I just had a class where I once again saw the power of literature to touch us at the deepest parts of our being.
We were discussing the end of "Their Eyes Were Watching God," a wonderful novel by the African-American writer Zora Neale Hurston. The main character, Janie, has just lost her young husband, Teacake, quite suddenly (he was bit by a rabid dog during a terrible storm and flooding).
The question was whether the ending is hopeful for Janie. Most readers think it is, but some do not. I do. Janie comes to realize that Teacake "could never be dead until she herself had finished thinking and feeling. The kiss of his memory made pictures of love and light against the wall. Here was peace." That sounds hopeful to me.
But a student shared that she had lost a good friend earlier this year. Briefly for a time after her friend's death she experienced a sort of euphoria and peace, but it was short-lived and illusory, and that's what she thought was going on here at the end of the novel. Her discussion partner then offered that perhaps this was a stage of grief that Janie would "re-emerge" from, out into the fulness again of living in the world.
I thanked both of them for their thoughts. Perhaps more could have been said, but the hour was up. I cherish teaching literature because it is ever-new for me with ever-new readers, and it asks of us that we bring not only our intellect, but our emotions, our hearts, our moral imagination.
Martin Klammer is a professor of English and Africana studies, and is the writing director at Luther College. Klammer has spent several January terms taking students to South Africa to study literature and culture, and to lead a camp for disadvantaged children in Cape Town. Recently Martin edited and co-wrote a memoir of the life of Blanche LaGuma, an underground activist and wife of the celebrated novelist Alex LaGuma: "In the Dark With My Dress on Fire: My Life in Cape Town, London, Havana and Home Again" (Cape Town: Jacana, 2010)."