Zora Neale Hurston’s Use of Symbolism in Their Eyes Were Watching God

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Zora Neale Hurston has come to be regarded as an experienced writer in both African American literature and women’s literature, for her use of literary elements such as symbolism, motifs and imagery. One of Hurston’s most celebrated novels is Their Eyes Were Watching God, in which she uses many examples of symbolism such as the mule, Janie’s hair, and the pear tree to illustrate to the readers the many trials of which her characters overcome.

Zora Neale Hurston utilizes symbolism in Their Eyes Were Watching God to portray Janie Crawford as a character who realizes that, through hard work and perseverance, one may find out who he or she really is on the inside rather than the imperfections on the outside. In the beginning of Their Eyes, Hurston cleverly uses a pear tree as one of her many uses of symbolism. Janie discovers this pear tree after she runs away from her grandma after she gave Janie the news of her marrying Logan Killicks.

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Janie makes a realization about the tree when she lies beneath it,“She was stretched on her back beneath the pear tree soaking in the alto chant of the visiting bees, the gold of the sun and the panting breath of the breeze when the inaudible voice of it all came to her. She saw a dust-bearing bee sink into the sanctum of a bloom; the thousand sister- calyxes arch to meet the love embrace and the ecstatic shiver of the tree from root to tiniest branch creaming in every blossom and frothing with delight. So this was marriage! ”(Hurston 11).

Hurston, being an anthropologist understood the relationship between bees and pear trees thus making the comparison relevant to Janie’s experiences throughout her journey. As Keiko Dilbeck says in his critical essay in the second paragraph, “Attuned to the Connection between man and woman, Janie desperately wants the love and affection from a man that the tree receives from the pollen-bearing bee: Oh to be a pear tree—any tree in bloom! ” (11). Because Janie’s first marriage was so bad Hurston used the pear tear to emphasis the negativity: “Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree”(13).

In Janie’s next marriage Hurston strengthens the use of the pear tree. Joe became jealous very easy because of the other men are looking and thinking of Janie very attentively. Janie wants to be free but Joe is keeping her from living her life as she wants to: “Janie pulled back a long time because Joe did not represent the sun-up and pollen and blooming trees. ”(28). Janie finally reaches the level of the pear tree when she marries her final husband, Teacake. Janie finally has learned about herself when she meets Teacake and achieves womanhood: Teacake looked like the love thoughts of women.

He could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring” (101) Teacake is not like her other previous husbands, he respects her and cherishes her for who she is and her beauty. Equally important, one of the most used symbols that Hurston uses in Their Eyes to elaborate on Janie’s role and attitude in the story is the comparison to the mule. The use of the mule imagery indicates the way in which African American females have been mistreated and dehumanized by the society. Hurston uses the image of the mule to comment on the disparity between speech and silence in the life of Janie Crawford Killicks Starks Woods (Haurykiewicz, par. ). Janie is compared to a mule in the first half of the book because mules also usually are looked down upon and not heard from. Janie was born from her mother being raped by her school teacher and Nanny was raped by a white slave owner as well, this explains Janie’s very fair skin. Until the age of six, she thinks that she is white, and “the same as everyone else. ” When she goes to school, the other black children are jealous of Janie because she wears the Washburn children’s hand-me-downs; these clothes are much nicer than what the other black children wear.

Nanny does not like the fact that Janie is picked on by the other black children for living in the white family’s backyard, so she asks the Washburn’s to help her buy some land and create a home of her own. This heritage is similar to that of a mule because mules are the crossbreed of horses and donkeys and are not accept in either community. Like a mule, Janie is the product of mixed parentage. Her mother, Leafy, was raped by a white school teacher. (18) Throughout her first marriage she is forced to work on Killicks farm, as if she was just another mule.

However in her second marriage she is not treated so harshly but she is given less respect and no right to speak her mind, while she is married to Logan Starks, just as a mule is treated. It is not until the end of the novel does Janie finally finds herself and becomes conformable with speaking her mind, with her third husband Teacake. She is respected with Teacake and her coming of age journey finally comes to and end after all the trials she goes through to prove she is not a mule.

Moreover Janie’s hair is a big symbol in Their Eyes Were Watching God as well. Janie’s hair is a symbol of her power and unconventional identity; it represents her strength and individuality in three ways. First, it represents her independence and defiance of petty community standards. The town’s critique at the very beginning of the novel demonstrates that it is considered undignified for a woman of Janie’s age to wear her hair down. Her refusal to bow down to their norms clearly reflects her strong, rebellious spirit.

Second, her hair functions as a strong symbol; her braid is constantly described in powerful terms and functions as a symbol of a typically masculine power and potency, weakens gender lines and thus threatens Jody. Third, her hair, because of its straightness, functions as a symbol of whiteness; Mrs. Turner honors Janie because of her straight hair and other Caucasian characteristics. Her hair contributes to the normally white male power that she wields, which helps her disrupt traditional power relationships (male over female, white over black) throughout the novel.

Jody Starks finds her hair to be threatening; therefore, he forces her to tie it back as a form of control. When he dies, Janie burns all of her handkerchiefs as a sign that she is now a free and independent woman. Tea Cake, Janie’s third husband adores her hair and embraces her femininity for example Hurston includes: “Tea Cake treats Janie’s hair with considerate devotion and it is under these circumstances that Janie’s identity is her own” (103). Even when Mrs. Turner is ranting about how inferior the African American race is, Janie is neutral because her racial identity is intact.

Having these symbolic examples such as the mule, the pear tree, and Janie’s hair in this novel helps Zora Neale Hurston to explain the relationship between male and female and what women must do to find out who they really are. As Haurykiewicz says “Janie’s growth may be charted as one that travels from mule to muliebrity (the state or condition of being a woman. )” (Paragraph, 1) For a long time women have been mistreated and looked down upon by men, Hurston shows that, with hard work and perseverance that women can find their calling just as men can.

Works Cited

Ashmawi, Yvonne. “Janie’s Teacake: sinner, saint, or merely mortal? Janie Crawford from Their Eyes Were Watching God)(Critical essay). ” Heldref Publications 1. 1 (2009): 1-3. Web. 1 Mar 2011 Dilbeck, Keiko. “Symbolic representation of identity in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Zora Neale Hurston)(Critical essay). ” Heldref Publications (2008): 1-3. 1 mar 2011. Database. 26 Mar 2011. Haurykiewicz, Julie. “From mules to muliebrity: speech and silence in Their Eyes Were Watching God. (Zora Neale Hurston). ” University of North Carolina Press 1. 1 (1997): 1-11. Web. 1 Mar 2011.. Hurston, Zora. Their Eyes Were Watching God. 1. Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, inc. , 1937. 193. EBook.

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Zora Neale Hurston’s Use of Symbolism in Their Eyes Were Watching God. (2017, Mar 14). Retrieved from


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