In Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, what are a few examples of symbolism? 

In Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God, what are a few examples of symbolism?


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tinicraw eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Three of many images that have symbolic meaning are the pear tree and the bees, the dusty road, and Janie's hair. First, the pear tree, its blossoms, and the bees are introduced in Chapter Two. Janie is sixteen and starting to realize her sensual desires. The blossoms and bees are mentioned occasionally throughout the book when Janie feels lonely, or misses experiencing the epitome of love and sensuality. Janie desires to be able to explore that side of herself freely with an amazing man who has stolen her heart. At sixteen, though, Janie analyzes the blooming pear tree after her chores and realizes the following:

"From barren brown stems to glistening leaf-buds; from the leaf-buds to snowy virginity of bloom . . . The rose of the world was breathing out smell. It followed her through all her waking moments and caressed her in her sleep" (10).

In this passage, Janie recognizes the connection between the growing buds from a barren winter. She is in awe that these buds bloom into beautiful, pure white blossoms and she feels a connection between them and her maturing sensuality. ("White" also symbolizes purity and virginity.) Therefore, the emergence of blossoms on the pear tree symbolize Janie's emerging sensuality, and she is excited to discover what that means for her. Thinking about these images in her bed at night, Janie thinks the following:

"Oh to be a pear tree--any tree in bloom! With kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world! She was sixteen. She had glossy leaves and bursting buds and she wanted to struggle with life but it seemed to elude her. Where were the singing bees for her?" (11).

Again, the blooming tree represents Janie's own blossoming inside as she matures from a barren child to a fertile woman. Of course, the bees represent men as they "meet" a flower, or woman, and connect for the beautification of the earth and the perpetuation of life through pollination. 

Next, the dusty road that runs along the front of Janie's homes symbolizes life experiences and life's choices. It represents the choice to leave one's situation in search of a better life. Ironically, however, a person doesn't necessarily know where this road leads; therefore, the dusty road is also a risk to take because a person never knows where he or she will end up. For example, Janie receives her first kiss by leaning over her fence next to the dusty road. She meets Jodie and leaves her first marriage in search of a better life on the dusty road. Tea Cake arrives on a dusty road and he takes Janie with him down that road to another new life. Janie continually seems to be looking at, watching, or traveling down a dusty road on new adventures.

Finally, Janie's hair is a symbol of freedom of choice, her own power, and her sexuality. It's not only part of her beauty, but it compliments her confidence as a woman. Joe Starks knows this so well that he forces her to wear her hair wrapped up when in public. In this way, her husband shows dominance and control over her and the way men look at her. In Chapter Six, Janie's hair is wrapped in what Hurston calls a "head-rag" as in the following passage:

"This business of the head-rag irked her endlessly. But Jody was set on it. Her hair was NOT going to show in the store . . . That was because Joe never told Janie how jealous he was. He never told her how often he had seen the other men figuratively wallowing in it as she went about things in the store" (55).

After Joe dies, the head-rag comes off just as fast as it went on. Janie is able to live her life free and truly independent of a meddling and controlling husband. She usually wears her hair in a long braid down her back, not pulled up like other women during her time. The braid also represents rebellion against traditional roles of women as well as the confidence to live as she pleases.

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Their Eyes Were Watching God

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