This book turned out to be quite different from what I expected. From the synopsis, I gathered the novel to be a coloured woman’s struggle to live a free and independent life. But this is quite mistaken. While the protagonist of this novel, Janie, was an independent mind and wished to be listened to and treated like an equal, the story is by no means a struggle for her to break free and lead an independent life. Rather, it was a battle to win love, equality, and respect within the marriage. It is also misleading to interpret Janie’s journey to establish her own identity within her marriages as a quest of a coloured woman, for this is an age-long battle of every woman. Although women now are comparatively in a much better position than they used to be, having independence and equal rights within marriage always depend on the men they marry. It’s the same for Janie who yearns for a loving, respectful, and fulfilling relationship in each of her three marriages. It is only her third husband who comes close to fulfilling her expectation, but his untimely death puts a cruel end to this happy union.
After finishing the novel, I began pondering what Hurston was really trying to say through her story. Janie was first married off to an older man who saw in her only a helping hand. To her second husband, she was only a trophy wife. It is with the third husband that she claims happiness, but the bliss is short-lived. The turn of Janie’s story made me think whether Hurston is alluding that a blissful marriage where the woman is loved, respected, and treated like an equal is a mere illusion. If one analyzes the storyline, Hurston is clear about the fact that no one has any control over their lives and that everyone must bow down to the higher forces of nature and God. When no one has control over their own lives, the expectations such as living a blessed life become an illusion, mere fancies. It can take only a blink of an eye for life to come crashing down, shattering the illusion of bliss, and leaving only despair. We live in a fragile, changeable world where it is impossible to hope for permanent bliss. And so, we, eyes raised, keep watching God, hopeful of any merciful intervention to help us sail life in smooth and happier waters.
This is an important classic that has a contemporary resonance. With its abundance of the southern dialect, it wasn’t an easy task to journey through the story. But it was worth the perseverance, for the novel provided much food for thought.