“Then you must tell ‘em dat love ain’t somethin’ lak ah grindstone dat’s de same thing everywhere and dod de same thing tuh everything it touch. Love is lak the de sea. It’s movin’ thing, but still and all, it takes its shape from de shore it meets, and it’s different with every shore.”
This quotation should be enough to convince anyone to read this beautiful book.
Janie turns into a strong, self-assured woman through the course of the book’s extended flashback (who’s got two thumbs and is a fan of frame tale/flashbacks? this gal), but what she undergoes to get to that point is, to put it mildly, a hell of a lot. She has three husbands, only one of whom she ends up really loving, and that is the marriage that ends tragically. I won’t say what happens, what had to happen. You can read it and feel the weight of it yourself.
Zora Neale Hurston is an interesting case. Her work had become neglected after her death, only to be resurrected years later during Second Wave Feminism. It’s not hard to see why. Janie performs many roles through the course of the book, most of them related to stereotypical ideas of femininity and a woman’s place. Her first husband seems to be interested in Janie as a helping (farm)hand and someone to cook his meals. Her second husband values Janie as a trophy wife, someone to help him maintain dignity and appearances. As mayor of a new town, he has the freedom to wander while she remains stuck in his general store, doing work she detests. Her third husband is younger than her, but he doesn’t care. He loves Janie, wants what’s best for her, discusses things with her, works alongside her in the bean fields. That vision of equality cannot go unnoticed.
Because it’s told in a flashback, the book takes on a hint of a dreamy quality, at least to me. Maybe I kept the flashback too much in mind. But Hurston knows how to describe an oncoming hurricane without a hint of dreaminess. It’s foreboding; you can feel the tension in the air, the hiss-crackle of it.
But to return to the opening quotation. Janie says these words in eloquent defense of her third marriage, as a buffer to the townfolks that judge her for marrying her third husband. They find it unnatural that she and a younger man would marry, would even love one another. Hurston isn’t making a case for cougarism (but if she is, it’s a pretty one), only for tolerance and a relaxing of societal expectations, a call for openmindedness and for knowing the facts before passing judgment.