How does Zora Neale Hurston's use of literary elements contribute to a theme in Their Eyes Were Watching God?

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator
  • Thematic to Their Eyes Were Watching God is the bringing of Janie's consciousness to life. Hurston's use of setting as symbol demonstrates Janie's various peregrinations as thematic of Janie's awakening to life. As a young girl, Janie sits beneath a symbolic pear tree, a tree which bears fruit after it has ripened. Truly, Janie is comfortable under the pear tree, but her grandmother fears for her in her beauty, so she marries Janie to a man many years her senior. Unsatisfied with him, Janie encounters Joe Sparks one day on the road, and enticed by his talk of Eatonville where he has designs of becoming mayor, she runs off with him. However, the town becomes corrupt and there is vice which affects Joe and, in turn, the naive Janie, who loses her innocence in this setting. Eventually, Janie breaks from the suppression under Joe whose patriarchal dominance makes her feel stifled. With Tea Cake, then, a man younger than she, Janie finds real love. But, the forces of nature, in the form of the hurricane, interrupt her life. 
  • Another theme, that of the difference between men and women is depicted through the use of metaphor. As the novel opens, Hurston uses the metaphor of ships to establish the difference between men and women:

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. . . . That is the life of men. Now women forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget.

  • Metaphor and simile are also used for the theme of Janie's finding her voice "The dream is the truth." She perceives her life a great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branches.

As a girl, Janie lies beneath the pear tree and she

had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. 

After she has lived a time with Joe Sparks, Janie breaks from her repression and insults her oppressive husband, ridiculing him,"When you pull down yo' britches, you look lak de change uh life." Her implications that he is going through a "menopause" greatly insults his manhood. 

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Their Eyes Were Watching God

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