Symbols and Metaphors
Zora Neale Hurston’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 Zora Neale Hurston 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 wid mah marriage, lak when you sit
under a pear tree and think." (p 24) Her relationship with
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