Their Eyes Were Watching God; Day One

February 18, 2008 at 5:36 pm | Posted in Their Eyes Were Watching God | 3 Comments
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theireyeswatchinggod.jpgMonday, February 18, 2008

Chapters 1-4

Chapter 1

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 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. (1)

This has to be one of my favorite favorite openings of all time. “Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board.” That just resonates. It’s beautiful imagery. It has staying power.

So the beginning of this was a woman and she had come back from burying the dead. Not the dead of the sick and ailing with friends at the pillow and the feet. She had come back from the sodden and the bloated; the sudden dead, their eyes flung wide open in judgment.

The people all saw her come because it was sundown. The sun was gone, but he had left his footprints in the sky. It was the time for sitting on the porches beside the road. It was the time to hear things and talk. These sitters had been tongueless, earless, eyeless conveniences all day long. Mules and other brutes had occupied their skins. But now, the sun and the bossman were gone, so the skin felt powerful and human. They became lords of sounds and lesser things. They passed nations through their mouths. They sat in judgment. (1)

This is our first glimpse of our heroine, Janie. We’ll see her from the outside perspective–we’ll see how her neighbors and friends view her. But this is also a telling passage about the people, about the community. What we learn from this gathering is that they have been jealous and envious of Janie in the past. “So they chewed up the back parts of their minds and swallowed with relish. They made burning statements with questions, and killing tools out of laughs. It was mass cruelty. A mood come alive. Words walking without masters; walking altogether like harmony in a song” (2). So now that she has returned changed and transformed they are gloating and proud and full of themselves. They want the news–the gossip, the scandal, the good and juicy parts which will make them feel better about themselves. They’re full of questions, but not answers.

The dialect. It’s one of the things that stands out in Zora Neale Hurston’s writing. For some readers it can be challenging to read. It turns some readers off. But I think one of the tricks to mastering reading dialect is to hear it in your head. If you don’t “hear” voices when you read silently, then you may want to read aloud for a bit. The words are written–spelled–like they sound. (So hearing them can translate them back into words.) If you’ve got access to this on audio book, I think you’ll enjoy it even more. The free excerpt on the ZNH site has most of the first chapter. You can get a feel for the rhythm of the dialect there. Unfortunately, my local library does not have this audio book. And I certainly don’t have $35 of my own to spend.

When Janie passes them by without stopping, without stooping to answer all their questions, without satisfying their curiousity, they get even more annoyed. But Janie is saving her strength, her energy for one listener. Phoeby Watson. The two are friends, close friends. And if anyone can get the truth out of Janie, it’s Phoeby.

Janie to Phoeby, “Ah don’t mean to bother wid tellin’ ’em nothin’, Phoeby. ‘Tain’t worth de trouble. You can tell’em what Ah say if you wants to. Dat’s just de same as me ’cause mah tongue is in mah friend’s mouf. . .To start off wid, people like dem wastes up too much time puttin’ they mouf on things they don’t know nothin’ about. Now they got to look into me loving Tea Cake and see whether it was done right or not! They don’t know if life is a mess of corn-meal dumplings, and if love is a bed-quilt!” (6)

I love Hurston’s imagery. “They don’t know if life is a mess of corn-meal dumplings, if love is a bed-quilt” I love how she weaves words together. Here’s another example, “‘Tain’t no use in me telling you somethin’ unless Ah give you de understandin’ to go ‘long wid it. Unless you see de fur, a mink skin ain’t no different from a coon hide.” (7)

Janie is full of “that oldest human longing–self revelation” and Phoeby (and the readers) will hear it all by the time she’s done.

Chapter 2

Janie saw her life like a great tree in leaf with the the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches. (8)

In this chapter we hear Janie’s account of her own childhood. Of never knowing her father, of being abandoned by her mother, of being raised by her grandmother, of her playing with the white children and not knowing that she was different, that she wasn’t white. But these brief sentences about her earliest years aren’t the focus.

She thought awhile and decided that her conscious life had commenced at Nanny’s gate. On a late afternoon Nanny had called her to come inside the house because she had spied Janie letting Johnny Taylor kiss her over the gatepost. (10)

It’s spring. Janie has just begun to get the faintest sign of blossoming into womanhood. She’s beginning to get curious about love, about life, about living. Her ‘awakening’ comes from time spent underneath a pear tree.

Oh to be a pear tree–any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. Where were the singing bees for her? Nothing on the place nor in her grandma’s house answered her. She searched as much of the world as she could from the top of the front steps and then went on down to the front gate and leaned over to gaze up and down the road. Looking, waiting, breathing short with impatience. Waiting for the world to be made. (11)

Her grandmother catches her kissing a boy, and “that is the end of her childhood.” It may sound drastic, but in all fairness she was trying to do right by Janie. Her grandmother is feeling her age. She wants to see Janie married, settled down, taken care of. She doesn’t want Janie to fall for some boy, get pregnant, and “ruin” her life. The grandmother doesn’t want her granddaughter to suffer the same fate as her daughter. She wants Janie to “pick from a higher bush and a sweeter berry.” She is hoping that her granddaughter will be happier than her mother, happier than herself, that she can escape some of the sharpest disappointments and bitterest sufferings.

Logan Killicks. Her grandmother’s vision of a good husband for Janie. The two bicker back and forth for a while. The grandmother trying to share life lessons and bits of wisdom.

Honey, de white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out. Maybe it’s some place way off in de ocean where de black man is in power, but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see. So de white man throw down de load and tell de n***** man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De n***** woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different wid you. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd. (14)

This passage gets at the heart of the text. Relationships between men and women, man and wife. And relationships between races, white and black. The grandmother *thinks* that she can set Janie down on a different path. But her thinking, her hopes and dreams, don’t necessarily match reality.

You know, honey, us colored folks is branches without roots and that makes things come round in queer ways. You in particular. Ah was born back due in slavery so it wasn’t for me to fulfill my dreams of whut 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. (16)

In sharing her story–about her days in slavery, about her daughter’s rape and Janie’s birth–she’s hoping to coax Janie to seek protection over love. She’s hoping that Janie will do this for her–that she will settle down so that she can die easy, die at peace.

Chapter 3

There are years that ask questions and years that answer. Janie had no chance to know things, so she had to ask. Did marriage end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated? Did marriage compel love like the sun the day? (21)

I love Hurston’s writing. “There are years that ask questions and years that answer.” So simple, so powerful. So true.

Chapter three sees Janie marrying Logan. Janie’s vision–of love, of romance, of passion–represented by the pear tree is fading fast. Logan has been good to her so far, but there is no love on her part at least. She still finds him in many ways repulsive. She tells her grandmother, “Some folks never was meant to be loved and he’s one of ’em.” (24). The chapter sees the death of her grandmother.

She knew the world was a stallion rolling in the blue pasture of ether. She knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making. The familiar people and things had failed her so she hung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off. She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman. (25)

Chapter Four

Long before the year was up, Janie noticed that her husband had stopped talking in rhymes to her. (26)

Logan and Janie’s marriage described in detail. The charm has worn off for him. The honeymoon is over. Now he expects Janie to work, to slave, to sweat, to “be a mule” to borrow the imagery of Janie’s grandmother. Perhaps if Janie had love and respect for Logan, the idea wouldn’t be as repulsive to her. The idea of working alongside him wouldn’t be so awful. They’d be focus on the “alongside” and not on the “working.” But as it is, Janie has had enough. Lucky for Janie, someone is coming down the road.

She had been there a long time when she heard whistling coming down the road. It was a cityfied, stylish dressed man with his hat set at an angle that didn’t belong in these parts. His coat was over his arm, but he didn’t need it to represent his clothes. The shirt with the silk sleeveholders was dazzling enough for the world. He whistled, mopped his face and walked like he knew where he was going. He was a seal-brown color but he acted like Mr. Washburn or somebody like that to Janie. (27)

Wanting to catch this stranger’s eye, she goes out of her way to draw attention to herself. She pumps water from the water pump and it isn’t long until he’s asking her for a cool drink of water. She likes what she sees. She’s drawn to him. And though she’s married–and he knows she’s married–they find ways to meet and flirt. He tells her what she wants to hear.

Every day after that they managed to meet in the scrub oaks across the road and talk about when he would be a big ruler of things with her reaping the benefits. Janie pulled back a long time because he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon. He spoke for change and chance. (29)

When he starts talking about how he wants to marry her–to make a wife of her–Janie really starts listening. He tells her that he wants her to run away with him. That if she does, he wouldn’t let the sun go down without them getting married. That he wants to treat her like a lady should be treated. Essentially he’s promising “happily ever after” and escape from the drudgery of a loveless, lifeless marriage to an ugly man. The night before she leaves him, they get in a big fight. The next morning, she slips off to see Joe–Jody to her–and her new life has begun.

From now on until death she was going to have flower dust and springtime sprinkled over everything. A bee for her bloom. Her old thoughts were going to come in handy now, but new words would have to be made and said to fit them. (32)

Chapters 2-4 really highlight Janie’s hopes and dreams. Some might sound foolish and naive, but they’re such strong, vibrant wishes that fuel Janie’s heart and mind and soul. The drudgery of everyday life–either at her grandmothers or her home with Logan–hasn’t fulfilled her. She’s not content with her lot. She’s always wanting more. Not necessarily more as in possessions and wealth and whatnot–but more as in the intangible things–love, passion, life, happiness, etc. Things that money can’t buy. Janie may have started to grow up after her first marriage, but I think she’ll have a way to go before the job is done! Her vision of Jody seems a bit too good to be true.



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  1. Well I’ve got to say that I’m falling in love with this book already. I honestly didn’t know how I’d feel about this one. I struggled with the dialect at first and found myself reading passages over and over again, but by the time the second chapter came around and Janie started telling her story, I was just lost in the tale (lost in a good way) with seemingly no dialogue barrier at all.

    Hurston is an amazing writer! I could fill up an entire quote journal from this book. I love so many of the quotes that you’ve quoted in your summary Becky. And that opening line is just so powerful.

    I like Janie a lot, I like her a whole lot. She’s a strong-headed, strong-willed woman and I have no idea what that’s going to bring to her, but I’m sure it won’t all be good. It’ll be interesting to see.

    Oh, and personally, I’m glad she didn’t stay with Logan. I think her Grandmother had her best interests at heart and I can certainly see how she wanted someone to take care of Janie, especially after what happened to her daughter, but I felt so bad that Janie was forced to marry someone who repulsed her and made her continue to work like a slave even though she was a free woman.

  2. “I could fill up an entire quote journal from this book”

    I agree, Chris. I normally don’t write in books, but with this one I can’t help underlining all these passages. Hurston’s writing is just so powerful, so beautiful, so amazing. The imagery is the best I remember reading.

  3. Hi Becky
    This book has been sitting on my TBR shelf for years.
    I’m loving it and the way you broke up the chapters with dates to read it.

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