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.
In The Sermon and the African American Literary Tradition (1995), Doland Hubbard has argued that African Americans were forced to redefine Christian experience to make it applicable to their particular experience in the United States. White Christians had argued that slavery was justified by the Bible, and later that segregation and Jim Crow laws were biblically ordained through the stories of Cain and Abel and of Noah’s descendants. African American ministers, on the other hand, identified slave experience with the experience of Jews in Egypt, so that God working through Moses to free the Hebrew children was analogous to civil rights leaders working to bring equality to African Americans. Clearly, to black Christians, God was ultimately even and square in his dealings with people—white, black, man, woman, they were all children of the same father.
Hurston’s novel demonstrates this point long before the Civil Rights movement, for what Janie learns in both her relationships and in her experience in the hurricane is that all must face God in the same manner. Whites are not the ones who watch God and then tell African Americans what to do. All eyes watch God. Furthermore, Janie ultimately concludes that God sees each individual as unique: Everyone has to go to God, she concludes. We may assume, therefore, that she is justified in learning to do the things that men do and also in defending her life at the expense of her lover’s.
In addition to being a God before whom each individual must stand, the God Hurston presents is overwhelming and terrifying in much the same way that God is portrayed in the Old Testament. The God that Janie and Tea Cake ultimately watch in the storm reminds the reader of the God who speaks in a whirlwind and who says to Job that he should gird up his loins and speak for himself. Hurston is unclear on the true nature of this God, reminding the reader that the Hebrews of the Old Testament were unable to say the name of God because God (or Yahweh, the name they substituted for God) was too big for them to know completely. Hurston’s prose even echoes the Old Testament when she describes death in these haunting words:Death, that strange being with the huge square toes who lived way in the West. The great one who lived in the straight house like a platform without sides to it, and without a roof. What need has death for a cover, and what winds can blow against him? He stands in his high house that overlooks the world. Stands watchful and motionless all day with his sword drawn back, waiting for the messenger to bid him come. Been standing there before there was a where or a when or a then.
The suggestiveness and ambiguity of these words echo the King James version of the Old Testament, reminding readers that God was to Adam a voice walking in the garden, that the void before the world was formed was “the face of the deep” on which God moved, and that God commanded Abraham to slay Isaac.
Hurston embeds in her novel a palpable sense of the wonder of God as well as the fear he and his world invoke. As the controlling image in the novel, the horizon is the place where one must go to know God, but even in knowing God, one does not understand fully the power of God. Along with the terror of death comes the power of sunrise expressed in these unforgettable lines: “She [Janie] knew that God tore down the old world every evening and built a new one by sun-up. It was wonderful to see it take form with the sun and emerge from the gray dust of its making.” Ultimately Janie’s journey to the horizon and back is worth all it costs her in that she comes to know the unknowable in life. It is with this paradox that Hurston leaves the reader.