“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.” (pg.1)
I’ve always been a sucker for a good opener.
When I was in high school I had to read Their Eyes Were Watching God for my A.P. Lit class. I didn’t like the book back then, but after re-reading the novel I’ve determined that 17 year old Tasheena didn’t understand the subtle classics.
I think the novel is also deceptive, because the story comes off as personal, one that can be written off as not having staying power. But the novel is about more than Janie and her relationships; this is about a woman’s personal emancipation and speaking for herself.
Janie is an young African American woman in early 20th century Florida, who is raised by her grandmother, Nanny. At the first sign of sexual awakening, Nanny forces her to marry at sixteen to a wealthy older man, fearing that Janie will be a victim of rape (like her and Janie’s absent mother were). While well-meaning, this forced marriage does more damage than good.
Tired of her husband’s ‘stinky feet’, she leaves with and marries the first man who stirs desire, Joe Starks. The rest of the novel concentrates on her second and third marriages, the latter being with the infamous Tea Cake. These two marriages are completely opposite from each other, in both situation and how the men view and treat Janie. Through these series of marriages, Janie is able to discover her own strength and what she wants out of life.
What stood out with my second reading:
First, was how much I missed/didn’t get the first time around. I really only remember the locations, due to the setting being in Florida, and Tea Cake (he’s hard to forget). I still found Eatonville, the real life first black incorporated township in the nation, an interesting inclusive. The town is a character itself. (Also my high school was ten minutes away from Eatonville, one of the reasons why we read the book in school.)
As the novel takes place in 1920s in the rural south, I think young Tasheena had an issue with the heavy dialect in the novel (Probably why I never read Mark Twain). To be honest, I still have difficulties, but now I have the patience to work through tough dialogue instead of being frustrated.
Second, were the great symbols and themes throughout the book. Pear trees, mules, hair, and the horizon. The horizon is probably my favorite (the mule a close second), as it ties everything throughout Janie’s journey. At the beginning of the novel (quote above), the horizon holding the lost dreams of men.
In the middle of the novel, Janie is bitter towards her grandmother’s decision, saying that she ‘pinched’ the horizon and used it as a means to ‘choke her’.
At the end, Janie ‘pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net’. There are different interpretations about what the horizon represents, but whatever the answer is, Janie no longer sees it as far away or as a means to choke her. Which gets me emotional, especially if you know the series of events that happens at the end of Their Eyes Were Watching God (don’t worry, no spoilers).
As problematic as Tea Cake is (and he is!), Janie’s emancipation isn’t because of him, but because she chose to be with him, despite the judgement she received from others. I think that is a very important message, especially since Janie was a black woman in the rural 1920’s South.
Speaking of which, I thought race relations were developed well throughout the novel. Especially the difference between Eatonville and the Everglades, which had umm… interesting characters, like Mrs. Turner, who hates other ‘darker’ blacks (talk about self-hatred).
I would say this re-read was successful, and I only found a couple flaws, the major one being pacing. I enjoyed getting a peek at everyday life in both Eatonville and the Everglades, but sometimes it slowed the book down a bit too much.
For first time readers, if you do have a hard time getting through the book, you need to at least read the last three chapters. Chapter 18 has one of the craziest scenes I’ve read, and it was actually one of the scenes I still remember from my first reading.
Overall, a strong read and one I would recommend, just maybe not to clueless 17 year olds.