Symbols in Their Eyes Were Watching God

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  • 0:04 Desires and Obstacles
  • 0:28 The Horizon
  • 1:10 The Pear Tree
  • 1:46 Janie's Hair
  • 2:32 The Hurricane
  • 3:21 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Kerry Gray

Kerry has been a teacher and an administrator for more than twenty years. She has a Master of Education degree.

In 'Their Eyes Were Watching God' by Zora Neale Hurston, Janie wants something out of life and love that seems unattainable and difficult to express in words, so she uses symbols to explain her experiences. In this lesson, we'll learn more about the symbolism in this novel.

Desires and Obstacles

A symbol is an object in a literary piece that represents something deeper. The horizon, the pear tree, the protagonist's hair, and the hurricane in Their Eyes Were Watching God are all ordinary things that exist in the natural world, but the author uses these images to convey desires and obstacles in Janie's journey. Let's learn more about the symbolism in this novel by Zora Neale Hurston.

The Horizon

Through the course of the story, Janie sees the horizon as a far off place that's within sight but is never quite attainable. As she moves through the course of her life, relationships, and personal growth, she keeps her focus on the horizon.

She meets and marries Joe Starks. He fascinates her because of his political aspirations and charisma. These traits made her believe they could reach the horizon: 'Janie pulled back a long time because he did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon.'

Although he represented change and a picture-perfect image to the rest of the world, the same was not true for Janie. She didn't reach the horizon because Sparks saw her more as a possession than a partner.

The Pear Tree

The pear tree engages with the bees in a way that takes on all of the characteristics and symbolism of erotic love. Janie contemplates the tree and the bees after letting a boy kiss her as a teenager: '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 a marriage!'

However, in her first marriage, the image of the pear tree is desecrated because the union ends up being loveless and without passion.

Janie's Hair

Appearances matter a lot to Janie's husband, Joe. To control the perception of the community, Joe orders Janie to keep her hair tied up and presentable in public. Janie's hair has the texture of Caucasian hair, which provides her with some clout in the community because it was different than theirs.

As soon as Joe dies, Janie destroys the hair ties that he made her wear during their 20 years of marriage as a show of independence. From that point on, she kept her hair in a long braid that reached her waist and ignored the town gossip.

As the former mayor's wife, the townspeople want to continue to put her in a box, but Janie wants more from life than to be Joe's widow. 'What dat ole forty year ole 'oman doin' wid her hair swingin' down her back lak some young gal?' say the porch sitters. Janie no longer cares what they think.

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