Their Eyes Were Watching God
Metaphors and other such literary devices have been used for centuries by authors to create multiple meanings and hidden significance. Sometimes, an author will work with one image throughout a novel, and other times multiple images will be used to illustrate the many messages of a story. Still, few authors have achieved the kind of metaphorical beauty Zora Hurston realizes with in her novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.
Hurston’s most famous metaphor is the likening of Janie to a pear tree, but perhaps the most important symbolism can be found in the very first paragraph of the novel:
“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. That is the life of men.”
Such a powerful opening sets the reader in store for the long journey ahead of them, for in just five lines Hurston has summarized the life of Man; he is symbolically yearning for his ship to come in with the tide, but only the lucky few attain this prize, while the rest are damned to forever watch, until death lets them stop. Another key symbol presented here is that of the horizon. Always far off in the distance, it represents Janie’s desire to move forward. Unlike the others who are content to sit on their porches and watch the sun set, Janie wants to travel and see the world, and the horizon symbolizes the unknown land that lies beyond.
Joe Starks is a selfish character, driven only by his desire to be powerful. To illustrate how Joe is different from the other males in the book, Hurston gives him a trademark cigar to smoke. Joe’s dominance over Janie is symbolized by the rags he makes her wear on her head. The rags humiliate Janie, and she is weak when she has them on. However, when Joe dies, Janie destroys the rags, changing the symbol from domination to liberation.
Hurston isn’t just concerned with deep philosophical undertones, throughout the novel are peppered wonderful figurative descriptions of everyday things. She closes chapter 10 with a description of the moon rising, its “amber fluid was drenching the earth, and quenching the thirst of the day.” Similarly, chapter 4 closes with the porch-sitters seeing “the sun plunge into the same crack in the earth from which the night emerged.” At the beginning of chapter 14, she describes the Everglades as having “Dirt roads so rich and black that a half mile of it would have fertilized a Kansas wheat field.” These literary treats make Hurston’s world seem all the more real.
Reading this book is like watching a movie in the mind’s eye, with every detail so richly developed nothing is left out of the picture. Few books can offer the same experience, which is part of what makes Their Eyes Were Watching God such a powerful novel.