'Their Eyes Were Watching God' Themes, Symbols, and Literary Devices

Zora Neale Hurston’s novel Their Eyes Were Watching God is, at its heart, a story that validates the potency of love. The narrative follows the protagonist, Janie, on her search for an ideal love—which becomes a simultaneous search for herself. Her journey for a relationship envelops many correlated themes. Gender roles and power hierarchies root her relationships, which are further informed by Janie’s sexuality and spiritual understanding of the world. Language also becomes an important thematic element, which serves both as a means for connection and a signifier of power. 

Gender

In the novel, our protagonist Janie strives to find her identity and her place in the world. Gender dynamics—the roles of masculinity and femininity and their complicated intersections—are the source of many of the obstacles she faces. Janie’s truest identity, and the power of her voice, is often at odds with the roles she is expected to inhabit as a black woman living in the American South in the early 20th century.

Janie’s story is told through her marriages to three very different men. Her autonomy is limited, as her grandmother tells her when she is still a teenager—the black woman is “de mule uh de world.” Janie then suffers through two marriages as a submissive wife. She performs in the manner that Logan and Jody dictate, given their misogynistic views on women. Logan indeed treats Janie like a mule, commanding her to work in the fields and chastising her for her complaining and “spoiled” ways. Jody’s sense of masculinity is so toxic that he believes women “sho don’t think none theirselves,” and believes that men must think for them. He treats Janie as an object, and a reflection of his status—something beautiful to be looked at, but never to be heard from.

Janie is finally able to express herself with Tea Cake. Tea Cake foregoes many of the harmful ideas about masculinity and femininity, and treats Janie like an equal. Though he still is possessive, he listens to her and validates her feelings. She experiences the love that she so adamantly searched for. Through her complex relationships with men, Janie realizes the expectations that fall onto her as a woman. And through these trials, Janie nurtures the strength to fight the expectations that silence her, allowing her to find true love and inhabit a state of peace by the end of the novel.

Language and Voice

The power of language and voice is another predominant subject matter. It is conveyed thematically as well as linguistically, through Hurston’s narrative style. The story is told by a third-person omniscient narrator, but it is also bookended as a conversation between Janie and Pheoby, as a flashback of Janie’s life. This duality allows Hurston to weave her poetic prose—which details the character’s rich inner lives—with the vernacular dialect of the characters.

Janie’s voice is often silenced in the beginning of the story, although we understand her abundant, lucid dreams through the narrator. For most of the novel, Janie sacrifices her dreams to abide by the wants and opinions of others. She marries Logan, despite her strong aversion towards the older man, because Nanny wants her to. She endures years of abuse at the hands of Jody because she feels bound by his authority. But her growth is mirrored by her usage of language. Speech is synonymous with power in the novel, and when Janie finally stands up to Jody, she realizes its power. Jody told her that he “aimed tuh be a big voice” and that this would make “uh big woman outa you.” He believed that women should never speak, and that his status—and voice—would be enough for the both of them. When Janie talks back to him, she successfully eviscerates and emasculates him publicly. After he dies, she finally experiences open communication and true romance with Tea Cake. Their constant discourse allows her to find her identity and love all at once. By the close of the narrative, Janie has found her voice, and her fully realized autonomy along with it.

Love

Their Eyes Were Watching God is primarily a novel about love, the transcendent nature of love, and how it affects one’s identity and independence. Janie’s grandmother marries her off without taking into account love as an important factor for happiness. For Nanny, who was a slave and raped by her master, a marriage to a land-owning man gives Janie financial security and social status. These things were Nanny’s own dreams, which she passes down to her kin. But financial security is not enough for Janie. She wonders, before wedding Logan, whether their union would “end the cosmic loneliness of the unmated.” Unfortunately, their marriage is frigid and transactional. 

Janie does not give up on her quest. Her desire for love is the impetus that keeps her motivated when times are tough. Her desire gives her the strength to move on from two passionless, abusive marriages. And once Janie finds true love with Tea Cake, her concurrent fall from social status and wealth means nothing to her. She breaks social norms, working in overalls in the Florida muck with her husband, because she shares a genuine emotional connection with Tea Cake. This mutual love amplifies her voice and provides her with the nurturing environment to be herself. By the end of the narrative, Tea Cake is dead and Janie is alone. But she states that her late husband “could never be dead until she herself had finished thinking and feeling.” Their love is within her, and she also has the ability to love herself. Hurston is peddling the powerful message that anyone—regardless of their status, regardless of the social constructions that may deem love to be superfluous to their circumstances—is deserving of this force.

Symbols

Pear Tree

The pear tree motif instigates Janie’s coming of age early in the novel, and continues to represent the type of passionate, spiritual, ideal love that she seeks. As a sixteen year old, she watches a bee pollinate a bloom directly prior to her first kiss. She describes the experience in both religious and unitary terms. Janie feels as if “summoned to behold a revelation,” and the revelation she determines is one of wedded bliss: “so this was marriage!” she exclaims. Throughout the novel, the pear tree is invoked again and again as a symbol of Janie’s rich inner life, her sexuality, and her vital desires. When Janie is worn down by Jody’s jealousy and misogyny, she retreats to that inner place in her mind where the pear tree grows. In this way, she is sustained by the spiritual connection it affords, and she is sustained by her dreams.

The spiritual and sexual nature of the pear tree is manifested in Janie’s life when she meets her true love, Tea Cake. After meeting him, she thinks of him as a “bee to a blossom,” and calls him a “glance from God.” This raises another important aspect of the pear tree’s symbolism—it links nature to spirituality. In the novel, God isn’t always present as a single deity. Rather, God is diffused throughout nature, and the natural world is a source of divine strength for Janie. The pear tree is then representative of Janie’s sense of self—her soul—as well as the ideal love she seeks to share with another; a transcendent, mystic power. 

Hair

The narrator, as well as many of the characters, are recurrently conscious of and captivated by Janie’s hair. Her hair is an integral part of her attractiveness and femininity. Because of this, it is also an object of desire and a site of power struggles. Beauty is assigned as a feminine form of currency in the novel, in which Janie is valued for little more. This is especially relevant with Janie and Jody’s marriage. Jody treats Janie as an object, something that reflects his high social statues. He commands Janie to hide her hair in a head-rag, because he wants to keep her beauty to himself and deny others the chance to lust after her. With this edict, Jody effectively curtails her femininity, and subsequently, her power.

Janie’s hair is also symbolic of the ways race informs power in the novel. Janie’s long hair is unusual as it is a result of her mixed heritage. It is therefore perceived as a reflection of higher social status. Their Eyes Were Watching God is not primarily concerned with race, but Janie’s hair is one example of the ways in which racial dynamics pervade her community, as well as the novel. Jody aims to emulate the behavior and lifestyle of a wealthy white man. He is drawn to Janie because of her unique beauty, which reflects her white ancestry. After Jody dies, Janie takes off her head-rag. The “weight, length and glory” of her hair is restored, as is her sense of self.