Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. Some come in with the tide. Others sail forever on the horizon…That is the life of man.
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.
And so the novel opens. The storyteller begins to weave the tale starting at the end and bringing us back circuitously to the beginning
Janie, dressed in muddy overalls and weary from her journey relates her story to friend Pheoby. This sharing of her tale is not only an affirmation, but evokes the age old practice of sharing or confessional which has now evolved into the Talk Show. (think Oprah, Ellen, Steve Harvey)
Janie saw her life “like a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches”.
We learn that Janie’s journey of self has taken her through three marriages and many struggles. Walker notes that Eyes is generally thought of as a love story, but its theme, she believes, is Janie’s search for identity which finally takes shape when she throws off the images thrust upon her because she is both black and a woman in a society where neither is allowed to exist naturally and freely.
Literature is replete with stories of this search for identity. The Bildungsroman is a novel that traces the development of character from childhood to adulthood, through a quest for identity that leads the protagonist to maturity.
The story of Siddhartha often comes to mind when I think of the protagonist of Eyes. Like Siddhartha, Janie’s world is full of natural images that symbolize the role of nature in the character’s quest for a better understanding of self.
In trying to decide whether marriage to Logan Killicks and his oft mentioned thirty acres was the answer, Jane was back and forth to the pear tree…continuously wondering and thinking.
She looked to the horizon for answers. And she soon realized that marriage to the lackluster Mr. Killicks, despite his financial security was not her idea of love. Nanny, however, thinks that marrying Mr. Killicks will be the answer. She tells, Janie.. The ni**er woman is de mule uh de world so far as Ah can see. Ah been prayin fuh it tuh be different wid you.
But Janie realizes marriage to Mr. Killicks is not the answer. Ah wants things sweet wid mah marriage lak when you sit under a pear tree and think. She ends the marriage when she hurries out the front gate and turned South. Zora writes, Janie’s first dream was dead, so she became a woman.
Janie’s second husband, the domineering, boastful Joe Starks from in and around Georgy represented newness and change. Janie knew that Joe did not represent sun up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon. To Janie, this represented another rung on the ladder of self fulfillment.
Marriage to Mayor Starks, however, proved to be demoralizing as Janie realized that he wanted her to play the role of the submissive wife keeping her thoughts and opinions to herself…Mah wife don’t know nothing ’bout no speech-making, he tells a crowd. Ah never married her for nothing lak dat. She’s uh woman and her place is in de home.
After twenty years, the marriage ends with Joe dying from a longterm illness, during which he refused to see Janie. Finally, Janie confronts Joe on his death bed..All dis bowin’ down, all dis obedience under yo’ voice-dat ain’t why Ah rushed off down de road tuh fund out about you.
At Joe’s funeral, Janie ...starched and ironed her face and came set in. She sent her face to Joe’s funeral but herself went rollicking with the springtime across the world. Janie’s journey for self discovery continues.
It is here that Zora’s fictional life and real life seem to intersect (this often happens in a novel). Zora meets and falls in love with the real love of her life. He was tall, dark brown, magnificiently built with a beautifully modeled back head…And he was an Alpha man. However, Zora notes, she did not fall in love with him because of looks..he had a fine mind and that intrigued me.
He was a man who wanted to do for her...But nothing, she writes..must be in my life but himself. Zora’s career and fierce independence began to interfere with their relationship. Finally, Zora found escape from the struggle to maintain her ‘self’ in the relationship in the form of a Guggenheim Fellowship. For two years she was to study/research out of the country. Eyes was published in 1937 while she was in the Caribbean . She wrote it in only seven weeks. This was my chance to release him and fight myself free from my obsession. So I pitched in to work hard on my research to smother my feeling.
Similarly, Janie’s love affair with Vergible Tea Cakes Woods, an easy going laborer, ten years her junior, represents her fulfillment in a union. Tea Cakes teaches Janie ...de maiden language all over. He is man enough to treat her as an equal and they spend their days traveling from job to job working the land, in unison with nature. The novel ends on a bittersweet note as Janie’s dream fades into reality and she realizes the journey one must travel to distinguish role from self.
Many literary critics say that Eyes is the quintessential love story. However, like Zora’s own real life, Eyes is also a story of survival and realization of self. In her autobiography, Zora writes…Be that as it may, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I have loved and been loved by the perfect man. If I never hear of love again, I have known the real thing.
And in true tongue-in-cheek Zora fashion, quips: But pay no attention to what I say about love..it may not mean a thing…Just because my mouth opens up like a prayer book, it does not just have to flap like a Bible.
Love. Life. Identity. Illusion. Reality. Dream. Truth. Roles. Self. Nature. Struggle. Their Eyes Were Watching God is all this and so much more…just turn the pages.