I Am Forty, Like Janie

There are certain books I go back to time and time again for rereading. A few are: The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, Their Eyes Were Watching God, The Year of the Flood, The Gold Cell. They each imprinted on me when I first read them, and I can’t let them go. Each time I reread them, I am different and my understanding of the book changes. It always reminds me of this passage from Catcher:

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I remember when I reread The Catcher in the Rye the summer I moved to New York City and I got the setting–I knew Fifth Avenue, I worked next to the Museum of Natural History, I had walked many times in Central Park, I had taken a taxi and because of these things the entire book changed. I remember teaching The Great Gatsby to an Honors English class right after I had turned 30, the age of Nick Carroway the protagonist and narrator, and I got him and that sense of early adult urgency and drama on an entirely different level. When I picked up The Gold Cell after having had my kids the poems about birth and motherhood literally brought me to tears; I had not noticed them in prior readings.

Another one of those moments of literature-to-self realization happened recently.

I was teaching ethnographic research, and as an example of how one could turn qualitative anthropological research into fiction I xeroxed a page from Their Eyes Were Watching God. Like I mentioned in the post I just wrote about lecturing, I was trying to break up the lecture with readings and videos that would be VERY interesting to the students, so I found the excerpt when Janie, the protagonist, gets insulted by her husband Joe in front of the whole town. She is tired of him and his put-downs; she gets him back by insulting his penis (yes, you read that correctly) in front of the whole town. You can bet your bottom dollar that these two pages of text, read aloud by the class, kept them VERY interested. Zora Neale Hurston, the author, studied the town of Eatonville (a real place and where the novel is set) to master the dialect so that she could accurately portray her characters in the novel.

While the students snickered over the Southern language, the talk of sagging bottoms, impotence, and such, I was struck that Janie, in Their Eyes Were Watching God, was about 40. FORTY. F.O.R.T.Y.

I had never paid attention her age before, and I am guessing that I have read this book five times.

This summer I turned forty.

Suddenly I got Janie on a whole different level. I got her exhaustion with petty crap and petty people, her strong sense of being a woman, her desire to love and be loved for who she was, her craving for passion because, honestly, life is half over, her willingness to take a risk on Teacake, her ability to sacrifice–I got it all. The entire book shifted, quake-like, into place and floored me. I have always loved this book for various reasons, but now I love it because as a 40 year old woman I GET IT.

What an amazing feeling.

[To read more about Zora Neale Hurston, Their Eyes Were Watching God, and its genesis, go here. The more I learn about her, the more praise-worthy she becomes.]

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2 thoughts on “I Am Forty, Like Janie

  1. Yes – isn’t it amazing how your perception shifts as you grow older (emphasis on ‘grow’ ;-D)? I feel the same. I go back to books I read years ago and find I hear their voice in a totally new way. Unfortunately it also happens with class novels and I get emotional reading about love and loss and freedom and hope in front of young people whose experience is so limited. I sometimes find I have to cough or take a shaky breath just to get through a line! (Me? Overly emotional? It’s not time for HRT yet…)

    • Ha. You made me laugh. I have always been prone to tearing up in my classroom over the most unexpected, stupid things. But no, not time for HRT yet! 😉

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