Ordinary, Everyday Objects
A symbol is something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention. A symbol can be any object, person, or idea. Zora Neale Hurston uses symbolism creatively throughout her novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Ordinary, everyday objects become the most powerful symbols in her writing. The five main symbols are the pear tree, Janie’s head rags, Tea Cake, the old mule, and the gate.
The most important symbol in Their Eyes Were Watching God is the pear tree. Hurston mentions this symbol repeatedly throughout the novel. The tree is a symbol of blossoming love. The first time the symbol appears is in the spring when Janie was just sixteen years old. “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 marriage!” (Hurston 10-11). Janie bases her whole idea of love off of the pear tree and the perfect harmony the tree has with nature. She believes that love should be a perfect harmony between two people.
The second most important symbol is the gate. The gate in this novel is a symbol of new beginnings. There are many new beginnings in Janie’s life throughout the story. Janie’s first kiss was with Johnny Taylor over the gate in her yard (13). This symbolized a new beginning because when Nanny saw Janie kiss Johnny, she forced Janie to get married to Logan Killicks. Janie’s life changes with Logan. She is forced to work hard. One day she meets a man named Joe Starks. He tells Janie that she should not be doing such hard labor and convinces her to run away with him. When Janie runs away she runs through the front gate of Logan’s property to start her new life with Joe (31).
Tea Cake is the next important symbol in this novel. Janie was forced by Nanny to marry at a young age, so her childhood what cut short (11). When Janie marries Tea Cake she is making up for her lost youth by marrying a much younger man. She takes many risks with Tea Cake, such as him taking all of her money. Tea Cake is also a symbol of Janie’s rebellion. Nanny wanted Janie to marry someone who had a secure job and could provide for Janie. When Janie marries Tea Cake, she is marrying a man with little money and doesn’t live up to Nanny’s standards.
The fourth most important symbol in the novel is Janie’s head rags. Joe forced Janie to wear head rags because Janie’s beautiful hair was attractive to other men. Joe had many other strict rules that he made Janie follow. Janie could never talk back to him or defend herself against some of his rude comments no matter how much they hurt her. After Joe died, Janie burned all of her head rags. Now she had the rest of her life to do as she pleased (85). The burning of Janie’s head rags symbolized her freedom from Joe’s strict ways.
The fifth most important symbol is Sam Watson’s old mule. The mule is a symbol of the control that men have over things. Watson’s mule was worked hard and was not fed properly so he didn’t look healthy. Women are associated with this mule because the men in Eatonville made them work hard and they were not treated fairly (49). Some of the women in the town worked just as hard as the men and they were not allowed to enjoy a lot of the things men got to. The men liked to relax on the porch and play checkers. None of the women got to participate in these activities. This segregation was unfair to the women of Eatonville.
The pear tree is the most important because it appears multiple times in the novel. Janie’s whole idea of love, life, and happiness revolves around the basic idea of the pear tree working in perfect harmony with nature. The gate is the second most important symbol in the novel because it also occurs multiple times. The gate symbolized the many new beginnings Janie had throughout the book. There are always new adventures and new beginnings in her life. Tea Cake is a creative symbol because people usually aren’t symbols, but Tea Cake symbolizes the youth that Janie lost when she was forced to marry. The fourth most important symbol was the head rags. The rags symbolized freedom. This was very creative because head rags usually aren’t a sign of freedom. The fifth most important symbol was the old mule. The association between the mule and the women was not all that creative, but it still provided a powerful relation between the two.
The creativity of symbolism is carried on throughout the novel. Hurston takes everyday objects to create these symbols. These simple, everyday objects are turned into powerful symbols that hold a lot of meaning. The symbols reflect who Janie is and how her life is always changing.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God: a Novel. New York: Perennial
Library, 1990. Print.