Ships at a distance carry 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. (p. 1)
Summary: Janie Crawford, in her forties, looks back on her life from her teenage years, when she first began to get an inkling of the possibilities in a loving marriage between man and wife, symbolized throughout the story by a blooming pear tree. Her grandmother, Nanny, is wary; she had been raped and given birth to Janie's mother, Leafy, and Leafy in turn had been raped and given birth to Janie. What Nanny hopes for Janie is a life of stability and security. But Janie wants that pear tree. She gives in enough to Nanny, however, to marry Logan Killicks, an older farmer; it is not a marriage of love, and she finds it almost unbearable. After Nanny's death, she runs away and marries Jody Stark.
In many ways, her marriage with Joe Stark is an improvement. Stark is a man of ambition and intelligence, and I found some of the most interesting parts of the book to be those in which Jody Stark lays down civilization with a confident hand. But as Joe builds a store and becomes Mayor, Janie finds the fundamental problem with being the wife of an ambitious man: you are on the margins of his life. She also finds that she doesn't like being shopkeeper; she's very good at the social side of it, but she hates the selling and bookkeeping, which, of course, is the actual point of it. And Jody Stark is a man who absolutely knows his mind, as well, and men who know their minds can be very hard to please. Eventually, after quite a few years, they have a quarrel too many, and everything in the marriage that still reminded Janie of that pear tree dissipates. Stark's high-energy and busy life eventually brings on his death, and while she is greatly saddened by it, she also finds a bit of freedom she hadn't had in a while. Jody had left her reasonably well off, well respected in the community and with a business of her own, albeit one for which she did not have much taste. And a few months later -- a little soon for the scandalized town -- she meets Vergible Woods, a younger man known to everybody as Tea Cake.
With Tea Cake, Janie finds something like the pear tree she had always sought. Tea Cake is humorous, charming, cheerful-tempered, and playful. She and Tea Cake run off together to Jacksonville to marry, and eventually end up in the Everglades.
Tea Cake is an interesting character, because he triggers all the standard alarm bells. He's a drifter. He's a gambler. He's fairly free with money, and in fact spends nearly two hundred dollars of Janie's emergency money just throwing a party, without telling her. But most of the alarms are false alarms, in the sense that, yes, Tea Cake is all of these things, with all of the flaws that go with them, but he has more than enough actual love and concern for Janie to compensate for most of them. Yes, it will not be a Jody Stark kind of life, which is why the couple end up in the Everglades picking beans, and it has all of the hard work she would have had with Logan Killicks without much of the security and stability. But this doesn't actually matter so much; for the first time in Janie's life she fully likes who she is, and that makes an undeniable difference. Marriage with Tea Cake is not perfect, by any means; it is sometimes tumultuous in fact. But the thing of it is, Janie was for all practical purposes an expendable part of the lives of Killicks or Stark; neither of them were malicious, but they would have done just as well, and perhaps better, with anyone else, and her role in their lives was mostly to serve a function. In Tea Cake's life, she is Janie, a complete person in her own right. And say what you will about Tea Cake's bad habits, he regularly makes good on his promises, and is willing to put in whatever work is required to do so.
But this world is a hard world. A great hurricane sweeps through the region like the wrath of God, and upends everything. In the course of a hurried evacuation, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog and, when he becomes deranged by the illness, she has to shoot him to save herself. The circumstances are such that her innocence is clear, although Tea Cake's friends try very hard to convict her as a murderer. But what is done, is done; which is why Janie returns and is telling her story rather than spending time with the love of her life.
In a curious way, the book reminded me of Maria Chapdelaine; that book was more a semi-allegorical attempt to capture a sense of options for the future, whereas this one is a more anthropological look at the kinds of options available up to the book's present for a woman like Janie. It is a pastward-looking book. But at the same time, what is the past for us but our lives; and as Janie says to the friend to whom she is telling the story, there are two things that, more than anything else, everyone needs to do for themselves: dying and finding out how to live.
They huddled closer and stared at the door. They just didn't use another part of their bodies, and they didn't look at anything but the door. The time was past for asking the white folks what to look for through that door. Six eyes were questioning God.
Through the screaming wind they heard things crashing and things hurtling and dashing with unbelievable velocity. A baby rabbit, terror ridden, squirmed through a hole in the floor and squatted off there in the shadows against the wall, seeming to know that nobody wanted its flesh at such a time. And the lake got madder and madder with only its dikes between them and him. (p. 159)
Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God: A Novel, HarperCollins (New York: 2006).