Like most people, the first time I encountered Zora Neale Hurston‘s Their Eyes Were Watching God was in my AP Literature class. It was a required summer reading and weirdly, I enjoyed every minute of it. I recall my teacher discussing it on the first day. She read the passage on the pear tree and the bee and asked what it meant. No one raised their hand. It seemed that though we knew what the pear tree and the bee symbolized, we were too embarrassed to say it. I raised my hand and tentatively answered that I think it symbolized Janie’s first sexual experience. The teacher replied that I was almost correct and went on to further explain.
Apart from the moment when Janie and Tea Cake first meet, the pear tree passage is my favorite part of the book. Indeed, Their Eyes Were Watching God is one of my favorite novels. I love it for its imagery and poetic language. I love it because it’s like a play at times, what with the exaggerated personas that certain villagers take on when they congregate at Joe Starks’ shop, the stage, and the fact that they are sometimes represented as a chorus, their voices, feelings, and thoughts represented as one for all of them.
We see this from the beginning of the story when the people of Eatonville espy Janie walking back into town in coveralls, no less, after she had ran off with Tea Cake, a man half her age. They cast judgment on her as she walks on towards her house and become incensed when she doesn’t stop to tell them why she has returned. Janie’s friend Phoeby decides to find out and runs over to Janie’s house with a plate of food. The novel then becomes a frame-tale as Janie narrates the story of her life to Phoeby, telling her how she became who she is.
She begins with her childhood, admitting to Phoeby that she had no clue that she was Black until she saw a photograph of herself. She had believed that she was like the White children she grew up and played with. Her grandmother, Nanny, raised her. Janie’s mother, who was raped by her school-teacher, ran off after giving birth. Fearing a similar awful fate for Janie, Nanny set about ensuring that Janie’s future was secure. She marries Janie to Logan Killicks, a dry, old man with forty acres of land and a mule. According to Nanny, he was the cream of the crop. If she died, Janie would be secure with her own house and land and a man to protect her. Janie, however, wants love—she wants what she experienced under the pear tree—and not some old man who doesn’t wash his stinky feet before getting in bed.
One day, Joe Starks comes along and shares his dreams with Janie. He was on his way to put them into action. He asked Janie to run off with him. Janie considered it. Logan Killicks did not fit her dream. He wanted to work her like a mule to tie her to his land but Janie wanted romance and freedom. She wanted to be attracted to her husband but such was not the case with Logan Killicks. After a fight, she runs off with Joe Starks, who took her down to Eatonville. It turns out that Starks was no better than Logan Killicks. He was nice at first but as time wore on he became domineering towards Janie and abused her. As he got older, he would heap his insecurities on Janie and belittle her in front of the people of the town so they would not notice his physical decrease in power. Janie responded by pulling into herself to shield herself from his harsh blows.
However, one day she snapped and fired back with some choice words that reveal to the people and to Starks himself, how he really is—weak, old, powerless. Starks retaliated by smacking Janie. After that, he never trusted her again. He slowly withered away, all the while distrustful of Janie and hating her for her youth and strength. He died and Janie is relieved. Though many men come to seek her hand in marriage, saying that she needs a man to protect her, she refused them all. Instead, she basked in her new independence as a widow and single woman.
Then Tea Cake came along and Janie finally got the romance she wanted as a girl. They moved to Jacksonville then on to the Florida Everglades to work on “the muck” during the harvesting season. Their love for each other was strong and noticeable to all. Tea Cake took great care of Janie—except for that one time when he beat her. He became jealous and angry after overhearing Mrs. Turner, a racist Black woman, speak ill of his relationship with Janie. Janie is of mixed race and has a light skin-tone so Mrs. Turner believed she should not be with someone as Black as Tea Cake, a full Negro. Well, Tea Cake apologized for beating Janie and all goes well until a hurricane passed through the Everglades during which Tea Cake got bit by a rabid dog when he saved Janie from drowning.
The bite was fateful. Tea Cake became delirious and went crazy. He had contracted rabies from the mad dog. He attempted to kill Janie and Janie, torn between her love for Tea Cake and her will to survive, shot him dead. She was then put on trial and though all the Black people on the muck found her guilty, the jury, which consisted of White men, and even the White women in the audience, found her innocent. After burying Tea Cake, Janie left the Everglades and returned to Eatonville. At the end of the story, Janie is content with who she is. She had found her pear tree—Tea Cake—and is content with being alone and being herself.
I loved enjoyed every minute that I read Their Eyes Were Watching God. It is definitely a classic and a work of art with no dull moments. Like when I first read it, I couldn’t help rooting for Janie as she goes through life. She had a dream and I wanted her to reach it. I was glad when she met Tea Cake and longed for the romance between them though sometimes I would question their relationship. Tea Cake seems like the perfect male counterpart for Janie but I could also see similarities between him and Logan Killicks and Joe Starks. Tea Cake drags Janie along with him wherever he goes. He hardly asks her if she wants to go but because Janie loves him—and because he is the dream that she has finally found—she doesn’t mind following Tea Cake to the ends of the world.
Like Logan Killicks and Joe Starks, Tea Cake also possess Janie and exert ownership over her. Killicks does this by treating her as part of his land and working her like one of his mules. Starks does so by smothering her voice, dominating and abusing her, and ordering her to tie up her hair. He had seen other men admiring it and being jealous, he orders Janie to hide that part of herself. Similarly, Tea Cake exert ownership when he beats Janie after one of Mrs. Turner’s visits. He became jealous and afraid of losing Janie since Mrs. Turner spoke of introducing Janie to her light-skinned brother.
Like in Richard Wright’s Native Son, by the end of the novel, Janie’s experiences have led her to develop a stronger sense of self. She had reached the horizon that she longed for and had achieved self-actualization.
Quotes from the book:
“Ships at a distance have ever man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tides. 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 by Time. That is the life of men.”
“She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight…Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!”
“Every morning the world flung itself over and exposed the town to the sun.”
“She stood there until something fell off the shelf inside her. Then she went inside there to see what it was. It was her image of Jody tumbled down and shattered. But looking at it she saw that it never was the flesh and blood figure of her dreams. Just something she had grabbed up to drape her dreams over.”
“But stillness was the sleep of swords.”
“Insensate cruelty to those you can whip, and groveling submission to those you can’t…All gods who receive homage are cruel. All gods dispense suffering without reason. Otherwise they would not be worshipped. Through indiscriminate suffering men know fear and fear is the most divine emotion. It is the stones for altars and the beginning of wisdom. Half gods are worshipped in wine and flowers. Real gods require blood.”
“…mysteries are the chores of gods.”
“Love is lak de sea. It’s uh movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”
“Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh themselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh themselves.”
- Sync Read #1: Their Eyes Were Watching God (Start Reading!) (theclassicsclubblog.wordpress.com)
- Black Women Writers to Celebrate (dorcasthewriter.wordpress.com)
- My Summer Reading List 2013 (ohtobeamuggle.wordpress.com)