Their Eyes Were Watching God | Study Guide

Zora Neale Hurston

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Professor Kristen Over of Northeastern Illinois University explains the symbols in Zora Neale Hurston's novel Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Their Eyes Were Watching God | Symbols


Pear Tree

The blossoming pear tree is a symbol of change and growth. In Chapter 2 when Janie begins her narration, the narrator comments that she saw her life "like a great tree," with some leaves representing suffering and others joy. The pear tree also represents Janie's sexuality and femininity. In Chapter 2, 16-year-old Janie watches the bees gathering pollen and acknowledges her own "glossy leaves and bursting buds." She struggles to find the kind of perfect, blissful union she observes in nature and reflects soon after meeting Tea Cake that he could be "a bee to a blossom," recalling the symbol of the tree through its association with bees and pollination.


The gate is a symbol of safety and limitations. It protects Janie from the outside world. Conversely, the gate is also a symbol of freedom and new opportunities. Janie and Johnny Taylor kiss at the gate of Nanny's house. When Janie leaves Logan Killicks in Chapter 4, she goes through the front gate to begin her new life with Joe Starks.

Head Rag and Janie's Hair

The head rag that Janie wears in the novel is a symbol of suppression and control. Joe Starks insists that she wear her long, straight hair under a hair rag because he is jealous when other men look at her. When Starks dies, the first thing Janie does is burn all of her head rags, an assertion of independence.

Janie's long, straight hair represents her individuality. Janie's hair is not like the hair of other women in the community and thus it distinguishes her.


The mule symbolizes mistreatment and cruelty, especially of women. In Nanny's eyes, the mule represents the literal and metaphorical enslavement of African American women. Black men don't tote the load, the women do, because they are "de mule of de world." In Chapter 7 Janie tries to get the porch sitters to stop tormenting Matt Bonner's mule; subsequently, Joe Starks buys the mule to make the abuse stop.

Horizon and Road

The horizon and the road are powerful symbols of freedom and opportunity. Throughout the novel, Janie seeks the horizon—what is out there—to discover what other places are like and what possibilities the future holds. At the end she tells Pheoby that she has been to the horizon, but now she is content to be home. The road is also a symbol of adventure and new experiences; it is the way to reach the horizon. Both Johnny Taylor and Joe Starks come down the road, changing Janie's life.

Questions for Symbols

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