I was required to read Their Eyes Were Watching God my senior year of high school in AP Literature & Composition. That was my year. The year I realized I liked English class. Up until that point I knew I liked reading and such, but I’d never thought about doing anything in English (I was going to be an actress. Case closed). Unfortunately, my awesome teacher died a few years after that and I’ve never been able to go back and figure out why it was such an incredible year. I think it was a combination of the literature just connecting with me, a great teacher and just the time that I got it. It wasn’t that I loved all the literature that year. The Sound and the Fury is still the bane of my existence.
But Their Eyes Were Watching God made an impression. All I remember (before this recent reread) was the pear tree and the hurricane. I remember believing that the symbolism of the pear tree was just so deep and how intellectual I must be to get that. I decided to teach it this year in American Lit because it stuck in my mind so well. There are so many books that I read as a student that I can barely recall, so I figured that this one had to be special to still be making a dent in my mind.
I haven’t gone back on that. I have realized that I really thought too much of my ‘intellectual’ ability to recognize the symbolism of the pear tree because it’s pretty obvious. It’s an entire paragraph right in the beginning and there’s nothing subtle about the flowers and the bees. To realize I wasn’t quite as ‘literary-thinking’ as a seventeen year old was a little disheartening, but I got over it.
It’s easy to look at the book from simply a gender studies or ethnic viewpoint. But there is so much more going on. It’s not simply a feminist or African-American book. No simple filter. It deals with men and women; independence and relationships; nature and God; sex and language…it’s deceptively simple, but not really at all. The students think that the hardest part of it is understanding the dialectical dialogue; but there’s just a lot more. The historical context and economic statements are just part of a story about a woman trying to find herself.
The big moment that throws readers is when Tea Cake (Janie’s real love) beats her in response to a racist neighbor bringing her (the neighbor’s) lighter skinned brother around for Janie. Janie never shows any inclination of leaving Tea Cake and he even knows it, but he beats to show the neighbor that he’s in charge of his wife. And Janie, who has found her voice, says nothing. Does nothing.
How can this be okay?
I don’t think it’s supposed to be okay. Tea Cake shouldn’t be perfect. Your one true love will not be perfect. Those you love will lash out at you in anger or frustration and it’s your choice to call them on it or not. It sounds absolutely horrible, but Janie doesn’t call him on it because she seems to know it’s a one-off. He’s angry at the neighbor and lashes out, and Janie lets him. We let our friends and lovers vent when things are bad, often not challenging them because we get that they need to just let it out. Sure that’s just talk and this is physical abuse and I can’t condone it, but at the same time I sort of understand Janie. I do believe if he’d hit her again, she would probably stand up for herself. I have faith that she was at that point in her journey.
It’s easy to say it’s about Janie’s self-discovery. But when you think about it, what does self-discovery even mean? Perhaps it’s like the way Janie describes love: “Dey gointuh make ‘miration ‘cause mah love didn’t work lak they love, if dey ever had any. Then you must tell ‘em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak uh grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. 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,” (191). Maybe self-discovery looks different on different people. For Janie, it was being in love, being connected with a community and being truly who she was. I just hope that makes an impact on my students.
SOTM: The Ghost Inside – Broken Bells
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