Greetings, Germs! With summer at its midway point and the heat seeming almost unbearable, many of us find ourselves wrapped up in a good book during this scorching month. While summer reading is littered with fresh YA literature, we simply cannot forget the classics. So, in an attempt to keep up with such a thrilling protagonist as Katniss or Tris, I have chosen to tell you all of a young woman by the name of Janie. In what could be described as a coming of age narrative, Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of the life of Janie Crawford. Born of mixed ancestry near the turn of the 19th century, her story is one of self-discovery, growth, and fervor during a time that said traits were not only scorned, but punishable, for both African-Americans and women.
The story begins with Janie’s return to Eatonville, Florida — the first all-black city in the United States — after a long stint away. With rumors and gossip plaguing the town as to the true happenings of Janie’s life over the past few years, an old friend of hers joins her in her home, and the two women begin a conversation that becomes the recounting of the events in Janie’s life. Janie was raised by her grandmother, Nanny — a tough matriarch that constantly stresses the importance of marriage to her granddaughter. As a teenager, Janie witnesses a flower being pollinated (which is likely a metaphor for something a bit more biological she and other teenage girls experience), and she sets out to find love. After Nanny spots Janie with a boy from town, she fears Janie will end up like her own daughter, pregnant and unwed, and quickly arranges a union between Janie and the much older Logan Killicks.
Logan is an insipid but dependable old farmer, and he puts Janie to work almost instantly after their marriage. Time passes as she is continuously treated more like “the help” than a partner and wife by the often cruel Logan. Janie longs to truly understand love and marriage as she believes it must be more than her life with Logan. Enter Joe Starks. A young up-and-comer, Joe sees Janie and is taken with her youth and beauty. He tells Janie of a settlement he plans to establish in Florida and propositions her to come along as his wife. Needless to say, Janie accepts.
Once the founding of Eatonville is complete, Janie begins to discover the constraints of her new role as Mrs. Starks and a mayor’s wife to be just as binding as those she felt while married to Logan. Joe’s elitist, possessive, and gender role ideals limit Janie in her interaction with the townspeople, and he imposes irrational rules on her, such as keeping her long hair tied up and covered in public. Her marriage to Joe is nothing at all like it was in its early stages, and Janie fears leaving her husband since she does not believe that she can make it on her own — a notion that Joe reiterates to her almost daily.
After two decades, Joe takes to his deathbed – but not before Janie publicly displays her disdain for him and their marriage. Though he attempts to keep her away, Janie speaks with Joe a final time before his death and expresses her feelings of regret for allowing Joe to control her for as long as he did. Joe dies, and Janie refuses to mourn a death she ultimately celebrates; she begins socializing and swimming (one of her favorite pastimes), and she lets down her hair. In the midst of her born again, free-spirited days, Janie meets a young man by the name of Tea Cake who is twelve years younger than herself.
Tea Cake’s youth, passion, and thrill for life draw Janie toward him. Though they eventually enter a romantic partnership, they do not marry since Janie refuses to wed again. Janie is warned by her friends to not trust Tea Cake, saying she might end up like another woman from town that ran off with a younger man only to have her money squandered by him and be left for a younger woman. Janie does not allow the warnings to stop her from following her heart, and, together, she and Tea Cake set out for the Everglades. The two learn to survive together, from events as seemingly unimportant as Tea Cake teaching Janie to shoot a gun and Janie teaching Tea Cake the nuances of partnership vs. gendered subordination. The two begin to find their rhythm as a couple shortly before a massive hurricane hits the glades. During the storm, Tea Cake is bitten by a rabid dog and contracts rabies, which transgresses into a volatile exertion of jealousy and rage towards Janie. Eventually, Janie is forced to shoot and kill Tea Cake and is later tried for murder, of which she is exonerated.
Janie returns home and shares her story, from which much can be taken. Through a lifetime of experiences, three relationships, and love loss, Janie begins to find herself. Her strength and growth over the course of her life sheds light on the possibilities sanctioned for us all. Where she was able to overcome atrocious odds during a time of immense racial and gendered oppression, Janie ultimately blossoms in the same means as the flower she saw in her youth; and, in this discovery, she learns that it is a love of self that she, and all individuals, must adhere to.