The novel begins with a statement of its central subject:
Ships at a distance have every man’s wish on board. For some they come in with the tide. For others they sail forever on the horizon. . . . That is the life of men. 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. Then they act and do things accordingly.
The differences between the reactions of men and women form the core of the novel. Janie, the protagonist, is able to live her dream after two false starts. At the novel’s end, Janie is left with her memories, and her gift to the community at large is her willingness to share her story with others.
The horizon is a metaphor to which Hurston returns to describe the characters and their relation to their dreams. Nanny Crawford, Janie’s grandmother and protector, is described as a woman who has a limited and limiting dream. She wants protection for Janie; Janie, however, comes to think of Nanny’s dream as a noose that is slowly strangling her and depriving her of her own dream.
Other characters share Nanny’s dream of material wealth as a safety net that helps to buoy their position in society. Logan Killicks represents the completely practical man whose ship has come in with the tide. Likewise, Joe Starks wishes that “his people” would spend less time playing and more time attending to their business. Janie comes to reject this materialistic philosophy as a masculine dream; however, her later adventures are underwritten by the wealth she inherits from Starks.
Arrayed against the materialists are a group of characters loosely defined as the “folk.” Hurston’s anthropological work, particularly her folklore collection Mules and Men (1935), serves as the basis for the folk characters depicted in the novel. Though they are despised and exploited by characters such as Starks, the “folk” are noteworthy for their “signifying,” or verbal gamesmanship. Signifying may take the form of jokes, put-downs, or storytelling, and the stories may be truthful or fabulous.
Janie’s growth as a character is closely related to her ability as a master storyteller. At first she is prevented from telling stories by Nanny Crawford and Logan Killicks, who want to keep her isolated from the world. Joe Starks wants her to enter the world, but in a limited role: She is to serve as a nonspeaking ornament to his success. When she does attempt to join in the storytelling and signifying that go on at the store, she is rebuked by Starks and told to stay in her place. Only Tea Cake allows her the choice of joining into the dialogue of the culture. As a blues musician, Tea Cake realizes the importance of the audience and its response, and he and Janie soon join in a symbiotic, nonhierarchical relationship of storyteller and audience. Tea Cake and the crew down on the muck help to give Janie the confidence that she needs to live and tell her own story. By the time that she returns to Eatonville, Janie has acquired the ability to become the narrator of her own story; Pheoby comments that she has grown simply from having heard Janie’s story.