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.
This passage, which opens Their Eyes Were Watching God, establishes the novel’s unusual perspective on gender difference. Because it is the story of a woman and because it was the first major novel published by a black woman, Their Eyes Were Watching God is often classified as a feminist novel. But feminism is often associated with the idea that men and women are absolutely equal; here, the narrator immediately establishes a fundamental difference between men and women. The idea that men and women need certain things from each other recurs many times throughout the novel, as Janie searches for the man who can complement her and give her those things that she doesn’t have, and Logan, Jody, and Tea Cake attempt to fill their respective needs in their respective relationships with Janie. Finally, the passage foreshadows the novel’s thematic concerns: the statement about women is proud and defiant, saying that while men never really reach for their dreams, women can control their wills and chase their dreams. As the novel unfolds, Janie acts according to this notion, battling and struggling in the direction of her dreams.