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 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.
Now, women forget all of those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.
This is the opening paragraph from Their Eyes Were Watching God, the story of Janie, an African American woman who wants nothing more than to “struggle with life.” Her dreams are crushed when she finds herself languishing, first in an arranged marriage to an elderly farmer, and then as the trophy wife of the wealthy mayor of an all black town (based on the real city of Eatonville in Florida). Jo Sparks gives her the best that money can buy, but treats her as a possession and almost kills her spirit. Then, widowed and in her early forties, Janie is finally reawakened to life when she meets and falls in love with a much younger man, the itinerant worker, Tea Cake. Together they attempt to carve out a relationship of equals. But the story takes a frightening turn when the characters find themselves caught up in a hurricane. It then builds towards a shocking, tragic, yet strangely appropriate, ending.
The book was misunderstood when it was first published in 1937 and Hurston was criticised for not adequately representing the racist oppression experienced by black people in the South. It wasn’t until the 1970s that Alice Walker went to work resurrecting Hurston’s reputation and re-positioned Their Eyes Were Watching God as a groundbreaking book about a black woman’s quest for self-determination and personal fulfilment, opening new possibilities for black women writers. Reading the book now, I can really see its influence on Alice Walker and Toni Morrison.
The prose is beautiful and poetic, the use of dialogue vivid, and there is throughout a sense of deep emotional truth. The early stage of Janie and Tea Cake’s relationship is one of the best descriptions of what it feels like to fall in love that I’ve ever read.
More: Zora Neale Hurston