The beginning of Their Eyes Were Watching God goes like this:

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, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time. 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.

Is the use of "man" here in the "human" sense, or in the male sense? If it's drawing a comparison between these two sexes, what does Their Eyes Were Watching God mean by this comparison?

It's both, or rather it deliberately shifts in meaning as you read it --part of what makes this one of the most striking beginnings in American literature. There are important textual clues to how this is meant to be interpreted, but one must also keep in mind the time period and cultural context. When it was published, in 1937, a novel by a black woman author would have been very unusual. Hurston's aims with the book were particularly ambitious for the times. She wanted to reach a mainstream literary audience, which would have been largely made up of educated middle and upper-class white readers, but she wanted to present a story that was firmly and specifically rooted in a poor, rural black experience.

Her strategy for doing this is all there in these opening paragraphs. "Ships at a distance have have every man's wish on board." This sentence situates the book within the European literary tradition --it is a classic literary thesis statement like "It is a truth universally acknowledged..." or "It was the best of times.." Hurston knew when writing it that she could reliably expect her audience both to read "every man" as meaning "all humans" (since that was the then-standard reading of that phrase) but to reference it largely to white males (since that was the standard reference group of the times).

It thus makes it all the more striking when the paragraph ends by contrasting the life of women, because it forces you to go back and mentally change the first reference from a neutral one to a gendered one, and simultaneously make room in your mind for the story of a woman when you were expecting a man. It makes you subtly aware that your previous "universal" frame of reference was actually exclusionary. From there, Hurston is prepared to take you the rest of the way on your journey, into the frame of reference of a young black woman, whom she has thus established as worthy of literary attention.

  • "She wanted to reach a mainstream literary audience, which would have been largely made up of educated middle and upper-class white readers, but she wanted to present a story that was firmly and specifically rooted in a poor, rural black experience." Got a link to support this (mainly the first part)? Not only because it would help the answer, but also because it sounds like something I'd be fascinated to read more about :-) – Rand al'Thor Jun 7 at 19:20

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