Their Eyes Were Watching God: Analysis of Symbols Throughout the course of Their Eyes Were Watching God, written by Zora Neale Hurston, one learns about the struggles of marriage, love, identity and freedom through the character of Janie Mae Crawford, a young woman striving to find what she feels to be the perfect marriage. Hurston uses many symbols in this novel to describe the characters as well as the circumstances. Many of Janie’s experiences are based on some type of symbol that displays her outlook on different situations.
Hurston shows symbolism though Janie’s head rags, nature and the pear tree and the hurricane. The head rags in this novel symbolize conformity and control. Janie, being born with a mixed ancestral background, has the features of both a woman of color, as well as a Caucasian woman. This brings both positive and negative feedback from people who live around her and her three husbands. The one who, in a way, envies her hair the most is her second husband, Mayor Joe Starks. He is obsessed with power and dominance and he feels that Janie is only there to make him look superior as the mayor of Eatonville.
When Janie is required to work at the store, Jody also forces her to tie up her hair in rags to keep her naturally long, Caucasian like textured hair. He uses the head rags to show Janie and the others around the store that he is still in control. He does not want anyone getting close enough to Janie that could influence her to leave him. Also, with Janie’s hair tied up around the store, her power is taken from her. Joe makes it clear to Janie that she would be nothing without him forcing her to stay and do whatever he asked of her; even if she did not agree with it.
Janie is embarrassed by the head rags and does not feel that she can do anything to change the situation. Therefore, she submits herself to Joe’s power and control. No longer is Janie a woman with a voice. She does only what she is told. By wearing the head rags, she does what is accepted to keep Joe happy; even if she is not. Once Joe is about to die, Janie finally stands up for herself and what she believes. This makes Jody angry because he feels that he is losing the battle. When he dies, Janie pulls off the head rag and exposes what had been hidden inside for so long.
She marvels at her own beauty and ultimately the power she lost during her marriage with Jody through those simple head rags. The removal of the head rag symbolizes the gain of independence. “She tore off the kerchief from her head and let down her plentiful hair. The weight, the length, the glory was there” (108). She is not in Jody’s control any longer. For Janie, the head rags were a sign that she was not an individual, but a help mate. Hurston’s use of nature and the pear tree helps to symbolize Janie’s approach to womanhood as well as her view of love and her connection with nature. Hurston vividly illustrates… the image of the blossoming pear tree kissed by singing bees, which is Janie’s picture of romantic love” (Williams 1869). For Janie, the blossoming pear tree was the perfect picture of love and marriage. When Janie goes to watch the bees from under the tree, she looks up and feels that she knows what marriage was supposed to be about. “So this was a marriage! She had been summoned to behold a revelation” (28). Janie found herself intrigued by the pear tree and the bees that pollinated the tree. From this point on in the story, Janie searches for the perfect love as displayed by the pear tree.
This pear tree, as well as nature, symbolizes the connection she feels to nature. When the storm in the Everglades arrives, she realizes that it is time to leave because of the way she connected with nature. From her early womanhood, she held a connection to the earth that she felt she could not part with. “She had been spending every minute that she could steal from her chores under that tree for the last three days… It had called her to come and gaze on a mystery… It stirred her tremendously” (27). This shows that Janie had been interested in nature from a very young age.
Whenever she was angry or upset, she went to the river or back to the tree to find comfort and peace. Other than Pheoby Watson, this was basically her only friend. The hurricane represents death and destruction. After the hurricane, death filled the street and water. So much had been destroyed by the hurricane and only the wreckage was left behind. In chapter 19, Hurston refers to the hurricane as “the time of dying” (192). The raging wind and rain had destroyed whole towns in its wrath and those who survived now had to clean up what the storm had left behind. Saw the hand of horror on everything. Houses without roofs, and roofs without houses. Steel and stone all crushed and crumbled like wood. The mother of malice had trifled with men” (193). Tea Cake and many other men were put to work to find and separate the bodies of those who did not survive and put them into graves as to get them out of the streets and the sewer system. Tea Cake, however, just wanted to go back to the muck and start working again. The Woods could only stand back and look at the damage. The hurricane had destroyed almost everything in its path. Havoc was there with her mouth wide open. Back in the Everglades the wind had romped among lakes and trees. In the city it had raged among the houses and men. Tea Cake and Janie stood on the edge of things and looked over the desolation” (190). The hurricane destroyed everything. Not only did the hurricane bring death to the cities and towns, but it also brought the death of Janie’s third husband and their marriage. During the storm, Tea Cake had been bitten in the face b y a rabid dog while trying to save Janie’s life.
Tea Cake does get the proper medical attention and the rabies starts to take over his state of mind. Janie kills Tea Cake in order to save her own life. If it had not been for the storm, Tea Cake would most likely still be free of rabies and Janie would not have shot him. Hurston shows many types of death through the storm. She shows that nothing can escape death through this storm. In retrospect, Zora Neale Hurston uses multiple symbols throughout this novel to explain Janie’s feelings and behavior and the feelings and behaviors of others.
Janie’s head rags signify that she is trapped and much like a slave, she will do what she is told in order to keep peace. The pear tree and nature help to show Janie’s deep connection with the earth. The pear tree is Janie’s way of knowing what love is. Hurston’s use of the hurricane symbolizes the death of many parts of life; physically, spiritually and emotionally. Without the use of these symbols in vivid detail, many of the events that take place in this novel would be misunderstood and misinterpreted. It is very clear that symbols play an important role in literature.
It makes the reader become interested in the words and help them make connections with real life situations. Most would characterize that as a very well written story. Every good novel should have some type of symbol. It makes reading all the difference.
Works Cited Cupp, Jeff. “Their Eyes Were Watching God. ” Masterplots II. Ed. Tyrone Williams. Rev. ed. Vol. 4. African American Literature Series. New Jersey: Salem, 2009. 1868-73. Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New Jersey: Macro Book, 2004. Print.