Zora Neale Hurston writes the life story of Janie, the main character in the novel, Their eyes were watching god. In the story, Janie suffers at the hands of the people who are supposed to care for her the most, and is held under their hands,controlled. She longs for freedom, but just shot down by her grandmother, who she calls Nanny. Her grandmother has had a rough past, and her pasts correlates with how she treats Janie. Huston use of symbols throughout the novel shows how Nanny’s past affects Janie and how she feels as a result of her grandmother’s experiences.
Janie, the main character stands out in this novel, and also in her time period. She’s a beautiful, free spirited, loving, biracial woman, and being in the early 1900s, where this story takes place, and she’s expected to be fragile, weak, submissive, and obedient. Janie refuses to show any of that behavior, setting herself apart from every other women in this time. But much of her personality and individually are cut short by her grandmother, who she calls Nanny. Her grandmother who is also biracial, takes all of Janie’s heart and potential, and crushes it. Only because she believes it is the only thing that will protect her from the heartless and cold hands of man and Society in general. Nanny was a slave, so all her dreams and aspirations were shut down, as Hurston wrote here, “Ah wanted to preach a great sermon about colored women sittin’ on high but they wasn’t no pulpit for me.”( Hurston 16 ) She abandoned her passions to take care of herself,and her daughter, and her granddaughter. So Nanny can’t help Janie chase her dreams because she was never taught nor has she been shown how to.
Nanny’s experiences as a slave really shaped how she treated Janie. Like mentioned before, nanny is a biracial woman, who was raped her master, and then from that produced her daughter Leafy, Janie’s mother. Nanny was rape continually so her idea of love was contorted, because she never got to experience the real thing. the only love nanny witnessed was either from her master or from watching her master and his wife. both of which are terrible example of” love”. Nanny keeps Janie away from love, even though that’s all she wants. Nanny is scared for Janie to experience “love” because of what happened to her and her daughter, Leafy. To Nanny, leafy was her second chance at having a voice . So she sent her to school, do she could become her own woman, but when Leafy crawls out of those woods, it kills Nanny. Leafy was raped by her school teacher, and it wreaks havoc on her mind, and as a result of the incident Janie was born. Nanny watched her daughter’s life go to waste, her falling victim to “love”. Hurston wrote this about love “ Dats de very prong us black women gits hung on. Dis love! Dates what got us uh pullin’ and uh haulin’ and sweatin’ and doin’ from can’t see in the mornin’ till can’t see at night. (Hurston 23)” So when she sees Janie kiss Johnny Taylor, it’s almost as if she had saw Janie getting sweeped into what her and her mother got caught up in; Nanny’s distorted idea of love, is what she wants to protect Janie from. But alas, her actions sends Janie spiraling downward
When Nanny pushes Janie to Marry Logan Killix, it really set Janie off into rebellious stage where she goes off and marries Joseph Starks. He first marriage affected how she sees love, and how desperate she was to find her true love. This first marriage, it destroys her “Pear Tree”. The pear tree is a symbol of her love, and how she longs to connect with someone as a bee does to the bloom of a pear tree. Which huston writes about beautifully here saying “oh to be a pear tree”… “with kissing bees singing of the beginning of the world!”… “Where were the bees singing for her?” (Hurston 11)This idea is lost in her first marriage, and It turned her into a woman as Hurston wrote, “She knew marriage did not make love. Janie’s first dream is dead, so she became a woman.” (Hurston 25) She learned that love did not come from marriage, and that her dreams of her pear tree may never come. The act of rebellion comes from her pushing her into a loveless marriage; Logan Killix represented no part of the love and passion Janie wanted. So when she sees Joseph Starx, she sees her pear tree, she sees the opportunity to find the love that she had lost sight of. So seeing the possibility, she runs to Joseph, in a defiant act against her grandmother, and in hopes of finding her true love, jumps at the possibility. But leaving only set her up to becoming exactly what her grandmother warned against, becoming a mule.
The mule, Hurston writes, is the other symbol used to connect Nanny’s actions and how they affect Janie’s emotions. She forces her into her into a marriage, and because of that push she runs away in an act of rebellion, to pursue her own love But in that pursuit, she lands herself as the mule of her and Joseph Starks relationship. The mule, is a symbol of how she is mistreated, abused, pushed around and casted off by the people she loves and society in general. Nanny in a sense treats her like the mule she’s so scared of her becoming. Janie says in chapter 9 “Nanny took the biggest thing God ever made, the horizon…and pinched it into such a little bit of a thing that she could tie it around her granddaughters neck tight enough to choke her” (Hurston 89) Her controlling her and trying to make her love someone, nanny us the first person to make her a mule. Joe takes it to a new and even worse level, for twenty years he keeps her with him, working under him, trapped in that prison of a store. All her potential, as Hurston said was covered in mud and made her lose her sparkle. Only after Nanny and Joe’s death can she begin to find her herself, independent from the people who forced her into submission.
Their Eyes were watching God is a very powerful story of how an oppressed woman rises from her chains, held by the people she loves to be independent and free. It started with Nanny’s dreams being crushed and her never getting to pursue them, so in turn she never gets to teach Janie how to follow her dreams because she was never allowed to. Then, her grandmother pushes her into a marriage to protect her from the distorted idea of love that she learned from her own rape and her daughters. The marriage destroys Janie’s view of love, leaving her desperate to find her “pear tree”, Hurston first symbol relating Nanny’s actions and their effect on Janie. Then Janie marries Joe Starks in hopes that he is her pear tree, and that she found him in spite of Nanny. But instead He turned her into the” mule”, the second symbol that Hurston uses, and what Janie’s Grandmother fears she would turn into, even though she was the first time control her, like a mule. Only in death does Janie get to express her true potential, become more than a mule, and find her perfect pear tree love.