Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neale Hurston (1937)
Their Eyes Were Watching God directed by Darnell Martin (2005)
Taking place in Florida in the early 1900’s, we follow Janie, a free-spirited teenager who is made to marry an older man when she is 16. Her grandma wants her to live well, and thinks she is helping her by making her marry a man who has property and wealth.
Janie is not in love and is unhappy and ends up running off with a man named Joe who is headed to Eatonville, the first all black town.
Once they arrive, Joe gets the place into shape and becomes the mayor. He helps establish Eatonville as a town and builds a store which Janie helps run. Janie isn’t free to be herself though, as Joe tries to make her the woman and wife he wants. Twenty years pass, and Joe dies. Janie is free to be herself, and one day while working in the store meets a man over ten years her junior, named Teacake.
She and Teacake fall in love and leave Eatonville to go work “on the muck” in another part of Florida. After a couple years pass, there is a hurricane and Teacake is bit by a rabid dog. She ends up having to shoot Teacake because the rabies makes him go crazy.
She returns to Eatonville. Even though she lost Teacake, the time she had with him, experiencing true love is a time she won’t forget.
Zora Neale Hurston
Hurston was actually from Eatonville, the town Janie and Joe go to. She also had a romance with a grad student when she was in her late 30’s, and he in his 20s. This romance was the inspiration for Teacake.
I enjoyed reading this book from a historical point since it was written in the 30’s and I would guess is an accurate portrayal of the times. It is well written and a great story about a woman learning to be herself and to find someone who allows her to be herself.
I do think the way the dialogue was written was distracting and it took me a while to get used to it. I would have liked he book better had the dialogue been written more normally.
Janie and Logan
In the book, we learn that Janie’s mom was kind of wild, and wasn’t able to raise Janie. Her grandma, therefore, is worried when she sees Janie kissing boys and wants to get her married to a respectable man. It is said how the grandma thought the epitome of life would be to sit in a highchair and not have to work, however, that is not the life Janie is interested in.
She is married to Logan for over a year, and still does not love him. She meets a man named Joe who basically swept her off her feet with talk of adventure and going to an all black town. She tells Logan she wants to leave him and, in the book, the next day Logan kind of breaks down about how she is going to leave him. I felt bad for Logan in the book, but also understand Janie would have been doing him a disservice to stay with him in a marriage she resented.
In the movie we don’t see Joe getting upset about Janie wanting to leave him, and he therefore isn’t as sympathetic in the movie.
Janie and Joe
Janie and Joe seem to have a better relationship to start, but Joe quickly tries to make her into what he wants. Including having her tie up her hair, which is kind of her signature look. This is symbolic of Joe tying up Janie’s spirit and not allowing her to be herself. In the movie, it makes it seem like her job every day is to bring Joe his meals three times a day. In the book that wasn’t a thing, rather she says how everyday she is in the store and the store is her life whether she likes it or not. The movie also shows a scene from the book where she is hanging out with people outside having a good time, when Joe calls her in and tells her not to hang out with them.
At a ceremony for the town, Joe gives a speech, and then people say they want to hear from the Mrs. Mayor. Janie is excited and flattered, but Joe quickly shuts it down saying he didn’t marry Janie for her to give speeches. I don’t remember this in the book.
As time goes on, Joe gets older and begins to be sick. Before he dies, Janie goes to his deathbed and says how Joe never bothered to truly get to know her.
We also have an event in the book that isn’t in the movie where Joe buys another man’s mule, just so he can free it and let it live good. Janie is very touched by this, and the reason Joe does it to begin with is because he overhears how Janie feels bad for the mule.
The mule eventually dies and its carcass is dragged into the woods for the buzzards to eat.
“The image of the mule first appears when Nanny tells Janie that black women are the mules of the earth, meaning that they are the lowest creatures, used by others. It then appears again when Logan Killicks goes to buy a mule for Janie to use when working behind a plow; his forceful attempt to make Janie work makes her feel as though she herself is being treated as an animal. Finally, the mule reappears once again when the townspeople of Eatonville make fun of Matt Bonner’s sad looking mule, which Janie pities. When Jody purchases the mule to appease Janie’s sense of pity for it, the town regards Jody as a savior, and adopts the freed mule as a kind of emblem. Throughout the novel, the mule symbolizes victimization, a theme that appears throughout the novel in various ways.” 1
“The mule’s funeral represents Joe Starks’s need for attention and praise and refers to women’s subordinated position. When he bought the skinny, abused mule from Matt, he did not give Janie credit for suggesting he do so. After the poor animal died, by staging a funeral, Joe sought the townspeople’s praise for his generosity. The buzzards’ attack shows the real status of the mule and, by extension, social attitudes toward women.” 2
Janie and Teacake
Janie says that “everyday Teacake gave me the whole world”. All Janie ever wanted was free to be herself. Finding a man who loved her for who she was and didn’t try to control her or change her, that acceptance and love was the whole world. That’s all we all really want, right? Not just romantic relationships, but all relationships, we want people who will love us for who we are.
In the movie, Teacake was pretty one dimensional. There is the scene where he steals her money because he wants to gamble with it and turn it into more. In the book, he took the money, then held a party. Then later, used the money to gamble. The movie leaves out the part where he has a party and pays the “ugly” women not to come in.
The book also has a part where Teacake is flirting with another woman they are working with, as well as a scene where he beats Janie. The movie has Joe hit Janie. Joe was rude to her and embarrasses her, but I don’t think he ever hit her in the book.
Interesting that the book has these scenes that put Teacake in a negative light. That makes him more realistic though, rather than the “perfect” guy he was in the movie. I guess too that a man beating his wife back then was just more accepted.
I loved though in both book and movie, after Janie is done telling Phoebe about her and Teacake, Phoebe is inspired to spark the romance with her own husband and makes her appreciate the love she has.
Meaning of the title
In the movie, Janie will swim/float face up in the water and when someone asks her what she’s doing, she says she is watching God. These moments signify when she is feeling free and open to be herself and embracing her life.
In the book, this line is said when the hurricane is happening. The book says how everyone was huddled up where ever they found shelter and that their eyes were watching God. “They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes training against crude walls and their souls asking if He meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.” Signifying how we look to God to determine our fate.
Book vs Movie
I thought the acting in the movie was excellent, especially Halle Berry. I thought she was too young for the role of Janie, who is supposed to be 40 when she meets Teacake. Turns out she was forty! She aged so well!
Anyway, I would say I liked the book better, but the dialogue was really a distraction. I thought Berry and Ealy had great chemistry, and I felt their romance. A lot of people love this book so much and Hurston does have some beautiful prose, but I found myself more invested in the Janie in the movie than the Janie in the book.