is a rhetoric of division, rather than a fiction of psychological or cultural unity.” Still, just because the words the characters
use are simple, and sometimes misunderstood, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t a great
depth of feeling behind them. And, in fact, I’d argue that Janie’s level
of sophistication matches the author’s, even if the voice is different. So, the story begins with a 40-year-old Janie returning to Eatonville and telling the story of her life to her best friend, Pheoby. Janie grows up as the pet of a white family
for which her grandmother worked. Her grandmother, a former slave, marries Janie
off to a much older man at 16. Both Janie and her mother were conceived in rape, so when Janie shows signs of sexual awakening, her grandmother wants to get her married immediately
to the richest man around. A lot of this sexual awakening takes place while Janie is lying dreaming under a pear tree and sees, quote: “the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight,” which is pretty much as sexy as botany gets. But Janie is disgusted by her first husband. And it doesn’t matter that he owns 60 acres
of land, and has an organ in his parlor. His feet smell and he’s no pear tree in
general. So when she meets another man, Joe Starks,
also somewhat older, but more stylish and a smooth talker, she
runs away with him. Joe takes her to Eatonville where he soon becomes mayor and Janie get to enjoy the high status of “Mrs. Mayor.” But he belittles her in front of others. He beats her at least once and this, and in
one of the book’s great metaphorical gestures, Joe frees a mule, but he never frees Janie. And then, after Joe’s death, Janie takes
up with a much younger man called Tea Cake. Tea Cake isn’t rich and he isn’t powerful, but he offers Janie a lot of what’s been missing
from her earlier marriages: fun. He makes her laugh, he plays songs for her
on the guitar, he teaches her how to drive, he brings her
to the Everglades, because, quote: “Folks don’t do nothin’ down dere but make
money and fun and foolishness.” And they have a great time until that hurricane
and that rabid dog and Tea Cake going crazy and Janie having to shoot him to save herself
while he’s busy biting at her arm. After being acquitted of Tea Cake’s murder,
she throws him a lavish funeral, and then heads home to Eatonville in her muddy
overalls, happy because, as she tells Pheoby, she’s been “to the horizon
and back.” Which is a fascinating phrase, because the
horizon, of course, definitionally is a place that you can’t
get to, let alone get back from. It’s one of the most discussed lines in
the book. Some take to mean she has finally achieved
her own selfhood. Others take it to mean that she’s about
to die of rabies. Once the book was rediscovered, early critics, following Alice Walker, mainly chose the empowerment reading. Walker even wrote a poem that begins, “I
love the way Janie Crawford left her husbands.” This reading suggests that Janie eventually
comes into her own voice and her own authority, and that it’s separate from her husbands. She doesn’t get it from her first husband’s
wealth, or from her second husband’s power, but instead, through love. And then, In recounting her life story to
Pheoby she has learned to speak for herself, to put herself at the center of her own story, and it’s suggested that Pheoby might become
empowered in turn. Or at least a little. I mean, Pheoby says she’s become 10 feet higher just from listening to Janie. But in the last couple of decades, there’s been some push back against those earlier readings. Some critics note that Janie is more often
passive than active. I mean, she only leaves one husband.
The others have a way of dying. I mean I guess she had agency in her relationship
with Tea Cake, but only in the sense that she was choosing
between killing him and dying of rabies. And also, if we’re going to say that Janie establishes authority over herself by telling her own story, then we need to acknowledge that Janie herself
discounts the power of the spoken word. I mean, in one of my favorite lines in the book, she tells Phoebe that you’ve gotta go there to know there. And there are also questions about Tea Cake
as a romantic hero. I mean yes, he seems like a fun guy, but he
takes Janie’s money without asking, and uses it to throw a party that he doesn’t
invite her to. Later he beats her, out of a desire to prove
his ownership of her. So life with Tea Cake has a deeply ugly side. And it’s worth remembering that Tea Cake has to die before Janie can return to Eatonville on her own terms. I’m not going to try to argue for one reading
over another, because I think what makes Their Eyes Were Watching God such a major American novel is its complexity. It doesn’t offer an easy answer for how a woman with Janie’s life can achieve complete independence, or full selfhood. I mean her last thoughts of the novel are
not, “finally, I have achieved selfhood!” Instead, she’s thinking about Tea Cake. Will she go through life alone, will she find another man or will she remain wedded to Tea Cake’s memory? Or because of his dying, rabid gesture, biting
her in the arm, there are some very skeptical critics who think it won’t be long before she Janie dies herself. And yet, Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of the very few novels of this period that is centered around a woman speaking for herself and achieving an understanding of her own life — complete with the feet, and the mules, and
the hurricanes, all of it. And it is that richness and complexity that
makes the novel so special. Thanks for watching, and watch out for rabid
dogs. Also sexy pear trees. Crash Course is made by all of these lovely people and it exists because of your support on Patreon. Patreon is a voluntary subscription platform
that allows you to support Crash Course directly, so we can keep making it free, for everyone,
forever. Thanks again for watching, and as we say in
my hometown: don’t forget to be awesome.

45 thoughts on “Their Eyes Were Watching God: Crash Course Literature 301

  1. I'm a junior in high school and my AP English Language Arts class just finished this novel. I believe that this book is written to exemplify feminist love vs. patriarchal love. I think it embodies how women ultimately overcome male dominance and begin to find their voice in relationships. I also think it is vital to highlight the symbols that are brought up throughout the novel. A symbol that I found intriguing was the bees and hints to trees and buds. I think that this is important to evaluate because in essence this novel shows how over time Janie begins to find herself and transition from a woman who is held down by male domination to a woman who is given the experience of true equality within a relationship. She finds that in Teacake. Over all I enjoyed the book and is one of the best novels I have read.

  2. I've always wondered if Janie dies from rabies in the end because after all, she did get bit in the arm as Teacake fell from the gun blast (also not shown in the movie). Also, John Green didn't mention that she was from mixed ancestry. That's a pretty important aspect of the book. She has smooth hair like the white folk, therefor it's considered her best physical quality. She's also treated fairly better than the other blacks due to her "coffee-and-cream" skin. Also, objects in this book that are described as white in color such as Janie's clothes and Joe Stark's house are considered beautiful and magnificent.

  3. This woman was so interesting and impressive but damn it's sad how she died the way she did.

    She really was outstanding.

  4. I like that tea cake isn't portrayed as a total pure person because then it would feel more like a prince charming saving her then her own perseverance

  5. i always thought it was weird that his past had a beard…

    … back then I was stupid and didn't realize it was the same person

  6. I'll start by saying that I have not read this book. And I'll jump to the end and say your critique achieves what I believe for you is its ultimate success: I want to read this book. Kudos to you.

    I also like the way you don't explicitly state that a lot of critics of this book penned negative criticisms of it because it doesn't pursue their agenda.

    richard hargrove

    Plato says that the unexamined life is not worth living. But what if the examined life turns out to be a clunker as well?
    – Kurt Vonnegut

  7. I hate the way this book is written why make it so fucken difficult to read. Like i get it this is how southern people speak but omg i want to scream reading this damn book.

  8. The dialect gave me some trouble initially, but by trying to hear the words spoken exactly as they were written, I was able to make sense of it. Then the characters really came to life! I am reminded of Shaw’s play “Pygmalion,” in which Eliza Doolittle’s first lines are written in the dialect of an uneducated Cockney flower girl. Shaw quickly abandons this practice with the explanation, “Here, with apologies, this desperate attempt to represent her dialect without a phonetic alphabet must be abandoned as unintelligible outside London.”

  9. I realize this is very late but for the naysayers saying Janie was going to die of rabies, she definitely wasn't. The doctor had ordered the serum usually given after a rabid bite on the chance it might still save Tea Cake. I was supposed to arrive the day Tea Cake died. The doctor found Janie and Tea Cake. So it obviously came and he was coming to the house with it so he was able to administer it to Janie.

  10. We should definitely take the context of who made a work of art and when. And whether the authors psychological issues are reflected in the art. If they happen to be a racist or something then that shouldn't deter from your enjoyment of it the world at any point contains all kinds of stuff good and bad art reflects that.

  11. I had to read her academic work for one of my folklore classes and honestly I recommend it. It's mostly ethnographies, or studies on specific groups ie communities in the American South. It uses the differences in prose and spelling for dialogue in comparison to narration, showing her place as a observational participant (someone who is studying a group by participating in the group's activities) as well as her academic credentials, as skeptics to her academic background were likely. It's every part, kind of like "here's how people in my parts live, respect me as I tell you this information"

  12. I have a very serious bias, but I will say this: it endlessly frustrates me that these videos blend together into a slurry (extremely) general book summary, author biography, (tired) John Green jokes that resonate like a fart in a hurricane, quotes, and notes on context into ONE 11 minute video. It just does all of the above a disservice.

  13. when i was assigned this in summer reading for sophomore year, i started reading the week before school started, after which i got a concussion and began to cry whenever i tried to read it. the book felt unreadable for a while mostly because i dont think i could understand what it was zora was trying to accomplish with the book. i never liked the book, but i do think it has a lot of spirit and captures life in a small community perfectly.

  14. Ha ha ha it's the commercial information privacy that made me laugh God himself actually isn't a joke maybe you want a see it for yourself probably shouldn't because it's pretty much funny and why does it go along with this story I don't even know how crazy this music.

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