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Their Eyes Were Watching God is a novel written by Zora Neale Hurston in 1937. It is a story about an African American woman, Janie Crawford, her lifelong search for love and self-assertion.
In 1937, the times of the Great Depression, the novel did not get recognition as it gets today. Black people criticized the ideas presented in the story a lot. They said that Hurston had not underlined the real treatment of whites to South blacks. They argued that demoralization had not been described as it was in real. Only in the 1970s, the book was rediscovered and began studied by students. The essay on Their Eyes Were Watching God shall analyze Hurston’s story about African American women in 1930s.
One of the peculiar features of the work is the form chosen by the author. Hurston begins and ends the story with one and the same setting and people. The main character, Janie, tells the story of her life to one of her friends, Pheoby Watson.
Her story is a kind of trip to Janie’s past life via a huge flashback.
To describe Janie’s story of life, the author uses a high number of metaphors and symbolism. First of all, it is necessary to clear up what a metaphor actually means.
“In cognitive linguistic view, metaphor is defined as understanding one conceptual domain of another conceptual domain.” (Kövecses 4)
In the novel, there are three brightest examples of metaphors: a pear tree, the image of the horizon, and mules. Two first examples are about Janie’s dreams and hopes. Janie climbs the pear tree to see the horizon. She wants to know what else is around her. She has a dream to make a trip and discover what is so special beyond the horizon.
The third example of metaphor, a mule, is an image of African American’s status during the Great Depression. Hurston tries to underline the plight of African American workers by comparing them with the mules.
Mule as a Main Symbol in the Story
The literary analysis essay on Their Eyes Were Watching God evidences consistent usage of symbolism in the novel.The image of mules represents Janie’s life, her searching, and her social status. Actually, mules represent Janie’s position in several ways.
With each stage of her life, Janie realizes more and more that her life is almost like the life of an ordinary mule. When Janie is a child, her grandmother, Nanny, usually compares black women and mules. She says: “De nigger woman is de mule uh de world so fur as Ah can see” (Hurston 14). Nanny tries to explain to her granddaughter how helpless the status of African American women in society is.
Nanny does not see another way for a good and free life for her Janie but a marriage. It is not that important to marry for love and happiness. Granny tells that love and joy may come with time. A family is the very place where true love will appear. This is why Nanny finds a good option for her daughter.
Inexperienced Janie has nothing to do but obey her granny, and she agrees to get married to Logan Killicks, an old farmer who needs a wife to keep the house and helps on the farm. She truly believes that in this marriage, she will find true love and become happy. Unfortunately, it was only her dreams.
Just like a mule, Janie is forced to work in the field with her husband. Janie continues to believe that, working together, she will be able to become closer to her husband. However, being closer was not the objective of her husband. The primary purpose that Logan wants to achieve is his financial prosperity, nothing more. Janie cannot stand such an attitude anymore. The only way she sees is to leave her husband and start a new life. She desperately thinks that her new lover, Jody Starks, will help her.
They come to a new town, where Jody becomes a major. However, the situation does not change considerably. Now, Janie’s role is to be a trophy wife.
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A situation with Matt Bonner’s mule can serve as one more example to find more connection between the life of the mule and Janie’s life.
As is clear from the summary, Jody Starks tempted Janie with his money and burning ambitions. He made her fall in love with him and took away from the husband. The same thing happens with Bonner’s mule. He buys the mule and takes it away from Bonner just to make it his property. This mule becomes one of the major themes for discussions. It is a centerpiece of the town, as well as Janie (because she is a major’s wife).
“The association between the mule’s liberation and its release from the debt of slavery comments in interesting ways on Janie’s own life history.” (Joseph 146).
Janie feels sorry for that poor mule. Maybe, it happens because she compares herself with it. She also suffers from abuse and sneers from other people. She cannot get into a way of being a major’s wife, listening, and obeying each word of her husband. Even though she has a better job (now, she should not work in the field but in the office), she does not feel satisfied. Such a “golden cage” is not for her.
It is also essential to underline one more situation that happens with Bonner’s mule and Janie. When the mule died, Jody does not allow Janie to go to the funeral. What are the reasons for such a decision? It is so evident that the mule symbolizes Janie’s life. In this case, why does Jody allow the mule to die and be eaten by the birds? Does he want the same destiny for his wife? Or, can it be that Jody wants to prove that even after the death, he can control the situation?
However, in any case, the mule’s death is a symbol of Janie’s freeing, at least, her soul. This death changes Janie in some way. Now, she is more or less ready to leave Jody and continue her search for freedom and happiness.
There is one more thing that needs to be considered – the color of Matt Bonner’s mule. It was yellow. Yellow is referred to light-skinned African Americans, just like Janie Crawford is. Is it a coincidence or one more technique used by the author? Maybe, it is one more attempt to underline an unbelievable resemblance to the status of an African American woman and a working mule.
Of course, the way Hurston chooses to describe the status of working black women was a bit offensive. To represent the terrible attitude of whites to black workers, the writer picks out mules. These animals have to obey their masters. They have nothing to do but work all the time.
In Their Eyes Were Watching God resolution,the main character of the novel, Janie Crawford, should follow the same way. She wants to find true love and become free as it is in human nature. Unfortunately, her path is not that easy. Too many obstacles are in her way.
“Hurston’s heroine, Janie, progresses through a series of destructive relationships with men before finally choosing solitude and reflection as the resolution to her quest.” (Nash 74)
At the end of the story, Janie kills her true love. She has to do it to save her own life. Such a decision is the brightest evidence of her strengths and her only desire to survive and be free.
Zora Hurston created the novel during the times of the Great Depression. These were the times when African American female writers were rather rare. Because of serious critiques and discontents of either whites or blacks, lots of her works were overlooked and even not published.
In the 1970s, Alice Walker reintroduced Hurston’s works. She wrote: “Her best novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God (1937), is regarded as one of the most poetic works of fiction by a black writer in the first half of the twentieth century, and one of the most revealing treatments in modern literature of a woman’s quest for a satisfying life.” (Walker A. 6)
Zora Hurston described Janie as a strong and courageous woman who never stopped her searching for independence and happiness. It was an unusual theme for those times. The essay on Their Eyes Were Watching God showed that the vast majority of African American women could not demonstrate their characters and represent their own ideas at the time. It was a risky step, and the writer was not afraid to take it. Her attempt may be justified as the book is great, and all the techniques are appropriately used.
Joseph, Philip. American Literary Regionalism in a Global Age. United States: LSU Press, 2007.
Hurston, Zora Neale. Their Eyes Were Watching God. United States: University of Illinois Press, 1991.
Hemenway, Robert. E. and Walker A. Zora Hurston: A Literary Biography. United States: University of Illinois Press, 1980.
Kövecses, Zoltán. Metaphor: A Practical Introduction. United States: Oxford University Press US, 2002.
Nash, William R. Charles Johnson’s Fiction. United States: University of Illinois Press, 2003.