I reread this on audio, since the last time I read it was in high school, and I did not love it. I decided to count it for one of this year’s Read Harder tasks: an assigned book you hated or never finished. I definitely didn’t hate it, but…wow. All I remember from my first reading is the bit about the dog. I seriously cannot believe how much I missed the first time I read it. It makes me cringe a bit, thinking about how unmoved my younger self was by this book. Because this one is a masterpiece, and I don’t know how I missed it.
So, here are the things I loved about this novel, which, apparently, escaped my notice as a seventeen-year old:
First of all, the prose! What astounding, glorious writing. I wanted to write down every other line. The sheer amount of wisdom packed into such a short novel is incredible. But it’s never didactic or even vague–it’s wisdom that’s relatable, born of struggle and survival. It’s wise, but a little salty, too, and all written so beautifully. Hurston’s descriptive power is impressive, whether she’s describing the lush and verdant Florida countryside or the crushing poverty faced by so many poor black workers in the novel.
The audiobook was utterly, utterly good–it’s on my list of all-time favorite audiobooks now. I wonder if perhaps I struggled with the dialect when I read it as a teenager. I suspect that now, if I read it in print, I’d be able to sink into the distinct and lovely voices Hurston uses. But listening to it was an absolute joy. Ruby Dee embodies Janie and Tea Cake so fully that everything else falls away. Her performance is superlative, one of those rare audiobooks where it’s so good and so natural that it does not feel as if you are being read to, but as if you’re inside the book itself. I think this book is especially suited to the audio format. Hurston clearly wanted to capture the authentic voices of her characters, which is hard to do in print. Hearing those voices spoken was a true gift–transformative, like hearing poetry read aloud.
Beyond the gorgeous prose, something that struck me was how much joy there was in the novel. Yes, it’s a book full of suffering. Janie survives two bad marriages, including one abusive one. There’s poverty and racism and violence. Hurston captures the horror faced by black folks in the South in the 1930s; at times, it was hard to read. But what stayed with me, upon finishing the novel, was the joy.
So often, stories about marginalized communities center only the suffering, rather than telling whole human stories, stories in which oppressed people are more than than the sum of all their oppression. Hurston does not allow her characters to be defined by suffering. Their suffering is real, but so is their joy.
Joy lies at the heart of Janie and Tea Cake’s relationship. They have so much fun together. They laugh and joke and are silly together. Amidst real pain and real oppression, they take deep joy in each other. They go on midnight fishing trips, they sit on the porch of Janie’s store in the afternoons playing checkers, they enjoy food together, they go out dancing, they sit up late around the campfire, singing and talking with their fellow laborers. Their love is mostly defined by pleasure; Janie’s as much as Tea Cake’s. It’s tempting to laud this as an incredible feminist achievement for a book published in 1937, but I think that’s selling the book short. It’s an incredible feminist achievement, period.
Something else I noticed, that does strike me as radical for a book written in the 1930s, is that children do not factor into the story. Janie does not have any children, despite being married to Jody Starks for close to twenty years. Having children, presumably, was expected of her: the role of women was to be wives and mothers. Hurston offers no explanations, nor does she need to. The book is not about motherhood. Not being a mother, and thus, not equating womanhood with motherhood, is another way that Janie refuses to stay inside the lines. Hurston’s decision to simply write the story she wanted to tell, defying convention or expected reality, left me wanting to cheer.
I loved this book. If you haven’t read it in years, or since it was assigned to you in school, I simply cannot recommend the audiobook enough.