I remember when I read this book shortly after college; I loved it but alas, here I am 15 years later and couldn’t remember any of the details and why I enjoyed the book. I decided a reread was in order and determined I would not put off for later what I can do now.
“There is a basin in the mind where words float around on thought and thought on sound and sight. Then there is a depth of thought untouched by words, and deeper still a gulf of formless feelings untouched by thought.”
From the beginning of this narrative, I remember my first experience with this book. Reading it can be a bit of a challenge if you aren’t familiar with the rhythm of spoken language in the black community. I felt I had been transported back to a time period in which my great grandparents could have lived.
I picked up the audiobook and was transported into the lyrical beauty and prose of Hurston through an award winning performance by Ruby Dee. The audio experience enriches the essence of the story. I was Pheoby and Janie is giving me a first hand account of all that’s happened since she’s been away. Janie refreshes my memory about her childhood just in case I might question some of the decisions she’s made leading up to her decision to run off with Tea Cake.
“Small town gossip abounds as Janie returns home after she run off with that young Thang Tea Cake. He’s probably spent all her money.”
Of course everyone is eager to find out what’s happened. Janie could care less what people think but shortly after the book begins, we get Janie’s story as she recounts it to her her friend and let’s her decide if she, share it with the nosey neighborhood.
Janie was born to a mother who never took much interest in her; Jamie’s grandmother did her best to raise Janie and secure a future for her outside of working for the white man.
“It was all according to the way you see thjngs. Some people could look at a mud puddle and see an ocean with ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. 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 granddaughters neck tight enough to choke her.”
I literally had to stop reading and just digest the gravity of this statement. I thought about the female generations of my family, prior to me. And I saw in Janie’s grandmother what no doubt many black women of that time period viewed as freedom. Not so far removed from the oppression and bondage of slavery, prejudice and racism still prevail. Single black women suffered in the oppressive circumstances mentioned here so no doubt Janie’s grandmother associated marrying not for love, but for security and sense of freedom by having a man who could take care of you physically and financially. Emotionally, one is not to worry about that. It might come when you learn to love each other, but at least you aren’t slaving for the white people.
Janie can look back and feel a measure of resentment about how her grandmother choose to secure her future. The horizon from the perspective of Janie’s grandmother wasn’t a grand one. I felt sympathy for both women, how could we fault the generations before us for doing what they thought best with the few choices they had? But Janie was a woman ahead of her time and we can see her mature along the way.
With each of Janie’s subsequent marriages, she learns that it’s not the man who makes you who to are, and to some men, all you are (as a woman) is a trophy. Where is the teamwork, the complementary role a woman is to fulfill as a wife, with a desire to support her husband’s endeavors, but to be free to think, feel and make choices of one’s own. A husband who might even take the time to nuture and support the ambitions of his wife and not feel she’s in competition with him.
When Tea Cake comes along, Janie experiences the first real loving relationship of her life with a man. He cherishes her and dotes on her, Janie falls in love. But one thing about love, it can’t change the essence of a person. Tea Cake surprises me to a degree when they leave to go to Florida. I feel like his charms fall away and unfortunately, he is a byproduct of his circumstances too. Janie loves him despite his flaws and I’m sure he loves her despite hers. There is a resilience in Janie’s relationship with Tea Cake which is different from all her others.
Hurston evokes some of the strongest emotional connections with these characters and I’ve thought about this book for months after finishing. I’m sure there is more to say, more to think about but for now I’m looking forward to reading the unread Hurston books on my shelf. Do yourself a favor and pick this one up on audio. Ruby Dee is stellar (and I might just listen to this again in measured doses to savor the story).