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Throughout the novel, the horizon symbolizes dreams and aspirations.
In the story's opening lines, we learn that "ships at a distance have every man's wish on board." In this instance the "ship" is the man's dream or ultimate goal. However, we also learn that for many men, these ships "sail forever on the horizon" because the individual does not take the action necessary to achieve that dream and instead waits for the ship to come to him. This results in many mens' dreams never being realized.
Janie, however, is just the opposite. She chases and persues her dreams with abandon, sometimes against the judgement of others and of society and sometimes against her own better judgement. But, in the end, Janie achieves her goals. In the novel's final scene, Janie "pulls in her horizons" suggesting that symbolically she has reached her horizon, her dream.
The natural images that are used throughout the novel (the pear tree, the hurricane, Janie's hair, etc.) all help to communicate and deepen our understanding of the trials and tribulations that Janie must endure to reach her goal. But reach it she does!
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Zora Neale Hurston uses the image of the horizon to symbolically represent Janie’s aspirations for equality within marriage. Early in the novel, Hurston employs the symbol to represent Janie’s hope that she might find love in the wake of her marriage with Logan. Janie abandons this unsuccessful marriage in favor of a union with Joe Starks. Having made the decision to leave Logan, Janie experiences a “feeling of sudden newness and change.” Hurston writes, “The morning air was like a new dress. That made her feel the apron tied around her waist. She untied it and flung it on a low bush beside the road and walked on.” Janie leaves Logan in search of equality within marriage. The apron symbolizes Janie’s domestic oppression, which she attempts to leave behind on the side of the road. Janie hopes Joe Starks embodies the newness and change she searches for, and she measures him against the perfect image of the pear tree: “he did not represent the sun-up and pollen and blooming trees, but he spoke for far horizon.” She marries Joe believing that he offers change and relief from Logan’s domestic oppression. However, she fails to realize that she merely trades one type of prison for another.
Joe proves to dominate Janie with his “big voice.” He fails to represent the horizon and it is only in the shadow of Joe’s death that Janie can reflect on herself. She lifts the burden as she tears “off the kerchief from her head and let[s] down her plentiful hair. The weight, the glory was there” (87). Janie’s hair symbolizes her confinement. Once tied up underneath a kerchief, her hair can now flow freely. Joe attempts to dominate Janie, but with his death she is liberated from burden and finally has time to consider her horizons:
She had been getting ready for her great journey to the horizons in search of people; it was important to all the world that she should find them and they find her. But she had been whipped like a cur dog, and run off down a back road after things. It was all according to the way you see things. Some people could look at a mudpuddle and see an ocean with ships. But Nanny belonged to that other kind that loved to deal in scraps. Here, 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.
In other words, Janie views the horizon as endless, boundless, and eternal. Janie derives her definition of the horizon from the pear tree, a symbol of the voice of nature, which teaches Janie of equality aside from social burden. In contrast, Nanny fit the horizon into the social construction of marriage, where it pinches and suffocates Janie. Following Nanny’s guidance, Janie blindly journeys after “things;” instead of equality Janie discovers the “scraps” others in her position endure, such as abuse and oppression. Those who “deal in scraps,” such as Nanny, fail to question the limit of their horizon. Nanny, Logan, and Joe all reinforce social limitations. In the light of Joe’s death, Janie decides to widen her horizon through violating societal expectations by entering a union with Tea Cake, a man regarded as her social inferior. Critic Dolan Hubbard expands on Janie’s attempt to enlarge her horizon. He contends that Janie must turn her world “upside down in order to make it right side up…Janie, in her quest, unknowingly sets out to smash a fiction that has outlived its usefulness – black women as mules of the world.”
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