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    Symbolic Representation of Identity in Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”

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    As a reader of Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God” you pick up quite easily that she likes to use symbolism to represent facets of her characters’ lives and delve deeper into social issues. Keiko Dilbeck assessed and analyzed the symbols used in the novel to give a richer understanding of what Hurston was trying to communicate through her characters. P

    articularly, Dilbeck focuses on the significance of the pear tree, the mule, and hair, and how Hurston used them to describe the development of the black woman. One of the most mentioned symbols Hurston mentions is that of the pear tree. Dilbeck draws attention to the fact that Hurston was an anthropologist and may have been very well aware that pear trees are a symbol for female sexuality and female fertility. In the beginning, the pear tree is Janie’s first teacher. Spending her days under the tree, she witnesses how life is conceived. This symbol begins to follow her as her journey progresses. Her first marriage to Logan does not reflect the ideas Janie had about love and sex. Dilbeck brings up the quote “Logan Killicks was desecrating the pear tree”.

    Dilbeck describes that, for Janie, the pear tree did not just teach her about how a woman’s sexuality should be treated, but about how a woman is to be treated with gentleness and respected. Again, with her marriage to Jody, Dilbeck draws attention to the following quote, “Janie pulled back a long time because [Jody] did not represent sun-up and pollen and blooming trees.” Because Janie never let the lessons she first learned under the pear tree go and held it to be absolute truth, she did not let go of her standards for true love. It was not until she met Tea Cake that the pear tree came to life for Janie. Dilbeck explains how this is important because Janie is forty years old by the time she meets Tea Cake. She is ripened, and fruit is best enjoyed when it is ripe. Janie experiences womanhood with Tea Cake, “[Tea Cake] looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom – a pear tree blossom in the spring.” Dilbeck also draws attention to the symbol of the mule and how it is used to develop female identity. It is first mentioned when Nanny explain how “De nigger woman is de mule of de world…”. The correlation between mule and woman is made quite often in the novel.

    The connection between the two is most memorable when Hurston inserts a subplot about Matt Bonner’s, a Eatonville resident, stubborn mule. The mule is taunted and abused, and its owner is ridiculed for his inability to tame it. Dilbeck explains how this is a metaphor for Janie and Jody’s marriage, and mentions that there are no longer and mentions of the mule once Jody passes away. The last symbol mentioned in Dilbeck’s article is hair. She said it is used to expand on femininity and identity. Janie’s long, thick hair is one of her most prominent features. When she is with Jodie, he hair symbolizes his control over her. She is only allowed to wear it up and in a bun. When she is with Tea Cake, her hair is praised and treated with devotion. Through our discussions in class, I knew that the pear tree symbolized sexuality for Janie. It was quite obvious through Hurston’s descriptions.

    However, Dilbeck gave me a richer understanding of it when she said that pear trees are a symbol female sexuality and fertility. When you think of a pear tree, you think of how it has to bear fruit, just a woman bears a child. It made me think of how Janie’s marriage (particularly the first two because she was younger than) did not bear any children. If the tree represented sexuality and fertility, and no fruit was born from it, I feel like Hurston was touching on a deeper subject. Often times, women carry the burden and blame of infertility. Especially back in the day, men felt that they played no role in infertility. I think Hurston was trying to say that, although women represent the tree, the tree cannot care for itself. Men have to nurture, water, feed, and speak life into the tree in order for it to be fertile. In regard to the mule, Dilbeck helped me understand the connection a little more. Prior to reading the article, I thought the connection between the mule and Janie was their stubborness. Now I understand that mule represented much more. The mule was being tortured and Janie expressed sympathy towards the animal. This must have been a reflection of her own feelings towards her gender entrapment. If the mule represented female identity, black female identity particularly, Hurston was trying to communicate the role of gender for the black female. She already has to deal with being black, but just like the mule in its own community, it also had to deal with male dominance and how it is often asserted through physical violence. I like that Dilbeck touched on the symbolism of hair and how it represents identity. For Black people, hair is so much more than something growing out of our heads.

    Our hair is a political statement, part of our identity, and a symbol of our creativity and freedom. When Jody was controlling Janie’s hair, Hurston was pointing out how men attempt to control women’s identities and freedom of choice. Unfortunately, this is still an ongoing issue. In my time, we are having male politicians decide what women can and cannot do with their bodies. Fuller, Molly. “The Trope of the Falling Hair in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Atenea, vol. 35, no. 1-2, 2015, p. 9. Molly Fuller’s article delved deep into the meaning behind Janie’s hair and how it establishes her cultural identity. Muller explains how Hurston uses Janie’s hair to touch on race and gender, a complex ongoing argument in regard to blackness. For Black women, hairstyle is a form of self expression choice in a space where their social, political, and economic circumstances are often out of their hands. Fuller explains how black culture emphasizes natural hair, while white culture emphasizes straight hair. She says Hurston’s novel begins by drawing attention to Janie’s straight hair, “What dat ole forty year ole ‘oman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal?” In this moment, Hurston shows how Janie’s hair is a representation of mixed race and her confidence in the way that she allows it flow down to her waist and swing side to side. It is not bound up and put in a bun in the way the people of the town would expect a woman of her age to do so.

    Fuller also point out how Hurston is was an anthropologist, and a black woman, so she must have understood the importance and history of hair. In. Africa, hair reflects a woman’s age, religion, social rank, marital status, and a variety of other things. Hair is a part of cultural identity for Black people, and the two cannot be separated. Fuller points out how hurston is an anthropologist and a black women show she undestands the importance of hair. Going deeper, Fuller explains that Janie’s hair represents her cultural identity. When Nanny was raped by her white slave master, and his wife came to see the baby that was born as a result, she asked, “whut’s yo baby doin’ wid…yaller hair?” Then, Janie’s mother was raped by a white school teacher which resulted in Janie. This left Janie with no role models for a loving relationship between white men and black women, her mixed ethnic identity. In addition, her hair represented the patriarchal and racial oppression of black people. Fuller explains that Janie’s hair is also used to describe the type of relationships she had with her husbands. Readers saw how Janie’s first husband’s love began declining through how he no longer wanted to “finger” her hair. The same hair that no longer attracted Logan was used to attract Jody when Janie made her hair fall down to her waist. But soon Jody makes her cover her hair out of jealousy because it drew attention away from him.

    When Jody dies, her hair is liberated. As Tea Cake enters Janie’s life, his intimacy with her is expressed through the way he plays and caresses her hair. Fuller then ends by stating how Hurston ended the novel with Janie combing her own hair – a sign of her eventual independence. I love how Fuller’s entire article was about drawing attention to how Hurston used hair throughout the novel. It represented independence, identity, control, and sexuality. What I found most profound was how Janie’s hair represented the patriarchal and racial oppression of black people. Throughout the book, Janie’s hair is a focus of admiration for the people in her community. The reality is, straight hair is held high in european standards of beauty.

    The admiration for Janie’s touches on how Black people in America have been subjected to european standards of beauty, and have internalized it to a degree. This long, straight hair sitting on top of a black woman’s head represents the oppression black people have been subjected to. Although Janie is of mixed race, I say “black woman” because of the history of ethnic identity in America. Ideas like the one-drop rule have always communicated that, in society, you are black if you have black blood in you (no matter the percentage). Fuller was correct when she said that, for black people, hair and identity are inseparable. We are seeing examples of this today. There is a natural hair movement that encourages black woman to embrace the texture and format of their hair. Black women are cutting of their “dead” hair and allowing it to grow back in its natural state. Many have expressed how doing so has allowed them to feel liberated and free. Where we are attempting to take control of our freedom, the government still tries to use our hair as a form of control. In many work spaces, natural black hairstyles are banned. Even in the military, black women are not allowed to wear their hair in natural styles like braids. I just find it so fascinating how issues Hurston was bringing to light so long ago are issues we continue to face today. It brings into the question the idea of progress. Have we really progressed since Hurston’s time? Marín Calderón, Norman. “Afrocentrism, Gaze and Visual Experience in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.” Káñina, vol. 42, no. 1, 2018, pp. 261–269. In her article, Norman Marin Calderon explains how Hurston’s novel can be better understood only if it is seen through an African American womanist perspective She defines womanism as . the act of black women breaking silence and oppression in order to gain a self-defined voice to speak up their own womanhood and female desire.

    More importantly, Calderon draws attention to the visual response in the novel and how it is Afrocentric and womanist in nature. She explains how Janie’s character is oppressed, and her voice initially has no place to be heard and considered. However, it is through Janie’s lack of voice and invisibility that allows Hurston to create an alternative way of communication—the visual, which is eventually used to reveal Janie’s ideas and desires. Calderon points out a quote by Nanny, “…but we don’t know nothin’ but what we see.” Even through the title, Their Eyes Were Watching God, Hurston’s novel evidences a visual text. She is emphasizing that even in the most dire of situation, the capability to see promotes the ability to recognize self and communicate with others. This is expounded on in the hurricane where Janie,Tea Cake and Motor Boat “huddled closer and stare[d] at the door…they didn’t look at anything but the door… Six eyes [were] questioning God.” In these scene, words have no space for communication; only watching is essential as “They sat in company with the others in other shanties, their eyes straining against crude walls and their souls asking if He [God] meant to measure their puny might against His. They seemed to be staring at the dark, but their eyes were watching God.”

    Calderon explains how this quote reveals that gaze is the lane in which one can connect with the Source and the truth. Calderon also explains that Hurston uses gaze and visual communication to explore love, especially through the relationship between Janie and Tea Cake. Love begins with a glance, or as Janie herself notes, life is “…all according to the way you see things. Some people could look at a mud puddle and see an ocean with ships.” In fact, Janie’s love and admiration for Tea Cake began with gaze, as Calderon draws attention to the following quote, “he looked like the love thoughts of women. He could be a bee to a blossom—a pear tree blossom in the spring… He was a glance from God” What I learned from this article was the ways that Hurston used looks and gaze to allow a black woman to be able to construct her own and give voice to their own desires. By recognizing the power of vision, Hurston is pointing out the importance of understanding how black identity is constructed: by skin and color. Therefor, Janie is able to express herself as a black woman so long as she has the ability to look. In a way, Janie’s talking is done by looking. What Calderon was trying to communicate is that the only way to gain visibility as a black woman is through the use of visual experience and sight. I did not realize how much Hurston ensured that black bodies remained visible throughout the novel, particularly the bodies of black women.

    In the scene when Janie sees Johnnie Taylor “tall and lean. That was before the golden dust of pollen had beglamored his rags and her eyes”, Nanny feels as though he will take advantage of Janie. Instead of communicating with Janie through words, Nanny looks at her. Her eyes “didn’t bore and pierce. They diffused and melted Janie, the room and the world into one comprehension.” When Nanny realizes that Janie gets what she meant by her gaze, she “closed her eyes and nodded a slow, weary affirmation many times before she gave it a voice…” A look not only sparked the love between Tea Cake and Janie, but it also ended it. When Tea Cake contracted rabies and Janie saw his pain, “Janie saw a changing look come in his face. Tea Cake was gone. Something else was looking out of his face.”. And Tea Cake looks back in response, “He gave her a look full of blank ferocity and gurgled in his throat. She saw him sitting up in bed and moving about so that he could watch her every move.” As I understood it through Calderon’s article, visual communication was a vital factor in Hurston’s novel and played a crucial role in Janie’s character.

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    Symbolic Representation of Identity in Hurston’s “Their Eyes Were Watching God”. (2021, Dec 22). Retrieved from

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