Hey, it’s getting cold and rainy here: perfect time to take refuge in books! Enjoy!
My edition of Their Eyes Were Watching God had plenty of literary and historical notes both fore and aft, but I’ll admit I got impatient and just started in on the novel itself. I will tell you that the editors wanted to be sure I knew that due to racism and misogyny the works of Zora Neal Hurston were out of print for decades and the writer herself was forced to earn a living as a house maid despite her many publications. This comes as no surprise of course. Another point made repeatedly is that Hurston was a feminist, a woman ahead of her time. This is true as well, and again not surprising. Yet it must be noted that she could not escape her own era completely. I’ll get to that.
The novel opens with our protagonist, Janie, returning to the home where she had once been a prominent citizen, the widow of the mayor who was a prosperous businessman, the creator of one of the first post-Civil War African American townships in the deep south. We learn eventually that rather than doing the “sensible” thing after his death—taking up with a responsible man who would care for her property and provide her with a safe future–she had run off with a younger man, a charming rogue with the boyish moniker of Tea Cake. This is the guy all of us good girls are warned about. So when Janie returns a few years later, the town is eager to hear that Tea Cake has stolen her money and broken her heart. But the story Janie tells her best friend Pheoby is not the tale of a jilted lover, but one of great joy, sorrow, and fierce love.
I’ve read a few other novels set in the 19th/early 20th century recently, stories where you almost feel sorry for the poor hapless husbands who don’t understand why their wives are so resentful. The guys are providing the women with food, clothing, house, status, and even affection (in the form of unsatisfying sex.) So why is she balking when he expects her to fulfill her end of the bargain as he treats her like a servant? The guys just don’t get it.
Janie has two such marriages, and after the second husband’s death, she’s not looking for another. Enter Tea Cake, who offers her a passion she’s never known.
What this is not is a rom/com in which Janie finally finds the right guy and true love. This story is deep and revelatory. One sequence I found enlightening was when another woman tries to convince Janie she is too good for Tea Cake, not because of the age gap, but because Janie has light skin and Tea Cake is very dark. She offers to introduce Janie to her light-skinned brother, hinting that the two would be a better match. When Tea Cake finds out, his response is shocking. He slaps Janie around, not because he blames her for the other woman’s bigotry, but in order to brand her with these bruises as his own. The other men look approvingly at Tea Cake’s solution, a few even telling him they wish their women were light enough to show such marks on their skin. Of course as a modern reader I found this horrifying, but it is related by Janie to Pheoby in a nonjudgmental matter-of-fact way, as if it were a necessary response to the provocation.
This episode seems designed to emphasize the racist hierarchy of the time, prevalent even among the former slaves themselves. The inherent misogyny seems ignored, and can only be understood as a sign of the times. Yet to me, this is the most dramatic illustration that Janie and Tea Cake’s marriage is far from idyllic. Nonetheless the two of them have an emotional intimacy that Janie had achieved with no one else in her life. They both have their flaws, their jealousies, their impatient habits: they have a real marriage and a genuine partnership.
In the end, Tea Cake’s death is tragic and violent, leaving Janie devastated and guilt-ridden, coming as it does as a result of his saving her life in a terrific storm. But the loss seems necessary to bring the story full circle. Tea Cake wasn’t the savior prince who rescued Janie; he was more of a trickster figure, the clever coyote who teaches wisdom and brings joy. He’s no saint: he’s a gambler and a reveler. As soon as he gets his hands on some of Janie’s money, he rents out a restaurant and feeds everybody who comes into the place. It reminded me of Jesus’ parable of the man whose invited guests snubbed him so he went out in the street and brought in the poor and the beggars. Hey, why not?
In the end, when Janie must carry on without her beloved’s physical presence, she knows he is still with her in her heart, cloaking her like a quilt. He has awakened a self-love and confidence within her. This is not the happ’ly ever after of fairy tales, but the spiritual and emotional security learned from mature love. A beautiful book.