Sore Must Be The Storm That Could Abash the Little Bird’: Janie’s Perseverance in Their Eyes Were Watching God
The novel Their Eyes Were Watching God by Zora Neal Hurston is known for being a prominent piece of feminist literature. It is full of recurring symbols and metaphors, which Hurston uses as an outlet to express her most important messages. She begins the book by setting the stage with a specific distinction between men and women; one that is essentially shattered as the book progresses, through Hurston’s utilization of two essential symbols: a pear tree and a mule. Hurston has many messages that she conveys in her book through these symbols, but her most imperative message is that women are just as independent, powerful, and entitled as men. Therefore, the opening statement that Hurston makes about the difference between men and women is presented only to be proven wrong, and Hurston succeeds in sending the message that women and men should be considered equals.
The distinction between men and women that Hurston begins the novel with simply states, “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.” (Hurston, 1) Here, Hurston is basically saying that men live their life dreaming. They hope and they wish and they keep those hopes and wishes and dreams with them throughout life, up until the moment where it has been too long and they know they have to let go. On the other hand, Hurston says that women “Forget all those things they don’t want to remember, and remember everything they don’t want to forget. The dream is the truth. Then they act and do things accordingly.” (Hurston, 1) In contrast to the previous idea about men, here Hurston is saying that women really don’t dream at all. Their dreams are reality, they live in the moment, and they don’t act on dreams or hopes, they merely act upon the necessity to keep living the life they are living because they don’t have the ability to hope for something better-they have no ships floating along their horizons.
This difference between men and women is one that remains present throughout the story; coming to the surface mostly when Janie’s persistent dream of finding true love and a happy marriage, (essentially her accomplishment of womanhood) is threatened. Coincidentally, this is how the symbol of the pear tree ties in to the picture. In the beginning of the story, it is used to represent the development of Janie’s sexuality, the beginning step to her achieving her womanhood. Hurston mentions “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” (Hurston, 11) As Dilbeck points out in his paper, the pear tree symbol develops and grows with each of Janie’s marriages, but consistently illustrates the possibility of true love and a happy marriage. During Janie’s marriage to Logan Killicks, the pear tree is brought up on page 13. The book quotes “Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree”, which basically points to the fact that Logan was killing Janie’s hope of a happily, lovingly married life. With Jody, Dilbeck brings to light the idea that “While Jody provides for her financially, he is jealous of the attention Janie receives from other men. In this marriage, Janie realizes that a man should have faith in his wife and give her freedom to experience life.” He goes on to use the quote from the book on page 28, which says, “Janie pulled back a long time because [Jody] did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees”. Fortunately, after two unsuccessful marriages, Janie finally finds what she is looking for in Tea Cake, and as Dilbeck says, she “achieves womanhood”, supporting this statement with a passage from page 101 of the novel, which says “[Tea Cake] looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom- a pear tree blossom in the spring”. As Dilbeck explains it, “Not only does he appreciate Janie’s beauty, intelligence, and independence, but he also shows her tenderness, trust, and respect.” With Tea Cake, Janie finally achieves that blossoming pear tree kind of love and marriage that she had dreamt of for her whole life. The fact that she somehow held on to this dream, not giving up on it even in the most challenging times, completely fractures the originally presented idea that men are the ones who get to dream, while women’s dreams are just their reality.
Before Janie finds Tea Cake, there are multiple times in the story where it starts to seem like the men and women distinction will actually end up holding true. These are the times when Hurston’s second important symbol comes into play: the mule. Early in the novel, Nanny says to Janie “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see. Ah been prayin’ fuh it tuh be different with you” (Hurston, 14) The image that comes to mind for a mule is a weak, sad animal, walking with their heads bent in submission, and just going along step by step not really looking up, carrying a load that really shouldn’t be theirs to bear. Tying the idea of the mule back to the introductory contrast between men and women, we see that it’s consistent with the women’s absence of dreaming- it’s hard to imagine a mule having hopes for a better life for itself- everything about the mule seems so dejected and submissive. As the story progresses, the mule is brought up again and again, used to “develop the female identity”, says Keiko Dilbeck of Northern Arizona University. A townsperson in Eatonville, Matt Bommer, is mentioned to have a misbehaving mule, causing him countless amounts of stress because he is always running after him. All the men in the town make fun of him and inability to control his mule; which is a situation that could definitely parallel with a man and his wife. If a man’s wife is too independent, too freethinking, and too free speaking, their husband is considered to be weak, submissive, and generally just not manly. Thus, the parallel of the woman to the mule continues. However, Dilbeck points out something interesting: the idea of the mule is never brought up again after Jody’s death. Dilbeck references this in his paper, saying it represents that “Janie is free of her ‘load,’ no longer required to bear the expectations of men or others.” It’s interesting to think about: the relationship between a mule and its owner (or the metaphorical man and woman) is very unequal and unfair- one definitely takes on a lot more than the other, and only one really benefits. However, a comparison can be made to the relationship that the bees and blossoms in the pear tree presents. In that situation, the relationship between a bee and a flower blossom is very symbiotic- both benefit from one another, and actually won’t survive without the existence of each other. It’s easy to tie those ideas back in with Janie’s hopes for marriage, and reiterates the belief that the pear tree represents the woman’s dreams for a loving marriage and accomplishment of womanhood, while the mule represents the woman’s dreams crushed by controlling men. In the end, though, the pear tree wins out, while the mule dies along with Jody and his commandeering and dominant ways.
The fact that Janie sticks to her dream of the blossoming pear tree marriage until she finally achieves it is what effectively breaks apart the idea that, to put it simply, men get to dream and women don’t. Janie is the example that women should not let themselves and their hopes and dreams be reigned in by commanding, ignorant men who view them as inferior. This is the message that Hurston is trying to send with Their Eyes Were Watching God. The true accomplishment of womanhood is finding your power and independence, and not letting a man get in the way of that. There should be no distinction between men and women, because they are equal in every way.
Hurston, Zora Neal. Their Eyes Were Watching God. New York: Harper Collins, 2000. Print.
Dilbeck, Keiko. “Symbolic Representation of Identity in Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Explicator 66.2 (2008): 102-04. Print.
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