La part de l'autre

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Éric-Emmanuel Schmitt

Chapter 1

Hurston begins the book with a brief outline of the dimensions of life, symbolized by ships kept at a distance, holding all the fulfillment of mankind on board. It appears to be a matter of chance which ones come in to dock. Some dreams come true, and some do not.

For women, “the dream is truth” and once it is possessed it must not be abandoned—even if chance takes the dream back out to sea. Such, at least, appears to be the omniscient narrator’s sense of things.

From this omniscient perspective, the vision is quickly narrowed in scope to a cluster of women gathered upon a porch in Eatonville, where they sit and gossip idly most of the day. They observe a woman in overalls approaching down the main road. It is Janie Starks, a strong, confident, passionate woman who had left them all years ago—left them with a man named Tea Cake. Now she is returned, ostensibly from those same shores where dreams come true briefly outlined by the omniscient narrator in the first few lines of the novel.

The porch sitters immediately begin to speculate on her troubles, but Janie does not pay them much mind. She stops only long enough to acknowledge them politely but then continues on to her old house. It is plain that the women on the porch are envious of Janie’s looks and confidence—even if she does appear to have suffered from time and misfortune. To satisfy their envy, they commence running her down with their talk. Janie’s old friend Pheoby Watson, however, (upon whose husband’s porch they are all gathered) refuses to listen to the women gossip about that which they know nothing of. She quiets the women and takes a plate of food to Janie. The old friends sit on the back porch of Janie’s family’s house. There, apart from the gossipers, Janie begins to tell Pheoby all that has happened to her since she “ran off” with Tea Cake.

In this chapter, Hurston sets the tone of the narrative, combining a kind of mystical scope with a very particular place and dialect (a heavy Southern black vernacular). Hurston likens her heroine Janie Starks to a symbol of romantic womanhood unimpeded by convention—but defeated by chance and by time. Nonetheless, Janie is proud of herself, and her pride is located in the fact that she loved and was loved—even if it is all over now. The details of that love are what will now be shared with Janie’s friend Pheoby because Pheoby—unlike the gossiping women on the porch—does not judge Janie.

Chapter 2

Janie’s pride, however, compels her to begin her narrative at childhood. It appears that she is speaking for her own benefit—thinking out loud her entire history so as to understand it herself. All the same, Pheoby is a ready listener, and with food on the stove for her husband Sam back home, she has time enough to give attention to Janie’s recollections.

Janie begins by describing her childhood in an all-black community. She speaks of her time with a white family (the Washburns), and the day she realized she was different from them (at least externally) only when she saw her picture in a photograph. As a child, Janie was astonished to see that she was so dark compared to the white children in the picture. It is her first recollection of reality as opposed to the dream of childhood happiness. The second recollection of reality in opposition to the dream comes a few years later when a boy named Johnny Taylor kisses her.

This kiss is seen by Janie’s Nanny (her grandma). Nanny takes Janie aside to tell her she must be married—and not to any riff-raff like Johnny Taylor, but to someone respectable like Brother Logan Killicks. Janie tries to insist that she is not a woman yet but is still a child. Nanny refuses to hear it, however, and whips Janie across the face.

Nanny does not mean any harm, however; she only wants to protect Janie. Janie does not see how Logan Killicks will protect her.

Nanny then begins to relate to Janie her own story, and the theme of dreams is picked up again. Nanny describes her life as a slave on a plantation in Georgia and how she had dreams for her daughter Leafy (whose father was the plantation owner). With Emancipation came freedom (always linked to dreams), and Nanny saw a chance for Leafy to make those dreams come true. But Leafy disappointed Nanny by running away and leaving behind her own baby—Janie. Janie then became a second chance for Nanny. Janie, in other words, is told that she is Nanny’s dreams personified.

Nanny will not have her dreams ruined this time—not by someone like Johnny Taylor, whose advances are sure to result in another child out of wedlock. Nanny wants Janie to marry and have her happiness secured. Janie does not want to be cared for by Logan Killicks. Her own dream of happiness conflicts with Nanny’s.

This chapter shows how there is a difference between the dreams of generations and the reality that affects both. Nanny’s dream (affected by time and place—slavery in the South) is for protection and security; Janie’s dream (affected by youth and freedom—likened to a budding pear tree) is for love and beauty. The reality, however, is that Nanny cannot provide security forever. She hopes that Killicks can provide it—but that is part of her dream. Janie wants love—not security. Her dream of love is given a back seat to Nanny’s dream of security—for a time.

Chapter 3

This chapter begins with another cosmic speculation by the omniscient narrator concerning the relationship between love and marriage. Janie does not have answers to these questions. All she has is her own experiences and hunches to go on.

Janie is married to Killicks—but she does not find love in the marriage. She had supposed that love might be possible, and she references her dream of sitting below a pear tree (her symbol of love) and growing close to Killicks. But the reality is that the two are dissimilar and that Janie still feels unloved. Finding that the possibility for love grows dimmer and dimmer, Janie visits Nanny for advice. Nanny tells her to wait it out—which disappoints Janie. Soon after this meeting, Nanny dies.

Janie continues to wonder, however. She identifies herself with the seasons, with the blooming of the trees, and with the falling of the seeds. She accepts the answer that seems to return to her from nature itself: “marriage did not make love.” Thus, her “dream” dies, too, and “so she became a woman.”

This chapter reveals two deaths: the death of Janie’s guardian Nanny, and the death of Janie’s dream for love. Without a guardian and a dream, she is forced into adulthood—a place where reality makes itself known and felt. But the sense, at the conclusion of the chapter, is that Janie will adopt another dream for herself—something with which she may flee from the reality in which she finds herself.

Chapter 4

This chapter begins with Killicks speaking of his own disappointment and disillusionment in the marriage. He tells Janie she has been spoiled by her grandma and by himself and that he is tired of chopping wood. He references his first wife who used to go and chop wood herself when he was too tired. Janie asserts herself by telling him that if he does not want to chop wood then he is not going to get any dinner. Killicks seems to resign himself in response to this assertion.

While Janie is resignedly cutting potatoes for her husband, who has gone off to Lake City to see about a mule, a well-dressed stranger named Joe Starks comes to town. Janie catches his attention as he moves down the road by working the water pump. She gives him some water to quench his thirst, and he tells her about himself.

Joe Starks stays in town for a couple weeks and fills Janie with dreams of a new life of love and comfort. He says he would like to marry her. One night, Janie speaks to Logan in bed and tells him that she might run off. Logan is made uncomfortable by the news and tries to end the conversation. He believes that he has tried to make something out of her but that she is just too independently minded.

Janie, however, has reverted back to her childhood ways of dreaming. This is symbolized in the way that both she and Joe Starks drink sweet water and like sugar, just as children do. Logan Killicks represents, on the other hand, the simple unembellished reality of everyday life. Janie wants the dream to be her truth, as the omniscient narrator has implied at the beginning of the novel.

In the morning, Killicks calls out to her for help in the barn. Janie refuses and Killicks scolds her. She leaves him to go find Joe the next instant and feels like the open road is a new dress on her. She has abandoned the honest reality of Logan Killicks for the dream of Joe Starks. Killicks identifies it correctly: the last thing he says to her before she leaves (in a half sob, half cry): “Ah guess some low-lifed nigger is grinnin’ in yo’ face and lyin’ tuh yuh. God damn yo’ hide!”

This chapter illustrates the birth of a new dream in Janie. It also shows that she is still very much a child who is putting off adulthood. Killicks may be insensitive to demand that his wife assist him in his farm duties, whereas she prefers to remain in the kitchen—but he sees himself as the head of the house and believes that she should help him in whatever way he needs it.

Chapter 5

Chapter 5 begins with the same dismal sense that started the previous two chapters and the return of reality. Just as Logan ceased to speak in rhymes to Janie, so too does Joe Starks. But he does buy several nice things for Janie.

When they arrive at their destination, it too is a disappointment. It is nothing marvelous, is in fact quite small. Joe tries to show that he is large by asserting his intention to talk to the mayor—but the town does not even have a mayor and the men they do speak to are content to not have one. The dream theme reappears as a man named Hicks states “dreamily” that he thought about having a mayor once but then immediately forgot about it. For Hicks, dreams come and go—they are no substitute for reality.

Hicks, however, tries to pursue Janie and hits on her—but she does not return his interest in kind, and instead shows she is not attracted to him. Joe says he is there to buy a lot of property and calls a committee for the next day to get the people organized.

Joe is very industrious and is soon elected mayor of the city, which is Eatonville, named after one Captain Eaton. Joe builds, sells, and opens a store. He tells Janie that she must run it. She, of course, tries to tell him that she knows nothing about running a store.

The dream that Janie thought she was going to make a reality gradually disappears completely as Joe and not the dream begins to rule not only her but the town as well. Janie is told to hide her hair so other men do not see it and start admiring her.

Janie feels separate from the other women because she senses their envy of her position—even though she does not feel the same way about her position as they think she must. Janie does befriend Pheoby Watson, who was introduced at the beginning of the novel as Janie’s only real friend in the town. It is upon Joe’s porch that the women gather to gossip, and it is there that they see firsthand Joe’s treatment of Janie, which is less than ideal.

This chapter illustrates once more the loss of Janie’s dream: having traded Logan for Joe, she has simply changed husbands—the circumstances are still the same: he is like her master, and she wants freedom. The parallel between her situation as wife and her grandma’s situation as slave is obvious.

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