Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God

The Labyrinth of Love

I remember my friend Birger sitting across from me on the Shinkansen. We had spent a glorious day at the Grand Shrine of the Sun Goddess at Ise. The rural countryside of Japan unfolded like a scroll painting in the window of our coach. Birger cradled a huge bottle of Kirin Beer in his even huger fist, looked at me, and grinned his grin. “John,” he said, “it doesn’t get much better than this.” And we drank to that.

For some reason, my friend’s causal remark sparked the wonder in me. “Is this as good as it gets?” I thought. And then “How good does it get?” And finally, “How good do I expect it to get?” I immediately thought of John Stuart Mill’s observation that the foundation of happiness lies in “not expecting more from life than it is capable of bestowing.” This foundation is nowhere breached more often than in the case of love. Thomas Moore points out that “many of the problems people bring to therapy involve the high expectations and the rock-bottom experience of love. … Our love of love and our high expectations that it will somehow make life complete seem to be an integral part of the experience. Love seems to promise that life’s gaping wounds will close up and heal.” Incalculable suffering and its attendant closing of the heart follow from the jarring disharmony between love as dreamed and love as lived, love as thought about and love as experienced. As Moore says, “A sentimental philosophy of love, embracing only the romantic and the positive, fails at the first sign of shadow. … Such a partial view also presents impossible ideals and expectations. If love can’t match these ideals, it is destroyed for being inadequate.”

In this essay, in order to temper love’s sentimentality, I will follow the inspiration of Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie in the wonderful book, Their Eye Were Watching God. (The page numbers are from the 1978 edition from the University of Illinois Press). I will do my best to follow Janie’s journey in some detail without at the same time being a spoiler for those who have not read the book. Let us, then, watch how one woman walks the long, arduous, sometimes traumatic, and ultimately fulfilling path of love.

Janie’s first experience of love is physically erotic, and the poetic image of that shatteringly beautiful experience stays with her throughout her life. It was the springtime awakening of Nature resonating in her own soul and body:

“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister-calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation. Then Janie felt a pain remorseless sweet that left her limp and languid.” (24)

It is telling, I think, that Janie counts this time of erotic awakening as the beginning of her conscious life. She longs to be a tree visited by “kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world,” (25) and for the rest of her life she views herself as a blossom opening and closing in response to her own dreams and to the strange workings of the world. This image of the pear tree plays out as a litmus of love throughout the drama of her three marriages. Janie’s journey from her initial awakening to her opening as a blossom herself to her ultimate realization of the transcendental beauty of love is paradoxical in that the deeper she goes into the unexpected shadows of life, the brighter becomes her experience of herself and of love. Through all her difficulties, Janie refuses to settle for a mediocre status quo, and she courageously transforms ignorance into understanding, the need for safety into wild abandon, and a life pinched by fear into one of joyful liberation. These transformations, however, came slowly, tentatively, and with perseverance through unbelievable hardship.

Janie’s first husband, Logan Killicks, is a “good man” (28) who, she says “ain’t even talked ‘bout hittin’ me. He says he never mean to lay de weight uh his hand on me in malice. He chops all de wood he thinks Ah wants and den he totes it inside de kitchen for me. Keeps both water buckets full.” (40) Logan is one of those people who uses goodness, or righteousness, as a defensive shield against the uncertainties of life. He cries, “Ah’m too honest and hard-workin’ for anybody in yo’ family, dat’s de reason you don’t want me!” (53) Janie finds his safety and rectitude just plain dull. Even the seat of his wagon was “a lonesome place like a stump in the middle of the woods where nobody had ever been. The house was absent of flavor too.” (39)

Janie knew at the outset that she did not love Logan, but her Granny, born in slavery, was consumed by fear for her granddaughter. “De thought uh you bein’ kicked around from pillar tuh post is uh hurtin’ thing,” she said. “every tear you drop squeezes uh cup of blood outa my heart.” (31) Love, Granny says, is a trap: “Dat’s de very prong all us black women gits hung on. Dis love! Dat’s just what’s got us uh pullin and uh haulin’ and sweatin’ and doin’ from can’t see in the mornin’ till can’t see at night.” (41)

But for the strong among us, there are no wasted lessons: “She knew now that marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.” (44) Finally she ran off with Mayor Joe Starks, a larger-than- life politician. Joe made “a voice out of a man,” (134) and after he had fabricated an image of himself that was bigger than life, he poured all of his energy into its maintenance, becoming in effect the prisoner of his own image. A friend observes that Joe’s “got a throne in the seat of his pants. … He’s uh man dat changes everything, but nothin’ don’t change him.” (79) When Janie levels the same charge at Joe in her powerful speech at his death bed, she is aware of the effect this has had on her: “You wasn’t satisfied wid me de way Ah was. Naw! Mah own mind had tuh be squeezed and crowded our tuh make room for yours in me.” (133) I wonder how many modern women could make the same accusation. At any rate, Janie lived and suffered through years of an ego-bound denial of life until her liberation by Joe’s death.

After some time alone, Janie was swept off her feet one day by a free spirit of a man named Tea Cake, and with him she learned the power and the vitality that come from the death of conventionalism. “So in the beginnin’,” she says, “new thoughts had tuh be thought and new words said. … He done taught me de maiden language all over.” (173) During the first blush of their relationship, Janie’s favorite name for Tea Cake was “crazy thing.’

Thus forty years of struggle and disillusionment, insight and growth had brought her to the point of loving—and being loved by—-a Crazy Thing. To Janie, Tea Cake Was Love itself: “He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps. Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he took. Spices hung about him. He was a glance from God.” (161) His utter spontaneity both dazzled her and kindled her spirit. She “beams out with light” (153) as she and Tea Cake “went rollicking with springtime across the world.” (137) They went fishing at midnight, and “it was so crazy digging worms by lamp light…that she felt like a child breaking rules.” (155) And when Tea Cake tells her they are going down on the muck to work, he says they are “goin’ tuh do somethin’ crazy”: they are going to a place where “folks don’t do nothin’…but make money and fun and foolishness.” (192)

This foolishness that Janie has learned is the wisdom of living with risk and uncertainty. When her friend Phoebe cautions her that in marrying Tea Cake she is “takin’ uh awful chance.” Janie responds: “No mo’ than Ah took befo’ and no mo’ than anybody else takes when dey gits married. It always changes folks, and sometimes it brings out dirt and meanness dat even de person didn’t know they had in ‘em theyselves. You know dat. Maybe Tea Cake might turn out lak dat. Maybe not. Anyhow, Ah’m ready and will’un tuh try ‘im.” (171)

Janie further explains that life and “love ain’t like a grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and do de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak the 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.” (284)

Now the shore that love meets is not only different from relationship to relationship, but from day to day and hour to hour. Life shifts and changes, and people with it. And so the sea of love had its stormy and fearful moods, giving rise to doubt and jealousy: “In the cool of the afternoon the fiend from hell specially sent to lovers arrived at Janie’s ear. Doubt. All the fears that circumstance could provide and the heart feel, attacked her on every side.” (163) And so “Janie learned what it felt like to be jealous…She began to be snappish a little. A little seed of fear growing into a tree.” (203) These seeds grew until Tea Cake, terrified by the presence of a potential rival, beat Janie. It was “no brutal beating at all. He just slapped her around a bit to show he was boss.” (218) This episode is one of the two most disturbing scenes in the book. The other, of course, is the shocking and tragic death of Tea Cake. (I will pass over the manner of his demise in deference to those who have yet to read the book).

For all its poetry, Hurston’s vision of love is radically unsentimental. She sees clearly that a heart needs grit in order to work out its dreams of love. Her deeper insight is that even after true love is achieved, the demons of doubt and distrust and fear continue to challenge and nurture growth. Seen in this light, these demons are part of love’s nature. They constitute its richness and vitality, for Love is like all living things: when it ceases to unfold, it dies. The beating was a terrible moment for them both but when it had passed they found themselves caring about each other, and healing each other’s pain. Those of us who have banned physical violence from our lives will still have challenging moments in our relationships. As long, however, as nothing–truly nothing— matters more than love itself, the relationship itself, every challenge will be a step toward deeper commitment.

Thus, Janie found love with Tea Cake and peace within herself, but only after years of trial and error and heartache. As she grew in wisdom and love, she sank more deeply into herself and therefore more deeply into the fabric of the world. She learned that the greatest insights into the nature of love need to be fired in the forge of life’s beauty and life’s sadness. Tea Cake—crazy, human, spontaneous Tea Cake—was a glance from God. It seems to me, that if we could all remember that our loved ones are indeed a glance from God, then that is as good as it gets.

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