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. (page 1)
From this beginning, Zora Neale Hurston’s masterpiece Their Eyes Were Watching God (published 1937) captures in one woman’s quest to arrive at the horizon. Part love story and part coming-of-age story, Janie’s story shows how overcoming oppressive traditions and learning to speak for one’s self empowers one with satisfaction and peace.
As an expert in folklore, Ms Hurston was uniquely qualified to capture the African-American traditions and unique dialect in Their Eyes Were Watching God. But to me, the novel transcends race and completely captures what it means to be human in an oppressive world. It beautifully answers the question of how to find hope in the midst of the challenges that life sends our way in our journey toward the horizon.
This post contains some thematic spoilers for Their Eyes Were Watching God.
As Janie tells her life story, we see how her life continually changes. As a young girl, Janie imagines life as romantic. She looked for poetry in the unknown tomorrow: “God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up” (page 30). Although the novel doesn’t have a religious undertone, Hurston uses the imagery of “God” to represent the unknown future, and the unknown “far horizon” (page 35, and elsewhere) is the inaccessible happiness that one lives for.
But even that longing for the horizon proved an illusion as she grew. “No matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you,” Janie realizes (page 107). Only when she abandoned tradition, ignored criticism, and lived as her soul yearned to, following her own mind, was she able to say, “I done been tuh de horizon and back” (page 225).
Given the subject matter (a woman in oppressive marriages, domestic violence, racial insecurity, natural disasters, basic challenges of life), one may think Their Eyes Were Watching God would be depressing. But Janie’s story has a theme of hope. She ultimately expresses her delight at having found happiness.
If you kin see de light at daybreak, you don’t keer if you die at dusk. It’s so many people never seen de light at all. Ah wuz fumblin’ round and God opened de door. (page 186)
I loved this image. No matter what God sends (i.e., no matter the challenges that come in life), it’s all right if one has found peace in one’s self and through others. The last chapters had me crying. I’d listened to the audio of the book before, and I remember liking it. This time, I read the text, and I cried as Janie admitted her satisfaction. The horizon is her comfort for the future. She had finally arrived.
She pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. … She called in her soul to come and see. (page 227)
This is a book I need to reread more frequently.
Quotes, page numbers, and cover image from the HarperCollins Hardcover Edition, published 2000, ISBN 0-06-019949-0. Copyright 2000 HarperCollins.