Author Zora Neale Hurston weaves many powerful symbols into her acclaimed novel, Their Eyes Were Watching God. Hurston’s use of symbols enhances the reader’s understanding of the trials and tribulations along the road of self discovery for the story’s main character, Janie. Of the many symbols used throughout the novel, one in particular - Janie’s hair - is subtle yet striking as it gives us insight into Janie’s perceived social status, oppression, self identity, and her eventual independence through her self identity as a woman despite the social norms of the time period.
From the very beginning of the book, Janie’s long, straight, flowing black hair causes a stir among the “porch talkers” of the town. It is here, within the second page of the novel, we get clues about Janie as a person and the perceptions about her as a black woman from a small town in the late 1930’s. As Janie returns to Eatonville, Florida from a few years’ absence and scandalous departure, the townspeople are aghast at her appearance, making comments among themselves about her clothes and interestingly, her hair. The perception of Janie’s appearance varies between men and women, giving the reader insight into how her hair is viewed by both sexes in a somewhat sexist manner. The women of the town choose to belittle her appearance due to their own insecurities and jealously, “Seeing the woman as she was made them remember the envy they had stored up..” (2). The women go on to comment, “What dat ole forty year ole ‘oman doin’ wid her hair swingin’ down her back lak some young gal? Betcha he [Tea Cake] off wid some gal so young she ain’t even got hairs…” (2). The men also view her overall appearance, including her hair, in a sexual manner, “The men noticed […] the great rope of black hair swinging to her waist and unraveling in the wind like a plume […]. They, the men, were saving with the mind what they lost with the eye.” (2). The... [continues]
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