What themes are indicated by the following symbols, images, or motifs found in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God?
1. Ship, watcher, hurricane
2. Pear tree, blossom, pollinating bees
3. Gate, horizon, apron
4. Porch, courtroom
One central theme in Zora Neale Hurston's Their Eyes Were Watching God concerns our ability to fulfill our dreams. The novel opens with a passage in which Hurston uses the noun ships as a symbol for the fulfillment of dreams. We can tell that the noun ships is being used to symbolize the fulfillment of dreams because the passage closely relates to the well-known idiom, "Wait for your ship to come in," which refers to waiting for good luck and prosperity to come to you. However, Hurston takes the idiom one step further by describing that only some people are lucky enough to have their ships come to them, whereas other people endlessly watch and wait for the ships. The noun "Watcher" refers to the one endlessly watching and waiting, never having his dreams fulfilled:
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, never out of sight, never landing until the Watcher turns his eyes away in resignation, his dreams mocked to death by Time.
The narrator continues in the next passage to contrast men with women, saying that women "act and do things accordingly" when they see their dreams as the truth. In other words, it can be said that Hurston is portraying men as those who watch and wait for dreams to be fulfilled, while women take actions to fulfill them. Yet, a question that continues to arise throughout the novel is, to what extent do we have the ability to take actions to fulfill our dreams?
Similarly to the women described in the second passage, in contrast to the men described in the first passage, Janie struggles to fulfill her dreams but, through some of her actions, eventually reaches a point in her life in which she is satisfied with her life. At first, Janie begins her life as a passive observer, like the men, waiting for her dreams to be fulfilled. As a passive observer, she is married off by Nanny to a farmer named Logan Killicks who Nanny feels can provide Janie with financial security. In Nanny's mind, "de Lawd will provide," and He has provided by sending Logan Killicks to ask for Janie's hand in marriage. Janie does do her grandmother's bidding and marry him, but when he proves to be an abusive husband, she takes matters into own hands by running off with Joe Starks, a man who dreams of becoming mayor of an all-black town recently established.
Though Janie temporarily finds fulfillment of her dreams by finding some love with Joe and financial wealth, he too becomes abusive. Luckily, Joe's timely death saves her from continued abuses and leaves her independently wealthy. Janie doesn't feel she finds true happiness until she marries her third husband Tea Cake, but even he poses threats to her. She is forced to rid herself of his threats when she has to shoot him for becoming infected with rabies. It's at the moment that Janie becomes fully independent of men that she truly fulfills her dreams, yet her independence could only be achieved through the coincidental deaths of two of her husbands, deaths she had no control over.
Similarly, Hurston uses the symbol of the hurricane to show the extent to which happiness and prosperity are not fully in our hands. As the narrator notes, during the hurricane, all one could do was "chink up your cracks, shiver in your wet beds and wait on the mercy of the Lord." Hence, the end of the novel takes us right back to the beginning--all one can really do is watch and wait on the "mercy of the Lord" for the fulfillment of dreams. Though some of Janie's choices helped her to begin to fulfill her dreams, true fulfillment could not have been achieved without the Lord's own decision to cause the deaths of her husbands.