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In 1937, upon the first publication of Their Eyes Were Watching God, the most influential black writer of his time, Richard Wright, stated that the novel ìcarries no theme, no message, [and] no thought.î Wrightís powerful critique epitomized a nationís attitude toward Zora Neale Hurstonís second novel. African-American critics read a book that they felt satisfied the ìwhite manísî stereotype of African-American culture and the humor which Caucasians saw in that prejudice. However, those critics and most of America overlooked the wonderful use of imagery, symbolism, and thematic application of one African-American femaleís journey into womanhood and self-identification in a male-dominated society. Hurston introduced Janie Crawford, a strong, articulate, and dramatic character whose life was best empathized by women or by inhabitants of migrant farms and rural Black towns. Their Eyes Were Watching God is permeated with recurring symbols, such as a pear tree, a fence-gate, and Janieís hair, that enlighten a young girlís quest for self-fulfillment, as she discovers the true meaning of love and happiness through two failed marriages and one successful but tragic third.
The strongest symbol in Their Eyes Were Watching God is the pear tree. The pear blossom is a representation of Janie, as she is a young girl blooming into a woman during a spring afternoon. Hurston explains this symbolism at the first of the chapter, describing Janie as ìa great tree in leaf with the things suffered, things enjoyed, things done and undone. Dawn and doom was in the branchesî (Hurston 8) Janie then lies beneath the tree, observes the bees pollinate a blossom, and experiences an epiphany of sexual awakening: ìthe 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 delightî (10-11). She apparently understands and appreciates the fertilization and procreation in nature and the beauty of the process. Immediately following this episode, Janie fulfills her sexual urge by kissing Johnny Taylor over the fence. Nanny catches Janie in the act and forces Janie into womanhood by arranging her marriage to unattractive landowner Logan Killicks.
Throughout the entire novel, Janie refers to the blossoming pear tree as a symbol of her ideal relationship, and compares her husbands to the harmony she witnessed between the bees and the blossoms of the pear tree. Janie sees the vision of Logan to be ìdesecrating the pear tree,î as she does not love the man at all (13). On the contrary, she finds her true love in her marriage to Tea Cake, who ìcould be a bee to a blossom Ö Crushing aromatic herbs with every step he tookî (102). As the pear tree is symbolic of Janieís sexual epiphany and her ideal relationship, it also coincides with her quest for her true love. Her pear blossom wilts with her marriage to Logan Killicks, but it blooms again in another cycle with Tea Cake.
Moreover, the reappearance of a gate prior to a critical life change is also symbolic to Janieís quest for self-identity. In general, gates tend to be associated with new steps or episodes of life, and in Their Eyes Were Watching God Hurston often has Janie acting near or deeply contemplating near a gate during crucial events of the plot. Her journey into womanhood requires several steps, or realizations, as she proceeds from one relationship to another. For example, Janie kissed Johnny Taylor over Nannyís gate, thus, she ended her childhood at a young age. Also, at that time Janie never ventured past the gate, therefore, she was symbolically forced into womanhood as she never willingly left childhood. Two months into her marriage to Logan, Janie questions Nanny about love and marriage, but Nanny tells her that marriage does not define love. Afterwards, Janie ìhung over the gate and looked up the road towards way off Ö Janieís first dream was dead, so she became a womanî (24). Because she realizes that marriage cannot create love, Janie looks to the future for a new opportunity or a new dream. Hence, the gate foreshadows a new beginning or path in Janieís journey into womanhood. Later in the year, Logan threatens to kill Janie when she refuses to shovel manure, and she runs out the front gate of the estate to meet her new love, Joe Starks. Her second marriage fails terribly, but she then finds another gate in Tea Cake, who is the only man who had actually stepped through the gate and into Janieís life, rather than having Janie run away from hers. Therefore, the gate is an eminent symbol associated with different chapters of the young girlís journey, representing or foreshadowing a crucial step in Janieís life.
Furthermore, the transformations in appearance of Janieís beautiful, flowing hair and how it is worn is symbolic of either her constraint or freedom involved in her current marriage. As a young child, Janie wears ribbons in her hair and is seen by others with respect and dignity. In her youth, she is innocent and unblemished until she loses that innocence by kissing Johnny Taylor. Additionally, in her first marriage, Logan Killicks appreciates and compliments the beauty of Janieís hair during the first few months, but when ìhe had ceased to wonder at her long black hair and finger it,î Loganís respect and admiration for Janie is obviously lost (25). Logan then begins to criticize, insult, and overwork Janie, eventually threatening to kill her during a dispute. Also, during her marriage to Joe Starks, Janie is coerced by her husband to tie her hair up in rags, and that she must never let her hair down while in the store. Thus, Starks confines and restricts Janie as much as her hair, showing his possessive and jealous manner. After Joe dies, she stares into the mirror and examines herself: ìthe young girl was gone, but a handsome young woman had taken her place. She tore off the kerchief Ö and let down her hair. The weight, the length, the glory was thereî (83). With Jodyís death, Janie feels free and relieved, noticing that she has finally become a woman. In chapter ten, Janie burns the head rag as a declaration of her freedom. Janie then finds true love in Tea Cake, who differs from his predecessors by allowing Janie to be a part of his life. He admires her hair as he combs Janieís hair with affection, ìíwishiní so bad tuh git mah hands in yoí hair. Itís so pretty. It feels jusí lak underneath uh doveís wing next to mah faceíî (99). Therefore, because her hair is a symbol of her character, Tea Cake appreciates Janie for who she is and displays his affection by grooming her. Finally, the novel begins when Janie returns from her experiences with Tea Cake, and Hurston shows that Janie has found herself and her self-reliance as her hair is described as a ìgreat rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plumeî (2).
In Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston astounded critics with her portrayal of a strong, independent African-American heroine searching for her identity and freedom from the confinements of sexist bigotry. Drenched with powerful symbols, Janie Crawfordís transformation into a woman is represented by the love found in a pear blossom, the passing through lifeís gates, and the liberation of her hair. Janie bloomed into a woman and discovered love after two difficult marriages, transgressed from running away from her side of the gate to letting a man step into her life, and displayed her strength, courage, and independence with her long, flowing hair. Hurston created a national hero, an model for all women and repressed beings to follow during a decade of prejudice against African-Americans, women, and most importantly, African-American women.
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