Symbols and Metaphors
ZoraNealeHurston’s writing is rich with symbols and metaphors. Throughout Their Eyes Were Watching God, objects and themes appear again and again. These recurrent motifs serve to illustrate abstract concepts that are important in the novel. Hurston's powerful use of imagery clarifies and intensifies the telling of Janie's story.
Their Eyes Were Watching God opens with the motif of wishing or dreaming. “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.” (p 1)From the moment of revelation under the pear tree, to the book’s lyrical conclusion, Their Eyes Were Watching God tells the story of the progression of Janie’s dreams of love and freedom.
On another level, Janie herself represents the dreams of many of the book’s other characters. The porch sitters who exult when Janie acts “common” and Mrs. Turner who almost worships her all see in Janie a concrete example of their impossible dream. It is significant that, without exception, the characters of Their Eyes Were Watching God see Janie as socially superior to them, not because of any difference in education or manners, but because of her Caucasian characteristics.While at first glance race is not a major issue in Their Eyes Were Watching God, it is nevertheless an important part of the novel. At the time when ZoraNealeHurston was writing African-Americans were still largely considered second class citizens, inferior members of the human race—especially in the South. Janie, black but with Caucasian beauty, becomes a symbol of the social equality or power that black Americans lacked.
Janie’s hair is a recurrent and powerful motif. It has a potent effect on almost every character that Hurston introduces. In texture and appearance, Janie’s hair is Caucasian: it reflects her white father and grandfather. Janie’s hair is a concrete representation of several ideas or themes, all interrelated. The dominant impression that the hair gives is that of power or possession. Connected to this, Janie's hair figures largely in depictions of sexual relationships or even sexual attraction. Descriptions of Janie's hair illustrate her relationships with each of her husbands. Joe Starks, who is jealous and possessive, cannot bear the thought of other men enjoying the sight of her long, beautiful hair. He forces her to keep it tied up in a kerchief. Janie's reluctance to do so indicates her desire to be loved and accepted by the community as who she is--all aspects of her personality included--rather than as who different individuals want her to be. Janie's hair makes an appearance both in the opening scene and in the conclusion of the novel. It is the distinguishing characteristic that helps the porch sitters to recognize her as she returns to the city. And after Janie reaches the end of her story--and the end of the novel--she goes upstairs to bed. "She closed in and sat down. Combing road-dust out of her hair. Thinking..." (p 192)
The Pear Tree
One of the most obvious symbols used in the novel, and charged with sexuality, the pear tree motif is introduced early in Janie's story. As a sixteen-year-old girl, lying beneath a pear tree in the spring, she watches a bee gathering pollen from a pear blossom. The experience becomes a symbol to Janie of the ideal relationship, one in which passion does not result in possession or domination, but rather in an effortless union of individuals. As the story progresses, the blossom/pollen motif reappears frequently, illustrating the development of Janie's dream:
Three months after Janie's marriage to Logan Killicks, she returns to Nanny in tears. "Ah wants things sweet widmah marriage, lak when you sit under a pear tree and think." (p 24) Her relationship with disappoints Janie, and makes her vulnerable to the attractions of Joe Starks. Although he "did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees", Joe offers her the opportunity for a new life, one that she hopes will be better. Soon, however, Janie realises that "the way Joe spoke out without giving her a chance to say anything one way or another...took the bloom off of things" (p 46). Janie becomes disillusioned and discouraged. "She had no more blossomy openings dusting pollen over her man, neither any glistening young fruit where the petals used to be." (p 72) After her husband's death, Janie meets Tea Cake, the fulfillment of her dream under the pear tree. "He looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom--a pear tree blossom in the spring. He seemed to be crushing scent out of the world with his footsteps." (p 106)
The Horizon; The Road
Closely related to the theme of dreams and wishes, and often mentioned in conjunction with the pear tree symbol, is the horizon. The horizon represents better things--the possibility of change and perhaps improvement. The horizon is mentioned in the opening paragraph of Their Eyes Were Watching God: "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." (p 1)
Janie's dream remains on the horizon for most of her life. She can wish and hope for better things, but she lives in reality that is very different. From the beginning, Janie's dreams are limited by her circumstances. Early in her life, "Nanny had taken the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon--for no matter how far a person can go the horizon is still way beyond you--and pinched it in to such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it about her granddaughter's neck tight enough to choke her." (p 89) At the end of the book, however, Janie has realized her dream. Her wish has "come in with the tide". Hurston writes that Janie "pulled in her horizon like a great fish-net. Pulled it from around the waist of the world and draped it over her shoulder. So much of life in its meshes! She called her soul to come in and see." (p 193)
Closely related to the horizon symbol is the road symbol. The two are frequently mentioned together. The road functions as a bridge between Janie's present circumstances and the horizon. The different stages of Janie's life--the different stages in the realization of her dream--are marked by travel from one place to another.
The hurricane's devastation is beyond the control of the book's characters. Capricious but impersonal, it is a concrete example of the destructive power found in nature. Janie, Tea Cake, and their friends can only look on in terror as the hurricane destroys the structure of their lives and leaves them to rebuild as best they can. A pivotal event in the novel, the hurricane marks an abrupt transition from Janie's idyllic life with Tea Cake. After the storm strikes, events rush rapidly to Tea Cake's death and the novel's conclusion.
"Wind" or "whirlwind" is also used as a metaphor in other parts of the book, always in reference to power, often in conjunction with destructiveness. "Wind" represents power that effects change--but is not always in control of the results. For example, Joe is described as "uh whirlwind among breezes...We bend which ever way he blows." (p 42)
Death--both as the actual, physical death of people, and as Hurston's personification of Death in the abstract--is a significant presence in the book.Hurston often uses the death of characters to mark the death of phases of Janie's life--and consequently, transitions to new phases. The two most important incidents are the deaths of two of her husbands. Joe's death frees Janie not only from the restrictions that he put on her, but of the self-imposed submission of her own thoughts and dreams. Janie's relationship with Tea Cake fulfills her "pear-tree" dream. Their time together helps her learn to enjoy being herself again. After Tea Cake's death, Janie is truly independent.
The incident of the “town mule”, when Jody “rescues” Matt Bonner’s mule (p 55-62), is more than just a humorous moment in the book. The mule story serves to illustrate the strained relationship between Janie and Joe Starks. More than that, however, the figure of the mule can refer not only to Janie herself but to any black woman struggling for independence. At the beginning of the novel Nanny tells Janie, “Honey, white man is de ruler of everything as fur as Ah been able tuh find out…So de white man throw down de load and tell de nigger man tuh pick it up. He pick it up because he have to, but he don’t tote it. He hand it to his womenfolks. De nigger woman is de mule of de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different wid you. Lawd, Lawd, Lawd!” (p 14) Janie identifies with the mule, which remains stubbornly independent despite its master’s efforts to beat it down. Ironically, while Jody’s position in the city gives him the power to free the mule, his pride and ambition cause him to virtually enslave his wife. He can free Janie only by his death.
Chair or Stool
Although not immediately apparent, class or position in society is an important theme in the novel. Hurston uses the symbol of a chair or stool many times in Their Eyes Were Watching God to represent high class or an exalted position. These references are all found in the Jody/Janie part of the story, and appropriately: nothing is more important to Joe than prestige. Joe thinks that the place for Janie is up on "a high chair" beside him. Janie, however, is uncomfortable with her exalted position in the town and wants to be a part of the community like everyone else.
While the sun apparently does not represent any major theme in the book, it is mentioned repeatedly. Hurston's lyrical descriptions of the sun and the sky around it seem to be transitional, marking the passage of time or of change. Interestingly, while Janie's narrative takes place from sunset to full dark, the book ends with a vision of Tea Cake "with the sun for a shawl".
Symbols and Metaphors by Emily Kendall, 2005
Jody and Janie arrive in the Florida town to find that it consists of little more than a dozen shacks. Jody introduces himself to two men, Lee Coker and Amos Hicks, and asks to see the mayor; the men reply that there is none. Jody moves over to a porch to chat with a group of the townspeople, who tell him that the town’s name is Eatonville. After hearing that Eatonville contains only fifty acres, Jody makes a big show of paying cash for an additional two hundred acres from Captain Eaton, one of the donors of Eatonville’s existing land. Hicks stays behind to flirt—unsuccessfully—with Janie. Later, Coker teases Hicks because all the other men know that they can’t lure a woman like Janie away from an ambitious, powerful, moneyed man like Jody.
After buying the land, Jody announces his plans to build a store and a post office and calls a town meeting. A man named Tony Taylor is technically chairman of the assembly, but Jody does all the talking. Jody hires Coker and Taylor to build his store while the rest of the town clears roads and recruits new residents. Jody soon recovers the cost of the new land by selling lots to newcomers and opens a store. At his store, Jody is quickly named mayor, and for the occasion Taylor asks Janie to give a short speech. Jody prevents her from doing so, saying that wives shouldn’t make speeches. His opinion angers Janie, but she remains silent.
After becoming mayor, Jody decides that the town needs a street lamp. He buys the lamp with his own money and then calls a town meeting to vote on whether or not the town should install it. Though some dissent, a majority vote approves the motion. After the lamp arrives, Jody puts it on display for a week, and it becomes a source of pride for the whole town. He organizes a big gathering for the lighting, complete with guests from surrounding areas and a feast. The party is a huge success, full of ceremony and dignity. Afterward, Janie hints that she wants to spend more time with Jody now that he has done so much work. He replies that he is just getting started.
After a while, Jody and the rest of the town start to grow apart from each other, and Janie, as the mayor’s wife, becomes the object of both respect and jealousy. The townspeople envy Jody’s elaborate new two-story house that makes the rest of the houses look like servants’ quarters. Jody buys spittoons for both himself and Janie, making them both seem like aristocrats flaunting their wealth and station. Furthermore, Jody runs a man named Henry Pitts out of town when he catches Henry stealing some of his ribbon cane. The townspeople wonder how Janie gets along with such a domineering man; after all, they note, she has such beautiful hair, but he makes her tie it up in a rag when she is working in the store. Though Jody’s wealth and authority arouse the envy and animosity of some residents, no one challenges him.
This chapter explores the masculine power that Jody Starks embodies. His political and economic conquest of the town recalls the opening passage of the book about “Ships at a distance.” Jody is one of the few characters whose ship does come in, but his success is more of a curse than a blessing. His flaunting of his wealth and power alienates the townspeople. He appears to them as a darker version of the white master whom they thought they had escaped. His megalomania extends beyond social superiority to a need to play god, as the lamp-lighting ceremony demonstrates. His words at the end of his speech, “let it shine, let it shine, let it shine,” refer to a gospel hymn about Jesus as the Light of the World. Jody wants his light, the light that he bought, built, and put in place, to stand for the sun and, by extension, God himself. These words also hearken back to the Bible’s account of creation, in which God says, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3). Jody’s money and ambition give him power over the rest of the town, and he exploits this advantage to position himself as superior to the rest of the town. Such hubris, or presumptuousness, situates Jody in a classical scheme as one bound to fall.
Janie experiences the brunt of Jody’s domineering nature. Jody never accepts Janie for what she is; instead, he tries to shape her into his image of the type of woman that he wants. She gets her first taste of his need to control her when he prevents her from making a speech after he is named mayor. Here, in particular, control is intertwined with language and speech: to allow Janie to speak would be to allow her to assert her identity in her own words. Forcing Janie to hide her hair is another way that Jody tries to control her. As hinted in Chapter 1, Janie’s hair is an essential aspect of her identity and speaks to the strength of her person. Her hair’s straightness signifies whiteness and therefore marks her as different from the rest of her community (and even marks her parents as deviant). Furthermore, its beauty and sensuousness denote the sexual nature of her being. Jody, in order to achieve complete control over Janie, must suppress this sexuality. Because he doesn’t want her to inspire lust in other men and is “skeered some de rest of us mens might touch it round dat store,” he orders her to wear her hair up in rags. Another man’s interest in Janie would challenge or insult his authority.