Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board

Dear Zora,

Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937) follows a woman’s emotional journey which reads almost like an odyssey – a series of incidents through which the protagonist grows in autonomy and self-knowledge. It’s a black woman’s odyssey: your protagonist is no Penelope, but we are caught in her never-ending web.

The story begins with Janie’s return to Eatonville, Florida, somewhere in the 1920s. As the townspeople begin to speculate about her life, Janie decides to tell her story to her friend Phoeby. We then take a leap into the past, and learn about Janie’s grandmother, Nanny, an enslaved woman who had been raped by a white man. From this act of violence Janie’s mother was born, and from a similar act our protagonist will be conceived: Janie’s mother was also raped, gave birth to our protagonist, and abandoned her.

In Janie’s family history, we have a long line of women who suffered from and were exploited by the slave system – and experienced sexual abuse perpetrated by men. We also have here a long narrative line that refers back to books such as Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave (1861) and Frances EW Harper’s Iola Leroy (1892) – both centred on the sexual exploitation of African American women who suffered at the hands of white plantation owners.

Janie was raised by her grandmother after her mother disappeared, and we then follow her as a child (as she discovers she is different from the white children for whom her grandmother worked) and as a teenager (as she experiences her first sexual awakening).

Fearing that Janie might suffer the same thing her mother had, Nanny forces her granddaughter to marry an older man. We then follow our protagonist as she loses her illusions about marriage with her first husband; then, as she marries another man and moves to Eatonville, only to be psychologically abused by him; and later, as she falls in love with a much younger man and runs away with him – only to, ultimately, lose everything and return to Eatonville – to the point where the book had begun.

Janie’s journey reads like some kind of hero’s journey. Although, at various points in her journey, she experiences failure and loss, she always learns something valuable about herself in each of them. And, when the story ends, we have the feeling that a cycle has come to a close, and another one is about to start again: Janie’s lifelong learning journey will never stop.

The story incorporates a series of symbolic elements derived from various traditions (folklore, the Bible, Greek mythology), as well as aspects of the African American vernacular and oral tradition, which incorporate different dimensions and textures into the narrative.  From the symbolic elements of which you make use in the novel, I will highlight two: the tree (the pear tree in bloom) and the horizon.

Throughout Janie’s story, the blossoming tree becomes a recurring metaphor for  different forms of awakening, and there is always a tree at crucial moments in her life. The blossoming pear tree, in particular, always appears as an image related to self-knowledge and sexual awakening.

When Janie begins to tell her story to Phoeby, we have the following passage: “Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.”

When Janie talks about her grandmother Nanny, she says that her face “looked like the standing roots of some old tree that had been torn away by storm” – the uprooted tree as an image for slavery’s legacy of oppression and violence, its legacy of sexual abuse and exploitation, a legacy that is incorporated into Nanny’s story – and, as such, a legacy that is one of the main obstacles to Janie’s full development as an individual.

And here it is interesting to note the contrast between the uprooted tree (which represents the grandmother) and the tree in full leaf (which represents Janie). When the grandmother, fearing for her granddaughter’s fate, determines that she must marry a man of means, she just wants to protect her granddaughter against the same violence of which she had been a victim; and she wants Janie to be able to fulfil her dreams: “Ah was born back due un slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of what a woman oughta be and to do. Dat’s one of de hold-backs of slavery. But nothing can’t stop you from wishin’. You can’t beat nobody down so low till you can rob ‘em of they will.”

Nanny imagines that Janie can escape her fate by emulating white people’s values ​​and social structures and assuming the status normally assigned to the wives of affluent white men. During her first two marriages, Janie tries to live in such terms – in terms established by white bourgeois people. While her first marriage mirrors the sexual and economic exploitation of black women, the second one mirrors the subjugation of women’s self-expression to the will of men. In both marriages, what the grandmother saw as protection ended up being just another form of male oppression.

With her third love relationship, Janie finally throws respectability to the winds: she runs away and starts to live with a younger man, as a member of the working class. As Janie herself puts it, until she met Tea Cake, she had lived according to her grandmother’s way; from then on, however, she would live in her own way, on her own terms.

And here it is also interesting to note that you make a point of addressing female sexuality as an important element of a woman’s self-realization. This was a taboo topic in fiction written by women – and especially in fiction written by black women, who had also to fight against the white stereotype of the “licentious black woman”.

Janie’s search for knowledge incorporates a desire to expand the meaning of black women’s respectability and to include in it the full expression of their sexuality. In a time where there was a strong tendency to silence black female sexuality in response to its stigmatization, you created a protagonist who seeks to freely express all aspects of her personality – including her sexual desire.

The image of the blossoming tree recurs throughout the book and symbolizes a life in periodic bloom. Like a tree, our protagonist is never quite fully-formed and finished – she goes through cycles and is always in some process of transformation.

Another symbolic element I would like to explore is the horizon. And here it is worth remembering the opening words of the novel: “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.”

Here we have the classic image of an observer standing before the horizon, projecting his dreams on it, perhaps longing to reach it – while also knowing that the horizon will always be somewhere beyond his reach, somewhere, in a sense, beyond the human. It is something that can only be imagined and sought, but never achieved. And here we also have a relationship between the act of observing the horizon and the act of watching God as something that exist beyond our human experience.

The act of observing and being observed (of creating one’s own destiny and being created by it) is also recurrent in your book. When Janie talks about her last love, she says that Tea Cake was “a glance from God”. With Tea Cake, while she experiences for the first time a form of equality inside her relationship, she also experiences a form of oppression from the outside – the oppression of class and race. We already have a sense that Janie and Tea Cake are tragic figures – their relationship’s internal equality cannot survive in an external environment dominated by oppression.

In a pivotal moment, as Janie and Tea Cake seek refuge from the raging hurricane outside, the combined image of the acts of watching the horizon and watching God resurges: “The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining 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”.

Here we don’t have the giving “glance of God”, but rather the stern look of a God who destroys something, and takes something away from the observer’s horizon. As Janie and Tea Cake are watching God, we don’t know whether they do so in the condition of watchful preys, following their hunter’s every move, with their eyes glinting in the darkness; whether they are watching God’s raging show of power in the storm; or whether they are simply taking care of their God, watching over him, as if He were a helpless baby, as helpless as they themselves are in the midst of a hurricane.

The horizon also recurs when Janie reflects on the life her grandmother wanted for her: “Here Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon—for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you—and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter’s neck tight enough to choke her.“ Maybe, imagining a different horizon (imagining that the hierarchies of oppression are not immutable) and daring to move towards that imagined horizon is a way of expanding oneself and breaking the ties with which one generation is attached to the other.

Our Janie is often trying to walk towards an imagined horizon. When she talks about Tea Cake, we have again the image of someone facing the sea: “Love is like the sea. It’s a moving thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from the shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”

The main image of the novel’s opening paragraph, in which people’s dreams are compared to “ships at a distance” that “sail forever on the horizon”, is repeated in the final chapter, when Janie concludes: “Ah done been tuh de horizon and back.” She seems to have reached the knowledge that the horizon will never be met, but, in that imponderable act of faith that means to choose life again and again, she simply continues to walk, and then comes back from her travel through the horizon to tell us her story: “Here was peace. She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called in her soul to come and see.”

Yours truly,

J.


Ivan Aivazovsky, “The ships on rough sea sunrise”, 1871.

“The wind came back with triple fury, and put out the light for the last time. They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining 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.” ― Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God


About the book

  • Virago Modern Classics, 2008, 256 p. Goodreads
  • First published in 1937
  • 4,5 stars

2 thoughts on “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board

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