Hurston’s Attitude Towards Leaving in “John Redding Goes to Sea”

When we talked about how people moving away causes a community to irreparably change, we posed the question of whether it was odder to keep everyone home or let people go off to sea. I wanted to explore this idea further, using “John Redding Goes to Sea.” Despite Hurston’s idea that the community will be destroyed if one leaves, her narrative seems to portray the idea that keeping everyone home is strange. For John, the call to leave is something inherent to his nature. All of his dreams, from the time he was ten, had centered around sailing off into the horizon. His father reinforces this idea that this embedded wish to travel is normal, remarking, “It jes’ comes natcheral fuh er man tuh travel. Dey all wants tuh go at some time or other but they kain’t all get away” (4). In this story, the main reason that the men can’t get away seems to be a result of the conformity they tie themselves down to in marriage and the family unit.

In John’s case,  the “community” that he would be irreparably changing by leaving is this very family unit. His family consists of his mother, father, and his wife. The women are portrayed negatively as a result of their efforts to keep John at home, suggesting that they are incorrect in doing so. The mother is a manipulative character who purposefully uses her emotions in order to get what she wants. She is selfishly holding onto John and because she does not want things to change and never pauses to think about what might be best for his own interests. Furthermore, the women are denying something deep within John’s nature by keeping him home. Despite his best pleadings and promises, the women remain unwilling to compromise. They are forcing him to conform to his marriage and the expectations for the family unit. John is terribly burdened, as he is faced with the choice between the ones he loves and his destiny.  

John ultimately decides to rebel against conformity and disobey his mother and wife so that he is able to set sail. He refuses to let anyone or anything get in the way of his dreams. The story gets a bit more complicated, as John dies before he is able to fulfill his plans. John is given his own sweet moment in the end as he is finally allowed to float away and live out his dream in death. If John had left of his own accord, however, the women would have considered him to be dead to them anyways. In this scenario, it is just a literal death instead of a metaphorical one. Leaving, whether living or dead, has always been John’s destiny and no one could ultimately stop that. 

Even though Hurston puts forth the idea that communities are lost when one leaves, “John Redding Goes to Sea” seems to suggest that keeping one tied to the past is futile. This is true both within the story and within the broader world. Hurston seems to have realized that the societies are changing, no matter what one does to stop it. Rather than fighting against these changes, writers—such as Hurston and Synge—capture pieces of these places in their works, helping to preserve or reclaim what was. Hurston especially realizes that it is time to leave behind past conformities and pave a new future. While it is a shame the communities are lost, there is a future with brand new prospects being gained for those moving on.